Friday, August 31, 2012

Clint Eastwood is America

Did you see Clint Eastwood’s surreal 12 minutes of performance art in the guise of a speech on Thursday night at the Republican convention? If not, go here to see it all. I laughed, I stared at the TV with disbelief, I cringed, I said “yes!” and I wondered what the hell he was talking about…all within his 12 minutes of glorious crash and burn. Clint riffed, he let his mind wander and seemingly talked about whatever crossed his mind at the time. It was a dangerous and not altogether smart thing for the RNC to do. In a tightly scripted and controlled convention that had gone very well up to that point (so scripted that Ron Paul was not allowed to speak because he refused to let them vet his speech ahead of time), you’re gonna let Dirty Harry loose on the night Romney needs to try to win over more voters? It was not Clint’s finest hour. He rambled, seemed confused at times, and was pretty crude and unnecessarily disrespectful of our current president. But again, what did you think was going to happen? My understanding is that he was supposed to speak for about five minutes and had given his remarks to the RNC ahead of time. But once onstage he tossed his planned speech aside and just improvised for twice as long as he was given. Are you going to yank Philo Beddoe?

I think Republican leaders were so excited to get some star power on the conservative side of the Hollywood ledger that they didn’t quite understand what they were getting into with Clint. Had they never seen “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”? “Every Which Way But Loose”? This dude does his own thing. He does not follow institutional rules. That is his whole persona! He is less a straight conservative than a libertarian. For a party that clings to traditional social values, why would they invite a prime time speaker who within this last year in an interview said about gay marriage: “I don’t give a sh*t about who wants to get married to anybody else. Why not?” Or a guy with seven children from five different women? Didn't conservative leaders criticize him for doing the voiceover on a Super Bowl commercial that seemed to praise Obama's auto bailout?

All you need to do is to look at his remarkable career as an actor and director to see that you cannot pin any neat and tidy ideology on this guy. He supports gay marriage and is known as a bit of an environmentalist, yet he also is a fiscal conservative. Who knows what he thinks about foreign policy? Could you tell what he felt about Afghanistan from his speech? I couldn’t. You could take what he said about it either way.

ABOVE: The chair doesn't have a chance

In an excellent article by film critic Carrie Rickey here, she points out that by looking at his filmography, Clint reveals a complex and rather ambivalent view of America. Not your typical convention speaker.

Take a look at his early Westerns with Sergio Leone and his own directorial debut, the bloodthirsty, revenge fantasy “High Plains Drifter.” He is in one sense the ultimate American archetype. Loner, ruthlessly self-sufficient, man of few words (read: not dithering European powers) but one of devastating action (America). His Man With No Name is who we’d like to be, a man with a set of ethics, but also ruthlessly efficient in getting what he wants. Consider “High Plains Drifter” through a 9/11 lens. He was done wrong and almost beaten to death, but he returns and reigns hell fire on his attackers with relish. What Clint’s character was able to do there is what we wish we could do after 9/11 in regards to those who attacked us and aided them. Many of his characters represent a certain strength (albeit flawed), that we collectively feel we have lost as a nation and as a people. Clint gave us a confidence through film like Reagan did through politics and leadership (whether you like Reagan’s policies or not).

He's been attacked from both sides throughout his career. As Rickey points out, in Nixon’s America when his early Dirty Harry films came out, Clint was called “fascist” by Lefties. (I don’t see it, the Dirty Harry films were expressing the angry, conservative backlash of too much mushy Great Society coddling. A vigilante fantasy, yes…fascist, not quite). But later, his films take a much more ambivalent look at the violence that he used to dispense so effortlessly. Conservatives may roar with approval as Dirty Harry blows away scumbags on the streets of San Francisco with his .44 Magnum (“the most powerful handgun in the world…now, you gotta ask yourself, do ya feel lucky? Well do ya? Punk?”), but they weren’t so comfortable with his dark ruminations on the consequences of righteous violence in “Unforgiven.” Red blooded patriots of the heartland were not comfortable at all with his brilliant and sympathetic look from the Japanese perspective in one of his finest films, “Letters From Iwo Jima.”

To quote Rickey: “The first half of Eastwood’s career he played men who shot first and thought about it later. The second half of his career, he’s largely devoted himself to exploring the consequences of that gunplay. Is that Republican? Is that Democrat? I think it’s American.”

Clint Eastwood did embarrass himself somewhat Thursday night. But that is American too. We stumble and make mistakes. And those mistakes are magnified because of who we are on the world stage. (If France makes a fool of itself, it doesn’t really matter, does it?) But Clint is also one of our finest popular film artists, both as an actor who personifies so much of our complexity, but also as a director who chooses to explore these complexities. He can be crude, yet explore issues thoughtfully and deeply. He is independent. He cannot be controlled or told what to do. I’d like to think that he planned it all along. “Yeah, I’ll give them (the RNC) a five minute speech to look at. But once I get up there, I’m going to do what I want. I’m Clint Eastwood.” Dumb move by the RNC. They should have known. Clint cannot be controlled or vetted. He cannot be contained, and he will do what he wants to do. He’ll try to be thoughtful and do the right thing as he gets his way, but things get complicated sometimes. Sometimes you gotta break things along the way. That’s Clint. That’s America.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

RIP Neil Armstrong, 1930-2012

I can't add too much to the flood of much deserved praises for Armstrong. But two observations.

First, the guy was a bad ass with The Right Stuff. The Apollo 11 mission was almost aborted. As the lunar module was descending to the moon, the computers went a bit batty and started to steer them towards huge boulders and craters. Neil took the controls, looked out the window and landed the thing manually, with less than 20 seconds of fuel left.

Secondly, what a humble and modest man. He rarely did interviews and generally steered clear of the public eye. In this day and age of people seeking instant fame on reality TV for doing just about anything, this guy walked in the moon. This guy was the first human being to set foot on a world other than our own. The first human being to stand on the f*cking moon, OK? He could have soaked up the spotlight for the rest of his life. Instead, he lived quietly and with dignity.

They don't make men like Neil Armstrong anymore. RIP.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

It Is Here

It has finally arrived. After years of regularly checking Best Buy shelves and, they have finally put it out. Jaws is out on Blu-Ray. And I am pleased to report that they have done it right. In celebration of their 100th year anniversary, Univeral has picked a handful of their treasures and fully restored them. This isn't just a little boosting of the sound and throwing the same print that was on the DVD onto the Blu-Ray. Even for a diehard like myself, Jaws looks (and sounds) like a whole new film. They went back into the Universal vaults, retrieved the original 35mm film print, and restored it from there. I can't tell you what a difference this makes. In one of the many impressive accompanying documentaries, they claim that this new HD version of Jaws is now clearer by a multiple of 10 from the previous available versions. I believe them. I put it in late last night and cranked up the sound on my glorious 72 inch TV and just let it flow over me. The colors are now sharp, finally fixing that somewhat washed-out coloring that has plagued versions from the first VHS to even the most recent DVD release. The sound jumps out at you, the night water sparkles in the moonlight, the shooting stars are sharp in the night sky over the Orca. I was almost in tears.

As for the extras, the same documentaries (including the 2 hour "Making of Jaws") and visuals are here that were on the most recent deluxe release, but with one crucial addition. The more recent documentary The Shark Is Still Working has been added, and what a glorious doc this is. Made by a group of Jaws superfans who started out just wanting to document the Jawsfest held in Martha's Vineyard for the 30th anniversary, they somehow eventually got access to not only Spielberg, Roy Scheider (who narrates the doc), Richard Dreyfuss and the other heavyweights, but they tracked down any extras and character actors they could find for a true fanboy/obsessive/homage to Jaws. And there are some funny stories told. The doc focuses a lot on the obsessive fans (basically, Jaws Trekkies) and their quest to collect any prop from the original film they can find.

Especially intriguing from the doc is the fate of the Orca boats. Even casual fans of the film recall that the creaky boat Orca in the last third of the film is a character unto itself. There were two boats used, one a full boat and the other a half boat with no bottom. The original Orca, the Holy Grail for Jaws fans, was carelessly stored on the Universal lot for years. In a touching interview, Spielberg talks about how once he got big, he would still go to the lot when it was empty, climb aboard the Orca, and sit and remember. Then one day he went out there and it was gone. The studio decided to chop it up and get it out of the way. Nearing tears in the interview, the most powerful of directors speaks with visible anger that his Orca was so thoughtlessly destroyed for, essentially, firewood. As for the Orca II, a local businessman in Martha's Vineyard recovered it, and parked it on his beachfront property. It became a pilgrimage of sorts for Jaws fans, and in a funny but also sad sequence, footage of the boat is shown as the years pass. It simply disappears, piece by piece, as fans take souvenirs. Finally, this rather dimwitted owner decides to take what's left and save it in his house. What's left are a couple of pieces of wood that were on the hull.

Anyway, this set is a long-awaited gift for fans of this film. I know that JMW and I have had this argument before about all of the extras added to these films (the docs, interviews, etc.) But for the fan, it is a way to get closer to something that means a hell of a lot to you. The movie and characters are like old friends. And you want to know everything you can about them. During The Shark Is Still Working, I found myself smiling widely and laughing out loud, as these earnest fanboys not only get great stories out of Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, but also out of the two goofy fishermen who caught the tiger shark in that one scene. Or the lady who played the grieving Mrs. Kitner, who in that famous scene slaps Scheider's Chief Brody for not closing the beaches sooner, as she talks about fans hunting her down to this day and demanding that she slap them in the face just so they can say they also were slapped by Mrs. Kitner. And how she happily obliges.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Song #1

Title: "Tunnel of Love" or "Tunnel of Love" (live)
Artist: Dire Straits
Albums: Original studio version from Making Movies, 1980. Live version from Alchemy, 1984.
Written By: Mark Knopfler

I've gone back and forth over the years between preferring the epic live version of this tune from Alchemy or the relatively streamlined 8-minute studio rendition. So, instead of picking one or the other (currently, I probably prefer the studio version), I decided to list them both. Same song.

Since I picked this as my favorite song, I naturally feel that it has it all. Fantastic lyrics (using the amusement park backdrop as metaphor for a nostalgic look back at youth), stellar playing from the band, soaring guitar solos from Knopfler, and it features what I have always felt was a strength of Dire Straits, especially in the live arena, which is dramatic use of dynamics. The song roars along as a rock song, then Knopfler and co. bring it down to a whisper, then build it up to a crescendo higher than before. That use of dynamics is all over Alchemy, and it was a frequent tool used throughout the life of Dire Straits. Not surprisingly, this was the finale of their main sets for many years.

BELOW: Studio version.

BELOW: Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of the Alchemy version that was of sufficient quality. But, check this live clip from London in '85, it is indicative of how Dire Straits would expand a tune from its studio origins, and it approximates the expanded Alchemy version.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Song #2

Title: "Bluebird"
Artist: Buffalo Springfield
Album: Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967
Written By: Stephen Stills

Neil Young may have been the wild card that made Buffalo Springfield such a fascinating band, and Richie Furay may have had the sweetest voice and the most direct line to the country veins they were mining, but it was always Stephen Stills' band. Stills was responsible for their one hit ("For What Its Worth"), their greatest folk-rock fusion ("Rock and Roll Woman"), and their greatest song (this one). I have already written at length about the enigma of Stephen Stills. Few artist had his all around talent and potential, and then the extremely frustrating career he's had, with occasional peaks amidst disappointing mediocrity and crap. How his once glorious vocal, writing and guitar skills all have been in free fall for decades. But look to this song, and this is what Stills should be celebrated for. It is a stunning blend of rock, folk and country elements and then the glorious bluegrass coda. Neil Young plays some razor sharp electric guitar, but it is Stills on acoustic who delivers my favorite guitar solo ever, starting at about 2:15.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Song #3

Title: "Bad" (live)
Artist: U2
Album: Wide Awake in America EP, 1985. Original version from The Unforgettable Fire, 1984
Written By: U2

This one is a frequent highlight in their live set to this day, and it is easy to hear why. Starting off ethereal and crescendoing to an emotional roar and then back again, it is a song infused with drama. The studio version is great, but again, it is a live version that takes it to new heights for me. This Unforgettable Fire period is Bono's peak as a vocalist, I think. Up to this point he was still finding his voice (and learning to sing, frankly), and he has lost a bit of his range and capacity over time ever since. Also, this is textbook Edge on guitar, why he is less a great player and more a brilliant sound architect and innovator.

Bonus Clip: Here's the original studio version for comparison purposes. As usual, ignore the cheesy visuals that the YouTube poster added.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Song #4

Title: "Incident on 57th Street"
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973
Written By: Bruce Springsteen

As much as I have loved Springsteen's music over the years, you'd think I'd have more than one of his songs in the 24. Suffice it to say that in my expanded Top 200 he is very well represented. This early, pre-Born To Run period is my favorite Springsteen era. He was loose, he was hungry. As great as the E Street Band is (and they are one of the great rock bands), I really love this earliest line-up. Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici and Garry Talent were there from the beginning, but two crucial differences here are David Sancious on piano/electric piano and Vinny "Mad Dog" Lopez on drums. Max Weinberg is a great drummer (and has more technique than Lopez), but Lopez could swing in a way that Max never has.

Anyway, this song (this whole album, really, which is my favorite of his) is the peak of his romanticized Jersey tales, before the more grand escapism and ambition of Born To Run, and way before any sort of working class consciousness of Darkness on the Edge of Town and beyond. Honestly, it is what he really knew vs. trying to make the grander statements of the later years.

This was also when he wrote songs of more epic structure and length, before the Darkness-era streamlining that has continued to this day. (The big difference is that around Darkness he stopped writing songs on the piano and started writing them on the guitar, and you can tell the difference). I love the dynamics, the exuberance, the quirky lyrics, and the great guitar solo (from Bruce himself) at the climax of the song. This is one of the favorites for many Bruce diehards, but it is not very familiar to the masses.

BELOW: I was able to find about 30 different live versions of this song on YouTube, but nobody bothered to post the studio version, which is my actual pick. But this spirited live version from 1980 is a close approximation to the original, although I still do prefer the original. It being 1980, it does not feature Lopez or Sancious. Ignore the rather random images with this clip.

BELOW: Bonus clip. This is a stark, lovely version of the song from '75. Here Bruce is on the piano, accompanied only by the haunting violin of Suki Lahav.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Song #5

Title: "Celluloid Heroes" (live)
Artist: The Kinks
Album: One For the Road, 1980. Original studio version from Everybody's in Showbiz, 1972.
Written By: Ray Davies

I almost had to love this one. A fantastic rock song by one of the greatest bands ever that is a nostalgic look at movies. This is another pick where the live version far outpaces the original studio version, even though the studio version is quite great. But this live version is several steps higher. First of all, that opening guitar solo by Dave! Much like the solo I talked about in the live version of "Wild West End" below, it is not particularly technical or complex, but it is just perfect in its melodicism, pacing, feel. Dave Davies is one of the best on the instrument. And brother Ray, meanwhile, would compete for rock's greatest songwriter.

BELOW: Bonus clip. Here's the original version. Not as brilliant, but still great.