Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Deno Diary: "Road House"

Earlier this year, I read Jean Negulesco's charming, continental memoir, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did, an absorbing account of his journey from European artist-boulevardier to Hollywood director, with witty sketches of the rich and famous he rubbed shoulders with. And I was fascinated to find many of his arty impulses on glorious display in Road House, which easily ranks in my top 5 movies I've seen this year, even if it did come out in 1948.

Is there such a thing as glossy noir? If so, that is what Road House is, a noir-themed melodrama couched in luminous artifice. Even more than the talents of Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm, the real star of Road House is its central set, a combination nightclub-bar and bowling alley built with gleaming opulence and curves and set illogically in a small hunting-fishing town near the Canadian border. (Watch how Negulesco's camera glides across the bowling lanes in the mesmerizing title sequence and ends up behind the pins when his own directing credit comes up. Did the Coens see this, pre-Lebowski?)

We're used to gritty street reality in post-war noir; Road House breaks the mold. It's all set work, from the bowling alley to the fake cabin, lake and woods in the film's explosive climax. The clash of hard, tough characters and faux setting makes Road House one weird, unclassifiable movie.

There are so many strange, alluring things in it. The whole town is strange, a "moosetrap" as one character calls it, filled with stuffed animal heads and the humorously titled Antlers Hotel (see pic above). Richard Widmark plays Jefty, the owner of the road house. Have you ever heard of anybody named Jefty? Or anybody as street-wise as a Richard Widmark playing a guy named Jefty? Weird.

Ida Lupino is supposed to be this vampish, fabulous nightclub singer who comes in from big-city Chicago and slays the small-town crowds. Ida Lupino gets the vampish part right — she's got a throaty purr, cracks wise, leaves burning cigarettes on the piano stand and check out that short-shorts outfit she wears to a bowling lesson. But she can't sing for beans. (One character remarks: "She does more without a voice than anyone I've ever heard." Not really.)

The film has a complex interrelationship between its main characters. Jefty (Widmark) is the silver-spoon inheritor of the road house, who gives his childhood friend Pete (Wilde) a job running the place and a room upstairs after the war. Jefty brings in Lilly (Lupino) to sing because he's got a yen for her. At first, Pete takes her for one of Jefty's scheming dames, and tries to play hardball with her. Gee, where is this heading? Naturally, he falls hard for hard-to-get Lil, even though he's got a delightful, wise girl in the form of Celeste Holm's road house cashier Susie.

The film shows the two males as friends, when they are actually caught in a complex owner/servant relationship, which turns ugly when Pete and Lily spoon and Jefty goes crazy with jealous rage in that Tommy Udo way. Meanwhile, the two women start out as catty toward each other, but eventually form some kind of bond. All of this happens under the surface of the main plot, but gives the film more resonance. This does not feel like an American movie, but an American genre homage from a director whose sensitivities were developed elsewhere.

Road House isn't perfect. The plot contrivances for Jefty's revenge against Pete and Lily are pure hokum. And as passionate lovers, the dull Wilde and va-voomy Lupino seem to be acting in different modes. They have all the friction of two pieces of cardboard rubbed together. Wilde and Holm seem much more suited for each other, as do Lupino and Widmark. But the movie takes the expected matchups and shakes them upside down.

In the end, what stands out about Road House isn't really its stars or its story (although Lupino is something else), but the feel and texture of the film, the way it glides to its own inner music. Weird, offbeat, but undeniably hypnotic, Road House is one of a kind.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Deno Diary: "Basketball Jones"

Am I crazy to think that Cheech and Chong's Basketball Jones is one of the great underrated songs of the late 20th century? I've got a jones for lines like "That basketball was like...a basketball to me." It's sung by Cheech's youthful alter ego, Tyrone Shoelaces, and is a spoof of the song Love Jones, by Brighter Side Of Darkness. My guess is more people know the satire than its inspiration. My favorite part? When it namechecks Chris Schenkel ("Bill Russell, sing along with us. Chick Hearn, sing along with us. Chris Schenkel...Don't say nothing!"). When was the last time you thought of broadcaster Chris Schenkel? Of course, it's got a groove that gets in your head and won't leave. Maybe that's because the opening guitar riff was played by none other than George Harrison. Other superstars recruited for the session included Carole King, Darlene Love, Billy Preston and Michelle Phillips. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times last year, it was dreamed up during a wild ride by Cheech and Chong to a Lakers game with Jack Nicholson at the wheel. Shades of Easy Rider, eh? The article says it's the highest-charting sports song in rock (No. 15 in 1973), other than surfing songs. It's gotta be that rollicking groove (courtesy of the original song), Cheech's false falsetto and those crazy turns of phrase: "I even put that basketball underneath my pillow. Maybe that's why I can't sleep at night." "I need someone to set a pick for me at the free throw line of life. Someone I can pass to. Someone to hit the open man on the give-and-go and not end up in the popcorn machine.” Basketball Jones: Demented genius. Listen again and you'll get a jones for it, too:

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Deno Diary: 65 Poetics For Joni Mitchell's 65th Birthday

I love her music. I love her paintings. I love her voice. I love her unique and outspoken point of view. I love her open guitar tunings. I love everything about Joni Mitchell. I love Joni Mitchell so much that I’ve not only seen her in concert, I’ve seen a guy impersonating Joni Mitchell in concert. I love, love, love Joni Mitchell.

Of course, she’s not a saint. It was David Crosby who said that she is about as humble as Mussolini. Joni Mitchell is an artist, in all facets of the word. A great artist.

And as she turns 65 today, I find myself drawn more than ever to the poetic images she creates in her lyrics. There is really no subject she can’t write about: Relationships and romance, for sure, but just as often travel, history, childhood, nature, politics, religion, social issues. They have all come under Joni Mitchell’s clear-eyed gaze.

You’ll never see me question the writerly genius of Dylan or a Leonard Cohen. But I know that Joni Mitchell is a greater poet than either of them. Why? Because, to quote one of the endlessly quotable lines from her masterpiece Hejira, she finds out “just how close to the bone and the lips and the skin and the eyes you can get.” She observes. She sees. She understands.

So, to celebrate her 65th birthday today, I am offering up 65 lyrical moments from Joni Mitchell songs. They are lines that have stuck in my head for years. Feel free to leave a comment with some of your favorites (that means you, Jim Emerson!)

Taken together, they form a sort of road map to a fascinating woman of heart and mind.

I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the key to set me free
Oh the jealousy, the greed is the unraveling
It’s the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be
All I Want

Here in Savannah it’s pouring rain
Palm trees in the porch light like slick black cellophane
Blue Motel Room

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
And your face sketched on it twice
A Case of You

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I knew
There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too.
And the sun poured in like butterscotch
And stuck to all my senses
Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
And we’ll talk in present tenses
Chelsea Morning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

He bought her a diamond for her throat
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

Blue, songs are like tattoos

It always seems so righteous at the start
When there’s so much laughter
When there’s so much spark
When there’s so much sweetness in the dark
Car On A Hill

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh I’d still be on my feet
A Case Of You

Still I send up my prayer
Wondering who's there to hear
I said, "Send me somebody
Who's strong
And somewhat sincere"
Same Situation

You know the times you impress me most
Are the times when you don’t try
When you don’t even try
Woman of Heart and Mind

When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
Lesson In Survival

We dont need no piece of paper
From the city hall
Keeping us tied and true
My Old Man

We love our lovin’
But not like we love our freedom
Help Me

In the plan
Oh, the cock-eyed plan
God must be a boogie man!
God Must Be A Boogie ManI

Three waitresses all wearing
Black diamond earrings
Talking about zombies
And singapore slings

Coyote’s in the coffee shop
He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs
He picks up my scent on his fingers
While he’s watching the waitress’ legs

And you just have to laugh
cause it’s all so crazy
Ah, her mind’s on her boyfriend
And eggs over easy

Sometimes Chickie had the car
Or Ron had a car
Or Lead Foot Melvin with his hot-wire head
We’d all go looking for a party
Looking to raise Jesus up from the dead
And I’d be kissing in the back seat
Thrilling to the Brando-like things that he said
In France They Kiss On Main Street

The big man arrives
Disco dancers greet him
Plainclothes cops greet him
Small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening
— Edith and the Kingpin

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong

History falls
To parking lots and shopping malls
Furry Sings The Blues

A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof
Like a dragonfly on a tomb
Harry’s House

Handy’s cast in bronze
And he’s standing in a little park
With a trumpet in his hand
Like he’s listening back to the good old bands
And the click of high heeled shoes
Furry Sings The Blues

We came up from the subway
On the music midnight makes
To Charlie’s bass and Lester’s saxophone
In taxi horns and brakes
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

Blue and silver sparkling drums
Cheap guitars, eye shades and guns
Furry Sings The Blues

Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees

The eagle and the serpent are at war in me
The serpent fighting for blind desire
The eagle for clarity
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café
The Last Time I Saw Richard

My friends were calling up all day yesterday
All emotions and abstractions
It seems we all live so close to that line
And so far from satisfaction
Song For Sharon

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
Refuge Of The Roads

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line

"Come with me, I know the way" she says
"It’s down, down, down the dark ladder”
Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire

I’m like a black crow flying
In a blue, blue sky
Black Crow

Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive
All I Want

If l had my way
I’d just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret...
Free Man In Paris

In France they kiss on Main Street
Amour, mama, not cheap display
— In France They Kiss On Main Street

Love came to my door
With a sleeping roll
And a madman’s soul
Court and Spark

In the morning there are lovers in the street
They look so high
You brush against a stranger
And you both apologize
Down To You

I remember that time that you told me, you said
Love is touching souls
Surely you touched mine
Cause part of you pours out of me
In these lines from time to time
A Case of You

I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin.
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin
Song For Sharon

I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free

If there’s no good reception for me
Then tune me out, cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head
You Turn Me On I’m A Radio

All this talk about holiness now
It must be the start of the latest style
Is it all books and words
Or do you really feel it?
Do you really laugh?
Do you really care?
Do you really smile
When you smile?
Woman of Heart and Mind

You can feel it out in traffic;
Everyone hates everyone!
And the gas leaks
And the oil spills
And sex sells everything
And sex kills ...
Sex Kills

What happened to this place?
Lawyers and loan sharks
Are laying America to waste
No Apologies

Land of snap decisions
Land of short attention spans
Nothing is savored
Long enough to really understand
Dog Eat Dog

Last night I dreamed I saw the planet flicker
Great forests fell like buffalo
Everything got sicker
And to the bitter end
Big business bickered
The Three Great Stimulants

In the cookie I read
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare

Doctors’ pills give you brand new ills
And the bills bury you like an avalanche.
And lawyers havent been this popular
Since Robespierre slaughtered half of France!
Sex Kills

Preacher preaching love like vengeance
Preaching love like hate
Calling for large donations
Promising estates
Rolling lawns and angel bands
Behind the pearly gates
You know, he will have his in this life
But yours will have to wait
Tax Free

Every Sunday on TV — Ethiopia
You suffer with such dignity — Ethiopia
A TV star with a PR smile
Calls your baby ‘It’ while strolling
Through your tragic trials
On and on — Stupidity
On and on — the basic needs are defiled
Good air — good water — good earth

You and me, we’re like America and Russia
We’re always keeping score
We’re always balancing the power
And that can get to be a cold cold war
Blue Motel Room

Well I’m learning
It’s peaceful
With a good dog and some trees
Out of touch with the breakdown
Of this century

I dream paprika plains
Vast and bleak and God forsaken
Paprika plains
And a turquoise river snaking
Paprika Plains

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

I'll try to keep myself open up to you
It gets easier and easier to do
Just like Jericho
Let these walls come tumbling down

Hey, where you going...
Dont go yet...
Your glass ain’t empty and we just met
Raised On Robbery

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed
Little green, have a happy ending
Little Green

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
Big Yellow Taxi

So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
Both Sides Now

I know - no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Now I sit up here
The critic!
And they introduce some band
But they seem so much confetti
Looking at them on my TV set
Oh the power and the glory
Just when you’re getting a taste for worship
They start bringing out the hammers
And the boards
And the nails
For The Roses

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day
Both Sides Now

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and dawn
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.
The Circle Game

Happy birthday, Joni!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Deno Diary: Chinese Ink Paintings

In 1942, a Chinese culture vulture declared: "No art for art's sake."

Which just goes to prove that Mao Tse-tung was not only a ruthless dictator, he was a lousy critic, too.

Art for art's sake could be the subtitle of a luminous new show of modern Chinese ink paintings at the Norton Museum of Art. "A Tradition Redefined" accomplishes what every museum exhibit strives for: It dazzles the eye while subtly enriching a visitor's knowledge of art and history.

The paintings were amassed by Chu-tsing Li, a scholar credited with introducing modern Chinese art to America. As early as the 1940s, he was paying attention to art trends on mainland China. In the '60s, he taught Chinese art in the United States, and began studying painters from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In collecting work and championing artists, Li helped bring about an appreciation for contemporary Chinese art that is now reflected in its high demand among collectors and in six-figure asking prices at auction houses.

It is also the impetus for this traveling show, organized by the Phoenix Art Museum and Harvard University Art Museums, and touted as "the most comprehensive survey in the United States of Chinese ink painting from the second half of the 20th century."

Read the rest of my review at:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Deno Diary: "Little Murders"

I love Jules Feiffer as a cartoonist. But he is one seriously overrated screenwriter. Carnal Knowledge never worked for me, especially the ending, and now I've finally seen Little Murders, a movie based on his play. The play closed after one week. The film didn't fare much better, and it's easy to understand why.

Little Murders may have had more satirical impact if I'd seen it back in 1971, when it seemed like the social fabric was breaking down and New York had aspects of an outlaw town. Now, it just comes across as an over-the-top translation of a theater farce (you can feel the outlines of stage blocking throughout) and a not very good one at that.

The movie, with a screenplay by Feiffer and directed by Alan Arkin, does try to spoof the concerns of New Yorkers in that time period. There is the young "apathist" photographer (Elliott Gould) who has gone from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar to snapping piles of dog shit, and winning awards for both. He meets a young, upbeat woman (Marcia Rudd) who is determined to snap him out of his funk and marry him, essentially making him conform to middle-class mores.

She has a crazy family, including a hothead dad (Vincent Gardenia), a mother with blinders on and the requisite crazy brother. (I got the feeling that Woody Allen may have used some of this as subconscious inspiration for Annie Hall). There are scenes that are supposed to be hilarious family gatherings, but Feiffer and Arkin are not the Marx Brothers, even though Gardenia is a physically appealing farceur.

Little Murders may work best in the little details. Throughout the movie, New York's infrastructure is seen crumbling, a metaphor for moral decay, as well. Lights fail, bombs explode, Gould gets beaten up and called homosexual epithets, and 340 "little murders" go unsolved through the city. When we finally meet Gould's parents (John Randolph and a young Doris Roberts), they are the clueless, over-educated liberals that Feiffer often winningly skewed in his cartoons. Finally, the lawlessness building slowly on the edges of the story strikes Gould and his wife's family, and they literally go crazy, turning into part of the city's uncontrollable rabble.

Feiffer said some of this movie was his reaction to the political assassinations of the '60s. It is also part of theater's absurdist and surreal traditions, from Beckett to Ionesco. And I can see where he's going with it, but it just doesn't work onscreen. There are long, excruciating stretches, as though the whole movie is the opening cat food scene of Gould's The Long Goodbye. This might have made a nifty casual on the pages of The New Yorker or Feiffer's Village Voice, but onscreen it doesn't come close to what Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola pulled off in their '60s indie experiments.

There are several reasons to sit through Little Murders. From the opening credits, you can spot the gorgeous grainy photography of Gordon Willis, who favors us again with several velvety dark interior shots. Arkin's direction is sort of intriguing, a mix of standard and hand-held shots that keeps the film off-balance. Elliott Gould was at the height of his youthful handsomeness, and has there ever been a more unlikely and appealing leading man than Elliott Gould? Sometimes, just the mere fact of his presence in a movie makes it worthwhile.

Finally, in the pantheon of great ministers-at-weddings scenes, Donald Sutherland's cameo as a hippie existentialist reverend deserves pride of place next to Peter Cook's in Bedazzled. Instead of me describing it, you can watch it here. This might be the single best sequence in the movie, with Feiffer pulling together a great soliloquy on marriage and Arkin crisply editing the back-and-forth commentary with a deft touch that resembles Mel Brooks-meets-Woody Allen:

Sutherland is great, isn't he? In the end, I wish all of Little Murders could live up to that scene. (The opening scene, as we hear Gould being beaten up outside Rudd's window and she keeps getting a busy signal when she calls 911, is just as inspired.) It sounds as though there are a lot of reasons to see Little Murders, and perhaps there are.

It is definitely a sui generis film, but I don't think it measures up to similar counterculture classics such as Hi, Mom! and You're A Big Boy Now. In acting parlance, it doesn't kill.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Deno Diary: What I've Been Listening To

"Some velvet morning, when I'm straight..."

The Deno Diary: The Stark Novels

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.

That's the hardboiled opening line of The Hunter, by Richard Stark (a k a Donald Westlake). It's the book that introduced the world to the badass thief Parker, a man who lives by his own code and woe to whoever and whatever gets in his way. After years of being out of print, The University of Chicago Press has reissued the first three Stark novels of the early '60s — The Hunter, The Man With The Getaway Face and The Outfit.

After reading the first two, it's impossible to imagine anyone as Parker but Lee Marvin, who played the character (renamed Walker) in John Boorman's masterpiece, Point Blank. It's one of those times when the movies got the casting absolutely right. Marvin is Parker. Parker is Marvin. I enjoyed Mel Gibson as Parker in the underrated remake Payback, but let's face it: This Parker would stomp Mel Gibson's face in.

If it's possible to imagine, Parker is even harder on the page than he is on screen. The plot of The Hunter is essentially unchanged in Point Blank. Newly sprung from the joint where his backstabbing partners' machinations landed him, Parker is like a human blowtorch, unable to relax, unable to feel any decent human emotion. Not until he does in the partner who doublecrossed him, not until he faces down the wife who screwed him and not until he gets his share of the heist proceeds they stole from him. $45,000. Yeah, it's not much, but that's not the point. The point is: Do not mess with Parker.

The books are beautifully written, full of vivid descriptions, and the characters' psychological and even sexual motivations are more complex than you'd expect in that era and genre. Stark's spare rhythms are hypnotic. He is a master of the bullet plot, the terse pulp lingo ("the finger," "the fliff," "the busher"), the point-by-point procedural as poetry. The dialogue is tough-guy, cinematic, Warner Bros., 1940s division:

"You're an annoyance, Parker," said Bronson's heavy, angry voice. "You're an irritation, like a mosquito. All right. Forty-five thousand dollars is chickenfeed. It's a small account, for small punks with small minds. To get rid of the mosquito, all right — I'll swat you with forty-five thousand dollars. But let me tell you something Parker."

"Tell me then," said Parker.

"You're a marked man. You'll get your petty payoff, and after that you're dead whether you know it or not. I'm not going to send anybody out after you especially. I wouldn't spend the time or the money. I'm just going to spread the word around. A cheap penny-ante heister named Parker, I'm going to say. If you see him, make him dead. That's all, just if you happen to see him. Do you get what I'm talking about Parker?"

"Sure," said Parker. "Carter told me all about it. You're as big as the post office. You're coast to coast. I should look you up in the Yellow Pages."

And so it goes. What makes the novels swing, beyond the hardcase Hammett poses, is the sense of Parker as the last free man. He wants to pull enough scores to earn some laying-around bread, to put away small amounts in a string of banks, to chill in Miami in first-class hotels and pay for top-shelf women to satisfy him. Then, he'll work enough to go back to the swank life for a little longer. He doesn't live for the thrill of stealing, he steals to finance his way of life. He's careful, very methodical, he works only with people he knows, takes no unnecessary risks. Unless he really needs the dough. Or somebody messes with his code. As the Outfit (the mob, the organization, the corporation, whatever) does. Then, he'll say to hell with it and go after them with everything he's got.

The Parker of recent vintage is still a thief, will still kill you without remorse if he has to, but he seems more inclined to basic humanity than this early Parker does. In The Man With The Getaway Face, for example, Parker (and Stark) deliver a chilling, bloody coup de grace that must have seemed beyond the pale back in the early '60s. Today, it would seem routine to fans of splatter movies or David Fincher's Seven.

Perhaps what's most amazing is how Stark makes you care about the well-being of this amoral anti-hero. He's a menace, but he has a certain understandable, maybe even admirable situational ethics. It's really simple. Don't take his 45 grand. Don't mess with Parker.