Monday, February 22, 2010

Sucker-punched and bitch-slapped all at once

So I sit down with MPC1 to watch Testament - a made-for-TV movie from 1983 that actually got theatrical release because the studio heads liked it so much - and was devastated. (She was moved, but OK. Certainly not as messed up as I was.)

Here's the deal: I thought it was an apocalyptic movie with a HAPPY ending, based on my misreading of this little exchange on Roger Ebert's Answer Man:
Q. Re the reader who asked if there was ever a positive movie about post-Apocalyptic America: the people seemed to behave fairly decently towards each other in "Testament." I am pretty certain that there are others along these lines but none are coming to mind. I'd have said "The Bed-Sitting Room" but that was England.
Peter Sobcynski, Chicago

A. "Testament" remains one of the best American independent films. It blew me away at Telluride. America after the Bomb.

Note the finer point made by Mr. Sobcynski is that the people in the film "behave fairly decently towards each other" in response to the query if there was ever a "positive movie about post-Apocalyptic America." I missed this distinction entirely.

Well, SPOILER ALERT, nearly everyone dies. In particular, the main character loses her husband in the initial attack - he never comes home - and she goes through two of her three children dying from radiation poisoning, one of them being a kindergartener. And we get to go through it with her. END SPOILER.

This is a solid crimson bummer of a movie. Dear God on a Ritz cracker.

As I have often mentioned here, I assiduously avoid any "entertainment" where children are in harm's way or die. Especially little children. "Entertainments" EXACTLY LIKE this movie. Dammit anyway.

Is it a good movie, you ask? Well, yes it is. And, for once, the dated-ness of a movie actually works in favor of it. The ending monologue is especially affecting. The last thing the mom says to the remaining children (they pick up a boy with Down's Syndrome after his father dies), is that they should remember this time and, assuming there are better times, "to deserve the children." Beautiful.

Too bad most people will be sobbing so hard, or actively chambering a bullet to put through their skull, that they won't be able to HEAR the line. Did I mention this movie is a downer?

I remember in the 80s living with the very real fear that the bombs could drop at any moment. (Remember that lyric from Donald Fagan song New Frontier: "In case the Reds decide to push the button down"?) There were a few times when I half expected to turn on the news and hear that it was happening. Most of my buddies and I had "Hiroshima" nightmares where the bombs dropped, we saw the mushroom clouds, and we could see the shadow images of people burned against the wall from the blast; that's how detailed the nightmares were. We've found out since then that we came really close to that reality at least once. (In a weird case of synchronicity, this close call happened the same year Testament came out.)

So, back in the day, this was very much on everyone's mind. Had I seen Testament then (and who knows, I may have), I would've thought it was an awesome movie. But after having kids, most of us can't brook tykes getting snuffed in entertainment, even if it is pretend.

I sometimes wonder if in addition to adult content warning stickers and ratings we should have some sort of indication of children in peril. I certainly would appreciate it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Standing Close to Andy Summers

As promised, here's my report on One Train Later by Andy Summers.

Copeland's book is still the best of the lot, but this really was a fun read, too.

For instance, I love this part about having money.
Having money, one realizes after a while, is very nice, but you need to develop a razor-edged awareness if you want to hang onto it. There is a large number of thieves disguised as angels out there who can't wait to relieve you of your burden. They slip under your door, confront you in dark hallways, slighter through the letter box, whisper in tones of silk, infiltrate your life with the stealth of a cell quietly dividing. The water has fangs, and the only way to make it to land is by keeping your head up and thinking about the next song.

- One Train Later by Andy Summers, pp. 313.

The title refers to the couple days they were discussing dropping their current guitarist and going with Andy. (Andy said he would not join the band if the other guitarist stayed, which was what Sting and Stewart wanted, but Andy knew he couldn't blend with the other guy's style.) Stewart and Andy happened to disembark from the same London train, laughed at the coincidence, then went for coffee where the deal was sealed. So, had either been on one train later, there would've been no Police.

One surprising bit of trivia was two-fold: Summers was Neil Sedaka's guitarist for a while. Yes, Mr. Every Breath You Take made his daily bread for a while by playing "Calendar Girl" and "Laughter in the Rain." The second surprise is that Sedaka is one of the American artists who's more popular in Britain than he is here.

My favorite section of the book is excerpted below. It's about how Summers did the guitar part to "Every Breath You Take" in one take and other ephemera about the recording of the album.
The linchpin of Synchronicity is a song called "Every Breath You Take." When Sting first plays us his demo, it sounds not unlike the group Yes with a huge rolling synthesizer part. It needs work, needs the stripped-down guitar and drums treatment, bur it has something. More obvious than some of Sting's material, it has a classic pop song chord sequence with a dramatic C section bur it needs clarity. This song is the one that gets the most argument. Sting and Stewart go on endlessly about the drums and bass -- how they should underpin the vocal -- but after a couple of weeks we get a track down with just bass and drums and a token vocal to give us some perspective.

Feeling slightly numb, we sit on the couch at a creative standstill. Sting leans over and says, "Go on, go in there, make it your own." This is either a beautiful example of trust between partners or is tantamount to being told to jump off a cliff, prove you're a man , or walk the gang plank. But there she is, a nice naked track, waiting to be ruined or trimmed with gold by yours truly. "Right," I say, "right," and heave my bum up off the deep plush and toward the direction of the big room. In the engulfing loneliness of the empty studio I am hyperaware that everyone is watching and listening. This will be the naked truth.

I pick up my Strat and stare out across the gloom. It's a simple chord sequence and shouldn't prove a problem, depending on one's imagination, inspiration, and context. What are the criteria? It should sound like the Police -- big, brutal barre chords won't do, too vulgar; it has to be something that says Police but doesn't get in the way of the vocals; it should exist as music in its own right, universal but with just a hint of irony, be recognized the world over, possibly be picked up by a rapper as the guitar lick to hang a thirty-million-copy song on in eleven years or so. "Yeah, okay," "roll it, " I say. The track rolls and I play a sequence of intervals that outline the chords and add a nifty little extension to each one that makes it sound like the Police, root, fifth, second, third, up and down through each chord. It is clean, succinct, immediately identifiable; it has just enough of the signature sound of el Policia. I play it straight through in one take. There is a brief silence, and then everyone in the control room stands up and cheers. It is an emotional and triumphant moment, and it will take us to number one in America.

With this lick I realize a dream that maybe I have cherished since first picking up the guitar as a teenager -- to at least once in my life make something that would go around the world, create a lick that guitarists everywhere would play, be number one in America, be heard at weddings, bar mitzvahs, births, funerals, be adapted into the repertoire of brass bands in the north of England, and make my mum and dad proud. Do you ever really get beyond them? Maybe not and maybe this is where the story should fade out, with me standing there, grinning like an idiot, feeling like a hero and just happy to have pleased.


Laying down the guitar part for "Every Breath You Take" clears the air and increases the chances that we have a hit album. Whether it will reach number one is not a certainty, but we all hope for it. From Montserrat we return once again to Le Studio in Canada to mix the album. Generally we let Hugh Padgham prepare the mixes to a point, and then we come into the control room to fine-tune the mix ourselves. But I receive a nasty shock when sitting down to hear the mix of "Every Breath." The thick creamy Strat sound I had in Montserrat has been reduced to a thin over-reverbed whine. I become extremely upset and tell Hugh to go back immediately to the rough mix from Montserrat, check the sound, and get it back. Luckily, we still have the rough mixes. It takes a couple of days, but we get the guitar sounding almost as good as the rough mix. But to my mind, it is not quite the same. The track is almost stillborn, but it has a future to fulfill.


We struggle on through the mixing and end the sessions with a ridiculous scene in which we toss a coin to see which tracks will go onto the album. Will Stewart and I get our songs on? Is it fair to let the whole album be only Sting's songs? Miles valiantly tries to hold some sort of democracy together so some of us don't go away feeling pissed off and alienated. What will the final sequence be? I finally solve that one by suggesting that maybe we put all the softer songs on one side and the up-tempo stuff on the other. Sting likes this idea, and thus it is ordained.

- One Train Later by Andy Summers, pp. 323-325.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Thanks, but, ah, no....

So most of the "best of" lists for the last decade have Synecdoche, New York in there somewhere. And, hey!, it was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, whose movies I have loved so far, and it stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman, an actor I really dig (perhaps the only one besides DeNiro and Pacino who can play an icky character as well as an awesome one and have you believe both).

Well, it started off with a lot of promise. It was note-perfect for the start of a busy day with kids and the kind of conversations you have. I love being a parent, and would still choose to be one (though I'd've started earlier so I could have more), but if I'd known how many conversations I've have about poop, it might've given me the briefest pause.

Anyway, then things started getting darker and darker, and I just don't have the time or patience to sit through an utter bummer anymore. Just don't care to. At this age, there is enough to worry about and feel bad about where I don't need to invite more in through entertainment. Leave the (realistic) tragedy for the young, the worry-free, the perpetually buoyant.

Though it was one of my favorite movies, I simply couldn't tolerate Sophie's Choice at this age. Yes, I would miss a great story had I not seen it when I had the stomach for it, but in the grand scheme of things, it would've been a small loss.

And I say "(realistic)" because I still dig myself some adventure / sci-fi tragedy stuff. (Thinking of a couple of events in Avatar and my fave movie of all time John Carpenter's The Thing.) The once-removed reality renders the bitter pill nothing but a placebo.

Anyway anyway, when the Phillip Seymour Hoffman starts digging in his own poop and announces he has blood in his stool, I hit fast-forward. This is a trick I use with novels that have just put me off and made me wonder if I should bail. I skip forward in the story and see if anything intrigues; if it does, I back up and pick it up. I could pretty much glean the plot of the movie by watching it at 16x normal speed, and I'm SOOOOO glad I bailed. I could tell it was pretty much a work of genius, like all of Kaufman's works are, but it truly did continue in a death spiral. Literally.

Glad I missed it.

In other "not for me" entertainment news, I finally got ahold of Bob Dylan's Christmas album - Christmas in the Heart - and by the third song I was overtaken by the giggles.

Dear Lord it's a horror.

Now constant readers will know I love Bob Dylan. I was one of those who in my younger years could NOT understand how the guy had any sort of career at all, let alone the fame and adulation he has. Well, a fateful listen of Blood on the Tracks after a recent and rending breakup ripped the scales from my eyes, and since I've been a diehard.

That does not mean, though, that I'm not unaware of Mr. Dylan's challenges as a vocalist. Sometimes he's the perfect voice for the song (believe it or not), other times - like a Christmas album for instance - it's just painful.

If you're looking for a new comedy album or something that'll clear the party at 2:00 AM, this is your disc. Otherwise, get a copy of Blood on the Tracks, if you've never had the pleasure.