Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: 'Mick Jagger' by Philip Norman

Philip Norman’s biography The Stones first appeared way, way back in 1984. Nearly thirty years later, it’s still one of the better examinations of the definitive Rock & Roll band, but it’s one that requires a good deal of support from other sources. Victor Bockris’s Keith Richards—and to a degree, the guitarist’s own factually questionable Life—are essential in gaining insight into Keef’s unique modus operandi. Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone is an important glimpse into the lot of an eternal sideman in Rock & Roll’s biggest circus, as well as a handy document of facts, figures, and errr, sexual conquests. Elliott’s Complete Recording Sessions and Karnbach and Bernson’s It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll are important references about the band’s work, even though the two books’ details often clash. Meanwhile, you’ll find no better history of Mick and Keith’s 1967 bust than Simon Wells’s Butterfly on a Wheel.

Maybe someday we’ll really get a complete, accurate, all-inclusive book about The Rolling Stones (assuming such a tome wouldn’t be so massive that perusing it would guarantee hernia). Until then, we’ll just have to keep piecing their story together from multiple sources. Decades after he published The Stones, Philip Norman has now provided another important piece in the band’s biographical jigsaw puzzle. Mick Jagger is a 600-page study of that most high-profile yet oddly private Stone.

As Norman delights in reminding us, Mick’s autobiography is among the most sought-after items in the publishing world. However, the singer’s own declared abhorrence of “rummag[ing] through [his] past” means that slot in the puzzle will forever remain empty. Norman’s book suggests that Mick’s reluctance does not merely hinge on the fact that such rummaging would have to touch on the least savory chapters in an infamous life: his ongoing, generation-spanning womanizing; his need to question the paternity of some of the kids he sired, no matter how big their lips may be; his stinginess. Granddaddy Lucifer would probably be just as embarrassed by the details that contradict the nasty image he’s been cultivating for fifty years: his stealth philanthropy and his insecurity and his tendency to take nearly as much abuse from the women in his life as he is known to dole out.

Mick Jagger naturally covers a lot of the same territory as The Stones, so it is not an ideal supplement for the less obsessed fan who has already read the earlier book. Norman makes some errors (Paul McCartney starred in The Rutles? Bill Wyman didn’t receive credit for “In Another Land” on the first edition of Satanic Majesties? My copy of the record says otherwise) that may call into question the credibility of his grander assertions. Some of his writing quirks get tiresome real fast, such as his insistence on spelling Jagger’s lyrics phonetically (“Ah was bawn in a crawss-fire hurr’cayne…”), his overly labored analogy between manager Andrew Oldham/Jagger and Svengali/Trilby, and his incessant, tasteless references to the “Mars Bar” myth. The little space Norman devotes to Mick’s music is often tainted by baffling misinterpretation (“Satisfaction” is about masturbation and menstruation? The phrase “get off of my cloud” means “look but don’t touch”? Funny, I always thought it meant “fuck off”) or harping criticism (I could have done without the constant declarations of how awful he thinks Satanic Majesties is).

Mick Jagger has its issues, but there’s enough information on its pages to fascinate fans, and perhaps, even force the Jagger-adverse to rethink him a bit: his kindness to Keith’s son Marlon, his charitable work alongside Bianca in Nicaragua, his tendency to get slapped around more often than Pete Campbell from “Mad Men”. Jagger isn’t all good, but he ain’t all bad either: in his own words, he’s “very complicated.” While the Stones-devoted keep chasing the definitive story of their favorite band, another piece of the puzzle falls into place.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: 'Horror Films of the 1980s'

John Kenneth Muir took an ambitious chomp out of horror history with Horror Films of the 1980s. His 2007 book surveys more than 325 films released during the Reagan/Bush years, tying almost every one into the broader context of that scary, conservative era. Overall, Muir’s reviews are intelligent, well written, and historically astute, which makes it hard to take him to task for some of his opinions. This guy is very forgiving and very, very fast and loose with his four star ratings, which may please horror devotees who get annoyed with critics who crap on their favorite films. For the most part, he does make strong arguments for his opinions. While I would never rank Night of the Comet as a better movie than An American Werewolf in London, Muir analyzes both films clearly enough that I understand why he does.

 Yet there is the occasional disconnect between his star ratings and his analyses. His four-star write-up of Fatal Attraction briefly prefaces the film as “brilliant” before launching into an extended finger-wagging session aimed at its “shameful” and “despicable” agenda. We get no sense of what is allegedly “brilliant” about this movie aside from its ability to manipulate the audience, which may make for a brilliant con man but not necessarily a brilliant film. Perhaps Muir based his star ratings on his uncritical enjoyment of the films while saving his more impartial insights for the reviews. It’s a little confusing though.

There are some strange entry choices too— this is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple studied as a horror film—but when you’ve read enough about horror, you come to realize how subjective its definition can be. Like any critical collection, Horror Films of the 1980s is ultimately subjective despite instances like the Fatal Attraction entry discussed above, but Muir balances that nicely by including other perspectives of these films. Each entry is introduced with a selection of period review excerpts and new ones written by his fellow critics and horror fanatics. The juxtapositions can be really fascinating, as when an assortment of terrible and glowing reviews lead into the entry on The Shining. Today it’s easy to forget that this classic—and its creator, Stanley Kubrick—were not always universally revered. It’s also easy to forget that Reagan— that pioneer of contemporary extreme conservatism— swelled the federal government, the number of American’s living in poverty, and the national debt, as Muir reminds us. Often, Horror Films of the 1980s is just as valuable as a history lesson as it is an appraisal of horror movies, and it’s praiseworthy for that reason too. In fact, it might be a good book to buy for kids who can’t stomach cracking that social studies text.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Track by Track: 'Something Else by The Kinks'

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, I’ve been taking a close look at albums of the classic, underrated, and flawed variety, and assessing them Track by Track.

Welcome to Daviesland, a kurious little nook of England where The Kinks secreted themselves some two years after being unofficially banned from touring the United States. Since that unfortunate event, in which Ray socked an insult-spewing musician’s union representative, the boys enjoyed a steady string of top ten hits in their homeland, but only managed to sneak into the U.S. top twenty twice with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon”. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review: 'Produced by George Martin'

A good documentary not only tells its subject’s tale but also reflects that subject’s nature. Charming, homey, witty, and pastorally English, Produced by George Martin is impeccably toned. Francis Hanly’s 2011 BBC doc about the fellow who masterminded almost everything The Beatles ever recorded is like a leisurely flip through the Martin family album or afternoon tea with friends such as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Michael Palin. Martin and his associates chat about a career that can only be described as spectacular in casual, borderline elegiac fashion. The effect is completely intimate, though moments are undeniably splashy, because after all these years, odd vintage footage is still being uncovered. How can that be possible when dealing with such an over-analyzed period? Yet, there it is, funny footage of The Beatles frolicking with their Madame Tussauds wax figures way back in 1964. Even more exciting is a scene capturing Cilla Black recording her mighty version of “Anyone Without a Heart” with Burt Bacharach conducting.

But let’s not stray too far off our subject, no matter how humble he may be. Even in the shadow of an entity as massive as The Beatles, George Martin remains the focus throughout the film, and he discusses his work, his innovations, his family, his hearing loss, and his dwindling years with grace and humor. He wanted to be “Rachmaninoff II” but had to settle for being the most famous and revered record producer on Earth. Not a bad backup gig.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cult Club: ‘The Baby’ (1973)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.
According to John Waters, the only sexual peccadillo that disturbs the man who made a 300-pound transvestite eat dog shit is the adult baby. Apparently, there are folks who get off on donning giant Pampers, tossing tantrums in over-sized cribs, and dribbling Pablum down their stubbly chins. To each his or her own, says I.

Call me sheltered, but my only exposure to adult babies was in Waters’s most recent film, 2004’s A Dirty Shame (2004? Get cracking on a follow up, Johnny!). Perhaps that’s why I expected The Baby to be super campy, Waters-style. It isn’t, and its straight-faced delivery makes a really twisted film that much crazier.

Our adult baby is named, rather unimaginatively, Baby, and he’s played by David Mooney (with the vocal talents of an actual rug rat). Mooney was a good-looking man in his early twenties when he made this film. That he doesn’t look like Officer Alvin— the big-boned, elderly adult baby Alan J. Wendl played in A Dirty Shame— is an early tip-off that The Baby isn’t mining laughs.

And unlike Officer Alvin, Baby doesn’t act like a baby because it gets his diaper going; his horrible, horrible mother and sisters have forced him into perpetual infancy through negative reinforcement. When Baby tries to walk, sadistic sis Alba (Susanne Zenor) zaps him with an electric cattle prod. Yet, Baby is sexualized by horny sis Germaine (Marianna Hill), who mounts him in his crib in a scene that may be more disturbing because it cuts away before we see any of the incestuous action. No, that’s not true. Showing it probably would have been more disturbing. The sisters’ horrible behavior is down to the horrible parenting of their horrible mother (retro T.V. regular Ruth Roman), who so resented Baby’s father leaving her that she decided to force their baby to remain a baby.

Enter Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), one of several child-protection social workers dispatched to the Wadsworth home to yank Baby into long-overdue adolescence. Ann is determined to get the job done even though previous social workers didn’t have much luck with the kid. In fact, they all mysteriously disappeared just as they were on the verge of making progress with him. What could possibly be the explanation for their disappearances? What, I ask you? What?

Turns out, one of the reasons Ann is so adamant about the Baby case is that she is in her own state of arrested development since her husband was killed (or “hurt”, as she tells a jackass at Baby’s birthday orgy) in a car accident. Ann now lives with her mother-in-law (Beatrice Manley) and spends her nights watching old home movies of happy times with hubby and weeping, “It should have been me.” Perhaps helping Baby out of his seriously dysfunctional household will help her bounce back from despair.

For most of its 85 minutes, The Baby is really hard to assess. The premise is wack-a-doo ten fold. No doubt about it. But the rather excellent acting from the totally committed cast and the moody direction by seasoned T.V. director Ted Post (who helmed “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”, one of the best episodes in the sketchy final season of “The Twilight Zone”) kind of rule out the possibility that it’s a bad movie. Still, it’s hard to peg as a good movie, because the raw ingredients—a twenty-something man crawling around and cooing like a six-month old, the elder Wadsworths’ hard-to-swallow motivations, Ann’s increasingly strange behavior, a baby-sitter who gets a little too into Baby’s urge to breastfeed, Germaine’s massive hairdo —seem to sound the “bad movie” alarm. The Baby doesn’t divulge its true quality until its final reel, which reveals a completely unexpected twist that is— no exaggeration— brilliant. These final moments make sense of the particularly crazy turns the film had taken in the preceding scene.

Although Wikipedia classifies The Baby as a “Cult classic,” the first I ever heard of it was in the watch instantly section of Netflix. I’m not aware of there ever being midnight showings of the film in which attendees came dressed in their best onesies and shot breast milk at the screen whenever Baby feels peckish. But if there’s a film crying out for a cult—or at least renewed interest—it’s this obscurity. Just be sure to wear your burp cloth.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Monsterology: The Assistant

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

The mark of a truly imposing villain is the ability to bend the wills of others to do his or her bidding. Like some malevolent dictator or string-pulling cult leader, the arch-villain hovers in the shadows while some hunched minion carries out the grunt work. By nature, the assistant is never the most important stock horror character. He or she is often eliminated early in the story, sacrificed as symbol of a monster so evil that it is willing to decimate its own team. The assistant provides black-comic relief when any such bumbling might cast the main monster in a less than threatening light. Essential? Perhaps not. Quirky? When the assistant is at his, her, or its best, absolutely, resulting in some of the most memorable second-stringers in horror cinema.

Unlike so many horror movie archetypes, the assistant does not have a strong predecessor on the page. In Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein worked solo. In both literary and film incarnations, Dr. Jekyll never hung a “For Hire” sign outside his lab. Our closest literary forerunner of the assistant is R.M. Renfield. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the zoophagous maniac is much more limited than he would be on screen. In a novel sprawling with characters, Renfield is a relatively minor one, only mentioned on twelve dates of its epistolary pages. As an inmate in Dr. Seward’s asylum, Renfield’s main plot function is to invite Count Dracula into the building so he can get his fangs on Mina (as film adaptations sometimes forget, Dracula can’t just go anywhere he pleases). Thematically, he mostly serves as a comic reflection of the dead-somber Count, eating the small lives of bugs and spiders while his master sups on more substantial fare. His naked escapes into the night parody Dracula’s less absurd nocturnal, erotically tinged escapades. Mina’s visit in Renfield’s cell inverts Dracula’s intrusions into her bedroom. Dracula enters Mina’s room to impose his evil on her, to possess her. When Mina enters Renfield’s, she has the opposite effect, seemingly making him saner, more coherent, a better person more concerned with her safety than worshipping his master. By imploring her to free herself from Dracula’s thrall, Renfield earns himself a fatal thrashing from the vampire.

Renfield underwent significant alterations in the first feature adaptation of Dracula. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, he has been renamed Knock in keeping with other such attempts to wriggle around Florence Stoker’s copyright claims. Instead of beginning the story as an asylum inmate, he is Thomas Hutter’s (our Jonathan Harker stand-in) boss, who deploys him to Count Orlok’s (Dracula’s) castle.
Garrett Fort put his own spin on this revised Renfield in his screenplay for Universal’s 1931 film, changing the character forever. Harker’s visit to Castle Dracula is handed over to Renfield completely, leaving our protagonist with a drastically reduced role and our secondary antagonist with a vastly expanded one. Played by David Manners, Harker is a bland, background figure in Tod Browning’s film. Dwight Frye’s Renfield commands the screen every time he appears. He exudes personality even before Dracula impels him toward madness (Stoker’s Renfield was already mad and institutionalized when the Count took him into his employ). Frye plays the sane Renfield with a magnetic blend of terror (how his eyes widen when he sees that rubber bat flapping over the carriage!) and amiability (his joyful declaration that the “very old wine” is “delicious!” is delightfully sincere when set against the Count’s weirdness). Considering how vacant most of the cast is, Renfield is the character we’d most like to know in Dracula. That also means he is the most tragic figure. Dracula’s treatment of Renfield is painful to watch, from his mesmerized madness to his murder.
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