Thursday, May 26, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: THE FIGHTING FRENCHMAN...


REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT
Scott LeDoux fell harder than any of them
by Don Stradley


If there was ever a defining moment in Scott Ledoux’s career, it may have happened in the sixth round of his 1980 bout with WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. LeDoux, trapped in a corner and taking punches, suddenly let fly with his right hand. It was a sweet shot, the best he’d thrown all night. It was just enough to alert the crowd in Bloomington Minnesota that their hometown contender, an ill-fated warrior who had been promoted by Don King as some kind of boxing lumberjack, was returning fire. Holmes, always susceptible to the right hand, wobbled like a man who had stepped in a pothole. LeDoux winged another, but this time Holmes moved in with a right uppercut that had some thumb on it. LeDoux fell to his knees, pawing at his eye. When referee Davey Pearl stopped the fight in the next round, the vanquished LeDoux waved his arms in protest, complaining that he’d been thumbed. That was LeDoux’s life in microcosm – just as he was getting started, he caught one in the eyeball.

“I don’t feel like a loser,” LeDoux said, reciting his unofficial mantra. “A loser is beaten, and I wasn’t beaten.” 

And so it went throughout LeDoux’s career. LeDoux lost the big fights, and a lot of close decisions went the other way. Add to this his wife Sandy’s 10-year battle with cancer that lead to her early death. There was also the child with epilepsy, and LeDoux’ alcohol intake, and the way he pissed through money, and the way promoters used and abused him, and then his own death at 62 from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the once mighty LeDoux spending his final years unable to tie his shoes or feed himself. Because of these unrelenting hardships, Paul Levy’s The Fighting Frenchman, a chronicle of LeDeoux’s life, is at times unbearable. LeDoux was boxing’s Job, constantly tested.

My favorite LeDoux line came when he was a commentator for ESPN. The talk had turned to punch stats, and LeDoux argued that left jabs shouldn’t be considered less important than a right cross. When he lost patience, he growled at some faceless stat counter. “Let me hit you with a left jab,” he said. “When you wake up, I’ll hit you with a right hand. Then you can compare.” It was a good line, not mentioned in Levy’s book, but there are plenty of others here, for LeDoux had a quick mouth, even between rounds. Once, after George Foreman spent three minutes lighting him up, LeDoux asked his trainer, “Is my forehead still in the front of my face?”

Levy’s book assures us, once again, that even the most ordinary lives harbor deep, unpleasant secrets. The wisecracking LeDoux had been born into a rough Minnesota family of drinkers and brawlers, and as a boy he’d been sexually molested by a local creep. LeDoux kept the encounter to himself for decades, though his inner turmoil manifested in other ways, namely a drinking problem, temper tantrums, and a masochistic fighting style. He carried his hands so low that he was essentially begging opponents to hit him. “I’m like concrete,” LeDoux often said, but anyone who presents himself as indestructible is usually hiding something; some hurts keep on hurting.

The Fighting Frenchman is filled with details about LeDoux’s jumpy psyche – the hysterical crying jags that came after losing bouts, the anger that saw LeDoux try to kick an opponent in the head after a bad decision (and inadvertently knock Howard Cosell’s wig off), and his occasional dips into race baiting, particularly before the Holmes bout. PC types of today would simply tag LeDoux a bigot, but he was too complex to dismiss with a kneejerk label. He was, Levy writes, “an emotional brute.”

There are some high points in the book, including LeDoux’ loving marriage to Sandy, and what was probably his greatest moment as a fighter, the 10-round draw with Ken Norton that ended with Norton dangling over the top rope, saved by the bell, one punch away from obliteration. But draws don’t get you a victory parade, and the book lacks any moment of triumph. (Even the Norton bout had the LeDoux stamp of hard luck on it – a woman in his hometown drove her Volkswagen into a pole that held the main artery for the local cable-TV hookup,  destroying anyone’s chances of seeing LeDoux’s shining hour, unless they had the old-fashioned antennae and caught a few shadowy images.)

At what may have been his lowest ebb, a 42-year-old LeDoux was hired as a sparring partner for Mike Tyson. According to Levy, the padding had been removed from Tyson’s gloves, which resulted in LeDoux’s face being torn apart. “You could feel his fist,” LeDoux told Levy. LeDoux never blamed Tyson for boxing with altered gloves, maintaining that Tyson was a good man who had helped him when he needed money.

But how Tyson ended up with rigged gloves is a mystery in itself. The sparring session took place after Tyson’s loss to Buster Douglas, so maybe Tyson was trying to restore his reputation, putting sparring partners through more pain so the word would spread that Tyson was hitting harder than ever. Tyson was also an avowed admirer of old-time fighters who sometimes fought with rigged gloves. Perhaps he’d wanted to be Kid McCoy for a day, to see what sort of damage he could inflict. The incident shines a new light on something that happened years later, when Tyson enlisted Panama Lewis to work in his camp. Lewis, of course, was the disgraced trainer who lost his license in the 1980s after being found guilty of glove tampering. Levy doesn’t investigate the incident, content with LeDoux’s belief that the stuffing had been removed by Tyson’s trainer, Rich Giachetti. Tyson, LeDoux insisted, “wouldn’t have done a thing like that. He didn’t need to anyway.”

Letting the episode at Tyson’s camp go unexamined is one of many problems with Levy’s book. Though he spent 35 years at the Minnesota Tribune and has written for many reputable magazines, Levy’s style is clunky, undramatic. His fight descriptions are bland, as if he’s hurrying through them to get to more of LeDoux’s tragedies. He milks some suspense out of LeDoux’ eventual encounter with his childhood molester, and he successfully depicts LeDoux as a shambling hulk battling a lifetime of insecurities, but it’s as if Levy decided early on that LeDoux’s story was best painted in big, melancholy strokes. LeDoux comes off as a slug, crawling from one terrible moment to the next. That he eventually devoted his time to local politics and charity events doesn’t provide much uplift. (Even the acknowledgments are a downer, as Levy reveals that his own wife died during the writing of the book.)

To Levy’s credit, there’s no overplaying of LeDoux’s ability, no suggestion that he could’ve been a champion had things been different. Levy doesn’t hide LeDoux’s crusty side, either. When certain people remember LeDoux as cocky and disagreeable, Levy gives them their say, including Holmes, who remembered LeDoux as an “asshole.”

LeDoux’s final years, when he was confined to a wheelchair and oxygen tank, are given the usual flourishes, as his Minnesota fans rallied to help him pay his ever-growing medical bills. Yet, Levy seems to revel in the misfortune that comes to fighters, especially LeDoux’s former opponents, like Duane Bobick, who nearly lost his arms in a factory mishap, and Greg Page, strangled to death with his head stuck in the bars of his hospital bed. 

Then again, what is a boxing story without the grim stuff? Levy wants the ugly side of boxing in bold relief to offset LeDoux the flawed everyman. “His fans adored him,” writes Levy near the end, “because they thought he was one of them.” But this is too grandiose, as the previous 200-plus pages made abundantly clear, because it trivializes the rock-bottom gloom of Levy’s subject; it makes pretty the very lightning bolts of misery that would, save for sturdy souls like LeDoux, destroy us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: UNDER THE BIG BLACK SUN...




THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES
New book recalls the early days of LA punk
by Don Stradley





The early LA punk scene was gone before we knew it -- a thorny hybrid of glam rock leftovers and undisciplined garage band energy, a seedy kid with an Eddie Cochran haircut wandering streets awash in the decrepit glamor of old Hollywood, where you might find yourself slam dancing at the Whiskey one night and sharing a joint with Tony Curtis the next -- without leaving much of a footprint. Maybe we should know more about this particular time and place, and learn how a scene emerged that made room for women, for Mexicans, for gays, and was versatile enough to spawn bands ranging from X to The Go-Go’s. Granted, the only LA bands I saw from this era were The Blasters and The Gun Club, and seeing them at Boston’s Paradise club rather than their home turf seemed to diminish the experience. It was also a mistake to have local icons Scruffy The Cat and Mission of Burma as their respective opening acts. But Under the Big Black Sun: a personal history of LA Punk arrives poised to remind us that something incendiary happened in LA between 1976 and 1982, something that fights to be remembered now.

Early in Big Black Sun we’re told by Exene Cervenka that the LA of ’76 created “a vortex, a vacuum, an underground scene so secret and so beautiful, it was hard to be believe it was happening.” While super famous bands like The Eagles snailed by in limousines, punk kids made their own clothes and lived in roach infested squalor. But it was this very gulf that seemed to energize the young bands. The book, written by John Doe of X with a dozen or so others, hits this same note repeatedly, until these do it yourself mavericks begin to sound vaguely self-righteous, wearing their misfit labels like merit badges, until the whole thing feels like a Spinal Tappish spoof of retirement age punks yearning for the days when high living meant having an apartment behind a porn shop.

It’s also the usual rock ‘n’ roll tale, and no one walks hand in hand with their past like a punk rocker. Every album purchased or new band discovered is treated like a historic milestone, particularly by the male contributors. The females write mostly about their shabby living conditions, and tease out a bit of sexy stuff, including some playful lesbian hookups, but not much else. The most surprising thing about Big Black Sun  is its tameness. The performers approach their chapters with an unexpected courtliness, as if they’re saving the juicy stuff for each other, or perhaps their own memoirs. Doe does a fair job capturing the frenzied force of X, and Henry Rollins is his usual articulate self in describing the toxic atmosphere of the times. Still, the chapters feel sketchy, more like raw material that a better writer could’ve picked through to create a more insightful book. I guess Doe’s punk ethos is still at work – it’s better to do it yourself than allow someone else to tell your story. Another surprise is that the contributing journalists and industry people try too hard to sound “punk” and come off like hero worshipping rubes. A&R man Tom DeSavia is the worst offender, embarrassing himself with lines like, “This Nixon guy was fucking up a lot of shit,” as if playing illiterate will give him more credibility in the company of his idols.

X was a critical darling – those Chuck Berry riffs played over tales of LA street life sounded mighty good to those afraid that punk had played itself out – and Doe probably feels somewhat bullet proof when helming a book like this one. To give the devil his due, I prefer this book to the dreary X documentary,  The Unheard Music, which was too precious and cute for my blood. But for a project that is trying to create a mythos around LA punk as if it were the lost city of Atlantis, the book feels slight. We get only fleeting impressions of The Screamers and The Germs and The Weirdoes, and we wonder what they were like at their best, and we get a few sections about the Chicano influence on the LA sound, and it’s funny when El Vez laments that a Mexican’s black hair doesn’t look right when dyed red, and those who overdosed on drugs or died in car crashes get their proper respects, and Mike Watt still gets choked up thinking about D. Boone, and the women from The Go-Go’s still seem awed by their own accomplishments. Cervenka again: “Nothing quite like LA punk had ever existed or would ever again. We won.”

What they won, exactly, is unclear, unless it was simply the right to exist, make some noise, and then vanish. True, there was a lightning in a bottle vibe to the time - it’s doubtful you could take 500 other latch key kids, turn them loose in a major city, and get anything like the LA scene of the late seventies. But what can you say about a “movement” when it was so easily crushed by a bunch of cretins from Orange County who wanted it all louder and crazier? Suddenly the women, the Mexicans, and the gays were gone, X couldn’t get airplay, and the whole scene crumbled faster than it had risen. The Go-Go's, despite their well-known infighting, found some success and longevity. Their contemporaries, however, for all of their rebel posturing and lip service, weren't built to last.
 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: DEVIANT



GIVE THE MAN A HAND
The sad, strange life of Ed Gein still shocks…
By Don Stradley




He was the village oddball, the geezer who might make a few bucks shoveling snow or mending a fence. He’d also spent many years breaking into the cemeteries of Plainfield, Wisconsin and bringing dead bodies home. The surprise was that Eddie Gein, regarded by most of his neighbors as a simpleton, got away with his crimes for so long. Of course, we know that Gein would provide inspiration for dozens of horror movies, including Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We may also know that the discovery of human remains in his derelict farmhouse shocked the country in 1957, earning several weeks of newspaper headlines and a six page spread in Life. He was judged insane and spent the remainder of his years getting fat on state hospital food and polishing stones for costume jewelry. Not surprisingly, the earnest folks of Plainfield didn’t feel this was a just punishment, not for a man who’d raided the graves of their loved ones, and had once made a soup bowl out of a woman’s skull.

When the Gein story broke, America was under the sway of two trends – the Pop Psychology movement, where every suburban housewife and quiz show panelist spewed cheap mental health bromides like cut-rate Freuds, and the “sick humor” born in high school parking lots. The latter brought about some pretty good “Geiners” (“Why did they let Ed Gein out of jail on New Year’s Eve?” “So he could dig up a date!”)  and the former resulted in the stone belief that poor Eddie never stood a chance, not with that ball-busting mother of his. Motherhood took a beating when we learned about Augusta Gein, Eddie’s crazily religious, sexually repressed, man-hating mom. With her overbearing personality, she kept Eddie isolated and in a state of arrested development, to the point where he seemed childlike well into his 50s. Once Augusta had died and Eddie was alone on the old farm, he gradually shut himself off from the rest of Plainfield. He spent many lonely nights reading stories about Ilse Koch, the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” who used the skin of concentration camp victims as lampshades and book bindings. Gein’s interest in Nazi atrocities mingled with his fascination with Christine Jorgensen, America’s first well-known sex-change recipient. An interest in voodoo led Gein to believe he could will the dead back to life. 

The Gein case was like a magnet, attracting such ghoulish but untrue extras as cannibalism and necrophagic sex. It wasn’t enough that he was stealing dead bodies and mutilating them, or that he was a suspect in several murders  – the public and press wanted him to eat the corpses and fuck them. If there’s an underlying message in Harold Schechter’s Deviant (originally published in 1989, now available as an audio book from Blackstone Audio), it’s that the masses crave people like Gein, if only to wallow in the weirdness. Gein also showed that America gets the right bogeyman at the right time. What better way to show the dark side of small-town life than to have the windswept plains of Wisconsin haunted by a grave robber with a mommy complex?

Schechter is to American murderers what Bert Sugar was to boxers, or what Bob Costas is to the New York Yankees. He’s written several books about mass killers, and tells their stories without being overtly academic or judgmental. I like him best when he writes with a nod toward to the lurid pulps of the past: “Gein’s house looked grim even in broad daylight. On a frozen winter’s night, with icicles hanging from the porch roof and dead clumps of weeds poking up through the snow, its desolation was so extreme that even a brave man could be spooked by the sight of it. It was hard to believe that anything human could make a home in such a place.” Schechter also succeeds in helping us understand Gein’s unfathomable psyche (“…a schizophrenic personality isn’t so much split as shattered…”) and even attempts to explain something as brutal as necrophilia, devoting a section to some peculiar lads in the 1800s who may not have been as deranged as Gein, but were every bit as nasty. 

There are no heroes in the book. The cops aren’t especially bright, while the people of Plainfield seem provincial and slightly thick; in hopes of distracting the locals from the Gein case, the postmaster proposed a commemorative stamp praising the prairie chicken. As often happens in a book like Deviant, the only character who stands out is its star. Few could match a fellow who, following the death of his mother, “tried to slake his unbearable loneliness by seeking companionship in the community of the dead.”

Whether, as Schechter suggests, Gein killed more people than he admitted, or robbed more graves, I neither know nor care. What has stayed with me after reading Deviant is that the Gein farm was without electricity. Augusta, you see, was too frugal to indulge in such a frivolous expense. Hence, Eddie spent much of his life in darkness, or by candlelight, or oil lamps. It was also intriguing to learn that, along with hoarding bags of noses and other body parts, Gein had a stash of musical instruments in his home, including a violin and a harmonica. There’s no reason to think he could actually play these instruments, but I like to imagine that, when he wasn’t fondling human bones, he’d pull down one of those dusty harmonicas and give it a blast.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

WAITING FOR HOCKNEY (2008)...



The Julie Checkoway documentary Waiting for Hockney (2008, now on Tubitv) concerns the adventures of Billy Pappas, an illustrator with more chutzpah than is probably healthy for one person. A man who by his own admission is pushing 40 and looks more like a bartender than an artist, Pappas was deemed “special” at an early age by parents who, from what we see in the movie,  wouldn’t know “special” if it left a stain on the front lawn of their home in Choptank, Maryland. 

When he was in his late twenties, a directionless and uninspired Pappas met architect Larry Link, a self-described “life coach” who not only encouraged Pappas to pursue his art, but provided him with a small monthly stipend to keep him working. The result, nearly a decade later, was a highly detailed pencil sketch of Marilyn Monroe. Pappas and his band of believers felt the drawing would revolutionize the art world, especially if they could achieve Pappas’ pipe dream: he wants show his Marilyn to David Hockney, the famous and wealthy British artist who, they assumed, would bless the piece and magically grant Pappas entry into the world of big time art. Pappas’ mix of idiocy and fearlessness reminded me of Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro’s inept comedian from The King of Comedy, the guy who sat in his mom’s basement talking to cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli, hoping to get the rub from Jerry Lewis.  

Waiting for Hockney does nothing to make us think Pappas is a great artist. He talks a load about the impact he wants to have, how he wants his work to stop traffic. He also, only half-kiddingly I suspect, compares himself to Michelangelo and Rembrandt. In the same breath, Pappas admits that he doesn’t know much about art history. He knows one thing – a simple illustrator’s job isn’t good enough for him. Later, when his mother offers an emotional monologue about how her son is a good boy and that his artwork is a way for God to help him do good, we understand where Pappas’ lack of humility comes from. 

The movie documents human gullibility. No one is more gullible than those who believe their own hype, which Pappas is certainly guilty of, but the group of acolytes around Pappas is just as astonishing. Link is a shameless ham, mugging for the camera and declaring that Pappas’ Marilyn will launch the next major art movement. I only wish he’d had a handlebar mustache so he could twirl it. Dr. Gary Vikan, who at the time was director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, offers to be Pappas’ manager. A prep school president jumps on the bandwagon, as does a woman whose role seems to be making travel arrangements. Lawrence Weschler, art critic for The New Yorker, offers encouragement, too. Not even Rembrandt had such a big posse. What are these people thinking? Are they all as naïve as Pappas? 

Checkoway gives us plenty of footage of Papas as a kid, living a typical Maryland childhood in the 1980s. The averageness of Pappas and his kin practically drips from the screen. That there wasn’t an ounce of culture in the household is apparent when his father Jim says, “You always hope your son becomes a doctor or a lawyer -  someone who makes a contribution to society.” As if artists don’t.  Yet, Ma and Pa Pappas  indulge their son, even as he’s still living at home in his thirties, slipping around the house in his Aerosmith T-shirt. They, too, have bought into the hype. With little else of interest to focus on (the family’s parochialism becomes grating rather quickly), Checkoway perks up her movie with footage of Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, Monroe’s effervescence only draws attention to the flatness of Pappas and company.

And then the miracle: Hockney, who must have more time on his hands than anyone realized, finally invites Pappas to Los Angeles for lunch. This is when the movie gets tasty, as Pappas and his entourage make their way west, Marilyn safe in a big wooden case. Pappas’ mother can’t make the trip, so as a gift for Mr. Hockney, a name she’d never heard before her son became obsessed with him, she prepares a poppy seed cake. Then we see her at her receptionist job, working herself into a nervous mess waiting to hear from her son. Is she hoping Billy is a success just so the big lug will finally get out of the house?

One of the interesting things about Waiting for Hockney is that Pappas isn’t an easy guy to root for. He’s a meathead. At no time in the movie does he say anything about loving art – he only wants to be rich and famous. It’s almost a joy to watch him unravel as the meeting draws near. He begins to worry and doubt himself. L.A. is a culture shock. (“Wow, people wear their sunglasses indoors!”) Fortunately, Hockney is polite and surprisingly patient, allowing Pappas and his crew into his home for something like five hours, where the drawing is examined and poppy seed cake is served. But you can probably guess the end result. Guys like Billy Pappas don’t just crash into the world of high stakes art. Whether they should or not is a good question for another documentary.

Checkoway smartly keeps Marilyn from our view until nearly the end of the movie. It was based on Richard Avedon’s famous photo of Monroe, allegedly dismissed by Hockney as “that fucking photograph.”  When we finally see Pappas’ drawing, we’re not sure what to think. Pappas’ style might be called “super-hyper extreme realism,” in that he fusses over every strand of hair, every wrinkle, every eyelash and mole. Despite his laborious attention to detail, the drawing is lifeless. It has the same forlorn, dead look as those rubber fuck dolls manufactured in Japan for lonely businessmen.

It’s never exactly clear how Checkoway wants us to see Pappas. Perhaps we’re supposed to cheer for this working class guy as he attempts to break the barriers of a very snobbish and self-contained field. He’s like one of those earnest club fighters who gets a shot at the heavyweight champion. But I couldn’t help but be repulsed by his small town arrogance. According to his website, he’s still hoping someone famous will offer him a commission for a  portrait. It says, “We remember Lorenzo Di Medici today, not because of his life as a banker in Florence but because he commissioned Michelangelo. Whoever commissions my next portrait will enter the future and enter history.”  The website includes a small gallery –since Marilyn, Pappas has drawn a frog, a rabbit, and some sea shells. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

DARLING...


When a moviemaker takes on the oldest of horror film clichés – the young woman alone in the creepy house – he’s either planning to do something new and spectacular with it, or he’s just  lazy. After watching Mickey Keating’s Darling, I’m now convinced that a director can be both innovative and a dullard. There’s nothing wrong with recycling a formula – I’d guess that Hollywood has been doing it since at least 1915 (and whoever thought that pirate movies would make a comeback?) – but despite some radiant cinematography and peculiar lighting effects, Keating doesn't do much that is new with Darling. Most shameful of all, he ends it on a predictable note that might have been yanked from an old episode of Night Gallery.  

Keating, who undoubtedly has some style and talent, exemplifies a problem with many new directors.  He and cinematographer Mac Fisken shoot some delicious scenes, using a grim black and white to create some haunting cityscapes – Manhattan hasn’t looked so sinister since Rosemary’s Baby -  and Keating is ambitious enough to throw a curve into the story (the movie about a single woman in a spooky location dissolves into a movie about an isolated figure’s “descent into madness,” one genre shading easily into the other)  but he can't tell a story and hasn’t created any compelling characters. The young woman known as Darling (Lauren Ashley Carter) who comes to housesit for a woman known as Madam (played with snooty flair by Sean Young) is a stick figure created so Keating can play with her, and have her “go crazy,” because to a young moviemaker, “going crazy” is really all you need.

Poor Darling. She’s one of those unfortunate young women who seems to attract bad stuff into her life. When we meet her she’s suffered some serious personal and financial setbacks and hopes Madam will let her stay at her old Brownstone. But once she gets the gig, Madam's home starts to spook her. It’s traditional stuff – unexplained noises, locked doors to mysterious rooms – and she walks around the place the way that actresses do. I don’t think she was actually clutching a candle while she walked up a flight of stairs, but I remember her doing it that way, like frightened women have always done in horror movies. As Giona Ostinelli’s chilling score plays, Keating focuses on items around the estate - pieces of furniture, jewelry boxes– trying to give these objects portentous weight. Yet, we don’t wonder what we’d do in Darling’s situation. Instead, we wonder what people in other scary movies have done.

Madam had warned Darling that something terrible had happened to the previous caretaker, and Darling senses that something nasty lurks behind a locked door at the end of a hallway. But guess what? We never find out what's behind the door. You see, halfway through the movie Darling goes to a bar and meets a guy, a likeable lug played by Brian Morvant. She’s seen him around town and has been spying on him. You’d think she was busy enough in her eerie mansion, but no. After a sort of anxiety attack in the ladies’ room, she brings him home. He recognizes the place, and tells about the horrific things that have happened there. And then we’re off the old dark house scenario and into a splatter flick, complete with bathtub dismemberment.

There’s something hokey and sophomoric about the gory scene that comes next. Keating probably conceived it as the film’s centerpiece, and was undoubtedly quite proud of himself for fooling the audience – they thought they were getting a quiet, moody horror flick, and now it’s a violent bloodbath. But even the Grand Guignol scene feels like artsy fluff. Carter, who served as a producer on the film and must enjoy appearing in horror movies (she’s been in several), climbs into the tub with her victim, almost gets crushed under his weight, and then spends several minutes cutting him into pieces. Then we see her wiping blood from the crime scene, and wrapping up her victim’s body parts in little plastic bags. She’s a gamer, that’s for sure. A minor, uninteresting plot twist follows the murder, but it doesn't lift the movie out of its second act lethargy. Strange that the more blood is shed, the duller this thing gets. Keating’s signature lighting effect, which looks like someone is flicking the on/off switch of a fluorescent light to create a strobe effect, becomes monotonous. He could’ve saved on the budget by instructing viewers to blink their eyes quickly when Carter came on screen.

Carter reminds me of Wendy Malick, though much smaller, as if a scientist had tried to clone Malick and left something out. Carter’s not a bad actress, but there’s nothing for her to do in the movie, aside from looking scared, crying a bit, and stabbing the shit out of a guy. She’s not  playing a person, just acting out a bunch of stylized horror movie poses: shy and awkward; frightened; vengeful; and on and on. You don’t realize how mannered she is until Morvant arrives. He acts in a more naturalistic style, and I wish he’d been a bigger part of the story. As for Sean Young, she apparently prepared for her role by watching a bunch of old Eve Arden movies.

Darling has a nightmare after the murder, and it’s probably the best scene in the movie. But even at a modest 78 minutes, Darling begins to feel sluggish. By the the movie’s second half, I was yearning for the first half, which hadn’t been anything special, but it looked great. Manhattan at night, its lonely, lifeless buildings looking like neglected relics left over from antiquity, seemed like it had a story to tell. I wish someone had told it.


 

Monday, May 2, 2016

BORN TO BE BLUE...


Born to Be Blue Movie Review

Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue is about the love between a man and his trumpet, and all the pain that such a love may bring. The trumpet itself, which belongs to notorious jazzman Chet Baker,  looks like a shining brass demon. At various times we see a tarantula crawling out of it, blood pouring out of it, and of course, an awful amount of spit dripping from it. There are so many close-ups of the horn’s opening that it begins to feel like the ominous shower head in Psycho. We see dozens of scenes of Baker, played with ratty charm by Ethan Hawke, alone with his trumpet: in a bathtub, laying on the floor, sitting on top of a van, on a beach, on a porch, cradling it, loving it, communing with it. Baker was a junkie, but even shooting heroin was just a way to “get inside the notes.” A girlfriend tells him at one point to make love to her more slowly, “like you’re playing me,” but she doesn’t realize there can be only one instrument in his life.  Later, when Baker asks the woman to marry him, he offers her his trumpet’s valve ring to wear around her neck, as if proposing a union between man, woman, and horn. Unfortunately, Budreau keeps Baker clueless as to why such devotion brings such sorrow – it’s because a trumpet doesn’t love you back. 

Budreau, who shoots the movie as if he’s hoping to create a line of Chet Baker post cards, is less interested in the psychology of his characters than in how to make them look iconic. If he appreciates jazz, it’s the jazz of 1950s magazine layouts and hoary myth, the jazz created by photographers, not musicians. We know we’re in trouble during an early scene set in 1954, when Baker is introduced as “the James Dean of jazz.”  The glitch is that Dean’s first film wouldn’t be out for another year, and such an introduction would be meaningless. Things get worse when Budreau tells some of the Chet Baker story in flashback, via a film within the film, where Baker is playing himself in his own bio pic. Then we watch Baker strike up a relationship with an actress from the movie within the movie. Are you getting this? The kids might call it meta, but it’s more like a moron saw a couple of old Godard movies and bought a camera for Christmas. 

The biographical aspect of the movie takes a beating. It’s another project where the moviemaker plays with the facts, and riffs on the legend.  A “reimagining,” if you will. Early on, Baker and his new sweetheart are out for a stroll – he’s taken her bowling, and tried to entice her with some dirty talk – when he’s assaulted by some thugs. They beat the hell out of him, cracking him in the mouth with the butt end of a pistol. They are supposedly old drug contacts – he’s tried  to clean up his act, but as we all know, it’s hard to escape the past, especially when you owe a lot of money to heroin dealers – though in reality (remember reality?) Baker often claimed that he battled his assailants for several minutes, until they finally got the best of him. Here, they just jump him and knock his teeth out. Blurring things even more, his new girlfriend, played by the lovely Carmen Ejogo, witnesses the whole bloody event. In real life, there were no witnesses. But Budreau wants someone in Baker’s life to help him get over this ugly incident, and serve as an inspiration as he mounts his long, slow comeback. 

Playing Baker would appeal to any actor. He’s the sort of character who can look cool as hell, but is, deep down, a very messy human. Hawke plays Baker as a sort of wounded kid, unsure of himself, comfortable only with his trumpet. At times he even starts to look like Baker, especially from a distance (at other times, strangely enough, he resembles Mickey Rourke). He affects Baker’s high voice and vulnerability, and is especially brilliant in the scenes that deal with Baker’s traumatized mouth. As he struggles to play through his shattered gums and lips, we half expect his head to explode. Even a kissing scene with Ejogo looks painful, as if his lips can’t take it. The real Baker, from what I know, was a bit of a snake, a manipulator who used people in the way that junkies do. We don’t really get this side of him in Born to Be Blue. This Baker is a bumbler, a guy who lives to get high and play music. Budreau may have stripped Baker of his nastier side, but the Baker we get is, if nothing else, worthy of our sympathy.  What’s interesting is that Baker’s comeback, which shows him gigging for pennies in a pizza joint before returning to the stage at Birdland, is supposed to be inspirational in a Rocky III sort of way. The result, though, is more sad than rousing. When Baker sings ‘I’ve Never Been In Love Before,’ in the film’s climax, it’s heartrending, not because he’s made it back, but because he’s  back to what he’d been before: a jazz junkie who lives in a daydream with his horn.

Hawke has a nice chemistry with Ejogo, and considering that most of her scenes involve wiping blood off the guy, she’s got star quality to burn. As far as fictionalized lovers go, Ejogo is a good choice. All she’d have to do is flutter her big brown eyes or show some leg, and most men would master the trumpet, even if their dentures were falling out.  Hawke and Ejogo can almost make you forget that so much of the movie feels arbitrary, like Baker’s visit to the Oklahoma farm where he grew up. The scenes between Baker and his dad (Stephen McHattie) feel stiff and stagey, like they were inserted just to show that Baker didn’t have a warm childhood. Tony Nappo plays Baker’s probation officer,  to no great effect. In a scene where Baker tells him off, Nappo says, “I thought that went rather well,” which sounds like a line from Friends, not a 1960s encounter between cop and junkie. A scene where Baker meets his girlfriend’s parents feels forced, added, I imagine, so Baker could get angry and tell someone to “fuck off.” 

The music industry people are like cardboard cutouts, placed strategically throughout the movie so Baker has even more obstacles to run up against. Kedar Brown plays Miles Davis as Gollum in a Nehru jacket, scowling in the shadows of Birdland, while Kevin Hanchard plays Dizzie Gillespie as the good cop to Davis’ bad cop. After a while, they both seem like those celebrity lookalikes who appear at shopping malls. Davis seems irritated by Baker, mocking him as “the great white hope,” mocking his little girl fans, and telling him to go back to the beach and come back when he’s done some living.  The suggestion here is that Davis’ scorn is what sent Baker into his downward cycle, which is a dinky idea to hang a movie on. At the time, Baker was actually more popular than Davis and should’ve told him to take his advice and shove it. But Budreau wants to depict Baker as a mousy character, coming alive only through his music.

The music itself has been an issue with some viewers, since Baker’s recordings aren’t used in the film. The soundtrack is by the David Braid Quartet, with Hawke’s vocal on a few numbers. The music in the film approximates the Baker sound, though it feels muted and lacks life;  you can’t imagine that anyone ever flipped for it. Hawke’s singing is a surprise, though. He doesn’t sound much like Baker, but there’s an emotional ache in his voice that comes through.  

In all, there’s more to like than dislike about Born To Be Blue. Though some of the film was shot in Los Angeles, Budreau and cinematographer Steve Cosens did most of their work in Ontario, Canada and in a movie studio in Hamsphire, England, somehow recreating California and New York of the 1960s. Set decorator David LeBrun and art director Joel Richardson produce some gems, especially the backroom at Birdland. Even if the movie doesn’t always sound right, it sure as hell looks right. 

I recently wrote about Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s excellent documentary about Baker from 1988. That’s probably where Hawke and Budreau got a lot of their ideas, and it made me hyper aware of Hawke’s every move. In some ways, he’s too big boned and healthy to be playing such a wasted character. When he stands onstage, his legs are slightly parted, his shoulders hunched, like he’s in a combat stance, too rigid for West Coast jazz. So, no, Hawke doesn’t turn in a perfect imitation of Baker. But he’s perfectly convincing as a man in pain.