6 Easy Pieces: Everybody's In Movies III (in 3-D)
Abandoned movie palace, Middletown, CT, 1977
There Ain't No Color In My Memories (1963-1999)
The Velvet Underground, New Age.
David Bowie, Cracked Actor.
Lee Perry and The Upsetters, Eastwood Rides Again.
Madness, Michael Caine.
Yo La Tengo, Tom Courtenay (Georgia Version).
Serge Gainsbourg, Initials B.B.
The Go-Betweens, Lee Remick.
The Embarrassment, Elizabeth Montgomery's Face.
Manfred Mann, The Mighty Quinn.
Stephen Malkmus, Jo Jo's Jacket.
Hoodoo Gurus, Gene Hackman.
Bananarama, Robert De Niro's Waiting.
Head of David, Jack Nicholson.
Thee Headcoatees, Jackie Chan Does Kung Fu.
The Old 97s, Rollerskate Skinny.
Neil Young, Motion Pictures.
For this we must seek the answer in decrepit cinemas
whose balconies were walled off decades ago: on the screen
(where, in posh suburbia, a woman waits),
under the seats, in the fuzz and ancient vomit and gum wrappers;
or in the lobby, where yellowing lobby cards announce
the advent of next week's Republic serial--names
of a certain importance once, names that float
in the past, like a drift of gnats on a summer evening...
John Ashbery, "The Phantom Agents."
We fade in on a downtown movie theater, on some lost summer evening in the 1960s. There is an elderly couple, sitting in a row close to the screen, who greatly regret having come tonight. Wearing evening attire, they shift in creaking seats which feel as though someone has sewn bits of gravel and shale into the cushions. The floor is coated with syrup, pocked with gum. There is no one else in the theater but a dozing man, a few teenagers necking in the back row, a pair of thugs carving with penknives into the plastic seat backs, and some disheveled creep who talks to himself and lurches forward in his seat on occasion to squint and flick snotcrumbs at the screen.
The couple tries to stay with the movie, but it's ineptly projected and framed, its colors faded to murk, its reels shown out of sequence, its soundtrack wavering between fuzzy and shrill. Maybe it's Cleopatra, where Richard Burton, as Antony, cracks jokes while he tries to commit suicide, or Doctor Doolittle, in which Rex Harrison seems ready to walk off the screen in embarrassment.
On the screen, the actors are aging dandies, now paired with desperate, flaky women young enough, in some cases, to be their granddaughters. They reenact stories, dreams and passions from their youth, but offered now second-hand, in garish DeLuxe color, with Henry Mancini lounge music soundtracks. The films all seem to be set in the same place: on a decaying downtown street, or in a model home somewhere in the Hollywood Hills that all the characters are trapped in. There is the sense that everyone on the screen is simply waiting to die.
Movies, the Old Law. TV is the New
Wherein the dead who did our phantasies
Have stolen back into the living room
To do their thing again. Boxed in the bad
Resurrections of Hell, in a seamy air
And silver drizzle of shifting shape and shade,
Witnessed without terror and without pity,
Eternal return unrolls itself anew.
Howard Nemerov, "Late Late Show."
In songs about the movies from this era, there is the sense of everything having gone to seed--Steely Dan's "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" (1975) offers, rather than an afternoon at the pictures, a pedophile screening pornographic movies in his apartment. There is Lou Reed's "New Age," where a former starlet is now a fat blonde actress being propositioned by a fan who is far more nostalgic for her past than she is. (From the VU's 1970's Loaded). Or David Bowie's lurid "Cracked Actor" (from 1973's Aladdin Sane), in which an aging rake bangs on about his old movies, while his rent boys fear what he's going to ask for next.
As Hollywood faded, supplanted by television (temple gods dethroned by household gods), the movie stars tried to adapt. There were those who absorbed Method acting, who came to equate performing with endurance contests. They worked to become more "real," they became so desperate to inhabit their characters that they didn't shave, they lived on the street, hung out with convicts; they stuffed or starved themselves and shoved gauze into their cheeks. One perfect anecdote comes in 1976, when Dustin Hoffman, tortured Method extremist, was paired with Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. After Olivier learned that Hoffman, for his role, was jogging four miles a day, had lost 15 pounds, and was demanding to be held underwater for long periods of time (so that he could more accurately depict being tortured), Olivier reportedly told Hoffman, "Why not try acting?"
Even the classic movie star persona--say, that of Jimmy Stewart, who played variations on "Jimmy Stewart" in everything from The Shop Around the Corner to Vertigo--was changing. True, something like this sort of persona could still be found in the latter decades of the past century--with Harrison Ford or Denzel Washington or Tom Hanks, or to a lesser extent with the likes of Travolta or Michael Douglas.
But more and more the actor became identified completely with a particular franchise character; the movie star serving as trademark. So Sylvester Stallone is either Rocky or Rambo--"Stallone" is small beer by comparison; Clint Eastwood is either Dirty Harry or his taciturn Western killer, The Man With No Name. (Lee Perry and the Upsetters loved the latter, making two singles in the early '70s about the character--"Clint Eastwood" and, included here, its sequel, "Eastwood Rides Again," from 1971; on Scratch the Upsetters Again).
The end result was something like U.S.A. Combat Heroes, a magazine that Greil Marcus came across in the mid-'80s. U.S.A. Combat Heroes featured photos of Rambo and Chuck Norris (at his Invasion USA peak) on its cover, adorned with captions like "Chuck Has Killed More Commies and Terrorists Than Any Other American Hero." Marcus recoiled in disgust: No, I said to the magazine, "Chuck Norris" is a fiction, he/it never killed a single "Commie" or terrorist--it was all I could do to stop myself from running into the parking lot and buttonholing other shoppers... All too late.
The era of escapism is over; the era of reality is here...The entertainment industry has a right and duty to depict reality as it is.
Phil Feldman, producer of The Wild Bunch, 1969.
It's the beginning of a new age.
The Velvet Underground, 1970.
The audience, ever dwindling, watched with wariness, boredom and disgust. J. Hoberman's The Dream Life, a look at the '60s through the intersection of film and politics, suggests that by the '60s, people had begun to act as though they were in the movies, while the movies in turn offered a series of oracular predictions about reality, most of which came true.
As Hoberman wrote, The Manchurian Candidate foretells the JFK assassination. Vietnam serves as an "Oriental Western," with John Wayne producing The Green Berets as a promotional film for it. Richard Nixon screens Patton repeatedly in the White House (in April 1970, while he was planning the Cambodian invasion, barely sleeping and drinking heavily, Nixon likely watched Patton over a dozen times, sometimes twice a day, and talked incessantly about how Patton was an inspiration). Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde inspires the Weathermen; Wild In the Streets, released in May 1968, seems to be a dress rehearsal for the Chicago riots of that summer. The Manson Family are a gruesome sequel to Night of the Living Dead (Neil Young, in the voice of Manson in "Revolution Blues," talks about going down to Laurel Canyon to see the movie stars and "kill them in their cars"). Son of Sam, Squeaky Fromme, Mark David Chapman all seem to be acting in some horrific private movie of their own. At last, resolution came in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a legitimate Hollywood actor, became president. It was his greatest role.
The only culture to enlist the imagination and change the character of Americans was the one we had been given by the movies. Therefore a void existed at the center of American life. No movie star had the mind, courage or force to be a national leader, and no national leader had the epic adventurous resonance of a movie star. So the President nominated himself. He would fill the void. He would be the movie star come to life as President.
Norman Mailer, "The Leading Man: a review of JFK: The Man and the Myth," 1967.
Not to say that glamour and dreamstuff, the products of Hollywood since the days of Lillian Gish, were completely out of style. More and more, however, they were imported goods--the brutal, stylish Swedes of Ingmar Bergman's films; the pop icons from the UK, like Michael Caine, Julie Christie and Albert Finney; or France's brilliant generation of Anna Karina, Leaud, Belmondo and Bardot. (A bit later, Hong Kong would offer Bruce Lee (a repackaged American expat) and Jackie Chan--Thee Headcoatees' ode to Chan is on 1999's The Sisters of Suave.)
Yo La Tengo's "Tom Courtenay" is a memory chain, recalling a youth spent enraptured before the television watching the British imagination unfold, from Eleanor Bron in Help! to Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner to Julie Christie in Petulia or Darling or Doctor Zhivago. (The original Yo La Tengo track is on Electr-O-Pura, but the version sung by Georgia Hubley is sweeter and more wistful, offering adolescent filmstar memories as half-glimpsed truths; on Genius + Love.)
Michael Caine, the actor who wouldn't say no to anyone who paid him, was once the epitome of '60s hipness. Madness' song, its lyric a portrait of a jittery informer in Northern Ireland, uses "Michael Caine" as a password, a former identity, an easier state of being.
Caine's vocal clips on the track were made specifically for the song; he allegedly agreed to do it because his daughter was a Madness fan. On 1984's Keep Moving.
The sexpot of the sixties
is allergic to humanity.
'I see no one
I don't go out.
I am disgusted with everything.
Men are beasts.'
Does she sneeze, itch,
break out in a rash,
experience respiratory embarrassment?
As one thing lead to another,
the chain reaction lashes
and links the delicate balance
of metabolism until it goes crazy.
She could have been another Mao
given the right irritant...
Kathleen Wiegner, "Brigitte Bardot: Soured Recluse."
Serge Gainsbourg's "Initials BB" is an ode to Brigitte Bardot, his former lover. It opens with Gainsbourg in London, sitting alone in a pub, when suddenly he is struck by a vision of Bardot as an Amazonian warrior, nude but for a pair of thigh-high boots, some medals and "the mark of slaves upon each finger."
Originally the title track of Gainsbourg's 1968 EP; on Initials SG.
She was in The Omen, with Gregory Peck/she got killed--what the heck?
By contrast, mainstream Hollywood in the '60s and '70s offered actors who were still compelling, still beautiful but who couldn't make the move into legends. Lee Remick, stunning, talented and mysterious, wound up in schlock like The Hallelujah Trail and The Omen, and found some consolation in her television performances. ("Lee Remick" is the first-ever Go-Betweens single, from 1978; on 78 'Til '79.)
Elizabeth Montgomery, a skilled comic actress, would have been groomed for stardom in the '40s by a studio like Paramount or MGM. Born a few decades too late, she wound up playing a witch housewife on television; she became as familiar and as treasured as a favorite comic strip. After Bewitched finally went off the air in 1972, strangers on the street still would ask Montgomery to twitch her nose like her character Samantha did--Montgomery went on to play Lizzie Borden and several victims of violent assaults, likely in a bid to try to kill off Samantha in the public's mind. It didn't work.
The Embarrassment's "Elizabeth Montgomery's Face" was originally released on their self-titled 1981 EP; on Heyday (and iTunes).
It was my greatest role
Head bent down over the guitar,
he barely seemed to hum; ended "all come home";
did not smile; came by air;
did not have to come.
The guitar's an event,
Guests of honor can't dance, don't smile.
"Have a home?" a boy asks. "Shall we live in a tent?"
"In a house," Yul answers. His neat cloth hat
has nothing like the glitter reflected on the face
of milkweed-witch seed-brown dominating a palace
that was nothing like the place
where he is now. His deliberate pace
is a king's, however. "You'll have plenty of space."
Yule--Yul log for the Christmas-fire tale-spinner--
of fairy tales that can come true: Yul Brynner.
Marianne Moore, "Rescue With Yul Brynner." (Inspired by Brynner being appointed special consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 1959.)
Stephen Malkmus' Yul Brynner confessional is on SM's first solo album, from 2001.
When Quinn the Eskimo gets here, everybody's gonna wanna dose
Movies as an endless loop: "The Mighty Quinn," written by Bob Dylan in the summer of 1967 and first recorded with the Band as part of the Basement Tapes, was inspired by Dylan's teenage memories of Anthony Quinn's performance as an Eskimo warrior in 1959's The Savage Innocents. Twenty years later, in New Orleans, Dylan saw a sign for a movie starring the young Denzel Washington:
On the way back to the house I passed the local movie theater on Prytania Street, where The Mighty Quinn was showing. Years earlier I had written a song called "The Mighty Quinn" which was a hit in England, and I wondered what the movie was about. Eventually I'd sneak off and go there to see it. It was a mystery, suspense, Jamaican thriller with Denzel Washington as the Mighty Xavier Quinn, a detective who solves crimes. Funny, that's just the way I imagined him when I wrote the song The Mighty Quinn, Denzel Washington.
Manfred Mann's cover, released in 1968, is on Hit Mann!
Hackman can't remember a time when he didn't want to be an actor. One of his earliest memories of growing up in small-town Danville, Ill., is of seeing actor Jack Oakie in a film at age 5 or 6, a comedy about people crossing the ocean on a ship, eating sumptuous food and drinking wine.
"That's my memory," says Hackman. "It seemed like a life."
"The Scoundrel King," Washington Post, 6 October 1996.
The Hoodoo Gurus' "Gene Hackman" was first released on the 1998 compilation Electric Chair.
In most of De Niro's early performances...there was bravura in his acting. You could feel the actor's excitement shining through the character, and it made him exciting to watch. But, for all his virtuosity, his Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon was lifeless, and his Michael in The Deer Hunter heroic yet never quite human. And then he started turning himself into repugnant, flesh effigies of soulless characters. Rupert [Pupkin] is chunky and thick-nosed, and he has a foul, greasy moustache; is it so De Niro can remove himself further from the character and condescend to him even physically? De Niro cunningly puts in all the stupid little things actors customarily leave out. It's a studied performance; De Niro has learned to be a total fool. Big accomplishment! What De Niro is doing might be based on the Warholian idea that the best parody of a thing is the thing itself.
Pauline Kael, review of The King of Comedy, The New Yorker, 7 March 1983.
He may have played a priest in True Confessions and Sleepers, but that doesn't seem to have earned Robert De Niro any special dispensation from the Vatican.
De Niro was slated to record a CD of Pope John Paul's poems. But now that French authorities have grilled him in connection with a call-girl ring, the invitation has been rescinded.
"These are poems written by the Pope, after all, and it appears that the image we had of De Niro when we made the proposal is far from the truth," says the Rev. Giuseppe Moscati, who is coordinating the project. De Niro was questioned but never charged in the matter.
NY Daily News, 3 March 1998.
"Robert De Niro's Waiting" is on Bananarama's second, self-titled LP, from 1984.
Do you see a link between these new multiplex cinemas with their tiny screens and the banality of the studio film product?
You know, I like the big silver, I really do. The world is going to miss the movie-going experience. I know I still prefer going to a theater that's got a decent screen in it. If you can't see that it's more fun to sit and watch a movie at the Paramount theater in New York than to sit in a bowling alley with this little postage stamp--well, then I can't explain my point. The point is, your life, the moviegoer's life, has been degraded by this thing.
Maybe that's why so many people would rather stay home and watch movies on television.
You know, television is not a support group for the movies; it's a competitive industry that's been devouring the movies like a cancer since I came out here in the Fifties. And I happen to be anachronistically in love with the movies, so I deeply resent the whole video thing...The movies have sold their future so cheap for so long it's almost amateurish to comment on it.
You seem to be saying that the decline of the movies is an index to our descent into some kind of Orwellian nightmare.
It's so clear it's a joke. All you've got to do is drive across America. Go to Kansas City and see old Kansas City down here, and then there's this six-lane highway that goes around it, and you've got plastic light boxes that say Radio Shack and Chicken Bicken and Roller Skate World. That's what America looks like today. I don't like what the light box has done to America at night--turned everybody into a fucking pinball-machine moth. If they had just outlawed these light boxes, the world would simply look bigger...
Do you see your job as simply making quality movies about people's real emotional lives?
I still make the movies I want to make. I'm just talking about--where's the soil for them? Where's the informed intelligence? I'm doing fine. You know, you don't want to see this as so huge that you begin to dysfunction. But I have to whip up a foam in my spirit, or I'll just stop seeing where it's at, too.
Social graces don't come--they're not innate. You learn them, develop them. Once you're past the high-school prom, what you do on your own is what gives your life quality. You have to learn how to dance. You have to learn how to read a book. You have to learn how to appreciate music, to enrich your mind in order to have a conversation.
Jack Nicholson, interviewed by Fred Schruers, Rolling Stone, August 1986.
Head of David's "Jack Nicholson," which is inspired by Nicholson's performance in The Shining, is on 1989's White Elephant.
Seberg on Seberg
They are all dead. These are vestiges
Remaining a little while longer
Of their existence.
Those who were their lovers and mistresses,
Do they want to know about
Such poor travesties?...
Still--something's recorded of them
Though it may not comfort
Any who loved them.
These are the stars, who are assured
Of a re-run when the time is ripe.
But we won't repeat our show...
John Normanton, "Stars In an Oldie."
I saw Matt Dillon in black and white
There ain't no color in my memories.
He rode his brother's old Harley across the TV
While I was laughing at Dom DeLuise.
I've sat through all my old videotapes
I'm crying and I'm joking...
Pete Townshend, "After the Fire."
Neil Young's "Motion Pictures," which charts a waning relationship while the movies, distorted, compressed and cropped, are faintly glowing on the television screen, is on 1974's On the Beach.
Still, while the Hollywood system appears broken, or at least no longer functions on the level it once did, it can still produce all manner of things to play havoc with your dreams.
A confession: I can't write rationally about Winona Ryder, muse and subject of a number of songs (Matthew Sweet's "Winona," Beck's "Lost Cause"(allegedly) and, best of all, the Old 97's' "Rollerskate Skinny" in which Rhett Miller recounts the one date he had with Ryder with a mixture of empathy and despair--on 2001's Satellite Rides). I sadly admit that I was infatuated with my distinguished contemporary (born roughly four months before me, a fact that delighted my sad teenage self) for at least a decade. Some awful film finally broke the spell--probably Autumn in New York--but the woman had me entranced for most of the '90s, and I still have a great reservoir of affection for her. Here's hoping for her comeback.
Everybody's In Movies IV, or One Last Failed Sequel: Making Movies of Themselves (present)
Lindsey Lohan, watching the dailies of her life
Natalie Portman, Gangsta Rap.
Jenny Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat.
Steely Dan, Show Biz Kids.
Are there any movie stars left? Tom Cruise has gone mad, Harrison Ford and Tom Hanks are growing tired and old, Julia Roberts is in semi-retirement. There's still Clooney (who doesn't love Clooney?), maybe Cate Blanchett, maybe Will Smith, who has planned his rise to stardom like a private equity takeover fund (he and his agent surveyed the top ten highest-grossing movies, found they all featured special effects and were typically SF pictures, and so pushed Smith into movies about alien invasions and robots). And there's Angelina Jolie, though she'll probably give up the movies soon to run the UN or live with all of her children in a shoe somewhere.
The grand romance is over, and no one's writing worshipful movie-star odes like "Celluloid Heroes" these days. More and more, today's actors make their own tribute records, whether it's Natalie Portman spoofing her good-girl Harvard-grad image in a Saturday Night Live skit, or former child actress Jenny Lewis, turning the camera on her stage mother for a quiet bit of exorcism (on Rabbit Fur Coat).
We certainly haven't run out of celebrities, however. Steely Dan called it back in 1973, predicting everyone from Paris Hilton to Denise Richards to these awful children in two lines:
Show business kids making movies of themselves
You know they don't give a fuck about anybody else.
As Mookie turns and walks away, Sal goes back into Sal's Famous Pizzeria to salvage what is salvageable, and The Block begins to awake from its slumber, ready to deal once again with the heat of the hottest day of the year.
Spike Lee, end of Do The Right Thing's shooting script.
Credits: The Faber Book of Movie Verse (edited by Philip French and Ken Wlaschin); David Thomson, The Whole Equation and Overexposures; Michael Wood, America In the Movies; Andrew Sarris, You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet; J. Hoberman, The Dream Life; Pauline Kael, I Lost It At the Movies and For Keeps; Greil Marcus, In the Fascist Bathroom; Philip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness; Turner Classic Movies and some 25 misspent years watching too many old movies.