Archive for November, 2013


SID, NANCY AND TERRY

      Those that know me outside this blog know I have some experience behind a drum kit.  Mixing that with an enjoyment of classic film I thought I would take a look at how rock and roll is portrayed in film.  I was going to pick my favourite films of rock and roll yet that leans to musical bias  I will exclude the documentary/ concert films plus works inspired by albums such as THE WALL.  Instead, what I consider a good story told against a rock and roll background.  

Rock and roll has been a key ingredient since Bill Halley first told us to ‘Swing dance’ the 1955 film ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK.  Films of this style along with the “beach” movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello   gave the kids what they wanted to see.  The movies, which were sometimes “B” pictures, were often the first and sometimes only time people would see these performers.  Plus they packed the theatres, sending the kids to record shops afterward to buy 45 rpms and later LPs.   You wrote some sort of a story, blended in songs just like a musical and you had the new youth market.

The other side of these pictures is that they cross into exploitation film with the story of the juvenile delinquent. This was sometimes a leather jacketed, motor cycle riding girl or guy who can play a guitar. Film genres with titles like HIGH SCHOOL CAESAR, HOT ROD GIRLS, and the films of Mamie Van Doran changing into the motorcycle films of Peter Fonda, early John Cassavetes ,  and Bruce Dern.  The end comes with EASY RIDER (1969) and the advent of ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).

The usual choice is THIS IS SPINAL TAPE (1984) by Rob Reiner in a mockumentary style which lends itself to authenticity and fun.  While it is a strong film in that it has appeal (it gives us a slice of the absurdity of rock and roll), it doesn’t give us a sense of danger and consequence of actions.

There is a price for everything. The dark horse choice for this style is SID AND NANCY  (1986).

This picture was made in 1986 by Alex Cox with two unknown actors and true events that played out in the media at that time. The result is an experience that leaves a taste of metallic bitterness in your eyes.    It features   tour de force acting performances by Gary Oldman  ( chemically altered, perhaps?) and  Chloe Webb as the doomed lovers Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.  People will say that their mannerisms were excessive yet so is dangerous rock and roll music that teeters on the edge of violence, illicit behaviour and change. It pisses off people; including your parents because you want something of your own.

Cox uses startling images of faraway expressions as Sid and Nancy watch their dreams of stardom unravel in the reality of no acceptance.  The best and most telling is the long slow motion kiss in the alley way as the trash falls slowly downward. These people are ‘garbage’ to everyone except one another.

Characters grapple with delusional fame in a pitiful attempt to gain acceptance and show that they are worth something.  Rock and roll music is the background to all this with its deals, eccentric ways of doing business and general sanctioned lawlessness.

The film also features a version of the Frank Sinatra tune “MY WAY” which the real Sid Vicious did record and release.  Brilliant choice of song since its selection bridges a gap between the old and the new. It is also a statement of individuality.  Oldman turns a pistol on the audience in a chilling moment that was edited out of some prints.  He also points it directly to the camera very much in homage perhaps accidently to the sequence in the ground breaking western THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)   One moment in both of these pictures the audience becomes part of the story; an essential ingredient in SID AND NANCY.  The audience, its reactions, events, its moods are all part of the experience of a show.

I admit I see the characters of SID AND NANCY similar to the end of THE MISFITS when Clark Gable and Marilyn Munroe drive off in the truck looking at the stars with wistful expressions.  Sid and Nancy and Gable and Munroe were both doomed although we did not know it yet.

Other pictures of this style I enjoyed were Richard Lester’s HARD DAYS NIGHT ( (1964), CONTROL  (2007) Directed by Anton Corbijn,  Oliver Stone’s THE DOORS (1991) and Franc Roddam’s  QUADROPHENIA (1979) and Claude Whatam’s THAT’LL BE THE DAY (1973). However for sheer fun, Steven Herrick’s ROCK STAR  (2001) with Mark Wahlberg as an excellent ‘everyman’ who gets to live the dream.

Music is a part of all these pictures.  Yet, it is the stories that they tell either of an era or a dream that makes them ‘not just’ musicals.   Rock music today has splintered into groups of fans and many different genres similar to today’s film world.  The no win debate between those who want films of a more violent nature to people that oppose violence.  Music, film and now television tread a path toward occasional seismic change since that is what keeps it vital.

Early weekend mornings or very late at night are the perfect time to watch a silent horror film. You can treat yourself to images and music without crushing sound levels or those ever present screams and crashing music calculated to raise awareness levels. One such recent morning I viewed the Swedish horror picture called THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) of which I was most pleasantly surprised.

We all know that it is close to Christmas season for those who celebrate that holiday. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE – while not a story concerning Christmas directly – does follow a plot similar to the THE CHRISTMAS CAROL of ghostly visits and a redemption. The titles are in Swedish with translation; the masterful images deliver on their own.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE opens on New Year’s Eve. The dying Salvation Army girl, Edit, has one last wish: to speak with David Holm. David, an alcoholic, is sitting in a graveyard with two drinking buddies, talking about his old friend Georges who told him about Death’s carriage—the legend that the last person to die each year has to work under the “strict master” Death and collect the souls of everybody who dies the following year. Georges himself died on New Year’s Eve last year.

Gustafsson, a friend of Edit who is looking for David, finds him and tries to convince him to go and see her, but David refuses. When his friends also try to convince him, a fight breaks out where David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve. The carriage appears, and the driver is revealed as Georges.

As David’s soul steps out of his body, in an interesting bleak double exposure moment, Georges reminds him of what he once had, how he once lived a happy family life with his wife Anna before ending up in bad company with Georges and others. David’s life has changed as it is revealed Anna left him after he was jailed for intoxication. He reminds him how David exactly one year ago was taken care of by Edit, and while treating her badly, he gave her his promise to find her the following year so she would find out whether her prayers for him had worked or not.

It is an interesting start to a picture dealing with moral consequences of poor choices that films dealt with at that time. It can be said that films are products of their time so you have THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE produced a mere six years before METROPOLIS (1927). These pictures has common theme of the ordinary people in everyday life or “the Poor” facing a crisis of faith of spiritual or moral ideas. Choices are made to rebel in both films with consequences. That may paint the themes in broad strokes for these pictures yet in spite of geographical difference of the respective countries (THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is from Sweden. METROPOLIS is from pre- war 1927 Germany.) both have an insight into the current state of life and thought.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, while it may seem a simplistic tale, has influenced many film makers both Horror and otherwise. Ingmar Bergman’s picture THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) contains a figure of Death that plays chess with a Knight having a crisis of faith. Bergman’s central themes were the approach of death and age in some form and its effects. Stanley Kubrick in THE SHINING (1980) paid homage to THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE with the sequence of Jack Nicholson’s character chopping his way through the bathroom door.

The appearances of the carriage and the driver may seem dated today with double exposures yet they are effective due to the stark loneliness of the streets and graveyards. The effects of fog; an almost ‘Noir’ quality shadows blend with a musical score to make for an interesting excursion without dialogue.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is a tale of lies, violence, resulting in a price exacted for living a less then moral life contrasted by the values of the righteous. Its characters deal with real problems of poverty, lack of prospects and desperate things that people do against a fantasy background. Good triumphs over Evil which is usually what happens in these films. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE would make an interesting addition to a holiday film list. Silent films are a kiss for the imagination that changed with the coming of sound. Throw another log on the fire and enjoy it.

SERIALS WITHOUT MILK

Let it be known that movie serials from Poverty Row studios and some major studios are a pleasure of mine. This section of Classic Hollywood seems to get left out of most film festivals and retrospectives; yet they are rollicking examples of film making on a budget . Many actors, technicians, and directors made careers in this end of the business only to have their names and work lost or ridiculed by ‘serious’ film.

Lambert Hillyer, who helmed the BATMAN (1943) serial, had 166 credits to his name in a career that spanned 1917 to 1956, and included episodes of the TV series HIGHWAY PATROL.  A Warner Brothers work horse director with a huge body of work was Forde Beebe.

 

Taking a scan of Beebe’s credits provides a look at a one person industry of movie making.  Many of the films list Beebe as not only director, but also writerBeebe was versatile in that not only are there Serials listed and everything that goes into long productions of 16- 22 minute segments to be co- ordinated but also feature films starring such names  John Wayne and Tom Neal.

No doubt these people worked with smaller budgets, ‘B’ crews and actors, ‘B’ writers, and little setup on a relentless shooting schedule.  This area of Hollywood is regarded by some as lower class productions.  Yet for me if you can get past some derivative plots in various settings like outer space or the old West you have fine escapist entertainment.   Many of today’s film makers who pound us with CGI explosions, swerving car chases, and hand held gun fights are trying to give a ‘French New wave’ sense of immediacy to a situation we have all seen before.

Movie serials were a money maker for the studio and theatre chains at that time as you had people hooked on the cliff hanger ending coming back each week to your establishment to see the next chapter.  Some were around sixteen chapters.  That’s four months of visits plus the studios had not yet figured out you could charge huge amounts of money for food. Imagine today if you had people going the theatre once a week for four months; you could finance that blockbuster in no time or better still pay for the bomb quickly.

The movie serial at was also a training ground or (dumping ground depending on your point of view) for directors, actors, and crew.  If you had a reputation for delivering product on time in the cost conscious studios of yesterday you were rewarded with bigger budgets, better scripts, and stars.

Since you had an actor under contract you could put him or her into one of these productions to keep them working or as discipline for some deed they did. Lon Chaney Jr is one example as he moved from various film serials to occasional lead man status in horror films such as  THE WOLFMAN (1941), and to brilliant supporting roles in HIGH NOON (1952) with Garry Cooper and OF MICE AND MEN (1939).  RIDERS OF DEATH VALLEY with featured Dick Foran who was another example of someone who moved back and forth from this style of productions to bigger ones like THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936).

You may have plot holes and strange situations in some pictures, yes.   The Tom Mix serial THE MIRACLE RIDER features cowboys, horses and motorcar chases all to cover up the mining of a powerful explosive found on Indian land by evil men bend on world domination.  Sixteen weeks of steam punk fun all made in 1935. The mystery is the lack of respect shown this vital film foundation.

The studios that did films such as REPUBLIC PICTURES, MONOGRAM STUDIO etc ., were not located in the best parts of town; nor did they have the best facilities or pay the top money but they filled  a need.  UNIVERSAL, COLUMBIA and others also got into the production of these films. We have festivals and retrospectives for many styles of motion pictures today: I think it would be interesting to these included, letting those that perhaps forgotten get some brief applause.  A few of today’s film makers could take lessons on how to provide robust entertainment with longevity on budget similar to Roger Corman and a few others.  Long Live this style of film making.