Monday, December 23, 2013

I don't do yahrzeits; or: good grief!

I don’t do yahrzeits.

In case you were wondering what those are, they are a widespread and ingrained part of Jewish tradition.

It’s the observation and commemoration of the date of death of a close relative, spouse, or friend – parents, particularly. The kaddish (mourner’s prayer) is recited, a candle is lit, a palpable act of tzedakah (charity) is encouraged, and Torah can studied in honor of the memory of the deceased.

Sounds laudable. And very depressing.

My mother died a year ago today. I have my share of problems about that . . . but commemorating it doesn’t help to solve any of them. (Yes I did say kaddish for her for 11 months. I’m not a complete monster.)

Maybe I don’t feel the pull of the ritual because I’m a relatively new Jew. I come from Lutherans, from the shady Christian hollows and hilltops of the Missouri River valley, Alexander Payne country, right around Omaha, where the blues are more commonly referred to as “our Scandinavian heritage.” It’s Garrison Keillor without the charm. Performed in stiff motions of despair.

In that primal culture, death is seen as a relief from earthly trials. More accurately, life is conceived of as one long “American Gladiators”-style competition against temptation, sin, and error. A vestibule crowded with a kaleidoscope of potential soul-destroying torments to be sidestepped.

Plus, we had this quirky family tradition of TAKING A PICTURE OF THE DEAD RELATIVE.



My paternal grandparents’ walls looked like they were hung with pictures of fallen Pez dispensers. This is not OK, I thought then but confirmed objectively years later. This kind of familial focus on the Grim Reaper explains much of my reluctance to memorialize the departed.

In fact, we spent our fair share of time in cemeteries, sprucing up our people’s plots, or just taking a drive out to visit that field full of unresponsive relatives. Out of boredom, I would run up and down as a kid, vaulting over the headstones, until my grandma caught me and scolded me out of it.

Dad’s death, 20 years ago, didn’t help. The first mortuary we went to, the guy started off by saying, “Well, what can I help you with?” We moved on. Later, the unfamiliar minister faked his way through Dad’s eulogy, throwing in a plug for the funeral home smack dab in the middle of it.

I did make a habit of visiting his grave on the Day of the Dead. I thought treating it as a festive occasion was at least a move in the right direction. And those visits did actually lead finally to a kind of peace for me. So, memorialization works.

But Mom got cremated. So . . . she’s out blowing around somewhere right now. That’s not comforting.

More to the point – if I’m going to remember someone, why am I going to remember them on THE DAY THEY DIED? I can testify from personal experience that this is not when people are really at their best.

“Hey, remember that day Mom died?” is just not something I’m willing to entertain. It seems -- gauche.

Plus there’s the letter. I know it’s traditional, but I don’t want an ecclesiastical form letter reminding me of what happened, especially one containing a donation suggestion and envelope. Nope. Don’t like that.

So, smartass, I ask myself, how should you remember someone? I would pick out the nice bits to mull over, to start. That’s what I’ve been doing.

For better or worse, the parental influence is pervasive. I work in the arts, after a childhood my mother flooded with films, books, and music. I write; she wanted to. I read my kids Laura Ingalls Wilder with the same intonations Mom used. And we all seem to laugh in the same places.

So I currently choose just to remember the funny stuff. That’s what I can handle, that’s where I’m at. When I go, don’t light a candle or nail a little brass plaque to anything.

It’s like the old joke:

The teacher asks the class what their fathers do for a living.

Little Betty says, “My daddy’s a doctor!”

Little Billy says, “My dad works at the grocery store!”

Little Jimmy doesn’t say anything. Teacher asks him, “What about YOUR daddy, Jimmy?”

Jimmy says, “My daddy’s dead.”

Teacher says, “Oh, dear, I’m so sorry. Tell me, what did he do before he died?”

Jimmy clutches his chest and yells, “GGGGAAAAHHHGAKAKAKAKAAUGHHHH!”

Just remember the funny stuff.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Prologue: ‘I think I’ll just come in’

I have been ignoring the best writing advice I ever got.

In the foreword to radio comedian Fred Allen’s autobiography, “Much Ado about Me,” Fred relates advice John Steinbeck gave him.

“. . . try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. . . . Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. . . . Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. . . . cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling.”

The one time I followed these dicta I produced my most odd and most widely-read independently published story to date (it didn’t hurt that it centered on midget wrestling). It took over a year to write, and it probably shows. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding project I have undertaken to date.

And I couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

I’ve been writing for 40 years, professionally for 30. Along the way I’ve written standup, sketch comedy, plays, for radio and TV, newspapers, magazines, and websites. I’ve interviewed famous people, covered crime, tracked political upheavals, and written about just about every art form on the planet. I have a leg up on all the templates, in style as well as form -- the advertisement disguised as breaking news, the heart-tugging feature, the seemingly balanced analysis, and the crooked results imposed by all the teapot tempests and pet peeves of moneyed clients, publishers, owners, editors, and controlling interests.

At any given moment I am writing or selling something. This incessant practice has led to a craftsmanship of which I am justly proud. But what good is it to crank out technically perfect and quite readable stories about shit? In comedy, it’s called being a hack. This slew of imitative, safe, predictable content producers persist everywhere, shovel the publishers’ furnaces full of words that curl, crisp, burn and are ash-expelled in the blink of an eye. The avalanche of data continues, whether I pitch in or not.

In this post-journalism world, acting as a communicator for private interests is no better. Hey, believe me, I tried to sell out! Over and over again, I attempted to gain acceptance, to find a group to be a part of, to sand down my prickly talents to fit the required measurements. Few takers. My level of talent, my faint-heartedness, my sheer self-destructive cussedness, luck, destiny has seen to that. So what do I want? Not to engage in precocious journaling, or addled gonzo narratives. What is the way out of the impasse?

Truth, first. Why is speaking the truth such an imperative? I grew up surrounded by lies and evasion, I developed a desire for truth. To root the truth out of myself, a practiced dissembler. Not facts. Truth. I’ve seen too many pages of bland facts obscure the truth. Alan Moore, in his “Promethea,” states that humans are amphibians of the psyche, half in the world of reality and half in the world of imagination. I would like to hear the clear clang of these hemispheres colliding in my head, for once, instead of being worried about it or muffling it with fears.

So, an approach that blends the reality and the imagination, the personal and the general. Open, relaxed, and conversational, admitting bias and uncertainty. Playing up and down the spectrum of the dynamic paradox.

What if I write with the intent of seeing what happens? Am I capable of being honest? Above all, will it be interesting? Enjoyable? Helpful? Readable? A kind of Fourth Step for public consumption? At this point, it does not matter. I am still turning out the standard fare for fun and profit. But it’s not enough.

Look for installments in my “Pursuit of Happiness” series in the months to come, centering on such unoffending topics such as sex, drugs, God, money, power, society, family. Maybe it’ll be fascinating, maybe it’ll be crap. Maybe it’ll be both. We’ll see, won’t we?

The source of the title quote comes from an anecdote I recall reading about actor Ralph Richardson, which of course I can’t find the source of now. Still, it sticks in my mind so strongly that, if it is not true, it oughta be. Evidently Richardson was a stickler for establishing his character with his first entrance. Well, in a show in later life, he could not get his entrance down. He drove the director and his fellow actors mad for weeks, trying every conceivable way to get on stage in character.

Finally, the night before opening, Richardson went to the director and told him he had solved the problem. “I think I’ll just come in,” he said.

I think I’ll just come in.

"In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what's human and magical that still live and glow despite the times' darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it'd find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it." – David Foster Wallace

Thursday, December 12, 2013

EARGASM: 'Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities'

“Bertolt Brecht before the Committee on Un-American Activities”

OK, not the catchiest title. However, if you learn the context behind this recording, it becomes a riveting piece of theater, one composed on the fly by the master playwright Brecht himself – under the threat of imprisonment and deportation.

Bertolt Brecht is the one of the most influential playwrights and poets of the 20th century. Coming of age in chaotic Weimar Germany of the 1920s, he began his career as a balladeer and cabaret performer of anarchist bent. Beginning in 1926, his study of Marx and socialism led him to develop stunning works that eviscerated the capitalist system and what we now term the military/industrial complex – in plays such as “The Threepenny Opera,” “Mahagonny,” and “Mother Courage.” He also worked with writing collectives to create a didactic “teaching theater” that would hasten a people’s revolution, preferably a Communist one.

Of course, Hitler didn’t like this at all. In February 1933, Brecht began his long hopscotching exile from Germany, settling first in Denmark and then, as German troops moved closer, to America. From 1941 through 1947 Brecht joined the American colony of European writers and artists dispossessed by the Nazis. During his time in New York and Los Angeles, he became familiar with prominent American theater and film people. He wrote “Galileo” for Charles Laughton, and penned the screenplay for “Hangmen Also Die!”, a thriller based on the assassination of fearsome Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.

Unfortunately, Brecht made the American government just as nervous as the Nazi government. The FBI began tracking his movements and monitoring his phone calls and mail almost from the moment he landed. His open Marxist leanings, along with his friendships and collaborations with numerous Communist artists (most notably the composer Hanns Eisler) left him open to scrutiny. On Sept. 19, 1947, he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with 18 other writers, directors, and performers who were tarred with the brush of association with “Communist influence.”

Brecht was the only non-American named; as a resident alien his legal status was somewhat more secure than his uniformly uncooperative, combative fellows. They could be jailed up to a year for contempt of Congress (and were – Dalton Trumbo yelled, as he was hauled out of the hearing, “This is the beginning of an American concentration camp!”); Brecht could only be deported – but could be held indefinitely before that happened. Not wanting to lose his freedom, Brecht planned and rehearsed his appearance with his lawyers. Finally, on Oct. 30, he went in front of the Committee, five newsreel cameras, and a host of microphones.

The key to his strategy was to appear as cooperative as possible, while not admitting anything that might get him in trouble. Unlike many idealists of the time, Brecht had a strong pragmatic streak. He didn’t believe in martyrdom – at least, not as far as he himself was concerned. He played the language barrier for all it was worth, engaging a translator when he did not really need one. He even resolved to smoke cigars throughout the hearing – giving him a chance to delay his responses and inflect his timing, much in the style of George Burns, Groucho Marx, and other cheroot-wielding comics.

The recording, produced in the spring of 1963, is narrated by Brecht champion and translator Eric Bentley, whose learned interpolations add much. He sets the scene and explains much of the texts and individuals referred to by Brecht’s questioners.

What follows is what Bentley terms a “Brechtian tragicomedy”; James K. Lyon in his book “Brecht in America” calls it simply “a polite exercise in cunning and duplicity that lasted a full hour.”

Chief Investigator Robert E. Stripling’s harsh, nasal Southern twang dominates. Brecht, in contrast, is halting, seems shy, sometimes plaintive – but level-headed and seemingly cooperative and detailed in response.

To demonstrate the conceptual gap here, Stripling asks Brecht what he does for a living.

“I am a playwright and a poet,” Brecht answers.

Without a pause, Stripling asks, “Where are you presently employed?”

It’s like listening to Bugs Bunny being grilled by a panel of Elmer Fudds, to the amusement of the live studio audience. (The repeated laughter of the crowd in the hearing room gives the whole affair an unreal comic sheen.)

When asked, Brecht says, “I am a guest in this country and do not want to enter into any legal arguments so I will answer your question fully as well I can. I was not a member or am not a member of any Communist party.” Now this, ironically, is certainly true – our ever-clever friend never officially joined the Communist Party.

“Is it true that you have written a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings?”

Brecht characterizes his works as anti-Fascist, not pro-Communist.

He is asked if he knows composer Hanns Eisler. Brecht’s friend and collaborator of 20 years, like him a refugee from Hitler in America, is at the very time Brecht is speaking, under arrest, awaiting his deportation hearing for Communist leanings (Eisler’s brother Gerhart was head of Germany’s Weimar-era Communists, and supposedly ran the American Communist effort during and after the Second World War.) Brecht knows all this. He minimizes his connection to Eisler.

The hollow drawl of Stripling drives on, as Brecht calmly sidesteps. Stripling addresses Brecht’s 1930 cantata with Eisler “The Measures Taken” -- a rigidly doctrinaire play that endorses political murder in the name of international Communism. Brecht equivocates (in fact he and his heirs denied permission to perform the play until 1997, which indicates some distaste for it).

Stripling begins to read from a translation, a riot in itself to hear:

“My heart is beating for the revolution
The witnessing of wrongdoing drove me into the lines of the fighting
Man must help man
I am for freedom
I believe in mankind
And I am for the rules of the Communist Party
Which fights for the classless society”

Brecht fobs it off as a bad translation.

The questioning runs out of steam, despite a few more sallies by Stripling. Brecht is commended for his forthrightness.

“You’re a good example” to the other witnesses, he is told, and dismissed. He leaves. Less than 24 hours later, he is on a flight to Europe. He would never return to the U.S.

Bentley states that Brecht kept a recording of the proceedings and would play it for laughs. Of the Committee, Brecht said, “They weren’t as bad as the Nazis. The Nazis would never have let me smoke.”

No matter how lightly Brecht played it later, it could not have been less than a harrowing experience for him. Like so many of his bitter, clever heroes and heroines, Brecht had dreams for mankind but saw all too clearly how the world goes. In this most real piece of political theater, he kept his freedom, didn’t rat out his friends, and glibly deceived the U.S. Congress in a language not his own.

Brecht, Eisler and others constantly found themselves on the outs – in Nazi Germany, in supposedly democratic America . . . finally, even in Communist East Germany, where they grew disaffected from the revolution they helped make. Whether the artistic person is fated always to end up in this position is another story entirely. Meanwhile, Brecht’s victory on this recording is little but profound.

[A personal note: I first heard this on vinyl at my friend B's house in Kansas City in '80 or '81. He was a crazy artist, and when we weren't pulling tubes and checking out the Buddhist art at the Nelson, we were bandying socialist concepts. That young-adult glee at the prospect of a trickster outfoxing the Man was intoxicating.]

Sunday, October 6, 2013

CULTURAMA: The Mystery of Malvert

As little-known an artist as Ollie Jo Prater, S.P. Dinsmoor, or Vivian Maier, Patrick Boone Varnell plied his trade in near-obscurity. As fleetingly as a firefly, he sped across our field of vision and vanished. Who was he, and for what purposes was he used?

He was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, on Jan. 11, 1941. (Thank to the anonymous reader who provided this link to his obituary.) He was possessed of unique physique, an extreme ectomorph with hypermobility (he was real tall and thin and double-jointed). Slapping the monicker of The Stick onto himself, he takes a credit as Malvert the Janitor in Mickey Rose’s single directorial effort, the 1981 slasher parody film “Student Bodies.”

Rose, a talented comedy writer who started off in high school with friend Woody Allen, cranked out this spoof with efficient fervor. It’s one of a long line of horror-comedy films, from “Ghost Breakers” through “Spider Baby,” the “scary Movie” series, and the new “What We Do in the Shadows.” “Student Bodies” trips along in the scattershot modality of the “riffing” film, made popular in the wake of “Airplane!”.

Varnell (as The Stick) portrays school janitor Malvert, who ambles artlessly through many scenes casually eating half-eaten trash off the lawn . . . without bending over, peeing in the wastebaskets, bringing a blow-up date to the big game, lapping punch out of the bowl at the high-school dance.

Malvert is a revolting grotesque. His ratty hair, thick glasses and spasmodic movements mark him as the archetypal outsider, the freak of nature. As such, he is naturally the first suspect in the serial murders of the local teens who choose to have sex. Of course, he winds up being not only a kind of childishly innocent monster, but a magical helper as well to the movie’s endangered heroine, stealing the keys (and incidentally, the cheese) of the school principal.

After “Student Bodies,” Varnell accumulates only one more credit. He can be glimpsed in the pilot episode of “Out of Control” in 1984. This was the first series produced by Nickelodeon, and featured Dave Coulier as host, right before he moved on to the immortal role of Joey on “Full House.” This anthology show featured comic bits interspersed with semi-educational material, a la ABC’s “Make a Wish” a decade earlier, pitched again to the 5-12-age set.

Once again, Varnell is used purely for his comic physical anomalies, cutting briefly into focus. Like a fright mask, his unexplained injection into the sketch serves to trigger incredulity, discomfort, and (hopefully) some laughs.

Was he witty? Was he in on the joke his appearance had forced upon him? At the end of "Student Bodeis," an it-was-all-a-dream scene takes place, and Malvert is evidently a tweed-clad intellectual. "I dreamed you were the janitor!" the heroine exclaims. "Ab-SUHD!" Malvert responds.

Quasimodo’s crowning as the Pope of Fools in Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” paraded around Paris – what did he make of the inversion of his status? “. . . disdainful joy lighted up the morose face of the cyclops, when he beheld beneath his deformed feet all those heads of handsome, straight, well-made men." Does mockery elevate the different, or does holding them higher only make them a better targetto spit at, to inspire awkward, uneasy laughter?

Did Varnell take it well? Did it dishearten him? Is that just show biz?

He died in Dallas on May 7, 1989, aged 48.

Friday, September 20, 2013

CULTURAMA: Green Lama, the original Fighting Buddhist(?)

I live in Boulder, Colorado, and you can’t throw a brick around here without hitting a Buddhist. Believe me, I’ve tried.

(Of course, we are enjoying notoriety currently as the site of recent severe flooding. We were not victims, as we live on less valuable property on a ridge east of town. In a weird kind of anti-Katrina motif, many houses ruined by the flood are on the pricey end – because they overlooked the picturesque running water. Here’s my flood story: our cable went out. Sorry.)

Anyway, Eastern practices are alive and thriving here in Lotusland by the Rockies, where therapists of every ilk, Trustafarians (white Rastas), marijuana-industry professionals, organic Puritans, the digerati, academic theorists, exer-fascists, and eerily similar clumps of nonconformists intermingle like exotic species in a game preserve, fenced off from the mundane world.

So who would ever serve as Boulder’s superheroic champion? I nominate the Green Lama. I found this Golden Age champion via a short-lived CBS radio series that served as a summer replacement in 1949. Kendall Foster Crossen penned these episodes, based on his original pulp-fiction stories that first saw light in 1940. The unmistakable basso voice of Paul Frees embodied our hero.

The Green Lama is, in reality, the oddly named Jethro Dumont, another wealthy young socialite in the Batman tradition, whose parents conveniently orphan while he’s at Harvard. He differs from the Caped Crusader in that he studies for a decade in Tibet to gain enlightenment and purpose.

As the anonymous Wikipedia contributor succinctly states, "He returned to America intending to spread the basic doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism (remove ignorance and relieve suffering), but realized that he could accomplish more by fighting crime."


With the help of both his soul power and various other abilities (depending on the medium) including flight, invisibility, energy beams, and such, generated at least during his beginnings by the use of “radioactive salts,” he battles criminals, murderers, international cabals, and even the Axis.

The idea of taking a spiritual practice a central pillar of which is Ahimsa, or non-violence, and making it fuel a two-fisted ethical vigilante’s struggle for justice is a unique American inversion of impulse. The air of Oriental mystery, coupled with Crossen’s accurate research and usage of Tibetan mantras, was meant to ape and rival the exploits of the more popular Shadow, who as Lamont Cranston learned the “power to cloud men’s minds” while traveling in East Asia.

The Green Lama sprang to life in pulp fiction, then migrated to comics and radio, surprisingly reincarnating in various graphic-novel forms, and even a live aerial dance performance, in the recent past . . . coming back to life again and again just as a Buddhist does. Here in the land of yoga mats and TOMS, he could be the savior we muddy, unenlightened ones are looking for.

“Om –mane –padme –OM!”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: "Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics," Fifth Edition

Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, Fifth Edition
Michael Rabiger & Mick Hurbis-Cherrier
Focal Press, Burlington, MA, USA
517 pgs.

So you want to be a movie director? Read this book. That’s it, you’re ready!

Comprehensive is too weak a word for the contents of the freshly updated “Directing.” In contrast to past tomes I’ve reviewed in the publisher’s FilmCraft series, this is not a string of anecdotal accounts about an aspect of the film profession. Possessed of a depth and scope far beyond what might suffice for laymen, this is a playbook for people who are serious about learning how to do this job called directing.

Film-school education has long turned away from the days when theory, interpretation, and critique held sway. The film industry is the quintessential capitalist/industrial venture – every movie a startup, an invention, an experience, a product, a gamble on the ability of the filmmaker to connect with a paying audience. And, like most artistic endeavors, you learn a lot more and a lot faster on the ground getting it done than sitting around thinking and talking about it. Film is a practicum: if you can’t make it happen, you won’t get far.

That being said, this would be the book to read before diving in to the daunting business of directing. The key to its effectiveness as an introduction, a classroom text, a reference work, or as a literal template for a specific film project is its straightforward, forthright style, peppered with both flashes of humor and a serious sense of purpose. The concern of the authors to be as clear and logical as possible is clearly felt, and the text is profusely illustrated with relevant stills and diagrams as well.

The organization of “Directing” is as impressive as the scope of work it suggests is the director’s responsibility is staggering. The book begins with basic premises through storytelling, film aesthetics, and cinematic “language,” on to preproduction, casting, working with actors, hiring a crew, breaking down the script, all the way through post and concluding with a friendly reminder to the filmmaker not to drink too much after the first screening, so that he or she can network more effectively.

Original author Michael Rabiger’s work has been seamlessly updated by Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, who writes with a similarly engaging thoroughness. (We are even treated to a photo of Rabiger’s father, makeup artist Paul, brushing Shirley Eaton down with gold paint for her memorable appearance in “Goldfinger.”)

The upshot for me, personally, after reading “Directing” is that I do NOT want to direct. It seems to demand a combination of the personality traits of Superman, Moses, Patton, and Renoir, with a double portion of the patience of Job.

A caveat – this is a text loaded with valuable content, and it means slow going and careful digestion for the reader who wishes to make full benefit of it.

“Directing” is exemplary not only in its address of its subject, but as a model for anyone who would seek to cover a subject thoroughly, with insight, and a healthy sense of how a neophyte should proceed. Really? You really want to direct? Read “Directing” and call me in the morning.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: "FilmCraft: Producing"

FilmCraft: Producing
By Geoffrey Macnab & Sharon Stewart
Focal Press, 2013


“The way I see it, my function is to be responsible for everything.”
n  David O. Selznick

“What is a producer? An enabler.”
                                    Jeremy Thomas

So what is a movie producer? A visionary who brings cinematic glory to life, despite all odds? A blackhearted bastard who reduces people and ideas to numbers? The new installment in FilmCraft’s anecdotal survey of cinema, “Producing,” does its best to answer the question. It’s a hallmark of the position that it is both so nebulous and so all-encompassing that you still may be confused about what it involves even after reading the book.

The producer does indeed do everything – from finding scripts and directors to back, digging up financing, generaling the logistics of the shoot, securing distribution, generating publicity – and anything else that needs to get done to make a movie come to life.

Despite the auteur theory, it’s the producer who picks up the Oscar for Best Picture each year, an acknowledgement of the ultimate responsibility of the producer to make things happen. And, although the titles of producer, associate producer, executive producer, etc. are flung about liberally these days, usually as an honorarium for a substantial cash contribution, the buck still does indeed stop with the producer.

“FilmCraft: Producing” follows its usual m.o., which is an anecdotal and not an analytical approach, lavishly illustrated. No fewer than 16 prominent contemporary figures, such as “Avatar”’s Jon Landau, Jon Kilik (“The Hunger Games,” much Spike Lee), Jan Chapman (Jane Campion’s long-time partner), discourse in cut-together monologues about their experience and approach. There is as well a quartet of profiles from the past – Selznick, Korda, De Laurentiis, and Balcon.

The variety of experience outlined here clearly demonstrates that a producer’s involvement and structuring of each project can be radically different. The highly structured, hierarchical paradigm of Hollywood’s Golden Age still exists, to some extent, and churns out international product efficiently. The American indie movement, where many of today’s top producers learned their trade in the DIY spirit of the time, is fading fast. The producer must constantly keep his or her skills honed and be ready to adopt new techniques – whether it means CGI or fundraising.

“FilmCraft: Producing” suffers a bit from its anecdotal approach in this instance. Unlike more concrete crafts such as editing and cinematography, producing is so ill-defined by nature that, after hearing from all the participants, the ultimate impact is less informative and cohesive than in other FilmCraft volumes.

If, as it is said in the book, that each film production is akin to creating a startup company, the demands of the job span both diplomacy and ruthlessness, exacting planning and foolish faith, persistence and energy. For those who seek information about the craft from highly respected industry leaders who are working now, “Producing” is a good place to start.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Eargasm: ‘Feelin’ Alright’ and the mechanics of the listenable

There is a name for that song that gets stuck in your head. Scientifically, It’s termed involuntary musical imagery, and a surprising amount of research has been done on it. It happens to 99 percent of us, and quite frequently. They are still working on a cure.

For me, it all started with Joe Cocker. I could not understand what the hell he was singing in his famous 1969 cover version of Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Thanks to my compulsive research skills, I found that it has reached “anthem” status, that it’s been covered by more than 40 artists, including:

·         Mongo Santamaria
·         Grand Funk Railroad
·         Three Dog Night
·         5th Dimension
·         Lou Rawls
·         Freddie King
·         Lulu
·         Chairmen of the Board
·         Rare Earth
·         Ohio Players
·         Diana Ross/Jackson 5
·         Maceo Parker
·         Gladys Knight & the Pips
·         Widespread Panic
·         Black Crowes
·         Issac Hayes and the Osmonds (? Yes, there is video evidence)

·         Dr. John/Louis Prima
·         Coldplay
·         Huey Lewis

The best running list of covers is curated by Mr. Mason himself, complete with full lyrics (although there are two variant sets even on Mason’s page), chords, and more on his website at --

Mason wrote it in 1965 when he was 19; its first recording debuted on Traffic’s self-titled second album. (Mason had left the group right after making their first album “Mr. Fantasy” the year before, and returned just long enough to appear on “Traffic” before leaving again, this time for good.)

Dialing through all the covers of the tune I could track down, I found that age did not wither nor custom stale its infinite variety. How come I don’t get sick of it? What makes it work? A. Its funky, rolling rhythm, adaptable to many musical genres; B. Two chords! (C7-F7, kids) – Easy to transmit and perform. C. The call-and-response chorus and gospel-derived harmonics give it an urgent forward motion, no matter what the tempo; D. The breaks leave plenty of space for inventive, wide-ranging solos, and E. The plaintive lyrics are simple, memorable (once you understand the words), and the sentiments are universal.

It’s kind of a breakup song, rueful in the same way that “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” is. However, it’s not accusatory and contemptuous. It’s a lyrical, flowing white-blues song. Although a girl is referenced, the subject of the song could be any situation or institution that needs to be left behind.

“Feelin’ Alright” delicately straddles the gap between the “earworm” quality of infectiously listenable hits such as “Louie Louie,” “You Really Got Me,” “Free Bird,” et al and the raise-your-lighters-high inspirational-rock-anthem category – “Hold Your Head Up,” Don’t Stop Believin’,” Dream On,” and all the other fist-pumpers.

In other words, it combines a strong basic structure with an inherent flexibility that allows for all kinds of musical colorings (and lyrical variations). I found a few versions that felt more compelling than Cocker’s classic take. Here they are:

5. Badfinger

This rare live version is from a compilation LP, “Badfinger: BBC in Concert, 1972-73” – Peter Ham’s lead guitar was never better. A swamp-rockish take --

4. Tufts Beelzebubs

GREAT a capella version from this university group!

3. Bar-Kays

The Bar-Kays were built from the ruins of the 1967 plane crash that killed Otis Redding and most of his backup band. The slow, deliciously horn-rich funk of this cover is distinctly reminiscent of the Stax Records style, where most of the group got their start.

2. Traffic

Of course, the original recording. With Mason on lead, the vocals penetrate as they only can when the writer sings them. Chris Wood appropriately sticks a phrase of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” at the front of his horn solo. Jim Capaldi’s astonishingly crisp, rapid-fire riffs are tutorials in themselves!

1.      Trinidad Oil Company

Yes, a steel drum band. This 1977 cover takes the prize. Why? The guitar solo is not terribly inventive, and the mix needs serious work. I guess it’s partly the intense focus of the effort, and the unorthodox instrumentation. The drummer rides that splashy ‘70s cymbal so hard that it creates harmonic over- and undertones that encompass the performance and urge it on. The song marches at a brisk, uninflected pace, and the vocals snap out like firecrackers on the sidewalk.

The overall effect is that of turning the song into a warrior chant, an undefeatable and propulsive force of nature – just the thing one needs to hear when you need a little cheer and inspiration.

Now, if I could only get "Slow Hand" out of my head . . .

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...