Monday, August 29, 2016

Rest in Peace, Gene Wilder; Thanks for the Memories

When I heard today that Gene Wilder had died, the first thing I thought of was the first time I saw him in a movie.

The movie was "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," which must have been at least a few years old when I saw it because I saw it at one of those free movies on summer Wednesdays in my hometown of which I have written here before. My hometown was much smaller in those days, and the merchants always sponsored free movies for the kids of the town on Wednesdays in the summer. My hometown is much larger now, and I'm sure free movie Wednesdays stopped many years ago.

It was also, as I wrote here a few years ago, the first time my brother was permitted to go to a movie without one or both of my parents — or one of our grandparents — in attendance. I was drafted to fill in, to keep an eye on him, as it were.

There were moments when I was distracted from what was happening on the screen, usually when I was checking to see what my brother was doing (and it usually wasn't much). I probably didn't miss a lot. Those free movies were never first–run movies, anyway. The merchants in my hometown were generous as long as it didn't cost too much so the free summer movies were always three or four years old — if you were lucky. In those pre–cable days, most movies that had made the rounds of the theaters were retired. The only ones that remained in circulation were the ones that TV stations and networks wanted to show.

Those free summer movies were probably among the last ways that producers and promoters could make money on many movies before they were put out to pasture. Undoubtedly they took whatever they could get.

"Willy Wonka" was the offering one Wednesday afternoon one summer, and that was when I first saw Gene Wilder. I have seen him in many movies since — "Young Frankenstein" is my favorite — but he has always been Willy Wonka to me and always will be, no matter how many times I see him in "The Producers" or "Blazing Saddles" or "Silver Streak" or anything else.

I guess, too, that I always remember him as the husband and widower of Gilda Radner, perhaps the finest comedienne of her generation, certainly one of the brightest lights in Saturday Night Live's brilliant original cast.

I thought of something else when I heard that Wilder had died.

I thought of a moment from All In The Family. It was an episode in which Archie's work buddy, Stretch Cunningham, had died, and his family wanted Archie to say a few words at the funeral.

During his eulogy, Archie observed, in his unique way, that studies showed that "having the blues" took years from your life while laughter added years to your life. If that is true, Archie said, Stretch put years on his life.

"And you gotta love a guy," Archie said, "for that."

Gene Wilder put some years on my life.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

It Was More Than a Feeling

Boston's eight–song self–titled debut album, "Boston," which was released on this day in 1976, was one of the most successful debut albums in American history, selling 17 million copies.

It produced three singles, each of which sold quite well.

"More Than A Feeling," the first single from the album, was arguably the most successful. It's been described as an ode to daydreaming, and it featured a reference to a mysterious Marianne, who, it turned out, was a real person. Band leader Tom Scholz said she was his older cousin, whom he regarded as the most beautiful girl he had ever seen when he was the tender age of 8 or 9 and she must have been in her teens. The song soared to #5 on Billboard's Hot 100 — and even sparked a bit of controversy during the 2008 presidential primary campaign.

Republican Mike Huckabee used the song for campaign promotion, and a former band member made appearances with Huckabee, giving the joint impression that the band had given Huckabee permission to use the song and had endorsed Huckabee's campaign, neither of which was true, Scholz observed in his written request to Huckabee to stop using the song.

Huckabee complied with the request.

It was indeed a popular tune. It showed up in several movies around that time, and many musicians made covers of it. Forty years later, it is still a staple on FM radio.

Actually, as popular as "More Than A Feeling" was, the flip side on that single, "Smokin'," probably enjoyed more popularity than it deserved simply because it was the flip side to "More Than A Feeling."

Boston released "More Than A Feeling" as a single about the same time as it released the album.

The next single, "Foreplay/Long Time," was released after the start of the new year.

"Foreplay" was an instrumental tune that Scholz wrote around 1969 while a student at MIT. The merging of that tune with "Long Time," another Scholz composition, was described by Rolling Stone as the "marriage of Led Zeppelin and Yes."

Pretty good description.

Like its predecessor, "Foreplay/Long Time" was a big hit, reaching #22 on Billboard's Hot 100. And, once again, the B side profited from being paired with a Boston hit. In this case, the flip side was "Let Me Take You Home Tonight," the only piece on the album that was not composed by Scholz.

"Let Me Take You Home Tonight" was penned by guitarist and lead vocalist Brad Delp.

The album's third single, "Peace of Mind," was released eight months after the album. I've heard that it was written about Scholz's work colleagues before he found success in the music industry. That certainly makes sense.

"Peace of Mind," like the other two singles, performed well on the charts, climbing to #38 on Billboard's Hot 100.

I always kind of liked it better than the other two. Maybe it was the acoustic guitar intro.

Whatever it was, I believed from the start that Boston was kind of a bizarre merging of two styles — at once a kind of familiar sort of band playing familiar sort of music while, at the same time, a garage band with a unique sound all its own.

Goin' to Graceland

I know several people who think Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, which hit the music stores on this day in 1986, was his greatest musical achievement.

It's hard to argue with that. It had probably been more than a decade since Simon enjoyed real commercial and critical success (with 1975's "Still Crazy After All These Years"), and he had kind of disappeared from public view — "Graceland" was something of a comeback for him. And what a comeback it was. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year and sold more than 16 million copies.

And it had five singles that vied for public attention on the charts.

Probably "You Can Call Me Al" was the biggest hit on the album. With Chevy Chase lip syncing the lyrics, the song shot up the charts and earned significant airplay.

It was the first of five singles to be released, hitting the stores nearly two weeks after the album did. Sales were sluggish initially, but the song enjoyed a revival after the album's Grammy success and rose to #23 on the charts.

The second single was the title song, "Graceland," and in my opinion it is one of Simon's most eloquent songs — at least in his solo career. It was an expression of his thoughts following the breakup of his marriage to Carrie Fisher.

"Graceland" wasn't the hit that "You Can Call Me Al" was — but it didn't have the same joyful feel to it, either. It did, however, have a whisper of redemption in it and cracked Billboard's Hot 100 but only reached #81.

The third single from the album, "The Boy in the Bubble," was released as a single about seven months after the album was released. Unless you had the album, you might have assumed the song was part of a new one.

I was surprised to discover, years later, how well it did. I don't really remember hearing it on the radio, but it reached #15 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. Still, it only reached #86 on Billboard's Hot 100.

I always thought it was kind of a contradictory tune, with lyrics about such topics as terrorism (which was still, at that time, a subject that had not touched Americans directly) and hunger, infused with shots of humor and even cheer.

Still, compared to the rather dour "Hearts and Bones," which had been Simon's previous album, "Graceland" was positively giddy.

The fourth single, "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," charted well in Canada, and I remember hearing it on the radio more than I heard "The Boy in the Bubble""Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" was released as a single about a month later — but it doesn't seem to have made a ripple on Billboard's Hot 100.

The song featured South African backup singers, giving most Americans their first real exposure to South African music.

A few weeks after the song was released as a single, Simon and the South African singers performed the song on Saturday Night Live, giving it national exposure.

Simon expanded on the African theme in the fifth and final single from the "Graceland" album, "Under African Skies."

"Under African Skies" was released as a single about a year after the album came out.

And it featured Linda Ronstadt with additional vocals. She got top billing with Simon on that single, too.

Of course, she was Linda Rondstadt, perhaps the most successful female recording artist ever.

But he was Paul Simon, and he had been in the public eye longer than she had. They made a heavyweight combination.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Last Great Rolling Stones Album

I have friends who would say that 1978's "Some Girls" was the Rolling Stones' last great album.

And it was a good one for sure.

But I would disagree that it was the band's last great album. "Tattoo You," which was released on this day in 1981, was the Stones' last great album. It just didn't have as much of a radio presence as "Some Girls" did.

Oh, sure, it had a huge hit in "Start Me Up" — which, in hindsight, seems to have been written to be played on sports arena loud speakers. It's a song that pumps up its listeners, which is what you want to do with a home crowd at a sports event. I saw the Stones in concert a couple of months after they released "Tattoo You," and probably no other song on their play list got such a raucous response.

Not even the classics.

It was still new, then, of course, and it had that fresh appeal that goes along with being something new. But it also had something that "Some Girls" and all the albums that came before it did not have — MTV.

MTV was new then and still finding itself. Playing a role in the promotion of new music was essential to its success, and "Start Me Up" was an enormous hit, rising to #2 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Like "Emotional Rescue" the year before, "Tattoo You" was mostly outtakes from the sessions that spawned "Some Girls" — filler, for lack of a better term. But there is filler and there is filler.

"Start Me Up" was the first single released from the album. In fact, it was in the stores 10 days before the album.

The second single, "Waiting on a Friend," was released as a single about three months after the album hit the stores and rose to #13 on the U.S. singles chart. The song had existed for nearly a decade, going back to the "Goats Head Soup" sessions in the early '70s. Well, it was a tune with no lyrics, but it became the Stones' first song to be packaged specifically with an MTV video in mind.

And the video became enormously popular, no doubt contributing to the song's success.

I liked the melody better than the lyrics.

By the way, if the setting of the video seems familiar, it should. It was featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti" album.

The album's third single, "Hang Fire," was released in the spring of 1982. I didn't think much of it, frankly. To my great surprise, it managed to get to #20 on the charts.

Most Americans probably didn't realize that the lyrics represented one of the few times when the Stones have been political in their music. Their largely satirical lyrics skewered the British economic decline of the '70s.

Most listeners on this side of the Atlantic probably thought the music was kind of light and airy and the lyrics had no relevance to life in North America, which they didn't. As I say, the lyrics referred to the British economy and marrying one's way up the British economic and social ladders.

One song I always liked — but was never released as a single — was "Slave," the longest song on the album at 6:33.

Rolling Stone called it "a standard Stones blues jam," which is probably what attracted me to it.

It came into existence during the sessions for "Black and Blue" when Ronnie Wood was filling the vacancy left by the departure of Mick Taylor.

Presumably "Slave" was more filler — but no one could pull off filler like the Stones. I kept hoping to hear it when I saw the Stones in concert.

But I don't think the Stones have ever performed "Slave" in a concert.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Pursuing a Place in the Sun

"I love you. I've loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I've even loved you before I saw you."

George (Montgomery Clift)

If you ever read Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy," you know the plot — for the most part — of George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun," which premiered on this day in 1951.

The movie wasn't exactly a re–telling of the novel — in fact, there were several changes in the story in its translation from printed page to silver screen — but it was heavily influenced by it, and anyone who read the book and saw the movie knew that the protagonist in the movie (Montgomery Clift) was virtually a carbon copy of the protagonist in the book.

In both the book and the movie, he was poor but ambitious, the son of religious activists, street missionaries in the Midwest. He wasn't well educated, he lacked maturity, and he was naive. He took menial jobs to help support his family; while working at such a job he met his wealthy uncle who owned a successful factory on the coast and invited his nephew to visit him, suggesting that he could have a job in the business.

So he made his way to his uncle's factory — in the book, it was on the East Coast, but it was on the West Coast in the movie.

Other details and circumstances were different, too, but the story was essentially the same. The protagonist took his uncle up on the offer and was, indeed, given a job. It was an entry–level job at first, but the protagonist got rapid promotions. Things were looking up.

There was one problem, though. When he was first hired, the protagonist was told that most of the employees were females, and he should not have relationships with any of them outside the workplace.

So, of course, that is precisely what he did. Almost immediately he struck up a friendship with a young worker (Shelley Winters, who broke into movies in the early '40s as a blonde bombshell but found that label too limiting and claimed to have washed off her makeup to audition for the role in "A Place in the Sun"). In the story, it was probably a good match. Winters' character was almost as naive as Clift's, believing nearly to the end that his family ties brought him no privileges at all — all evidence to the contrary.

Anyway, they started seeing each other on the sly, and it wasn't long before they had sex. That, of course, was the kind of thing that simply was not seen in movies in the 1950s. It could only be suggested, hinted at, the kind of thing in which a couple kisses passionately, and the music swells, and the figures become silhouettes that fade into a morning scene in which both are seen at the breakfast table.

Everyone who saw the movie knew that something had happened, but no one saw it happen — rather like when one goes to bed and there is no snow on the ground, but there is snow on the ground when that person wakes up the next morning. You know something happened even if you didn't see it happen.

Nevertheless, the secret — if it ever was one to anyone watching the movie 65 years ago — was a secret no more when Winters' character sought advice from a minister, who believed she was overwhelmed by the stress of being pregnant until Winters confessed that she was not married and the father had "abandoned" her.

As self–absorbed as he was, Clift's character claimed he was going to do the honorable thing (by '50s standards) and marry the girl — but he was falling in love with an affluent and socially connected girl (Elizabeth Taylor), the kind who could do many wonderful things for his career.

And his allegiance was shifting rapidly from the working girl to the society girl.

At times, Clift's character reminded me of Hamlet, Shakespeare's famed Danish prince who couldn't make up his mind. But, once he met Liz, his devotion clearly belonged to her, even though he agreed to marry Winters after she phoned him at a weekend party with Taylor and the ritzy crowd and threatened to expose him. They went to get a marriage license — only to find the office was closed for the Labor Day weekend.

They decided to come back the next day and, in the meantime, enjoy some R&R. They were on a secluded lake and decided to rent a boat. Winters' character didn't know that Clift had been plotting to kill her and make it look like an accident, leaving him free to marry Taylor — but once they were on the lake, he had a change of heart and decided not to kill her after all.

But fate intervened, and Winters really did slip and fall — and drown.

The audience, of course, knew that it really had been an accident. But Clift's suspicious behavior before and after the accident led to his conviction — with none other than Raymond Burr, TV's future Perry Mason, leading the prosecution.

Waiting to walk that last mile to his execution, Clift told a priest that he didn't kill Winters, but he did nothing to help her when she fell in the water. The priest concluded that it was murder and Clift's execution would be justified.

In 2016, it seems a little melodramatic, but it must have seemed to be pushing boundaries in 1951. It remains only the second movie adaptation of Dreiser's novel. He didn't live to see it, but he saw the first one, which was made 20 years earlier. I've heard that he hated it.

Maybe he considered it too literal a translation. He might have preferred "A Place in the Sun," considering that it did differ in some ways from the original source (and in more than just the name). Perhaps, now that filmmakers have more freedom than they did 65 years ago, it is time for a fresh take on the story.

"A Place in the Sun" ranked #92 on the American Film Institute's original list of the Top 100 movies of the last 100 years, but it was left off the revised list that was released 10 years later.

It won six Oscars — Best Director (Stevens), Best Screenplay, Best Dramatic or Comedy Score, Best Black–and–White Cinematography, Best Black–and–White Costume Design and Best Film Editing. It received three other nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (Clift) and Best Actress (Winters), losing to "An American in Paris," Humphrey Bogart and Vivien Leigh.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Edgar Allan Poe's Work as the Basis for a Movie

"Do you know where you are, Bartolome? I'll tell you where you are. You are about to enter hell, Bartolome, hell! The netherworld. The infernal region. The abode of the damned. The place of torment. Pandemonium. Abaddon. Tophet. Gehenna. Naraka. The pit! And the pendulum."

Don Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price)

Stephen King is one of my favorite authors. No one can write a thriller the way he can. But he sure can be wordy sometimes. Maybe that is unavoidable when it is necessary to explain every character's mental perception of the events that are at the core of King's book — and that frequently is necessary in a Stephen King book.

Edgar Allan Poe was different. Many of his works were short stories, and they were really short, sometimes just a few pages; his poems were even shorter.

Take "The Pit and the Pendulum," for example. It was a short story that was quite short.

I saw director Roger Corman — who directed and produced a full–length motion picture that was based on that short story and made its debut on this day in 1961 — being interviewed about it on Turner Classic Movies a few months ago. He conceded that, in order to make a full–length movie, it was necessary for writers to speculate — a lot — about the characters and events that led up to the climactic event of which Poe wrote.

That was something with which Corman was quite familiar. A year earlier, he directed and co–produced an adaptation of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." And his writers' efforts to be as true as possible to the spirit of Poe's writing were good enough that Corman went on to direct six more adaptations of Poe's works. All but one starred Vincent Price.

Price actually started out as a character actor and transitioned into horror movies in the '50s so he was already a veteran of several horror movies by the time he started appearing in Corman's films.

But he was seldom the star — nor did he have a reputation for appearing in horror movies — until he teamed up with Corman.

I've heard that Corman believed that, after "House of Usher," Poe's strongest works were "Masque of the Red Death" and "Pit and the Pendulum." As I recall, his preference for his second film based on Poe's work was "Red Death," but he ultimately concluded the name (not the subject matter) would be seen as too similar to a Swedish movie that was in the theaters a few years earlier so "Pit and the Pendulum" became his followup.

Corman did make a movie based on "Red Death" a few years later.

I don't know if Price's work with Corman was entirely responsible for his reputation as a horror movie villain, but it is sure to have played a role.

By the way, in case you didn't know it, Corman made some appearances in front of the camera, too. I always think of his role as one of the lawyers in the law firm that Tom Hanks sued in "Philadelphia," but he was also in "The Godfather Part II" and "The Silence of the Lambs."

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Re-creating the 9-11 Attacks

"We prepared for everything. Not for this. Not for something this size. There's no plan."

John (Nicolas Cage)

No one who lived through Sept. 11, 2001, will ever forget it. Most of us didn't experience the life–or–death struggle that some did, but that doesn't mean that most of us weren't affected by what happened that day.

That, I suppose, was what I liked about Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," which premiered on this day in 2006. In the first few years after those infamous attacks, there was a real effort to make sure people didn't forget what had happened. Only a few years after those terrorist attacks, we were already seeing movies about them. There was a made–for–TV movie that essentially dramatized all the now–familiar recordings from that day.

Then there was "United 93," which premiered nearly 3½ months before "World Trade Center," and it basically told the tale of the passengers whose revolt led to the crashing of their plane in a Pennsylvania field instead of the White House or Capitol building.

I can't help wondering if those movies took the edge off that experience. Did the movies contribute to a perception that the attacks of 9/11 didn't really happen, that they were dramatizations for our collective entertainment?

How incredible it is to think that many of the most painful lessons we thought we learned on Sept. 11, 2001 have been all but forgotten by our country's leadership less than 15 years later.

"World Trade Center" told the mostly unknown story of how the families of the victims reacted to what was happening.

For those on the ground, that may have been the most traumatic image that played in their minds that day — how the families of the victims had to watch helplessly while the drama played out. In the office where I was working on that day, I heard many people speaking of the horror they imagined the passengers on the plane experiencing. In the absence of the actual horrific images of that morning — there was no TV in the office at that time — nothing else so moved them to emotional displays as that mental image.

At the time I found it easier to function if I did not think about things like that. But you couldn't ignore it forever, and movies have always been powerful providers of provocative images. Combine that with Stone's directorial skills, and you have an impressive force.

It was also an heroic tale.

The movie, critic Roger Ebert wrote, "is about two men who, against all odds, survived the collapse of the Twin Towers."

Clearly, that is a compelling story line, and ostensibly it was a true story; many parts of it undoubtedly were true, but some parts apparently were exaggerated.

And some parts were not given adequate treatment — in the eyes of some. There were some widows of victims of the attacks who were critical of the involvement of family members of other victims, producing what they thought was a slanted treatment of the subject.

The treatment was a little heavy handed at times, too.

For example, at one point, a closeup of an open Bible could be seen. It was open to a passage in Revelation and was followed by a shot of a cross, which was "piling it on a bit thick," Ebert observed.

Ebert also pointed out that Stone "Christianize[d]" the story "in ways that go beyond the beliefs of his characters."

"The problem with movies about individuals in such extreme situations," Ebert wrote, "(perhaps especially those that try to hew closely to the accounts of the survivors who lived the events depicted) is that they are stripped of some of their individuality. They are, by necessity, reduced to human essentials, and that doesn't always make for good movie drama. Yes, anyone in this situation would think, and probably say, something like, 'Tell my wife and children that I love them.' But since we don't know much about who these guys were before 9/11 (presented here as a hazy day rather than the crystal clear fall morning we remember — where's CGI when you need it?), some moments in 'WTC' feel more generic than personal or universal."

I think a big problem with dramatizing events that most if not all of your viewers are likely to remember is that people remember things through the prisms of their own experiences. What they saw meshes with what they were thinking and what they were doing.

And the families are bound to have the most vivid memories of all. Pleasing them must be a nearly impossible objective to achieve.

So I don't fault Stone for failing to live up to their expectations. They want others to feel what they felt, and that is not possible. Only approximations are possible. But isn't that, ultimately, a filmmaker's mission — to make the audiences experience what the characters in the movie experienced?

I'm glad that filmmakers took on the topic of 9/11 quickly. But as I suggested earlier, perhaps they acted too quickly.

Of course, even when Stone has taken on events that were decades removed — "JFK" comes to mind — he has encountered resistance. Even so, there is something to be said for not dramatizing something until a couple of generations have passed.

But I guess that depends on the director, the subject matter and how it is handled. While there were many complaints about Stone's "Nixon," I heard from many people who shared my assessment of Anthony Hopkins' performance in the title role — and we were all old enough to remember Nixon. Hopkins didn't look like Nixon, and he didn't sound like Nixon, but he captured Nixon's persona perfectly.

The characters in "World Trade Center" were not familiar to audiences, only to those who knew the originals, so perhaps the two movies aren't really comparable.

Then again, perhaps Ebert was on to something when he observed that, since the audience was not familiar with the characters, some of the movie's moments felt "more generic than personal or universal."

Is that the fault of the cast or the director? The cast can only work with what it is given in terms of a script and directorial guidance.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

A Dubious Distinction

Ever since Playboy magazine stopped publishing nude centerfolds earlier this year — and even before that — I have seen milestones marked for the publication's centerfold models.

For example, whenever Marilyn Monroe is mentioned, it is almost sure to be observed that she was Playboy's "first playmate of the month" — which, technically, she wasn't. She was the first centerfold, which at that time, I believe, was called "Sweetheart of the Month." Someone else had the distinction of being the first playmate.

Being the first playmate to be or do anything is usually a good thing — but not always.

Marilyn was the first centerfold model to die — but not the first playmate to die. That was Tonya Crews, Miss March of 1961, who died in an automobile accident 50 years ago today.

Crews tends to get overshadowed when the topic of conversation is playmates who died young, especially if 1992 playmate Anna Nicole Smith is part of the discussion.

Part native American, Crews was born in Oklahoma in February 1938. She had just turned 23 when the issue of Playboy containing her centerfold hit the newsstands.

In 2007, following Smith's death, Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press lamented Smith's "exclusive" membership in the club of playmates who didn't live to see their 50th birthdays. Crews, of course, is a charter member of that club.

There have been so many other tragic deaths among the playmates that Crews' death rarely gets mentioned.

But it was 50 years ago today that Crews became the first playmate to die. It's a dubious distinction, but it's one to which she is entitled.