Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"Never thought much about broke things until I got smashed up myself"

The source material Lucky Star (1929, Frank Borzage) is based on is called Three Episodes in the Life of Timothy Osborn. In the film the first episode resembles the other late silent era films Borzage made while at Fox, but the rest turns out to be a disappointment.

The German expressionist influence gives the opening dairy farm the Gothic semblance of a domestic black hole of a nightmare for Mary (Janet Gaynor). This is expressionism in one of its most enjoyable forms: she has to milk cows, but the low-key lighting and foggy production design make it look like she's in hell. Of course, the mundane is a living hell to many.

It is early dawn as the film begins and soon Mary has to go deliver milk to a crew of blue collar types. She travels down to their work site where Tim (Charles Farrell) has to take the job none of his other co-workers want because he's a pussy. So it's repairing high tension power lines for him while the others loiter down on the ground where it's safe.

Aesthetically the power lines work site looks amazing. Every time I watch it I think about how some sets just work way better than others and the backlot set is even more exotic than the sewers we first encounter the Farrell character working down in during the beginning of 7th Heaven (1927, Borzage).

The next episode is a hurried obligatory tour over to some unnamed WWI battle with no where near the level of attention given to the set piece as of those in 7th Heaven. And Tim's time as a soldier is no different from his civilian life. While back home Tim was pushed around and bullied to do all the hard work by his supervisor Wrenn (Guinn Williams), on the front lines Wrenn acts as Tim's commanding officer and similarly cons him into doing all the dangerous work while he goes off to look for girls with another soldier (played by Jack Pennick, the extra with that face you can't forget from countless John Ford movies).

After all this, about twenty-five minutes into the movie, the narrative plays out as a sentimental story about a crippled vet and his physical rehabilitation during which time he emotionally "rehabilitates" the poor farm girl Mary.

The first time I watched this film I wondered what happened to all of Borzage's creative camerawork. Why no dollies? No cranes? At first I mistakenly presumed it was a brilliant decision designed to depict the immobility of the wheelchair bound Tim. Now I doubt that it was anything that intentional. I am guessing that it is more likely because the film was shot with a camera that could record sound (even though I am reviewing the silent version, I've read that a part-sound version was produced simultaneously and a very common practice during these years) and was so big that it was not possible to move it the way Borzage had during the prior years up to this point.

Anyhow Tim pines over Mary. This script is based on a story by the same author who wrote the story The River (1929, Borzage) was based on, Tristram Tupper. And like The River this film is obviously an erotic male fantasy where a simpleton lusts over a girl he encounters all alone in a cabin in the woods somewhere. The difference is that instead of being seduced by a wanton sexpot, like in The River, the guy transforms a teenage girl from a broken home into a knockout whom he wants to domesticate--disturbingly, like a pet or object--employing the hokey subtext of fixing broken junk he finds as his objective with her.

There is also a hilarious scene where Tim bathes Mary near the brook outside his home. As he talks her into it, she undresses and he concernedly asks "just how old are you?" and after she replies "almost eighteen," he quickly decides not to look. This scene is funny in the context of pre-code Hollywood and because he was planning something in the way of foreplay apparently, but also because soon after this he ridiculously uses egg wash to turn her hair from mousy brown into a blond bouffant in the matter of a single conspicuous elliptical cut.

The ending is very predictable considering that Borzage is the quintessential romantic, especially when he's working with Gaynor and Farrell.

And finally, the title does not in any way relate to the film itself--something that always bugs me.


Monday, May 30, 2011

ol' Tin Ear rides again

Getting pretty sick of this beat, but my first trip to ESPN in a couple weeks has me scratching my head for the millionth time about the long leash given Bill Simmons. Best content-moment in his recent drivel about wrestling is this:

The Birdman also did a dead-on Savage impersonation, even better than mine,

That was Randy Savage. Signal features of his voice include "husky growl" and "chest voice".

There's your Bill Simmons speaking voice, just as throatily resonant and rough-hewn as you could ever wish to hear. Hard to believe he could find somebody to do a Savage impression that was even better than the one his golden pipes could pull off. That he found such a gifted mimic just one dorm room over simply beggars the imagination.

Special note for those of you who, like me, have a background in linguistics: that headline is the weirdest construction I think I've ever read.

At its apex, Macho Man was wrestling

I've never seen this, I don't think, a cataphoric reference in a topicalizing construction referring to a matrix clause object. Compare "at its sweetest, kids like food". It's not ungrammatical or anything, but it's sure a non-standard way to package this information. As always, the lesson here: Bill Simmons--underrated prose stylist.

If you want to read something less idiotic about the meaning of the Macho Man, the Masked Man did maybe his best work yet on the topic. The Masked Man is great. Even if he didn't ever respond to the HILARIOUS dick joke I sent him.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

it's still warm; it still moves; they're still here

no-one wants to pay me for my broken heart

In dickhead mode, when I can't keep myself from arguing tastes with people, I occasionally have said "I could make you a Dramarama mix tape that would make you forget about the Replacements.".

That's probably false. I probably can't make you that tape. But I can claim that Dramarama has been more important to me than the Replacements, and that for my money, the two bands' top and second tiers are comparable.

Unfortunately, this Rhino/Elektra Traditions comp on my lap is doing a fairly shitty of bolstering my second claim. Sure, there's the world-beating single "anything, anything", now so well-established as great that it probably bores most people who were around when it was fresh. There's the late semi-hit "last cigarette", which is probably when I climbed on board, full of knowing that side two of Tim and most of Pleased to Meet Me were about as good as songs got. (Seriously: in 1987, it was not uncommon for me to lie on the shitty carpet on my bedroom in front of my tiny boom box, singing along to "here comes a regular" and nearing tears. In 1987, I was 13, and not terribly acquainted with the growing-old-in-a-bar scene described in that tune.)

And there's are a couple other songs here on 18 Big Ones that were frankly revelatory for me. Since I'd never succumbed to my completist fetish with Dramarama, I'd only known "scenario" from youtubing it at work the last 2 years, and I'd never heard the essentially perfect moved-to-California lament "it's still warm", which is my favorite song about me in close to 10 years. Having those tunes to hand justifies the purchase entirely for me; if you like good things, they might justify the purchase for you, too.

I picked up Stuck in Wonderamaland and fell in love with it when it was new. 1989. It doesn't excerpt as well as I'd like. The album is a start-to-finish kind of piece. A little moody, a little diffuse, but that's a frame I fit in well anyways. On the comp, though, it's represented only by "wonderamaland", "no regrets" and "last cigarette", the more-or-less hits, the mid-tempo rockers I guess you'd call 'em. These are good songs. Their selection helps the compilation. I bitterly miss the cover of "I wish I was your mother", though, and the pitch-perfect "'70s TV". (Maybe the Platonic ideal of the B-side.) And while Dramarama could well be accused of a degree of over-consistency, inclusion of a couple of the fragments off of this record (onepart ballad slivers like "pumps on a hill" or "stuck in wonderamaland") would have helped fill out the diversity quotient a little bit.

Vinyl was even more important to me, a few years later, and was in my headphones the day I first got fired. It's criminally underrepresented here, with only the long and dull "train going backwards" and the lovely catchy singalong screed "classic rot" to back up the two singles, which (a) aren't as great as the band's other singles and (b) aren't as good as the other songs on the record. Want to know why Vinyl wasn't a hit album? Because the best songs on it are things like the bouncy, ebullient "until the next time" and the stingingly specific "ain't it the truth", which weren't singles and didn't make the cut onto this comp.

One of the great skills of Dramarama is their ability to do pointed portraits of suburban life--particularly of women's experiences in suburban life--that contain but never succumb to sentimentality and condescension. "No regrets" and "scenario" hit those notes on this comp, but Vinyl's "in quiet rooms" really needed to be here alongside them. Missing are the untouchably great Stones rarity "memo from Turner", psychedelic-Who nod "I've got spies" and, again, variety-contributing "(I'd like to) volunteer please".

If you care to, you can spend a lot--like, a lot--of time with Dramarama playing Spot the Reference. A band of fans, collector/historian types, they context artists in a way, blending in snippets and snatches and swathes of what they liked, loved, grew up on. I spend more time with John Easdale's lyrics, though, than with the band-as-collage. And that's a maneuver that gives with one hand and takes with another, I'm afraid. Don't get me wrong: Easdale is one of my favorite lyricists of all time, and I will defend him against anyone you care to name.

But that defense will require me occasionally to acknowledge a filler rhyme that made it wax (Easdale's Achilles heel). Personally, I think they work (and nobody bitches when Dylan does it, for hell's sake) and I prefer them to the slightly over-common "yeah yeah yeah"s that waft across the soundscape, but, yeah: what I am literally saying is that one of rock and roll's best lyricists started off one of his best songs:

hey hey it's been so long since I have written with a pen
and though it's sharper than a saber, I don't feel like Errol Flynn
got no computer, I can't type the letter "m"
you're not responding right, I guess I better start again

I see I've been mostly critical of this record, and of the band. That was not exactly my intention. Dramarama is one of my most reliable musical pleasures, and has been for long enough to buy a beer anywhere in America. John Easdale is, again, maybe straight rock's most underrated songwriter, and one of the rock dudes I'd most like to say "thank you for making stuff that made my life better" to. His work touches greatness often, and in uncommon ways: he may be better with specific-detail-creating-universally-shared-emotion lines than anybody else. If you have room only for one Dramarama record, I'd suggest one the ones before Hi-Fi Sci-Fi. You'll miss some songs, but, then, if you only buy one record, you're going to anyway, right? If you want just all the ones you heard twice on shitty pre-alt-radio, 18 Big Ones will do that for you, and will throw in one or two you missed along the way, like the strangely affecting "work for food". I just wish it better represented the tunes that were, in some better world, big enough hits for these guys to retire on. Fully paid for their broken hearts.

Like the band, this comp comes really close to greatness and blows it. I like it: I'm glad I bought it. But I love this band, and a much, much better case for them could have been made.