Friday, February 16, 2018
Guillermo del Toro is fearless when it comes to showing us new and delightful things. In a Hollywood content to recycle the same comic book titles over and over, del Toro is among the most visionary of moviemakers, up there with Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. The bad news is, just like Burton and Gilliam, del Toro is better with visuals than he is with plots.
I felt this way even after del Toro's masterful Pan's Labyrinth, a visually stunning gem with plenty of weird little creations fluttering about, but no real story that I can remember. I almost wish del Toro aside would not bother with plots, and simply create a bunch of surreal demons and let them run wild for 90 minutes. He's obviously more inspired by monsters and odd architecture than he is by the mechanization of a script, so I'd suggest he do what he loves and leave the stories out. I could sit and watch his grotesques for hours, but his stories put me to sleep, including his latest, The Shape of Water.
The movie takes place in a stylized early 1960s America, a time when cars looked like rockets and there was constant talk about the future. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a movie theater with a bunch of cats and her gay, alcoholic male friend, who happens to be an out of work advertising artist. Their home appears to fluctuate in size - at times it seems highly claustrophobic, at others it looks to be as large as a castle - and they amuse themselves by watching old Shirley Temple movies on a little television. Elisa is mute, resulting from an unnamed childhood incident that her left her with some nasty scars on her throat. She also works cleaning toilets at a nearby government laboratory, where a mysterious creature from the amazon is being held for observation.
The creature is a wonder, an obvious descendant of Universal Pictures' infamous gill man of the 1950s, but rather than the fishmouth of the old lagoon creature, this one has a rather sensuous human mouth. The creature's nemesis is Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a bully with a cattle prod. The creature, no doubt tired of being prodded, bites off Stricklnd's fingers. Such rudeness only intensifies their rivalry.
Elisa, who doesn't have many human connections, is enchanted by the creature. She's soon taking her lunch-breaks outside his holding tank, offering him hard-boiled eggs, and playing lush, orchestral music on a portable record player. He seems to like her, too. He likes the eggs, anyway. When Elisa finds out the plan is for scientists to kill the creature and examine his lungs - they think his unique breathing organs may hold the key to successful space travel - she decides to rescue him. This won't be easy, because the Russians want him, too.
It feels as if del Toro decided this thin plot was enough on which to hang a movie, and he immediately went to work on the visuals, which are stunning. I liked the giant computers at the military base; they reminded me of the ones I saw at my father's office when I was a boy. I also liked the vintage automobiles, Elisa's fascination with sexy shoes, and the use of Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda on the soundtrack. But del Toro also goes for the cheap and obvious. It's a movie where nobility is only found in gay men, poor black women, mute girls, lonely scientists, and sea monsters, while a white suburban family man is the embodiment of evil. Del Toro should be ashamed of such simple-minded pandering.
There's also the inevitable showdown between the creature and Strickland, and then an ending lifted directly from Splash. By then, I was looking for the exit.
As Strickland, Shannon practically vibrates with menace and is watchable throughout. He has the movie's best line: "Are you totally mute? Or do you squawk a little?" Hawkins is excellent, too. Still, the movie has been praised beyond comprehension - it has received 13 Academy Award nominations - which says less about the value of The Shape of Water, and more about the miserable state of contemporary movies.
Del Toro's work is always interesting to look at, and this, combined with a sentimental plot about misfits banding together to beat the evil old white military complex, will endear The Shape of Water to many viewers. For those wanting their fantasy films to have some edge, there's much bloody violence. For those who want things a bit saucy, Hawkins masturbates throughout the movie, and eventually fucks the creature in a bathtub. Maybe I should just be happy that a director like del Toro made a movie that, in many ways, is an homage to great films of the past, from the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon, when Ricou Browning took Julie Adams to his underwater lair, to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which del Toro quotes with a visual nod to the old Aurora modeling kit), to The Evil of Frankenstein, where a little mute girl looked after the monster. Hell, it was even fun to think about Splash again. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't come out of the theater whistling an old Alice Faye tune.
Saturday, February 10, 2018
What we always forget about Tonya Harding - because it's simply more fun to talk about the headlines she made prior to the 1994 winter Olympics, that is, Harding and what seemed like a coterie of redneck thugs, one of whom took a metal baton to the knee of her rival, Nancy Kerrigan - is that she was one hell of a skater. At the end of I, Tonya, a rugged little movie full of violent, hateful characters, we're shown a clip of the real Harding at work, and it is breathtaking. We're also shown clips of the real characters that we've just seen portrayed in the movie, as if the filmmaker wants to assure us that the people in Harding's life were indeed imbeciles, and that the actors weren't exaggerating. The American lower class gets a hammering in the movie, with director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steve Rogers getting all they can out of gaudy mustaches and cheap fur coats. It starts to feel a bit like a mean-spirited Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the poor, though the movie is highly watchable thanks to the bravura work of the cast, and the story of Harding, who comes off as a likeable if prickly underdog.
The sympathies are stacked in Tonya's favor early on, as we see her abandoned by her father, horribly abused by her mother, and regularly beaten by her husband, Jeff Gillooly. Gillespie chooses to give the beatings a slapstick feel, because otherwise the constant attacks on Harding would be unbearable for viewers. The result is not entirely successful. Harding's mother is the villain of the piece, but she's given the best lines and, as played by Allison Janney, she's the sort of villain you love to hate. We haven't had such a campy, despicable mother since Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest, but Janney comes close, especially when offering her daughter such encouragement as, "You skate like a graceless bull dyke."
Despite her mother's cruelty, Harding becomes one of the top skaters in the world, the first American woman to hit a triple axle in competition, but can't get a break from the judges because she won't change her less than wholesome image. At 23, her best years already behind her, she finds herself at the edge of a murky plot to hurt another competitor. The plan is instigated by Gillooly and his idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who imagines himself a sort of international security expert, though he can barely find his mouth with a potato chip. Still, the crux of the movie is Harding's relationship with her bullying mother. "I made you a champion," the mother says, "knowing you'd hate me for it. That's the sacrifice a mother makes!" We later learn that mother and daughter are long estranged, which seems fine with both. Harding says at the film's conclusion that fame was fleeting and that she has spent most of her life being hated, or the butt of jokes. She also denies knowing about the plan to injure Kerrigan. "Everyone has their own truth," Harding tells us, "and life just does whatever the fuck it wants."
Margot Robbie is exceptional as Harding, demonstrating equal measures of strength, vulnerability, and pigheadedness. It's the role of a lifetime. As Harding's evil mother, Janney has already won a Golden Globe award. Sebastion Stan is excellent as Gillooly, Hauser is perfect as Gillooly's goofy pal, and if ever there was an award for show stealing, it would go to Ricky Russert as Shane Stant, the goon hired to disable Kerrigan. There's a bit too much music on the soundtrack, every new scene introduced by some banal pop song, but what kept me from totally enjoying the movie was the nagging thought that much of I, Tonya was created so audiences could laugh at the expense of poor people. A big part of the movie is Harding's lack of taste, in her clothes, her makeup, and her men. I think Gillespie wants us to like Harding, and to appreciate her instincts for survival - he even includes a bit where she tried boxing - but the well-bread folks in the audience may have too good a time snickering at these tacky, uneducated types in their blue nail polish. Harding may or may not deserve our sympathy, but this movie feels made for an elite class, for whom Harding remains a kind of boardwalk freak.
Thursday, February 8, 2018
Harold Becker's The Onion Field (1979) was made in the final year of the last great decade for American movies, but it's never mentioned alongside other films of the era. Perhaps there were so many excellent titles from the era that a movie like this one, which didn't feature a De Niro or a Pacino or a Nicholson, gets overlooked. But none of those actors could've done any better than James Woods does here as Greg Powell, an ex-con who imagines himself a kind of master criminal, when he's really just a cheap hood who robs grocery stores. The Onion Field is about many characters, each with a story worth telling, but Powell is the the black hole into which they are all sucked, a man too nasty, perhaps, for audiences then and now.
Still, what a challenging and terrifying movie this is. And how well it has survived. True, there's a short bit at the beginning, of suburban lawns and sprinklers with a cheesy musical score, and there's a sentimental bit at the end. But Becker, over 50 when he directed this, came of age during the 1940s, when such things were expected, which makes The Onion Field all the more of an achievement. Remove the sappy Hallmark bookends, and you have a hell of a strong picture.
Everybody knows Woods as an edgy character actor. He was as close as the MTV generation came to its own Richard Widmark, and as Powell he's as sinister as Widmark's Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). He's thrilled when his pregnant girlfriend calls him "Bun," as in "Honey bun," and he likes to brag that he's "a virtuoso" when it comes to pleasuring women. Still, he has an ex-con's warped sexuality, and upon meeting new males he is very free with his hands.
Woods daring performance wasn't unnoticed. He received a Golden Globe nomination, as well as nominations from The New York Film Critics Circle and The National Society of Film Critics (his only win came from The Kansas City Film Critics Circle), but none of these mild accolades suggest how utterly he dominated the screen as Powell, from the first moment we see his skeletal face, gold teeth, and wild eyes.
But is he just another trigger happy gunman who murders a cop and then implicates his partner in the shooting? Not hardly, because Powell is one of the more multi-layered creeps one will ever see in a movie. Childish, self-serving, egomaniacal, still nursing wounds from his childhood, he stands out in a movie full of sharply drawn characters. Nearly 40 years later he's still disturbing.
The Onion Field was based on a true story. Powell and his partner, Jimmy "Youngblood" Smith (Franklyn Seales) were a couple of small-time robbers who were pulled aside one night by two young police officers, Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell (John Savage and Ted Danson). Powell outmaneuvered the two cops and had Campbell drive them to a nearby onion field in Bakersfield, California. Believing that kidnapping carried the same penalty as murder, Powell shoots Campbell in the mouth and then goes after Hettinger. We hear more shots fired, but the shooter's identity isn't clear in the chaos.
Hettinger manages to escape; Campbell ends up dead in a ditch. And soon the ramifications of this ghastly midnight crime take a toll on all involved. Hettinger is destroyed by guilt, which results in a sort of slow-motion mental breakdown; Smith is outraged that Powell has said he fired bullets into Campbell, but ends up back in prison; and Powell finds himself back in the slammer, too, where he resumes his habit of feeling men up. He also becomes a rather haughty jailhouse lawyer.
The movie is a no-frills cop drama, with a lot of court scenes, and interrogation scenes where the walls at the station house look like the lungs of a longtime smoker. There are dank motels and vintage cars - allegedly the actual vehicles used by Powell and Smith - and most of the movie has the atmosphere of a dirty carpet. Cinematographer Charles Rosher Jr cut his teeth on TV shows like Mannix and Mission: Impossible, but also worked alongside Robert Atman and Michael Ritchie in the years just before The Onion Field. The story is set in 1963, but I cannot recall any music in the film, except for some bagpipes. A director in 2018 would soak the thing in music by Bobby Vinton and Chet Baker, trying hard for period cool. I think it's cooler the way it is: unadorned, plain as a brass shell casing.
The screenplay and the book it is based on were written by Joseph Wambaugh, a former policeman who turned to crime writing in the early '70s. Wambaugh also helped finance the feature, assuring that he'd have control and input into the final product. He was serious about details, inviting officers who were on duty the night of the murder to "to come around and take a look at how we were depicting it." Though the film suggests Jimmy Smith was innocent of shooting Campbell, Wambaugh was never certain. Many of Wambaugh's books became the basis for movies, including The Choirboys, The New Centurians, and The Black Marble. In The Onion Field, he probably thought he'd tapped into something akin to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In Powell, he had a character far uglier than Capote's killers.
James Woods is 71 now. Though he does a lot of voice work for cartoons, the last thing I remember seeing him in was a lousy remake of Straw Dogs (2011, and not surprisingly, he was the best thing in it). In the 1980s, though, he turned in a series of "hypnotically watchable" performances, as Roger Ebert described them, in films like Videodrome (1980) Split Image (1982 ), Against All Odds (1984), Salvador (1986) Best Seller (1987) Cop (1988), and True Believer (1989). He embodied some intangible character of the age, the hyper-intelligent iconoclast swimming against the tide of Reagan's America. Without Woods the 1980s would've been nothing but Tom Cruise and Steve Guttenberg.
As Powell, Woods is a sort of grinning corpse, but one who has studied Dale Carnegie. Rail-thin, unpredictable, convinced of his own genius, he is one of cinema's great villains. As Smith, Seales is a nervous whelp of a man, just as jittery as you'd expect someone to be after too much time with Powell. John Savage, a popular actor on the rise in 1979, is convincing as Hettinger, a cop who loses face. At one point he's having such a meltdown that he slaps his infant daughter, a scene that caused one audience, according to John Simon of the New Republic, to "let out a gasp of human horror." Danson, years away from his role on Cheers, is every bit the clean-cut young policeman, trying to remain calm as Powell pokes a gun into his ribs. Danson is gone after the first half hour, but the impression he leaves is remarkable.
Becker would go on to direct several fine films, many in the crime genre, including Sea of Love (1989). His movies are like sledgehammers, hard and heavy. He'd direct Woods again in The Boost (1988), an underrated movie where a tax investor ruins his life with cocaine. Without drawing much attention to himself, Becker was one of our better directors. If his only film had been The Onion Field, he'd be well worth praising. He turns 90 this year, and probably won't make more movies. But to use one of Powell's words, he was a virtuoso.
Saturday, February 3, 2018
Gary Oldman had a peculiar kind of magic going on when he played Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) He was 29, had been in only a few movies, but had an eerie way of inhabiting a character. He'd portrayed Sid Vicious a year earlier in Sid and Nancy, and followed up by playing Orton, the British playwright who was murdered by his gay lover. Ever since, when I think of either Sid or Orton - and for that matter, Lee Harvey Oswald, played by Oldman in Oliver Stone's JFK -it's Oldman that I see in my mind, rather the actual people. How did he do it?
Prick Up Your Ears isn't as impressive as Sid and Nancy, but it may be more realistic; the earlier film has been criticized in some quarters for playing with the facts of Sid's life, and for glorifying a couple of junkies. As Sid, Oldman was somewhat likeable, a naive bumbler who wasn't bright enough to navigate the world of drugs and punk rock. As Orton, he's diabolically smart and self-possessed. To think of another actor who played such diametrically different characters so early in his career, one might reach back to Dustin Hoffman, going from The Graduate to Midnight Cowboy. There aren't many others.
Orton was one of England's leading young playwrights of the 1960s. His plays (Entertaining Mr. Sloan, Loot, What the Butler Saw) were broad farces laced with menace and occasional violence. Orton's murder - he was beaten to death by Kenneth Halliwell, himself a failed writer who resented Orton's success - was the sort of scandalous climax that might've appeared in one of his own stage works. The story of Orton's life and death is intercut with the story of New Yorker writer John Lahr (Wallace Shawn) doing research for a book on Orton. Lahr spent years trying to tell this story, and was largely responsible for the 1980s resurgence of interest in Orton, which culminated with Prick Up Your Ears.
Director Stephen Frears shot much of the movie in the actual Islington flat shared by Orton and Halliwell, an impossibly small place where two men of outsized personalities were bound to get in each other's way. Halliwell (Alfred Molina), bald as an egg, slumps around like Peter Lorre in Mad Love, his bulging eyes practically wobbling in his head. He had been Orton's mentor in their college days - he was older, smarter, crueler - before they became lovers. Halliwell introduced Orton to literature, gave him the boldness to try writing. Orton, meanwhile, taught Halliwell how to pick up men in public toilets. As Orton's fame grew, Halliwell went from being his mentor to his assistant. Orton, cheeky monkey that he was, relished the changes in status. In public, Halliwell endured one humiliation after another, following Orton about like a faithful servant. He occasionally made reference to helping Orton with his scripts, but was never credited by Orton. Why Orton didn't simply leave Halliwell says a lot, as if some unbreakable bond from their younger days still existed. He should've left; it would've been better than having his skull bashed in by a hammer.
Molina, one of the most underappreciated actors of this era, might be best known for playing Diego Rivera in Frida (2002), or the crazed drug dealer in Boogie Nights (1997). As Halliwell, he's all sneers and self loathing. In a mime class at RADA, he mimes strangling a pussycat, which is what catches Orton's eye and leads to their friendship. Frears allows Molina plenty of room as Halliwell, to where he goes from sinister to vulnerable and back. We believe that he thinks of himself as a superior being, and we also believe he'd be too shy to take part in one of Orton's furtive orgies. He has a stunning bit near the end where he says to Orton, "I don't understand my life. I was an only child. I lost both my parents. By the time I was 20 I was going bald. I'm a homosexual. In the way of circumstances and background I had everything an artist could possibly want. It was practically a blueprint. I was programmed to be a novelist or a playwright. But I'm not and you are!" It's a speech worthy of Saliery in Amadeus. Yet, Hollywood couldn't think of anything to do with this actor but cast him as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004).
I don't know how the attitudes about homosexuality in Prick Up Your Ears would play today. The movie is set in the 1960s and was made in the '80s. Though Orton and Halliwell are living together as a couple, it's all toilet sex and secret hookups under bridges and occasional domestic violence. You can't picture these two in a parade, or exchanging catty remarks with Graham Norton. I remember thinking the movie was quite graphic when I first saw it, with Orton seeming a bit nasty with his Moroccan rent boys and his dim British studs. A recent viewing, however, revealed the movie to be rather matter-of-fact. Homosexuality was a crime in England, and Orton treated it as a crime. Look at the way he unscrews the light bulbs in a railroad lavatory to prepare for a quick romp. He has the stealth and ease of a robber casing a bank.
It's difficult to imagine any other actor besides Oldman playing Orton. Not only is there a physical and facial resemblance, but few actors could manage to be as mercurial as the role would demand. To be Orton, one has to be charismatic, then cocky enough to turn you off, then charming enough to win you back. You believe Oldman as a writer on top of the world, being asked to write a script for no less than The Beatles, slinking away in a limo with Paul McCartney. Then, in a flashback scene, we see a teenage Orton, stammering at an elocution class. How he went from his shy beginning to screwing any bit of rough trade he found in a tunnel took quite a leap; we don't see it, but we believe it. Oldman depicts Orton as a man who simply delighted in his own kinks.
The murder of a minor literary figure may not resonate with an audience, but what makes Prick Up Your Ears fascinating is that it's the story of a doomed romance. It's a bit like Bob Fosse's Star 80, which chronicled the murder of Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratton by her sicko boyfriend. Both films move back and forth in time, both tell the story of a young, talented person who paid a fatal price for outgrowing an older, less talented mentor/lover.
There's also a bit of Sid and Nancy here, where the wrong people get entwined in a contract that can only end in death. There's almost a sense of relief when Halliwell finally kills Orton, so claustrophobic is the narrative. We don't know the exact circumstances, but Frears and screenwriter Alan Bennett concoct a reasonable scenario where Halliwell is angry at being snubbed for what seems the millionth time. He's the ultimate neglected housewife.
Frears, one of our great filmmakers, was already a veteran director in 1987. He sprinkles bits of Hitchcock all over this one, from the bug-eyed neighbor who first discovers Orton's dead body, to the bemused mother-in-law of Lahr who, given the job of deciphering Orton's diary, seems intrigued by the naughty bits. Wallace Shawn is too Wallace Shawny, but the rest of the cast is excellent, especially Vanessa Redgrave as Orton's agent. No other actress has shoulders as wide as a barn door, yet still projects elegance.
Oldman and Molina, the pillars that hold the movie upright, have worked consistently since Prick Up Your Ears. Oldman received an Oscar nomination for his recent turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but has spent most of the recent decade in various Batman and Harry Potter movies. Molina has been doing a lot of voice work for cartoons and video games. I always think there should've been more from these two men. More movies, more awards, more reverence. Maybe I'm wrong. "There's a lot of rubbish talked about acting," Oldman once said, "and it's often propagated by practitioners of it. You just want to say, 'Oh, shut up.'"
So I will.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
Goodbye, Johnny B. Goode
The Stones say farewell to England in 1971
by Don Stradley
"At close range," Robert Greenfield writes of Mick Jagger, "his personality was just as addictive as any of the most powerful drugs known to man." This may be true, but there's little in Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile that supports such a statement. The Jagger described by Greenfield is a moody 28-year-old who is moving into the role of rock royalty as the band embarks on a farewell tour of the U.K. Jagger is like a kid from a wealthy family who knows he can get away with a lot and not have to pay the consequences. His hubris is admirable, for Greenfield's chronicle takes place in the blurry time after the Altamont Speedway disaster, when the Stones are being stomped in the charts by Chicago and Blood Sweat, and Tears, and Keith Richards is beginning his 1970s drug downfall. For those who think Richards is the heart and soul of the Stones, Jagger was ready to dump him for the versatile and ultra-funky session player, Jesse Ed Davis. I can't vouch for the addictive quality of Jagger's personality, but he was definitely a bandleader with whom you couldn't fuck.
Early in Ain't It Time...we're given a description of England in 1971, which was apparently one miserable cold-water flat after another, where "most people feed sixpences into into a coin-operated electric heater mounted on a wall while wearing as many layers of clothing as possible." No wonder the Stones were looking to leave. Greenfield, at the time a new writer at Rolling Stone, talks his way into joining the tour, but he's no Hunter S. Thompson. His approach is wide-eyed neophyte, as he's constantly made to feel unworthy and out of place. Yet, as the band hits such destinations as Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Bristol, he rides the whirlwind. The venues, most of them decrepit music halls, all seem to be leaking; the Stones and crew travel by train and look on with suspicion at Jagger's new bride, Bianca, wondering if she's another Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, Greenfield hides in bathrooms, taking notes.
In many ways it's the typical rock band on tour diary, with Greenfield giving us details about the shows, and the mini-dramas that pop up, most having to do with Keith Richards' being late (or missing). Any amateur psychologist would say Keith was trying to sabotage his career. He was perhaps realizing how much control Jagger was asserting, and possibly feared he might end up booted from the group, ala Brian Jones. That Richards never missed a show is a testament to his love of the music, but that he constantly tested Jagger's patience says something. I doubt he'd ever admit it, but I think he wanted out of the band. The crowds couldn't have been fun for him, either, even in his junked out stupor. Greenfied writes of one London gig that the "super hip and spaced out" audience members "dance only because they think this is what they are supposed to do."
This is Greenfield's third book about the Stones, and it's not entirely successful. The second half is mostly a less than fascinating account of his staying at Richards' mansion in the south of France, trying to get his host to sit still for an interview. This stuff might be good dinner talk, but it's not great reading. The book's first half, however, is near brilliant. It catches the group at the moment just before the likes of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol started turning up backstage. The band was still young enough that Charlie Watts' father saw him off at the train station at the tour's start, but jaded enough that Watts spent most of his time before gigs sitting in hotel lobbies, watching Doctor Who. Watts, not surprisingly, comes off as the Stone one might like to know personally, a gentle, smart chap with impeccable chops. Jagger, too, makes an impression. Less for being, as Greenfield felt, a sort of lascivious, champagne swigging, man of mystery who might smash a window when angry, but as a professional who still takes bad performances to heart, one who no longer listens to Chuck Berry but is still a rocker, expending energies that would destroy most mortals, and still turning up the next night, on time, to do it all again.
Saturday, January 20, 2018
There's a great story in David Bowie A Life, Dylan Jones' recent 500-plus page oral history, where Bowie is on a beach filming the video for "Ashes to Ashes." When a cranky old man wandered into the shot, the producer of the video went raging after him. "Don't you know who that is?" he said, pointing to Bowie. The old man shrugged. "Some cunt in a clown suit." Bowie heard about this and loved it. "That's me," Bowie said. "A cunt in a clown suit." This, I think, would've been a great title for Jones' book. In the past year alone we've had Nixon: The Life, Sam Shepard, A Life, Muhammad Ali, A Life, Lou Reed, A Life, and I'm sure dozens of others with similar titles. Bowie: A Cunt in a Clown Suit would certainly stand out.
Jones tackles the Bowie saga with gusto, interviewing hundreds of people, but there's a problem in the telling. First, Jones is clearly a doe-eyed Bowie fanatic, and second, it seems everybody is basically telling the same story over and over. Yes, I get it. Bowie borrowed or stole bits of this and that from others to create his own sound and image, he had a voracious, galloping intellect, and though he was a drugged out jerk in his younger days, he was a much nicer fellow when he got older. We read much from well-meaning idolaters who describe Bowie as a "tremendous cultural engine," and compare his death to "a hole in the sky." Unfortunately, the people who might have some insights worth hearing - Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Mick Ronson - have long since croaked.
Bowie came from a family of suicides and schizophrenics, wanted to be a rocker from the first time he heard Little Richard, and learned how to schmooze from his father, a public relations man with a prominent British firm. Bowie's mother was aloof, unpredictable; she'd later send letters to newspapers saying how disappointed she was in her son. When Bowie was born, the midwife who delivered him said, "This child has been on Earth before."
In the 1960s Bowie tried on various guises - the jazz guy, the blues geek, the mod, the hippie, the sax player, the mime, the folkie - and existed on the fringes of the London music scene. People suspected he was talented and charismatic, but it took him several years before he had a minor hit with "Space Oddity," and another few years again before the U.K. was swept up in Bowie mania. A 1972 appearance on Britain's Top of the Pops where Bowie sang "Starman" was a galvanizing event for British teens, akin to when us yanks saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. By then, Bowie had morphed into his Ziggy Stardust persona, a gimmick that solidified him as one of the era's leading rock idols.
He appeared in movies, changed his image with almost every album, snorted cocaine until there were holes in his brain, took part in drug-fueled orgies, dabbled in occultism, had some memorable radio hits, and maintained his reputation as an ever-evolving outre performance artist. He made headlines by saying he was bisexual, which no celebrities would cop to in the 1970s, but 20 years later settled down to a fairly normal family life with fashion model Iman. He lived anonymously in New York, and liked it that way. When health problems slowed him in the 2000s, he became a kind of gentleman recluse, spending more time in art galleries than on the rock 'n roll stage. He managed his affairs, accumulated a fortune even as his cachet waned, and endured a series of nasty biographies that depicted him as a cold-hearted, manipulative type trying to outrun a family history of madness. When he died of cancer in 2016, the reaction was astounding, with fans around the world using social media as a kind of wailing wall, giving the impression that a prize was waiting for the person who grieved the most. Perhaps it was guilt over having ignored him for so long.
Jones, an award-winning editor of British GQ magazine and an unabashed Bowie fan, gives us a lot to mull over. There was the time Bowie told Lou Reed to clean up his act, and Reed responded by beating Bowie senseless. There was Angie, Bowie's first wife, who is considered by some to be the villain of the piece, and there was Bowie's old manager, Tony Defries, who reluctantly participated in the book, and then sent Jones a bill for $360,000. There were the musicians Bowie screwed over, and the ones who accepted his shortcomings and were simply glad to know him, put best by guitarist Earl Slick who told Jones, "He wasn't a saint, but I'll miss him a lot."
Then there was the monumental commercial triumph of Let's Dance in 1983, an album Bowie manufactured specifically to be a hit, to get him on MTV, to make up for the money he'd missed out on in previous years. He welcomed the success, wore it rather well for a short time, but the phenomenon seemed to knock him off the rails. He was never the same. Yet, Bowie maintained his status as an icon, as a kind of Internet prophet, and as a performer who inspired people to enjoy a more fluid sexuality, one who mingled rock music with literature, fashion, theater, and art. Martin Scorsese cast him as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ; Nirvana covered "The Man Who Sold The World." There were projects that never came off, like the Ziggy Stardust musical, or an album of Elvis Presley tunes sung by Iggy Pop. There was even talk that Bowie might play the lead in a movie about Fred Astaire. (Fred liked the idea!)
Jones deserves credit for putting his love for Bowie on hold long enough to explore some of the nastier items on the ledger, particularly Bowie's deflowering of a 14-year-old virgin - criminal behavior in the guise of rock debauchery - and Jones doesn't let Bowie slide. Journalist Paul Gorman lambasts those who put Bowie on a pedestal. "This absurd elevation (after his death) needs puncturing," Gorman tells Jones. "He wasn't my cup of tea," Elton John says, describing Bowie as "snooty." The darker aspects of Bowie 's life don't go on for more than a page or two, then it's back to how Bowie, you know, changed the universe by being a sharp dresser.
The book is full of interesting details but there are huge gaps in it, as if Jones ignored anything that wasn't mentioned by the subjects he interviewed. And despite Chris Stein, Courtney Love, and others gushing about how much they love Bowie's music, they don't offer much insight as to why Bowie was so great or ahead of his time.
Jones occasionally stops the narrative to chuck in tidbits about his own encounters with Bowie, which aren't especially revealing or entertaining. Jones gets some good mileage out of Bowie's friendship with John Lennon, but he spends too many pages on Bowie's art collection, his fashionista pals, and the massive Live Aid concert, where Bowie had the misfortune to follow Queen. In the end, David Bowie A Life is uneven, and overlong, but in a good way.
It's interesting how everyone tiptoes around the subject of Bowie's anemic later albums. Jones rightly describes most of them as weak, but in reading this book I came up with my own theory as to why Bowie lost his touch. Pay attention: The first half of the book is filled with reminiscences by Bowie's old chums, musicians, ex-girlfriends, schoolmates, and mentors. It was from this grit that the pearl emerged. The second half of the book is all Kate Moss, Ricky Gervais, Bono, Baz Lurhmann, and museum curators, a decidedly un-gritty bunch who provided Bowie with a lot of celebrity arse-licking. You don't create something like Station to Station while hanging with Tommy Hilfiger.
In a way, I wish the book had been 500 pages of Bowie quotes. He's far more interesting than those whom Jones interviews, especially when knocking out bon mots like, "The rich know how much money they've got, and the wealthy don't."
One's interest in Bowie is usually in direct relation to how boring your life was when you first heard him. I recall vividly how Bowie's music practically lifted me out of my teen doldrums, where the only entertainment in my Massachusetts suburb was church league basketball and listening to my father complain about gas prices. Bowie made me feel smarter, and while Jones is wrong when he declares Bowie was as important as The Beatles - certainly not in my neighborhood - I could hear a bit of myself in some of the people he interviews, one after another saying Bowie had provided them with an escape route from their lives. Did Bowie mean any more to me than Lou Reed or Woody Allen or Jack Nicholson? I'm not sure.
But I'll tell you what. Reading Dylan Jones' book, as bloated and unwieldy as it may be, made me think so.
Saturday, January 13, 2018
Poppy is like a long lost experiment by Andy Warhol. Speaking like an animatronic Edie Sedgwik, offering cryptic messages about infinity, fame, and how it feels to be human, all while ambient music drones behind her like she's the secret love child of Brian Eno, she conjures up memories of the very late '70s, when punk and new wave briefly gave way to synth pop, when Ultravox sang Warhol's old line about wanting to be a machine.
What's Poppy all about? She's not a retro act, but rather, she's carrying on a tradition that goes back to the pop artists of the 1950s and '60s who used advertising and comic books, or whatever was handy, to create commentaries on America. Indeed, one of the videos on her YouTube channel consists of her asking the viewer, "Do you like Doritos? Do you like Monster Energy Drink? Do you like Taco Bell?" Not exactly Robert Rauschenberg blasting off with his images of John F. Kennedy and the space race, but miles above the drivel one usually sees on the Internet. What makes Poppy so interesting is her absolute devotion to her role. She walks a tremulous line: she's just young enough and cute enough to attract YouTube fans, and strange enough to keep them fascinated. "Do you love me?" she asks. "Will you do whatever I say?"
Less than a few years ago she was a generic YouTube singer - Moriah Pereira from Nashville - trying to get noticed. She has since rejected that old identity in favor of her bizarre Poppy personae. Now, in a voice that sounds somewhat like the recorded messages you hear when you dial the local movie theater schedule, she informs us that she loves her fans, loves computers, and loves being famous. After releasing a handful of routine teenybopper anthems, she traveled to Japan to record Poppy.Computer, an effort cited by Rolling Stone as one of the 20 best albums of 2017.
The trick, and it's a smart one, is that no one listening to Poppy is old enough to realize her style is not so new and innovative. Gary Numan was singing about his electric friends 30 years ago, and David Bowie was putting on an alien persona long before that. When Poppy chirps, "I want to be famous so people recognize me in supermarkets," she may as well be one of Warhol's glib transvestites. Of course, the kids in Poppy's audience couldn't care less about geezers from the past, and the podcast people interviewing Poppy aren't aware of anything prior to 2012. But each generation demands its own version of this peculiar, otherworldly character. It used to be Devo, or Klaus Nomi. It could be Nico, or Kraftwerk. It becomes passé rather quickly and vanishes, but always returns.
The time is right for Poppy. With Lady Gaga beginning to look like a Staten Island mob wife, kids looking for an authentically outre character could do a lot worse than Poppy. With her glazed eyes and outlandish wardrobe, she makes most other YouTubers look like unkempt subway buskers playing for dimes. To her small but loyal audience, she's an entirely lovable, adorable, daughter of the Internet come to life. And while Gaga is too ready to weep about the pressures of her career, Poppy treats fame like an ice cream cone.
Sometimes she looks like Alice in Wonderland, if Alice were fascinated by smart phones and Instagram. Instead of the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, she has a talking skeleton and a potted plant for company. Poppy has nightmares, though, which suggests all is not perfect in Poppy's world. She is sometimes menaced by a manikin named Charlotte (a stand-in, no doubt, for the plastic, hostile types in the media), and she refers to a mysterious "they," as if she's under the control of some cult. Her videos occasionally reference the devil; now and then she unexpectedly bleeds from the nose or mouth. Then, as cheerily as a kiddie show host, she'll announce, "I am validated by having your attention," or "I am empowered by creating quality content for the Internet."
Some search for secret messages in her videos, and others want to discover more about Poppy's past, as if they're eager to prove she's not a robot. These intrepid investigators are wasting time, for they should be enjoying her work for what is. Just the way she plays with words in her videos is intriguing; she makes it sound as if she's testing them out for the first time, deciding how to arrange them. ("Do you like this hat I'm wearing? Do you like it? Do you like this hat?") She is as gentle as a haiku, capable of an almost eerie stillness; when she does move, it's the way a girl from space might if she'd studied our habits by watching Japanese music videos. She might dress as a bunny or a vampire, dance with a giant muppet, or spend six minutes lacing her always exotic shoes. She also does a robotic "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Why not?
Today, Poppy is in that precarious position where she'll either have an explosive radio hit, or will stay where she is, floating though the YouTube universe until her act wears thin. There's something wonderful about her, though. Video director and musician Titanic Sinclair may be the architect behind Poppy, but if he is her Pygmalian, he couldn't have asked for a better Galatea. Sinclair had previously tried a similar angle with a YouTube singer named Mars Argo - he also released his own Weezer sounding grunge-pop EP called I Have Teeth - but in Poppy, who is purportedly 23 but looks 14, he's found the perfect cyberspace Barbie princess. Sinclair shoots her in loving style, with lots of pastel blues and beige. She's usually alone, talking directly to the camera in a voice that may or may not be modulated through auto-tune. Sometimes it appears Poppy's words aren't perfectly in sync with her lips, which adds to her ethereal presence.
Like most alien visitors and pop stars, Poppy is a bit of a holy fool. She's so innocent in appearance, yet so uncannily weird, that interviewers tiptoe around her, not wanting to inadvertently upset her. When a recent podcast host asked her dumb questions about sex, she smartly deflected them with childlike answers. It was quite a performance. I almost wish she could've met Johnny Carson. Yet, I can't predict how long she'll last. Bowie dumped the spaceman gimmick after a couple years, and Numan, though still active, had a short shelf life in America. Is Poppy crafty enough to reinvent herself when her current persona is played out? Will her fans grow with her? Is there more to her than weirdness? A previous Poppy project, 3:36, is ambient music designed to help people sleep, which suggests she has more on her mind than, say, the typical American Idol winner.
As for Poppy.Computer, it's a highly listenable hybrid of 1980s MTV era dance music (Think "Walk Like an Egyptian, and "Our Lips Are Sealed") and modern Japanese pop, presented by a young female who claims to have been "created," not born. "Poppy is an object," she sings in "My Style." "Poppy is your best friend." But if she's an object, she's not unfamiliar with romance. In "Computer Boy," which features the album's tastiest hook, she sounds joyous when she sings, "I fell in love with the man of the future/I have a thing for my laptop computer/the only one that brings me joy/is my computer boy."
The best of Poppy, though, may be found in those 40-second videos on her YouTube channel, particularly one called "I Love You So Much," where she lovingly caresses an old television set (or is it a vintage computer?). Squatting next to the monitor in a long dress and what appear to be heavily lacquered red platform shoes that might've been worn by an extra in Cleopatra Jones, her tenderness recalls a prediction by Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, that we would all one day worship machinery. It's not especially groundbreaking, this image of the girl and her beloved TV set, and you'd be right if you said the whole idea is rather heavy-handed and obvious, but Sinclair has such a clear-eyed approach that we forgive his sophomoric ideas. Frame it nicely, use pretty colors, don't take up too much of our time, and you can effectively recycle just about anything. At such moments you realize that, whatever is being rehashed here, Poppy and Sinclair are up to something worthwhile - and no other recording artist has put social media to better use as a whistlestop campaign.