Tuesday, August 09, 2011

LOOKIT, LOOKIT! : 366 Weird Movies presents The Tingler

(A new feature in which something I wrote gets published somewhere, and I frantically encourage you to go find it. Let's hope this becomes a regular thing. More regular than this blog, anyway.)

A long while back, my wife and I had just finished watching the cinematic brain aneurysm that is Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York, and were desperately trying to figure out what the hell we had just seen. In trying times such as these, before reaching for the bottle, I turn to the web.

Of all the articles, reviews, and analyses I read (none of which, by the way, mentioned our theory about what really happened to Philip Seymour Hoffman, which actually made me feel smarter, for some reason), the best was the rundown provided by 366 Weird Movies, a website dedicated to the proposition that there is an utterly bizarre movie for every day of the leap year, and somebody ought to get to cataloging just which ones they are. It was interesting enough that I started reading other articles they had printed about strange films, and finally just added it to my RSS feed.

Every now and then, they have a contest to let readers submit their choices for oddball movies. Round about Contest #2, I started working on an idea I had. They're up to Contest #4, and I finally submitted something.

And whaddaya know. They printed it.

I'm absolutely tickled to have my writing up on a website that I enjoy reading, so I heartily encourage you to go read it, and then peruse some of the other reviews and articles there. It's well worth wasting your time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


The Song: "Rehab"
The Singer/Songwriter: Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse died Saturday. This song has been running around in my head ever since. Maybe that's not surprising, since it was probably her biggest hit, and the one most likely to be on permanent replay when her name was all over the news. But to be more accurate about things, "Rehab" has been in my head from the moment I first heard it. Sometimes, your brain just ticks off the box for "unforgettably great" when you are introduced to a piece of art, and that's what happened here.

You can feel the song's magic right from the very beginning. The low drone of the electric piano paired with the energetic handclaps, that deep, butterscotch voice which has no business coming out of a tiny Jewish girl from London, and of course, that marvelous opening line that conveys a novel's worth of information in 14 words:

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

If my good friends at Songfacts are to be believed, the lyrics to "Rehab" are as literal as they come. After some public incidents of drunkenness, Winehouse's management company urged her to seek treatment. Her father, however, said she was just depressed following a failed love affair, and that it was more than natural for a sad girl to seek some solace in the bottle. In any event, she went to a clinic, found the whole thing stupid, and left after a few days. And then she wrote a song about it.

It's that last part that leads people to throw around words like "brilliant" and even "genius" when talking about the lost talent of Amy Winehouse. Lots of people follow the old maxim to "write what you know." (Many of them start blogs.) But it's the ability to avoid whiny navel-gazing and instead get people to sing along with your troubles that marks a truly talented individual. Is "daddy" really her father? Is it actually her screwed-up, enabling failure of a husband? Her supplier? Part of what makes this such a great set of lyrics is that you don't really care.

I'd rather be at home with Ray
I ain't got seventeen days
Cause there's nothing
There's nothing you can teach me
That I can't learn from Mr. Hathaway

Case in point: Both Songfacts and Wikipedia insist that "Ray" and "Mr. Hathaway" refer to singers Ray Charles (who battled a serious drug addiction but overcame it) and Donny Hathaway (who battled severe depression and did not overcome it). And I suppose that makes sense. But...why? Does she mean she wants to sit at home and listen to Ray Charles records? Does she feel like, because they're in similar straits, Ray Charles is always with her? Confusing matters is the fact that, in concert, she often replaced "Ray" with "Blake", which is the name of the aforementioned toxic individual she married and maintained a codependent relationship with even as he paved the way for her to deeper levels of alcohol and drug abuse. Maybe "Ray" is just someone who won't judge her. And it's pretty clear that people like that were in short supply for Amy Winehouse.

I didn't get a lot in class
But I know it don't come in a shot glass

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

I want to take a quick moment to recognize the invaluable contribution of Winehouse's producer, Mark Ronson. I've watched several clips of her performing "Rehab" live, and while some are certainly better than others (and I have no interest in the schadenfreude of viewing her miserable final performance in Belgrade a month ago), I don't think any of them hold a candle to the studio version, and I think Ronson deserves the credit for that. One of the reviews cited in the Wikipedia article says his production "references four decades worth of soul music without once ripping it off". On the recording, Winehouse is backed by the funk/retro-soul combo The Dap-Kings, and Ronson employs them like a caged tiger, using just enough brass hits and honks from a booming baritone sax to demonstrate their potential power, but never quite letting them bust loose. Then he surrounds them with a string section that is also yearning to move beyond the tension of long, repeated notes, and a set of dancing chimes that, considering the eventual fate of the singer, now sound like church bells pealing at a funeral. Winehouse's voice is a fantastic instrument, and the song is undeniably hers, but Ronson gives it a setting that makes the tune transcendent.

The man said "why d'you think you here"
I said "I got no idea
I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near"
He said "I just think you're depressed,
Kiss me, yeah baby, and go rest"

Probably the funniest -- and saddest -- lyrics in the whole song. Having never been in a drug rehabilitation clinic myself, I nevertheless have no problem imagining the doctor opening up the interview with that question. It's a classic passive-aggressive, no-good-response-exists kind of question, and if you're feeling like you've been pressured into the situation where you have to answer it, Amy's response -- "Beats me" -- is about the best you can do.

Of course, it's what comes next that changes the whole tone of the conversation, and possibly the song. You go straight from the powerless lament that she's losing the one she loves to the very active response to drink away the problem. Here's where we get a real snapshot of the equation of life that governs Amy Winehouse's brain, and what leads us all to feel fairly certain that her early death was probably inevitable.

(As I write this, the exact cause of death is undetermined, and early reports suggest that no drugs or alcohol were found on the scene, and that she had been very conscientious as of late. On the other hand, I read an article that quoted her father as saying her lungs could not work at full capacity due to her past heavy cocaine use. So drugs may not have killed Amy Winehouse, but it's not a stretch to say that they didn't help.)

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know

I don't ever wanna drink again
I just ooh I just need a friend
I'm not gonna spend ten weeks
Have everyone think I'm on the mend
It's not just my pride
It's just 'til these tears have dried

My initial reaction, upon seeing that Amy Winehouse had died, was that this was about the least surprising thing I could imagine. After all, everything about her suggested she was racing towards a premature end. It's a story I feel like I've seen before. But in the days that followed, I've just felt sad. On a plane flight on Sunday, I listened to Back to Black straight through, and the fact is that it is a damn good album. And regardless of how carelessly and dangerously she lived, setting aside that drug addicts eventually have no one to answer to but themselves, ignoring the way the music business and fame industrial complex just chews up and spits out its stars...it just seems a terrible shame that someone with that much talent couldn't pull it together to share a little more.

Then again, she said herself that we couldn't make her.

They tried to make me go to rehab but I said 'no, no, no'
Yes I've been black but when I come back you'll know know know
I ain't got the time and if my daddy thinks I'm fine
He's tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go

Fun Fact: I had a lot of fun ripping on the Grammys when I discussed how "Up, Up and Away" won Record of the Year in 1967, but the voters really got it right when they gave "Rehab" the same award in 2008. (Not so much when they also named her Best New Artist, this after her second album, and about five years after she released her first.) Odd, then, that the Grammys gave us an opportunity to witness what is almost certainly the most emotionally-conflicted -- and possibly the most emblematic -- moment of Amy Winehouse's short life.

For those of you who can't or choose not to watch this clip, know that it's the moment when "Rehab" is announced as the Record of the Year (by recovered drug addicts Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, interestingly enough). It is heartwrenching to watch as an eternity seems to go by between the moment when Amy Winehouse hears her name and the moment when she finally is able to move. It's reasonable to assume that the time lag between Los Angeles and London (where she was because legal troubles prevented her from entering the United States) is partially responsible for the lapse in recognition, but then you see everyone else in the studio going bonkers while she stares at the monitor, uncomprehending, thoroughly unsure what to feel. She reaches for the microphone stand, can't find it, and for a few seconds, she stands there all alone, surrounded by joy, yet unable to tell the difference between triumph and terror. And I doubt that she ever figured it out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Few Words About Twitter, Which I Have Been On For Less Than a Month

I’m relatively new to Twitter. Still seems a little silly to me, but there is a definite charge from getting an immediate response to whatever random thought you felt like thumbing into your phone.

I do try not to overdo it. The reputation of Twitter users as social hermits who insist on broadcast the result of ever firing neuron is not one I want to embody. So I limit myself. I generally only tweet once a day. Maybe more, if I’m stuck on a bus and bored. I’ll jump in on the occasional hashtag joke, but I usually only contribute one punchline. I have a limited number of people I follow, and I think I’m going to cap that when I get to 50. There’s only so many people you can keep up with, you know. So if by chance you’re one of the people I’m currently following, consider yourself among a privileged few.

(Side note: it is impossible to use the word “tweet” without feeling like a complete idiot.)

Perhaps my most important rule is to not follow every single celebrity who interests me. It’s pretty widely accepted that celebrities have very little to say, and getting that nothing in two-sentence bursts every couple days does not improve the content. For example, I love Paul McCartney, and I’m glad that Paul McCartney (or his press agent) has decided to get with the times, but I’m not following @paulmccartney on Twitter. I’m just not.

(In the middle of typing that last paragraph, Paul singing “Junk” started playing over the loudspeakers in the Starbucks I’m sitting in. Well played, universe. Well played.)

There are exceptions, of course. Two of them are related to my love of baseball. They are sportswriter extraordinaire Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski), who is probably one of the best working writers in the world today, and Michael Schur (@KenTremendous), who, before all his time was taken up producing Parks & Recreation, ran one of the funniest websites in the tubes, Fire Joe Morgan. Both Posnanski and Schur have interesting and well-parsed thoughts on baseball (and other lesser sports), so I enjoy their Twitter missives.

Happily, these two minds have found each other, and Schur makes a monthly appearance on Posnanski’s cheerfully lo-fi podcast. They enjoy talking to each other, they are enthusiastic fans without being stupid about it, and the fact that they assume no one is listening only makes the show more listenable.

Their commitment to ignoring the needs of the audience is best exemplified by their most recent podcast, which culminated in a draft to select the best all-time balls. No childish jokes please. Posnanski took the football, Schur chose baseball. Posnanski selected the 8 ball, Schur opted for kickball. That kind of ball, thank you.

Anyway, the discussion got so arcane that, at the end of the show, Posnanski was so convinced that any listeners had long since abandoned the show, he encouraged anyone who had persevered this far to send he and Schur a tweet with the hashtag #imadeittotheend.

Well, heck, I made it to the end. And I’m a 21st century kind of guy. So why not? I tweeted as requested. What’s more, I threw in a little note to express my disappointment that no one took racquetball in the draft. It’s got a great bounce, it fits perfectly in the hand, it has a wonderfully pretentious spelling... it felt like a missed opportunity. So that’s what I said. And that was that.

It will now seem like a massive non sequitur to tell you that, later in the day, I received a message telling me, “Dirk Newnam is now following you.”

Dirk Newnam? Who the hell is Dirk Newnam?

Well, actually, Twitter will tell me.

“Follower of Jesus. I write the Racquetball Strategy Blog and still love playing the game. Owned a health club, love baseball, music, and lots of other stuff.”

Shut the front door.

Dirk is following 1,823 other people. The vast majority of his posts seem to be about racquetball. So as best I can figure, Dirk saw my tweet about the racquetball, and immediately decided that anybody who would devote a portion of their precious 180 characters to that beloved rubberized orb is the kind of person who the writer of the Racquetball Strategy Blog needs to follow. To which I can only say... wow.

Really. I mean, wow. I just have a really hard time fathoming devoting what seems like a limited resource (time) to any random person who just happens to mention one of the things I like. I hope I don’t disappoint him. Because I don’t expect to bring up racquetball very often.

So yeah, I still don’t totally get Twitter.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


In a sense, this is a horror story.

It began innocently enough. Watch every movie Alfred Hitchcock ever directed, in order, in concert with reading a biography of the man. Then write about it.

It's the last one that seems to have tripped me up. The last entry in The Hitchcock Project went live in January 2010. Yeesh.

Believe me, I've got excuses. Had a kid. Lost a job. Occasional family tragedies. A lot of things will throw you off your game. (Case in point: Do NOT ask me how my novel's coming.)

But here's the thing, the key element that wrecks all my protests about how hard it's been.

I kept watching the movies.

As I write this, I've just completed the 40th film from Sir Alfred's list of 52. My blog list goes up to #7. (And that's with three films skipped over.) I'm watching. I'm reading. I'm just not writing.


No, really. When my wife discovered that I hadn't blogged for so long about the Hitchcock experience, I thought she was going to brain me with the DVD player. Which would be just desserts for making her sit through Under Capricorn.

The catching up begins now. This will not be easy, as I've honestly forgotten a lot about some of the earlier films. (Particularly the ones I didn't like so much.) But I'll do my best. Because I started this. And by god, I am going to finish it. I just hope I can catch up to myself with the writing before I actually finish all the movies.

We're resuming our catalog in a strange place. Wasn't the last one I posted #7? Yes. Yes, I did. And a funny thing about that. I went on at length in that piece about how I had to skip the sixth entry, Downhill, because I couldn't find it. Which is weird, because that's the exact same thing I said when explaining why I skipped #4. The hell?

Let's clarify: Downhill was #4. The real #6? This flick right here, a movie which can be summarized with the extremely unusual tagline, "Alfred Hitchcock's boxing picture."

Let's embellish that a little though. The Ring is the tale of a boxer known as "One-Round" Jack. Jack (portrayed by the lady-lipped Carl Brisson) works in a circus, where he can knock out any yahoo who challenges him within three minutes. This has earned him the respect of his fellow carnies. You know, like the Negro in the dunking booth. Seriously. (Also, the n-word shows up about halfway through the film. For the love of god, ancestors. Isn't it enough to be racist? Must you be STUPIDLY racist?) It's also won Jack the love of the Mabel, the ticket-taker. The credits identify Lillian Hall-Davis as "Mabel, the Girl." Yes, THE Girl. Because there can only be one.

Complications ensue when Bob Corby, the Australian champ, shows up at the fair incognito, takes the challenge, and survives the round. It's a sad day for Jack, but fate twists early on, when Bob -- so impressed by Jack's stamina and power -- hires him on as a sparring partner. What luck! Jack and Mabel have been saving up to get married, so this is a wonderful turn of events.

Or is it. Turns out the Thunder from Down Under has a yen for Mabel (she is THE Girl, after all), and once she and Jack move into Bob's circle of champagne riches and caviar dreams, it's only a matter of time before Jack's jealousy pushes her into the arms of his rival, leaving Jack desolate. There's only one way to exact revenge and win his girl back. He'll have to go toe-to-toe, in...THE RING.

Does my tone seem overly dismissive? It should. Think about the last movie you saw where the plot seemed contrived, the characters were clichés, and you just weren't impressed. Well, look, they haven't even invented sound yet, and already they're making movies that are hopelessly predictable. Think you know the movie's going to turn out? You're right. The plot's turns are loudly telegraphed, and to make matters worse, this is a silent film, so nothing is played for subtlety. Every emotion is spelled out in capital letters on the actors' faces. Think Bob is a stand-up guy who just can't help himself around the pretty Mabel? Not if you've been watching the movie, you don't. Actor Ian Hunter (decades before fronting Mott the Hoople) broadcasts evil with every raised eyebrow.

A secret joy of the movie, then, is to watch the lead actors trumpet their thoughts like mimes. Hall-Davis is the very picture of dread from the moment Bob Corby begins to put the moves on her. It's kind of weird, because to look at her, you get the sense that Mabel doesn't want to cheat on Jack, doesn't feel especially turned on by Bob, but just feels completely helpless to do anything about it. Like being faithful is completely out of her hands. (It's in the script, after all.) Meanwhile, Brisson is more of an innocent than Oliver Twist. At every turn, he is shocked, SHOCKED by life's twists and turns. He stands proudly his philandering wife, not a clue in the world that she's straying. Then, when he learns the truth, oh, the deep, deep hurt. She could have kicked his dog and not made matters worse.

That leaves Hitchcock, and he's obviously still trying stuff out. He's particularly having fun with multiple exposures. A drunk challenger at the circus sees several Jacks at once. During a wild party, Jack is unable to pay attention to his manager because the image of Mabel and Bob is superimposed. Hitchcock learned a lot from German expressionist filmmakers, and their techniques are definitely being tested out here.

Of course, the real setpiece is the big fight, where Jack and Bob face off at the Albert Hall. In a way, this is Hitchcock's very first Climax at a Famous Location, and he does play it to the hilt. According to my buddy Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock deliberately shot from above, often at a distance, with only a single light hanging above the boxing ring. He got a relatively big budget, and he decided to make sure the money was all on the screen. No closeups of fight fans to make you think it's a crowded arena. It's a crowded arena.

And it looks like a real fight, too. We get straight-on shots of Jack punching madly at the camera. When he's knocked down, Hitchcock provides an interesting quick montage of lights and ropes. Even if the outcome seems assured, there's real craftsmanship at work trying to convince you otherwise. The path to Rocky and Raging Bull starts here.

I don't know if The Ring is all that good. It's not very surprising. But it is an assured piece of moviemaking, particularly for the time. Clichés aside, it holds up, especially that last reel. Hitchcock's a real director at this point, that's for sure. Now he just needs the right material.

Side note: there's a long and sporadically-funny wedding scene. But may favorite moment comes when the priest recites the vows, and the font on the titles goes from a standard serif to an elaborate calligraphy. Like Garamond just wasn't good enough for anything that important. We don't have that kind of reverence anymore.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


The Song: "I'm So Excited"
The Singers: The Pointer Sisters
The Songwriters: Trevor Lawrence, Anita Pointer, June Pointer, Ruth Pointer

If you ever want to feel super cool -- I mean Hollywood-star level cool -- I highly recommend going to the south of France, renting a convertible, and driving down the Cote d'Azur. I got to do this late last year, and in the idiotic words of Ferris Bueller, "It is so choice." Once I got over my initial terror of the unfamiliar rules of the road and the fear of ending up like Princess Grace, the coolness factor kicked in hard, and I felt like five-and-a-half feet of pure oxygen-breathing awesomeness.

The one thing missing was some excellent driving music. French radio leaves quite a bit to be desired. I mean, you know you're in trouble when the best song you can find is this (which, while admittedly hilarious, is extremely NSFW, a point I cannot emphasize strongly enough, although apparently it's totally okay for blasting out the speakers of your Renault). But fortunately, somewhere on the road to Avignon, classic 80s pop showed up on the radio and rescued us in the form of this:

Tonight's the night we're gonna make it happen,
Tonight we'll put all other things aside.
Give in this time and show me some affection,
We're going for those pleasures in the night.

Fans of our last entry (a mere 11 months ago) may recall that the song in question was just a tiny bit sexual in nature. I trust that is not what Anita is referring to when she talks about "those pleasures in the night."

I want to love you, feel you,
Wrap myself around you.
I want to squeeze you, please you,
I just can't get enough,
And if you move real slow,
I'll let it go.

Aw, come on. Really? Songfacts, help me out here.
The infectious Pop groove of this song disguises the extremely sexual lyrics. The singer is "so excited" because she's looking forward to a sexual encounter.
Well, heck.

I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it,
I'm about to lose control
And I think I like it.
I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it,
And I know, I know, I know, I know
I know I want you, want you.

To be fair, Songfacts is absolutely right about the groove masking the message. "I'm So Excited" is one of those songs where you really don't pay any attention to the words except maybe the first couple lines of the chorus there. And then when you actually sit and listen to it -- like my wife and I did, cruising through the French countryside -- you realize it's really dirty.

We shouldn't even think about tomorrow,
Sweet memories will last a long long time.
We'll have a good time baby don't you worry,
And if we're still playing around boy that's just fine.

This is actually pretty funny, because it's clear that the object of these lyrics is desperately concerned that he will not get the maximum enjoyment out of his evening. Above, Anita tells him, "Give in this time and show me some affection," which suggests he has been less than attentive in the past, and now she has to keep him from getting all "What about my needs?" This is not, it would seem, a selfless lover we are dealing with. In fact, if he'd had his druthers, he'd probably have been finished and out the door before the first chorus. So instead, she's the one reassuring him. "No, baby. It's all about you. You just relax." Frankly, he ought to count himself damn lucky this girl is giving him the time of day. She's told her last lover what to do, and expected him to say, "How high!"

I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it,
I'm about to lose control
And I think I like it.
I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it,
And I know, I know, I know, I know
I know I want you, want you.


It's fun to imagine the Pointer Sisters all sitting around, laughing, working on this lyric. Fun, and then you remember they're sisters, and then it's a little disturbing.

This really is an excellent piano solo, by the way. And a superb showcase for the dancing waiters in the video, one of whom appears to be Rob Schneider.

Let's get excited,
And we just can't hide it,
I'm about to lose control and I think I like it.
I'm so excited,
And I just can't hide it,
And I know, I know, I know, I know
I know I want you, want you.

Fun Fact: This song was one of five Top 10 hits for the Pointers in 1984, which fits most definitions of "having a good year." For me, though, their best work remains the recordings they made some 12 years before. And my son agrees. You're welcome.