Music

No more Elvis sightings

I saw Lisa Marine Presley died the other day.  It was all over the supermarket tabloids.  I don't generally pay attention to the news, sot that's where I get most of my pop culture information.

Seeing the pictures of her with her father reminded me how pervasive Elvis Presley once was in American culture.  Almost every month a tabloid would report an "Elvis sighting" because of course the King of Rock 'n Roll wasn't dead, he was merely in hiding.  Like James Dean, he's supposed to have faked his death to escape the pressure of celebrity.

I never understood that line of logic - celebrity status isn't a lifetime entitlement.  It has to be constantly shored up, and that's what generally makes famous people succumb to drugs and depression.  If you want to stop being a celebrity, stop doing anything.  There are lots of celebrities who did just that and no one talks about them.  Heck, Olivia de Havilland lived for decades in obscurity and was one of those people about which it was said:  "She's still alive?!  Amazing."

Not to digress, but James Dean would easily have vanished.  His whole persona was that of an alienated youth, and without that, I'm not sure what he would have brought to the table.  Yes, I'm sure the long slow retreat into either "Where are they now?" or "famous for being famous" would have been annoying, but it takes a lot less effort than faking one's death. 

I'm reminded here of Dirk Benedict, who achieved considerable notoriety in the 80s as the One True Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica and then starred in the A-Team.   Having made his money, he retired, surfacing briefly to denounce the feminization of his old character.

The point is that just quitting show business is pretty easy.  There's always some new face for the press to fixate upon.

Anyway, not only have the Elvis sightings stopped, but I couldn't remember the last time I heard his music.  The "oldies" stations these days rarely go back into the 1960s.  When they do, it's to play songs recognizable through commercial licensing.  Even "classic rock" formats ignore the King, which is weird because I should think his rock is about as classic as it gets. 

My life only briefly overlapped his, but I know his music well because it was pervasive throughout the 80s.  Indeed, one of the strange games memory plays on us is that we often associate music with events that happened years after its release because while a given song may have peaked in one year, it may well enjoy heavy airplay for many years afterwards.

In putting together playlists based on decades, I've found that the change of a calendar is pretty meaningless, and that well into (for example) the 80s, 70s music was getting plenty of use. 

(As a sidebar, there's also the issue that music is continually evolving, which is why 1981 sounded very different than 1985 or 1989.)

Anyhow, it's strange how something that was once pervasive can vanish entirely.


The fascinating gender lessons of Tootsie

My foray into 80s entertainment continues, and I have to say that while I had been putting off watching Tootsie, it is a pretty funny (and insightful) film.

Like all good movies, there are several layers of humor involved.  The core of the plot is an unemployed (and unemployable) actor (Dustin Hoffman) who decides to audition as a woman to get a job on a daytime drama.  It works, and his character becomes a national sensation and feminist icon.

Lots of social commentary going on here, and while there tons of gender-bending gags, there's some amusing meta-humor as well. 

It should be said at the outset that Hoffman's character is a straight male.  He aggressively likes women and when in his female guise, his reaction to men who try to kiss or fondle him is instinctive and pitiless, which of course makes it even funnier.  The reason why he is perfect for the role is that Dustin Hoffman can only play Dustin Hoffman, and all his roles are about him playing that role. 

This film turns that weakness into a strength, and we get to see the ultimate method actor take on his most demanding role.  This is in many ways the forerunner of the role Robert Downey, Jr. took in Tropic Thunder.

In addition to showcasing (once again) the vapidity of the entertainment industry, Tootsie also examines male-female relationships from both sides.   I didn't realize Bill Murray was in the film, but he is outstanding as Hoffman's flatmate, who is just watching all this nonsense unfold.  It's an usually subdued role for Murray, but he nails it.

In the present age, this film couldn't be made, or Hoffman's character would be gay, but this is yet again a refreshing reminder that Hollywood once produced funny and interesting films.

I remember it being released, that there was a lot of talk about it, and I also recall the signature song in the soundtrack getting lots of airplay.  That's another thing we no longer see - hit songs coming from movies. 


When "Grease" was the word

Over the weekend I decided to re-watch Grease with my daughter.  She had never seen it, and got a big kick out of it.

Truth be told, the music still holds up.  It's a great soundtrack.

It's also sort of meta-meta at this point, since we're now looking back 40 years ago to how they saw things 60 years ago.

Heavy.

At the time, it put something of a raunchy spin on the Leave it to Beaver era, but part of that was 1970s affectation - an assumption that things were just as loose then as they were later, it was just that people hid it better.

From an even greater distance, it's shocking how far we've slid from those halcyon days.  At this point, 1978 would be a massive improvement over where we are, and I'd love to live in a country that shared that moral framework. 

Indeed, the shocking thing is how restrictive 70s morality was compared to today's bizarre hierarchy.

It's very much worth a watch and the late Olivia Newton-John is amazing.   Truly a unique talent and I don't think there's a comparable female vocalist active today.


Where did all the fun go?

As I bounce around enjoying various vintage movies and TV shows, I can't help but notice an ingredient that seems sorely missing on modern entertainment.

Fun.

The old shows didn't always have much in the way of storylines, tropes were common (indeed, that's where they came from) and continuity was often downright abysmal.

But it was entertaining, and you enjoyed your time with it.  I think a lot of episodic TV worked that way despite whatever shortcomings there were in the show.  I'm not the first one to observe that TV actors were more approachable than those in movies because you saw them at home rather than in a room with a bunch of strangers where they towered over your, larger than life.

The first two seasons of Miami Vice were great not because they were realistic or developed the characters, they were great because they were fun - the music, the look, the characters - all of it got you in a good mood and you looked forward to that mood again.

Most current entertainment is aimed at "educating" (i.e. hectoring) the audience, lecturing them on how they should behave.  Characters are chosen based on wokeness points, not actual charm or relatability. 

Indeed, there's a whole subtext that conventionally affable, pleasant-looking people are bad. 

Maybe part of the problem is that the writers are writing what they know - they are miserable people, so they pour that into their shows.  They have body anxiety, so they write characters who either are filled with self-loathing or get constant unearned praise (Mary Sue).

Whatever the reason, I haven't seen a show in years that would make me want to watch network TV.


Are you paranoid enough? The Odessa File

My latest vintage film purchase is John Voight's The Odessa File, which is a well-crafted tale about Nazis hiding in plain sight during the 1960s.

The titular "Odessa" is actually an acronym for veterans of the SS who managed to keep a low profile after the initial war crimes trials and used their wartime connections to achieve positions of power and influence.

Voight is an idealistic journalist who pursues a seemingly pointless story through the usual wilderness of mirrors. 

The film itself was made in the 1970s but set ten years earlier, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's soundtrack carries a number of precursors to his score for Evita.  It's based on a book and is not entirely fiction -  certain elements in the story are historically accurate. 

The upshot is that in a time when there's even less reason to trust government than in 1974, it's fascinating that this genre hasn't made more of a comeback.

One thing I'll say for Voight - he actually does a good job of being German.  I'm not talking about the accent, I mean the facial expressions and mannerisms.  Germans are not a particularly vivacious people - they don't get all animated like Italians talking with their hands.  Voight places his role well, by which I mean he frowns a lot, which is something Germans do.  Dated?  Sure, but quite enjoyable.


Returning to the stadium

After a three-year hiatus, tomorrow I will join the remaining alumni and once more take the field in Spartan Stadium.

The reunion of 2019, so soon after my near-death experience, brought me profound spiritual healing.  I do not know how tomorrow will go, but I look forward to see the old sights and play the old songs once more.

Tradition is a powerful force in culture.  As Americans, we are less rooted than other societies, but we still feel its pull.  That is why we have our own unique rituals - largely secular, but mystical in their power to comfort us and create a sense of continuity.

The 2019 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan State Bands, and 900 seasoned musicians took the field in a major show of strength.  Tomorrow less than half of that will show up, no doubt in part because so many older people have succumbed to illness.

And yet the tradition continues, and another link is added to the chain because it was ever so.


The Rise and Fall of Miami Vice

Some TV shows hit the airwaves and have an immediate impact.  There's no need to find an audience or for the actors to settle into their characters, it's full-throttle from the series premier.
 
Miami Vice is one of those shows.  The look, the scene, the cars and above all the music made it immediately compelling to watch.  Sure, there were some rough edges in the first season, particularly in the way they loaded down Don Johnson's character with a ton of quirks.  His Sonny Crockett (alias Barnett) not only has to balance work with raising his son and save a troubled marriage, he is also a former Florida State football player and a Vietnam veteran and he lives part-time on a sailboat with a pet alligator named Elvis.  Almost immediately writers decide to forget the football thing, Vietnam will fade and his wife will divorce and move away.  Elvis also fades into obscuring within a couple of seasons.
 
As a writer, I get why they loaded him up.  By 1985, the market was saturated with cop and detective shows.  The format allows for lots of guest stars, but mostly it boils down to "solve the case of the week," and so the only way to achieve separation is to have quirky characters.
 
Turns out, Miami Vice didn't need that - at least not at first.  While the format was familiar, the setting and approach was unprecedented.  Michael Mann didn't just mix in some new elements, he created a unified aesthetic that combined color, music and aesthetic in an unprecedented way.  Miami Vice wasn't a show so much as a mood.  He also balanced Johnson's quirk-laden Crockett with Philip Michael Thomas' more traditional Rico Tubbs, a New York detective who has a more old-school approach.  Johnson set a fashion trend by combining Armani suits with pastel t-shirts and stubble.  His weapon of choice was a Bren Ten carried with spare magazines in a shoulder holster - about the most firepower one can feasibly conceal.  Thomas was more traditionally dapper and his weapon was the tried and true snub-nosed revolver (sometimes backed up with a short-barreled shotgun).
 
Their partnership was iconic and within a few episodes, they're a solid team.  The supporting cast is also excellent, particularly after Edward James Olmos joins the team four episodes into its run.  His Lt. Castillo is quiet and stoic, the perfect foil to the flash and energy Crockett and Tubbs (and he naturally uses a traditional patrolman's revolver).
 
Of course, no dicussion of Miami Vice is complete with looking at the peerless music that was incorporated into the show.  Jan Hammer provided both the main title theme as well as incidental music during the show itself.  In addition to Hammer, Miami Vice featured some of the hottest musical acts of the time and incorporated the sound and lyrics with what was happening on screen.  It was like an hour-long music video. 
 
Actually, it was more than that.  Especially in the early seasons, musicians actually appeared as characters in the show.  Episode 16 featured Glenn Frey as a drug smuggling pilot.  The episode was titled "Smuggler's Blues" and featured his song of the same name, which was the leitmotif of the episode.
 
This was typical of the early seasons, and Phil Collins, Frank Zappa and countless other singers got roles that also featured their work.
 
Everyone who was anyone got involved.  Lee Iacocca and G. Gordon Liddy got prominent parts.
 
Thus, the show started out strong, refined itself to become even stronger, and then inevitably began to decline.
 
The first step was the departure of Michael Mann.  Without him as producer, his vision inevitably was compromised.  He had strict rules about the color palette of the show that were no longer enforced.  Even so, the show did immediately decline.
 
I'd place the hinge point after the third season.  By that point the formula was starting to get stale and even the cast was losing interest.  John Diehl, who played a supporting role as Larry Zito, got so bored that he had his character killed off mid-season and no one replaced him.  Diehl and Michael Talbott (who play his partner Stan Switek), had gotten some interesting (and funny) sub-plots in the first two seasons but the show was starting to take itself seriously, and they were relegated to the background.  It probably did not help matters that the female cast (Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown) got much better treatment by the writers, often having entire episodes built around their characters.
 
It was really the fourth season where things started to go downhill.  By this point the writers were starting to recycle material and resorting to gimmicky celebrity appearances (such as Sheena Easton doing five episodes as Crockett's romantic interest).
 
The romance angle was particularly troublesome.  No one expects the show to shift into a relationship drama, but there were better ways of handing some of the romantic plots for the various characters.  For example, and obvious one would be a recurring role as an old flame in an on-again, off-again relationship.  Instead, the writers mostly kill off the detectives' girlfriends, which quickly loses its shock value and becomes yet another trope.
 
Probably the final straw was the cliffhanger at the end of season 4 where Crockett suffers a traumatic brain injury and becomes his drug-dealing alter ego.  It's an interesting take on the usual amnesia plot, but it's also a desperation move, and when the three-episode arc ended, the show seemed creatively exhausted.  Even the music was of lower quality.
 
One of the only bright spots of the last two seasons was Martin Ferrero's portrayal of Izzy Moreno, a street informant who always manages to steal whatever scene his is in.  Ferrero was involved from the start of the show, and turns up whenever information is needed, but is always involved in some con.  As the show deteriorated, these became more amusing, but also more improbable.  Miami Vice was alternately grim or silly, which is impossible to sustain.
 
As a viewer, I'd stick to the first three seasons.  There's no real story arc, so the best approach is to enjoy the ride at its wildest and then get off before things get boring.

Miami Vice at the halfway point

As part of my return to the shows of my youth and teenage years, I'm going through the entirety of the iconic Miami Vice.

It's an interesting contrast to Magnum p.i.  There are a number of obvious similarities.

Both take place in a gorgeous tropical setting, both of the lead characters are Vietnam veterans who drie expensive sports cars and the plots revolve around weekly guest stars.    In Magnum, they were clients and sometimes villains; in Miami Vice, they're usually criminals.

Of course one was a detective show, the other a cop drama, so the conventions are similar but also different.  Magnum's goal is to solve the case, not get the bust.

Chronologically the shows overlapped each other for a couple of years, and by that time, Magnum had evolved quite a bit.  These were the final seasons, which shook off the show's lethargy and moved forward with multi-episode plots and also a sense of purpose.

Like Magnum, Vice came out of the gate strong, and at this point in its shorter run, things are still moving briskly.  We're getting recurring minor characters and villains.  The first season experimented with some low comedy involving secondary characters, but that did not happen during the subsequent season.  The focus is squarely on Crockett and Tubbs, and when supporting characters get time, it's done is a more serious way.

I will say that the most striking difference is in the soundtrack.  Magnum's soundtrack is great, but it is largely a reprise of the main title or some character-specific leitmotifs.

Vice uses contemporary music, so much so that it times it feels like an extended music video.  The latter show was never the smash ratings success that Magnum achieved, partly because it aired on Friday night, which has smaller audiences.  In fact, I rarely saw it for that reason - as a high school student, there were football games and parties and such.

Still, there's no question that Vice impacted the culture, and watching it is an immersive experience - everything is contemporary, right down to political jokes and issues of the day.  The Drug War was spiraling out of control with street violence reaching its peak in 1990 before beginning a long, gradual decline.  The Cold War was also nearing its culmination, leading to a toxic mix of politics and money.

The show captures this moment brilliantly.  I'm going to be sad when I've finished.

 


Philosophy without God: Dark City - the original and director's cut

A quarter-century ago, I used to go the movies quite frequently.  I was one of those people who watched the trailers to see what was coming out soon rather than just enduring them.

I recall quite clearly that the trailer for Dark City immediately caught my attention and when I came out, I loved the film, bought the soundtrack and eventually the DVD.

I'd classify the film as sci-fi noir, a somewhat niche category it shares with Blade Runner.

I did not know there was a 'director's cut' available, and found out only by chance.  A friend of mine bought one of the many DVD compilation sets flooding the market.

I have to say that this is one of the few good things about the present age: buying movies has never been cheaper.  Not only that, they come in very compact packaging, easing storage. 

There's a strange paradox at work, too.  If you buy the single movie you really want, it will cost around $30.  If you a two-disc combo, $15.  Three discs might be even less.

True, you might get some stinkers mixed in, but you're still saving money by purchasing the collection and - as long-time readers may have noticed, I'm seeing films that I never would have bought on their own.

Anyhow, the new version if Dark City is better.  Not a lot better, but better all the same.  It dispenses with the intro voiceover which acts as a spoiler and there are some subtle changes elsewhere.  I guess the special effects were upgraded and - though I can't find proof of this - I think it uses Jennifer Connelly's own voice during the night club scenes rather than dubbing another artist.  I say this because I've listened to the soundtrack version frequently as part of a mix I use while painting miniatures, and that is not the same voice.

Something that I missed at the time but now stands out glaringly is the lack of God in the film.  I'm noticing that more and more these days.  Religion has always been something of a blind spot (if not an object of hate) for Hollywood and Dark City's musings on what it is to have a soul and how much it can be manipulated by false memories ignores the spirit realm entirely.

This is interesting because it has the same director as The Crow, which is of course a profoundly Catholic movie.   Then again, I've also noticed that lots of religious references and themes seem to happen by accident.

As the Lord of Spirits podcast likes to joke, our 19th Century German friends have a lot to answer for in terms of corrupting religion and the world in general.  For all of human history to that point, people accepted that the supernatural was real and that people had distinct spiritual needs.  The rise of the hyper-rational school of philosophy not only broke this relationship, it left us too blind to appreciate it.

Whenever something miraculous happens, the immediate Western response (even among religious people!) is to try to find "a rational explanation."  It's not just blindness, it's intentional blindness, and it takes years to unlearn that habit.  I'm trying to teach my kids to see the world outside of secular "logical" lenses, but it is pervasive in the culture.

Dark City is still a great movie, wonderful soundtrack and mood, compelling performances and the late Roger Ebert loved it so much he did a full commentary track on it. 

I'm not a huge fan of his work, but the guy had considerable influence in critical circles, and it's unusual for a critic to become that much of a fanboy, so it speaks well of the film.

Unlike Blade Runner, I think both cuts work.  I will give the nod to the director's version but I'm not into it enough to pay for it.


How to make an action movie boring: Mad Max Fury Road

Okay, I have to take back some of my criticisms of The Road Warrior.  For all its flaws, that is a far better film than Mad Max Fury Road.

I approached this film with an open mind, but right from the start it set my teeth on edge.

Apparently, George Miller has the same problem as George Lucas: given an unlimited budget and three decades to think over an iconic series, both of them have no idea what actually made the things work.

Thus: Miller 'reimagines' Mad Max as a guy who is emotionally crippled but physically invulnerable.   What this means is that at crucial moments where Max can solve a problem, he will fail due to a flashback but that's okay because he's so unrealistically tough that he will get through it just fine.

This in turn destroys dramatic tension because nothing is at stake and so all one has left is to watch a very long special effects demo reel.

This brings us to the other problem: totally uninteresting characters.  I'm trying to think of any time where the cast has to make a decision about something, a moment where there's a non-event driven discussion (i.e. it isn't sandwiched in an F/X sequence).  I can't come up with one.

While the earlier movies have cool action scenes, they also feature actual drama, where the characters talk to each other and debate what they should do without driving or shooting or whatever.  These sequences give the audience a chance to get to know the cast and also serve to heighten the dramatic tension since we can now anticipate some action.

Fury Road has zero character development.  Charlize Theron's character is completely uninteresting.  She literally is reduced (like so many characters these days) into the standard-issue "diversity points" of being female and having a prosthetic hand.

That's it.  No personality to speak of because by 2015, checking the diversity boxes was considered enough.

Ironically, in 1985 that wasn't enough.  Tina Turner isn't just an "empowered black woman," she's fascinating to watch.  Her lair, her manner of speech and the fact that she has a court blues sax player - all of these make her much more interesting than Theron's character.

The other issue with the film is that it's just completely improbable in terms of the scale and type of facilities the bad guys use.  Where does the water come from?  How do they pump it up and out of those pipes with such pressure?  What do the bucket people do when it doesn't flow, just sit there and be thirsty?

Also: who maintains these roads in the middle of nowhere?  A big sandstorm would completely cover them and there are no markers so that they can be dug out afterwards.

Another sour note: they finally put religion into a Mad Max film and it's some oddball Norse crap that serves as the opiate of the masses.  So predictable.

These may seem pedantic complaints, but the more fantastic one makes a setting, the less investment people have in it - especially when the characters are so bland.

Finally, I have an issue with the whole Handmaid's Tale thing, which is supposed to empower women, except when it wants them wearing flimsy, transparent clothes that leave nothing to the imagination.  They are fleeing across the desert.  Maybe extra clothes could have been included?  Just throwing that out there.

Taken as a whole, I was pretty bored by the end.  Even the soundtrack was bland.