Sunday, March 10, 2013

Jersey Boys

The first time I heard Frankie Valli's Can't Take My Eyes Off You that impacted me on a visceral level was during the classic scene in The Deer Hunter when Michael, Nick, Steven, Stan and John return from hunting and proceed to get drunk in John's bar the night before Michael, Nick and Steven head off to Vietnam and their ulitimate fates. The scene is beautifully wrought, hilarious and sad, and ends with a jump cut almost as famous as the one in 2001:A Space Odyssey.

The second time the song hit me on a visceral level was when I saw Jersey Boys in Chicago last spring. Coming off a major life trauma but rescued at the same time, the song, I realized, is an over-the-top declaration of love that almost everyone feels when they've met someone that embodies their 'love' ideal. Most people in real life can't verbalize love to these heights - that's why we have songwriters/singers like Valli, who can take such a strong emotion and wrap it up into a life-affirming song.

When the song came up in the play, I realized how lucky I was to be sitting there at that moment in time, at that time in my life.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dead on Arrival


I had a website from 1998-2002 called Sky-High Picture Show. It was a film review site but with a focus on movies from the '60s, '70s and '80s. In fact, its tagline was, "An in-depth, mostly accurate guide to drive-in movies from the '60s, '70s and '80s."

I did it because I love movies, especially those that aren't necessarily well known or mainstream. I also did it because I thought of myself as a sort of expert, which I'm really not. It was born of obsession and arrogance and when I shut out it's lights, I was relieved.

I found the remnants of Sky-High Picture Show on the Internet Wayback Machine and was thrilled and depressed at the same time. Some of the reviews were okay, fairly well written and observant. Most were not. Most floundered or were simply incorrect.

My thinking, back when I conceived the site, was to be one of those snarky reviewers in the vein of the Medved Brothers' hilarious Golden Turkey Award books that came out in the early 1980s. But that thinking was short-lived as my attempts in that style came off as arrogant and just plain wrong.

I felt stupid writing like that so I decided to write what I truly felt rather than from some sort of false persona. I wrote over 150 reviews, mostly long (750-1,000 words) but some shorter and then attempted to write essays about various thematic issues, subtexts, etc.

Looking back, I realize I was fairly misguided and struggled to find a voice I was happy with, which is a battle every time I sit down to write anything.

I haven't updated this blog since March of 2012 because of this internal struggle. At work, when I have to write something as simple as a press release, I fill with anxiety. I sweat it. I spend much of the time before writing looking at other pieces of writing to find a jumping point. I look at my own writing from the past to see what I can crib to get started. I procrastinate until there's no time left. Then I write it, edit it, send it off, re-read it, find errors, get depressed, then forget it.

I love writing and hate writing in equal measures. Sometimes I consider it the most noble of arts and other times I think its all bullshit. I wonder at the massive output of some authors, how they can stand doing it at all but I get why they do it.

The fantasy is spending your day writing and making money doing it. What fun!

No, its probably not the healthiest way to attempt to make a living. Its an internal struggle, it messes with your head, bends your mind, keeps you sharp and dulls your inner worth. Isolation.

Imagine that life. You might as well be D.O.A.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Drive He Said

You give me a time and a place, I give you a five minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours. No matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that and you're on your own.

One of my favorite things to do is drive.

I like everything about driving a car from getting into it, sliding onto the seat, putting the key in the ignition and firing up the engine. I still think its a miracle of engineering and science that we're able to do this thing - an activity most people take for granted.

I don't own a high-end vehicle but that doesn't matter, I still like to drive. I like the way the car moves around corners and I like to punch the gas every once in a while just to go from 30 to 70 in a heartbeat.

Driving takes an incredible amount of control and cerebral acuity but because the act is engrained into us at an early age, the mental and physical feat required to be good at it are absorbed deeply into the subconscious and driving eventually becomes rote. However, I never take it for granted and simply love the feel of an automobile.

When I was younger I drove with more experimentation - I'd try things that I wouldn't consider now: power slides, j-turns, ice driving, neutral drops, fish tailing, daring speeds in reverse.

The act of driving now is more deliberate - it isn't about trick riding and speed - its about skill, accuracy and feel.

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is about a man trying to sustain control over his life and his job. Played by Ryan Gosling, his character is simply called Driver, a name that defines him. His frozen emotional state begins to melt when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan) but Driver can't let his emotions rule his controlled psyche - he'd rather die.

Of course, control is an illusion and it eventually blows apart.

But when you drive, control is everything.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Having a Field Day

Marshall Crenshaw's 1983 album Field Day is about love and all of its trappings - particularly new love (not necessarily young love) and how it at first enraptures then eventually obsesses and blows apart.

Decidedly from a male perspective, the album is wonderous, naive and angry. Though you might miss the angry part as the tunes are so bright and hooky that, after a couple of listens, the songs are engrained into your subconscious - and not cloying.

It doesn't take long in Crenshaw's 10-song book to realize the singer spirals quickly from reverential love to frightening obsession to final, lonely acceptance of loss.

Field Day actually spawned a hit in 1983 (albeit on "alternative" radio stations) - the epic pop masterpiece Whenever You're On My Mind, which is sweetness turned to aching and addictive longing:

I never thought I'd be in this situation
It seems wherever I go I'm with you
And though I never seem to find my place
At every turn I see your face

But its One Day With You that captures love's dangerous ability to push people toward things they might not otherwise do (with self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek) - especially if the love is forbidden:

For one day with you
I'd risk ruin, pain and degradation
For one day with you
I would gladly ruin my reputation
Just to feel your hand, resting on my knee
I'd face danger, death or injury
Oh...believe me

Crenshaw's lyrics are so astute that if the words weren't wrapped in such gorgeous pop melodies, these songs would be downright scary. Thing is, they're all true.

At the time of its release, Field Day was considered "over-produced" by Steve Lillywhite (U2, Psychedlic Furs, Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews, Talking Heads, Ultravox, and other notables). But hearing it now - especially on vinyl - the album is warm with dynamic range that's nuanced and subtle. Maybe in '83 it was considered overblown (the drums have an unnatural echo), but its a sonic joy. Scott Litt (the dBs, REM, Juliana Hatfield, Nirvana, Liz Phair, the Replacements) cut his teeth as engineer on Field Day.

Crenshaw's guitar work amplifies the comparable Buddy Holly hiccup - in fact Buddy Holly's ghost is always floating in the background of this record.

Field Day Tracks:

Whenever You're On My Mind
Our Town
One More Reason
One Day With You
For Her Love
Monday Morning Rock
All I Know Right Now
What Time Is It?
Hold It

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I think I need to see 8 1/2 again

Fellini's 8 1/2 is how I've always fantasized a filmmaker's life--a life completely inside the mind filled with images real or imagined. Very few words expressed. A life of imagination as opposed to reality.

For me, the idea of 8 1/2 is better than experiencing the film. When I first saw it years ago, I found it annoying, long and cloying. It was also fragmented, alluring and visually stunning.

I think I need to see 8 1/2 again.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Nobody's perfect

In the early to mid-1980s I found myself working in a health club. Basically, I worked behind the front desk, greeted people, signed them up for memberships and handed them locks and towels. Far from glamorous, the job had its perks: my co-workers enjoyed a good party and would throw down at any given moment and, for both sexes, there was the occasional eye-candy to keep things moving.

But this was also a time when journalist Aaron Latham wrote an article in 1983 for Rolling Stone called "Looking for Mr. Goodbody," making the claim that health clubs were fast becoming the "new singles bars."

Subsequently, the article's result was that every flabby testosterone stoked dude on the make came waddling through the doors looking for more sex than sweat - which, of course, wasn't even close to reality. Most of the customers joined the club for one reason - they were fat. The club I worked in wasn't even close to those Bally's Fitness Center commercials that showed health club members as hot and hotter.

Walk into my club and the first thing you saw was me, who - at that time - was gangly with barely an ounce of muscle. I wasn't lean, I was like skeletor. I was the polar opposite of the models you saw in those moodily lit, disco-throbbing TV ads that were based on false promises, including the promise to lose your gut.

By the time 1985 rolled around, the health club hype as singles bar was waning. This falling off pretty much coincided with the release of Perfect, directed by James Bridges (The Paper Chase, Urban Cowboy, Bright Lights, Big City) and based on the Latham story. Perfect starred John Travolta as Adam, a magazine writer investigating the "singles bar" scene of bump and grind health clubs. Adam becomes involved with a fitness instructor named Jessie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis who teaches aerobics with a stripper's flair), who wants nothing to do with writers (too pastey). Naturally, as Adam and Jessie fall in love, he starts to lose his journalistic objective point of view and the story suffers.

The movie is ridiculous and represents excessive Hollywood bloat supported by too much money-to-burn and cocaine-fueled studio meetings. What's amazing is how wrong Perfect got it. It was so far from believable that the movie became a Hollywood laughing stock and, while not totally shredding Travolta's career, it certainly slammed the breaks on it - albeit temporarily.

He came back big in 1989 as an out of shape cab driver in Amy Heckerling's popular Look Who's Talking - a film, while a box office hit, that ultimately didn't do Travolta any real favors. After Look Who's Talking, he was sequestered to a couple talking baby sequels and straight-to-video obscurities.

But, not completely down and not quite washed up, Quentin Tarantino found his man in Travolta, who left an indelible mark with his best role as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Strawberry Letter 23

The use of Strawberry Letter 23 by The Brothers Johnson in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown is great.

But its even greater here.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I picked up a job in June of 1977 as a lawn boy at a condominium neighborhood in the far west suburbs of Chicago. I'd roll out of bed around 7:00 a.m. and walk along abandoned railroad tracks - about 2 miles - to work.

I'd get there around 7:45 and my first duty everyday, before hauling out the lawn mower, was to skim the community swimming pool - ridding it of leaves and skittering bugs - as well as check the water's chlorine levels. Then I'd make sure the filter was in working order. All of this took about 20 minutes. After, I'd go into the pool clubhouse and grab a few winks on one of the community couches. If I'd had a few too many beers the night before, those few winks easily slid into hours.

When I'd wake up - hopefully by 10:00 a.m. or so, I'd go outside and make my way to the maintenance garage, fill the mower's tank with gas, drag it out to the driveway and fire it up.

The idea was to mow a half dozen lawns a day starting on Monday so that by the time Friday came, all 30 condo units looked crisp and clean. With the mowing, I had to bag the cut grass and edge along the sidewalks. It was hard physical labor.

I hated every minute of it.

By July 1st of 1977, my career as lawn boy was over. I was fired. But I became a free man in the suburbs where the rest of my summer days were spent languidly driving around, playing pinball, goofing off with a crew of buddies, going to the drive-in and drinking gallons of Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys.

The drive-in - specifically the Skylark Drive-in Theater in Aurora, IL - was where I began my film education. It was there that we spent weeknights and weekends watching double features like:
The highlight of those drive-in goodies was seeing The Van multiple times. It was directed by Sam Grossman, and starred Stuart Goetz (who's currently a music editor in the movie business) and Danny DeVito. Promoted as "Fun-Truckin'!", the movie made a truck load of promises it couldn't keep. But that didn't matter - like the best cinema of 1977, it was beer-friendly.

And, best of all, its soundtrack included songs by Sammy Johns. The two songs featured were "Early Morning Love" and, of course, "Chevy Van."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


My favorite Bob Fosse film is All That Jazz. Of all the choreographer's directorial efforts, All That Jazz is the one that I go back to the most. In 1979, Fosse's structure was already ushering in a new cinematic vision; a time when non-linear filmmaking wasn't the norm in mainstream movies.

And, on a personal level, at that time, I struggled to figure out why Fosse had chosen Roy Scheider, an actor defined by tough guy New York cop roles, to play the main character, Joe Gideon. Couldn't figure it out until I saw a photo of Fosse...

Subsequently, Scheider was perfect for the role of Gideon (who is Fosse's alter-ego), a womanizing, pill-popping, hyper-macho, choreographer/filmmaker who pretty much uses his position to seduce women. But the film is a confessional, with Gideon professing his sins (and guilt) to an angel (Jessica Lange) while he falters in that netherworld between life and death after experiencing a final (he's had a series of them) heart attack.

Gideon is overworked but driven, designing the choreography for - as well as directing - a new stage musical (that's probably destined for failure but based on innovation) and editing his latest film, which is about a stand-up comedian who's on the verge of total annihilation.

Its a bizarre and musically attuned excursion into a man's driven psyche that is wired to keep pushing beyond the fray. All That Jazz is about a man who loves what he does with an intense yet chaotic passion. Gideon embraces life to its extremes.

Fosse weaves a documentary style into All That Jazz, utilizing interview techniques while delving into a sort of first person expose. Its a style Fosse adopted for Lenny and his last film, Star 80.

Star 80, released in 1983, was about the murder of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate who married the wrong guy - a destructive, intensly jealous psychopath named Paul Snider. While Mariel Hemingway captured the soft-spoken, indecisive but driven, Stratten - it was Eric Roberts' portrayal of Snider that makes the film so frightening and compelling.

Star 80 was photographed by Sven Nykvist, the director of photography who was best known for his work with Ingmar Bergman. Nykvist's eye in Star 80 captured the glossy, cocaine-fueled and decadent late 1970s (concluding in 1980), where bright color is eventually overtaken by the blackest shadows.

Sadly, Fosse died in 1987, having never directed another film after Star 80.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

They don't do trailers like this anymore...

...And that is putting it lightly. Black Angels was released in 1970 actually subverting the already subversive sub-genre biker flick. The trailer alone is balls to the wall, jaw dropping, not for the weak of heart, misogynist action with an impossible to beat off the cliff voiceover.

This fantastic 2 minute, 12 second thrill ride to hell trailer simply dares you NOT to see this crazy film.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Al Pacino or Al Capone?

While its common knowledge that Brian De Palma's 1983 Scarface was 'influenced' by the 1932 Howard Hawks directed Scarface (which was based on the real Al Capone), I believe Al Pacino's performance in the De Palma film was more akin to Rod Steiger's in Richard Wilson's 1959 Al Capone than to Paul Muni's performance in the Hawks movie.

Steiger chews up the scenery - and his lines - in Al Capone, swaggering, spitting nails, sputtering a Chicago accent that almost verges on Pacino's over-the-top Cuban accent in the 1983 Scarface. Steiger's macho gait is also emulated by Pacino throughout Scarface and you almost find yourself picturing Tony Montana while watching Steiger in Al Capone.

Wilson's Al Capone is loaded with incredible black and white imagery captured by cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who worked on other visually stunning films such as The Killing, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, What's the Matter with Helen?, Mikey and Nicky, among others. Chicagoans will appreciate how Ballard captured the look of the city (and suburban Cicero), in all of its bleak, prohibition-era glory (though its likely Al Capone was shot on a soundstage).

Al Capone has been playing on TCM lately and its worth seeking out. Its violent (though no blood is shed), funny and brutal - despite its do-nothing voiceover (by the great timbre of James Gregory, who plays a Chicago detective obsessed with taking Capone down), and a safe, socially-conscious ending - an ending that states Capone died broken-down of an "incurable disease," that pretty much ate away the gangster's brain.

Even at that point in time when the film was released, everyone knew Capone had suffered from syphilis and ended up dying of cardiac arrest.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

40 times seems excessive

I watch Jaws every 4th of July. Its a tradition that probably started back in 1975, the year the film was released (June 20, 1975) and the year I first saw it. Me and two friends waited 3 hours in line to see the Spielberg film. While waiting in the lobby, you could hear screams coming from the theater. I had never experienced that before.

But seeing Jaws once wasn't enough for me. That summer I saw Jaws every weekend until I started school in September - probably 10 times.

Jaws was re-released in May, 1979, and I'm sure I saw it another three or four times during that period. And, shortly after, MCA released Jaws on VHS in 1980. But I probably didn't see it on tape until 1983, as that was the year I purchased my first VCR.

Subsequently, starting in 1986, I started to watch Jaws every summer around the 4th of July. I've never missed a year. So, home viewing alone, I've watched the movie 26 times. And a couple years ago, it was screened at the Hollywood Palms Cinema in Naperville, IL, with Richard Dreyfuss in attendance. Naturally, I was there.

In total, I've probably seen Jaws 40 times. I can repeat lines, name side characters (Ben Gardner...Polly ["Let Polly do the printing!"], Harry ["That's some bad hat, Harry."]), hum all the variations of the John Williams score.

But one line I continued to miss - until recently (like maybe a year or so ago) was the penultimate line of the film, uttered as Sheriff Brody points his rifle at the rampaging Great White:

"SMILE you son of a bitch!"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is it a Kilgour suit?

North By Northwest is my 4th favorite Alfred Hitchcock film right after (in order): Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho. Why I like the first three more is because no matter how many times I've seen them (dozens each), they manage to surprise me with an image I'd never noticed, a strange edit, a sting of music not previously picked up. North By Northwest, on the other hand, is too predictable and I find Eva Marie Saint to be one of the coldest of Hitchcock's notorious blondes. She's not as indelible as Kim Novak (Vertigo) or as opulent as Tippi Hedren (The Birds); she plays too forced and arctic. 

What I do like about North By Northwest is its eye-popping palette dominated by tones of grey punctuated by endless variations of red (and Eva Marie Saint's black and red dress is jaw dropping). But in the realm of grey, check out how Cary Grant's suit literally emerges from the screen.

Though debatable, some sartorial camps claim the suit was designed by Kilgour, French and Stanbury, despite the fact that Grant typically had his suits tailored by Hawes & Curtis, Norton & Sons, Cordings, among others. This blog, however, states it wasn't a Kilgour suit at all and this forum says that is was built by Quintino, Grant's Beverly Hills tailor. We may never know...

Also endlessly debated is the suit's color, which has been erroneously designated as one-tone grey. More than likely (according to an article by Richard Torregrossa, who also says it was, indeed, a Kilgour), Grant's suit was a two-tone blue with a "charcoal background," which is what gives it such rich life on screen. Ultimately, the suit is of impeccable taste, masterfully constructed and timeless.

What's amazing about the suit is how seemingly indestructable it is. Grant wears it throughout most of the film including during the famous dusty cornfield crop duster scene. Grant stumbles and falls in dry dirt - and the suit is covered in it - but all he merely needs to do is brush himself off and the damn thing still looks great! And yes, there were multiple suits (possibly as many as six) used during the shooting of North By Northwest but the impression left is one of awe.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Montgomery Ward paint supervisor

One of the first - and worst - jobs I had (I was 16 years old) was working in the paint department at Montgomery Ward. It was a horrible job and I lasted one day - a six hour shift. The job required mixing paint in one of those paint shakers.

Easy right? But the few customers I encountered were not only rude, they were cruel. One man spent a couple hours bickering with me about the inaccuracies of the color that I was trying to achieve through painstaking, wildly imprecise blending (I had no real training. My supervisor, probably 17, sat in the breakroom and smoked). The customer became so pissed that his face turned blood-red as he he leaned toward me demanding that a manager do the mix job.

My supervisor - with slicked back black hair, red silk shirt, tight black bell bottoms, Kool dangling from the corner of his mouth - strutted out from the break room, grabbed a can of white and a small can of base, and measured - eye and hand - the exact amount of base color to add to the white and placed the can in the shaker and let 'er rip. He was grinning and proud.

After the shaking was done, my supervisor opened the can, showed the contents to the customer who slapped him on the back and laughed, "Well its about time!"

The customer walked out of the store a happy man. Me, on the other hand? Miserable. The next day I called the store and quit.

A few nights later, mid-December 1977, I was standing in line with a couple friends to see Saturday Night Fever. As the theater was emptying from an early showing of the film, out walked my old Montgomery Ward paint supervisor. He recognized me. He smiled and held out a hand.

"That," he said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder back toward the theater, "was the greatest movie you'll ever see. I've seen it 10 times."

I settled in one of the theater's fabric seats as the film started.

Tony Manero strutting down a crowded NYC street. Struts to "Stayin' Alive." Paint can in hand. Strut. Hot chick toward him. Paint can. Strut. Silk shirt lay away. Strut. Music. Another hot chick. Strut. Paint can.