Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
by Steven Boone
Hippy dippy Woodstock director Michael Wadleigh made only one narrative feature film, the majestically weird horror fable Wolfen. Having not seen it since Late Late Show screenings in the 1980's, I remembered Wolfen, faintly, as that other, lesser, wolf flick of 1981.
Not until screening it recently with a horror afficionado pal did I come to understand it as a reeling peyote vision of New York City's Third World future, the one I'm staggering through presently. Damn. This video is my parting shot as I prepare to join a sad, strange exodus from the city that used to feel like home.
Friday, October 30, 2009
It all comes down to what you believe, because none of us knew the man.
I believe Michael Jackson was a good guy. I believe he never harmed anyone's child. I believe he was one of those rare people who tried to apply his otherworldly talent to healing some of the basic, eternal problems of humanity. I believe he was a great man of strong constitution and boundless vision. I believe that the incessant lies told about him were his indirect murderer.
MOONWALK is the autobiography he wrote in 1988.
I believe David Lynch is the filmmaker who should make the inevitable MOONWALK movie. Lynch's capacity for empathy; his ability to describe alienation, suffering and loneliness in spiritual, visual terms; his American ear; his understanding of corporate show business as a place where dreams are nourished with candied arsenic... make Lynch the best equipped among marquee-value auteurs to say something vital about Michael's life and death.
Here are some notes and sketches for the Lynch adaptation:
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Heene: Just keep talking. Just keep talking. Don't throw up. Wait, am I making my son throw up? Am I making myself throw up? Who believes this? Are they believing this? C'mon boys, be my boys; get us to commercial break.
Viera: Just keep talking. Just keep talking. Did he throw up? Wait, am I making that boy throw up? Am I making that dad throw up? Who believes this? Does he really believe himself? C'mon boys, ignore it, keep talking; get us to commercial break.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
2009 is the year I quit film criticism for the fourth or fifth time. It was sort of like the local crazy homeless guy quitting his post as honorary mayor of the corner. Big whoop. I keep coming back to the block, hoping somebody heard my cry of doom and responded accordingly. The cry goes something like this: Cinema as a popular art form has lost the fundamentals that make its expensive products worth our time. Critics, content that a stubborn minority of classically trained filmmakers still endure at the arthouse and on the festival circuit, happily chalk up the disaster at the multiplex as Other People’s Problem. In other words, caviar for us, scraps for the rabble. It's the blithe attitude of Whole Foods shoppers toward the Food Stamp set, and it's disgusting.
I quit film criticism because somebody has banished the shot from mainstream commercial cinema.
The shot, man.
That unit of film composition which lends film its cumulative power and structural integrity.
In place of the shot, like a leaky sandbag in place of a brick, somebody put... Well, what to call it, this fragment of film that has more in common with a spontaneous cutaway during Monday Night Football than with the ruminative, kinetic moving image discovered by Kuleshov, Porter, Griffith, et al? I once jokingly called it a gotcha-fragment, but that doesn't quite get it. The word for “shot” in the new century shall be…
No further explanation necessary, but it might be helpful to provide some examples. Here are some blurbs from your favorite cultural authority, revised:
"No matter how cynical you feel about Hollywood, it is hard not to fall for a film that makes room for a snatch of the Joker leaning out the window of a stolen police car and laughing into the wind, the city’s colored lights gleaming behind him like jewels."-- Manohla Dargis, The Dark Knight review
"A busy opening flurry of mock-news snatches and talking-head documentary chin scratching fills in a grim, disturbingly plausible scenario."-- A.O. Scott, District 9 review
"Snatch" is perfect because it describes the image, the manner in which the image was acquired and what the image does to you. Snatches are snatched and they snatch you. By the waistband of your drawers. So, until equality returned to cinema and the average Joe viewer could enjoy shots again, I was determined to stay on strike.
With Inglourious Basterds, the strike has ended peacefully. Quentin Tarantino’s divine slice of movie love is gloriously snatch-free. Every shot, even the ones that whizz by in a blur of violence, is set in stone, not graphite. Tarantino brought the might and resources of big budget commercial filmmaking to bear on the snatch malaise. No critic could attack the problem any better.
This isn't the first time Tarantino came to the rescue. In fact, each new QT feature rebukes snatch culture. Pulp Fiction arrived in 1994, the same pivotal year that Natural Born Killers, one of the first ever snatch features (ironically from a QT script) gave us a glimpse of the future in big screen storytelling.
Pulp Fiction's success over Natural Born Killer's mediocre run should have told the studios that people go to the darkened theater not to be snatched up but to be lured into a delicious trap. Trouble was that Ho'wood attributed Pulp Fiction's popularity only to the jokes and grisly killings, so it commissioned more smirky, bloody potboilers. As editors began to abandon rules developed over a century of filmmaker-audience call and response in favor of lazy shortcuts their AVID editing consoles enabled, shots morphed into snatches. Directors adopted multiple camera coverage, not for any inspired artistic reasons like Akira Kurosawa on High and Low or Spike Lee on Bamboozled, but merely to burn through script pages more efficiently, a la Richard Donner on the Lethal Weapon series.
Another pop power player, Robert Zemeckis, caught hold of audience attention spans that same year with Forrest Gump and later with Cast Away. (Dave Kehr on Zemeckis: "Like the classical Hollywood filmmakers he studied in the 70's as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California's pioneering Department of Cinema, Mr. Zemeckis is well attuned to the nuances of framing and camera movement. He stands as one of the very few filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood who are fluent and innovative in the visual language of the movies.") Also in '94, Frank Darabont's sleeper Stephen King hit The Shawshank Redemption told a grim prison tale in the manner of Frank Capra, full of Capra hokum but also Capra's patient, cajoling camera.
DVD arrived the following year, and such storytelling was suddenly marked for death. When the DVD market exploded, snatchery went into overdrive. The random access of DVD's primed audiences to accept and expect a steady deluge of gotcha-fragments in virtually any genre. (David Lynch waged a small protest in his Mulholland Dr. DVD by refusing chapter stops. If you wanted to skip ahead to any "good parts" you had to fast forward VCR-style at best.)
Portable media devices and web 2.0 further accelerated the spread of snatch, as editing became a matter of assembling shots intended for screening on a 320 x 240 px screen rather than the 20-footer at your local Loews.
None of these technologies are evil. They have freed consumers and media makers in countless ways. But it’s a post-colonial Africa kind of liberation: How to manage an inherited government and infrastructure without proper instruction, or with corrupt tutors?
Among the snatch criminal elite: D.J. Caruso (Disturbia), Paul Greengrass (the Bourne sequels), Peter Berg (The Kingdom), J.J. Abrams (Star Trek). (Michael Bay, often misidentified as a felony-level purveyor of snatch, is actually as classical in his mise en scene as Spielberg. As with juvenile classicist Robert Rodriguez, he just likes to cut fast.)
Along the way, some filmmakers held fast to the tried and true. Many aging ‘70s auteurs (Spielberg, Coppola, DePalma, Malick, Scorsese, Lumet), of course, kept their cinematographic wits. Bankable directors like Joel Coen (Fargo), Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock), The Wachowskis (The Matrix), Sam Raimi (Spiderman), Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans films), Spike Lee (The Inside Man), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) could be counted on to retain the power of the frame and the well-considered cut. On the lower frequencies, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Alexander Payne (Sideways), David O. Russell (Three Kings) and Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) also kept to the old rules, even as they bent them ever so gracefully to their singular visions.
Even masters of epic bombast like James Cameron (Titanic) and Mel Gibson (Apocalypto) knew that loony borderline kitsch didn't preclude lucid framing, while craftsmen like Ridley Scott suddenly took up the snatch trade in earnest (see the drive-by war flicks Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies). In a universe of his own, Michael Mann spent the aughts getting looser and jazzier on digital video (from Ali to Public Enemies), but never losing an intimate understanding of the rhythms he was subverting.
But it has taken Tarantino, with his infectious love of violent scenarios and grindhouse grand guignol to sell classical film technique not as a quaint alternative to snatch cinema but as the most vital, elastic and essential use of the form. Without shots, cinema disappears, and the movie house becomes just another noisy rec room.
In the 1980's, cineastes lamented the loss of the grand old movie palaces, whose architecture communicated a sense of cinema as a hallowed sanctuary. But the rise of the multiplex couldn't demolish the screen architecture that makes cinema a form of spiritual transportation, dream play and communal understanding-- the shot. Only the death of the shot has burned down the cinema. This hasn't stopped folks from attending movies in record numbers only because, let's face it, multimillion dollar marketing can sell you anything.
In a summer still reacting to last year's snatch apotheosis, The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds stepped in to assume the role of proper tutor. Whatever Tarantino's intentions, I happily project onto his film profound outrage at TDK’s senseless, anti-human use of screen time and space, along with an apostle's commitment to sharing his enlightenment with the deprived.
Children, if you want to know how movies, real movies, the kind you heard your great great grandparents wax nostalgic about.... If you want to know how those films deliver visual and narrative pleasure, then pop a Ritalin and watch Inglourious Basterds. Me, I'm going back to work.
Friday, June 26, 2009
I was sitting in Tom's Restaurant on 112th and Broadway, showing my friend, Jeff, where they shot the exteriors for Seinfeld. I heard an older Black woman sitting opposite me say "did y'all hear Michael Jackson died?"
I thought she was kidding. She was on the phone with her daughter, and she kept going back and forth between her phone conversation and us; she became our Brenda Blackmon. The owner at Tom's turned on CNN and the reporter said "Michael Jackson had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. He was not breathing."
"Thank God," I said, "at least he's not dead."
"My daughter says Fox News says he's dead," interrupted the woman.
"Fox isn't news!" I said. "They're never right about anything!"
I was just willing the truth away. Subconsciously I already knew he was gone: Both the woman on the phone and I heard the words CNN used to describe Jackson's condition: "Michael Jackson has been taken to the hospital...and he was not breathing."
"They never said he restarted breathing," I said, looking into that woman's maternal eyes for any sign of disagreement. She nodded affirmatively, and looked at me the way only a mother could, with firm sadness tempered with clear comforting. Her eyes were saying "No, honey, I can't lie to you."
I looked at Jeff, who said "that would be insane if it were true."
This was insanity.
I looked at the TV and on the bottom of the screen, CNN had chosen to do something it rarely does: It agreed with Fox. "Michael Jackson is dead," read the bottom of the screen. I felt like I'd been hit with a brick.
When my Mom was pregnant with me, one of her intense cravings was for ABC by The Jackson Five. I don't know if this is the reason, but I've never been able to get enough of that song. Whenever it comes on, I want to get up and dance, to the point of relying solely on my will power to restrain me as I have no shame. Naughty By Nature sought further to entice me when they sampled that song for the first and still only rap song my Mom likes. So even before I put on the mortal coil Mike has just shaken off, I knew his music. Ironically, the first song I heard on the radio after this news was "I'll Be There," a song I always thought Mike was way too young to sing (though he does so convincingly). All I could do was nod at his sentiment. He'll be there. Even though he is physically gone.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Since I will be going to Ireland tomorrow, I thought I'd publish this mini-travelogue from my first visit to Dublin back in October, 2008. This is a true story, with little embellishment on my part. I did change the names to protect the innocent, or more truthfully, because I didn't get the other character's name. I wish I had.
The people I met on my excursions to the Emerald Isle were all wonderful, colorful characters. It felt stereotypical at first, but then several folks I spent time with told me I sounded just like the people they met in New York City, yet I seemed too nice to be an American. I guess we're all stereotypes at first glance.
When I was in Dublin in February of this year, I wrote four pieces for Black History Mumf. I felt a kinship with all the writers Ireland has turned out over the centuries; I felt true inspiration. Or maybe it was just the Guinness and Jameson talking. In either case, I made a second attempt to do what this tale describes. I failed below, and I failed again in February.
Dublin is a great town, and I'm looking forward to getting into more trouble there. Perhaps I will be successful in the following endeavor, for as they say, the third time's the charm. Let me tell you about the first time.
I think I know where the Irish-born John Boorman got his idea for Zardoz. In Dublin, I kept encountering James Joyce, or rather, James Joyce's disembodied head. Most cities have statues and sculptures of their favorite sons, but Dublin is enamored with Joyce's head. In the rare instance they put it on his body in sculpture, it's never in proportion. Never having seen Joyce's full body in a picture, I can't say if this is accurate. I would certainly hope not.
Every time I encountered James' head, I saw Sean Connery in a diaper. I imagined Joyce saying, in a soft Irish lilt, "the pay-nis is evil! The pay-nis shoots seeds!" before spewing out an entire stack of Finnegans Wake novels all over the place. James Joyce knew this, so he decided to have fun with me from beyond the grave in Dublin.
My Ireland tour book told me I needed to go to James Joyce House. It provided some rather crappy map directions, but nothing in Dublin is easy to find, at first. I'd gotten lost every time I tried to find something, and kept running into James' head. This time, however, the powers that be offered some direction in the guise of signs that said "James Joyce House" followed by an arrow and the distance from my current point. As I followed the signs, they seemed to encourage more and more unusual direction. "James Joyce House" read a sign, followed by an arrow that pointed in the direction of a sinister looking alley. Is that right? I asked myself. I looked on the map. The entire area I currently stood in wasn't even ON the map. It was like it had been skipped, blacked out by Rod Serling. Not one street in the vicinity was on the map.
I approached the alley cautiously, thinking I'd be mugged by the ghosts of Irish writers past. After all, I haven't exactly been nice to Joyce, mocking his writing repeatedly in places like The House Next Door. In that alley, I imagined I'd get kicked in the balls by Brendan Behan and bitchslapped by Samuel Beckett. I put on my tough NYC Subway face and entered the alley. "C'mon ghosts," I said in my Al Pacino voice, "GIMME WHATCHA GOT!"
Fortunately, there were no pissed off and/or pissed ghosts of Irish writers in the alley. There was, however, pissing in the alley. A young Dubliner was relieving himself, in full view of passers-by (or rather, passer-by, as it was just him and me in the alley). Dublin is full of blokes emptying their baloney ponies on the cobblestone streets. I saw so much Irish dick that my tour book should have mentioned it as one of the sights I'd see more frequently than Joyce's head. Leaking guys with little sense of modesty are legion, but usually at 3 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. It was 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon.
I couldn't have gotten a better Hollywood-central casting Irishman if I'd ordered him from God's Sears catalog. Red hair? Check. Pale skin? Check. Cheery Smile? Check. Vocal inflections and a tenor's voice? Check. Green attire? Check. Soccer scarf? Check. All he needed was a shamrock and a shillelagh. He certainly wasn't holding a shillelagh in his hand. Irish Curse? Check.
"Cheers, mate!" said Seamus McPee in a cheery brogue. He waved at me, smartly not using the hand holding his uncircumcised pecker. "That's not in my sightseeing guide," I said, holding up my book. "It should be, mate!" he yelled back. "It's the most famous cock in Dublin!"
The alley led, as many Dublin alleys do, to a more populated open area. Awaiting me was another signpost: "James Joyce House" with an arrow that looked as if it were square dancing. The arrow seemed to imply it wanted me to go up, then right, then straight, then right, then straight. "What the hell?" I said out loud. "Could they have bent this fucking arrow in any other directions?"
"You lookin' for James Joyce House?" said a familiar voice from behind me. It was Seamus McPee.
"Yeah, I am," I said.
"Foock that sign," he said. "turn right two blocks down."
"Thanks a lot," I said.
"No worries!" he said, extending his hand for me to shake. I looked at it. My brain raced. Was that the hand he was holding his dick with? Suddenly, an image of Seamus appeared in my head, replaying the earlier scene. In slow motion, Seamus raised his left hand to wave at me. My eyes lowered to the right hand he was currently extending to me.
"C'mon, mate! Don't leave me hanging!" said Seamus.
Forrest Whitaker's Crying Game character, Jody, popped into my head. "It's just a piece of meat," he quoted from the film. "It's got no major diseases!"
I read somewhere that the fist bump was invented by baseball players on (I believe) the Oakland A's. They had a pitcher who peed on his palms as some superstitious pre-game ritual. His teammates would fist bump him to keep from touching his piss palms. Quickly, I balled up my fist and extended it in for Seamus to fist bump me. Instead, Seamus wrapped his hand around my fist and held it; he wasn't familiar with the concept of fist bumping. "I hope you Americans elect O'Bahmer!" he said as he held my hand. The Irish I met always called Obama "O'Bahmer," which sounds wonderful, and everyone I met had the same sentiment when my harsh Joisey accent greeted them.
I'm sure Seamus held my hand about 10-15 seconds, but time seemed to slow down as my brain grasped the concept that, by the distributive property, I was holding Seamus McPee's wang. Seamus flashed a friendly smile at me, and I swear to God his eyes twinkled. The Irish Rovers were singing in some windmill of my mind.
"I'm voting for him," I assured him. I started to retrieve my fist, but he didn't let go of my hand. "Seriously, mate, that George W. Bush is a foockin' arse!" He grabbed my fist tighter. "Jay-sus, what a foocked up situation!" I nodded. He smiled. "You're probably sick of Irish pricks like me yelling at you about America!" he chuckled. I smiled. "Nah, it's cool."
A few people passed by, walking around the two guys standing on the sidewalk in some kind of arm wrestling pose. Seamus let my hand go.
"Two blocks down, turn right!" he said. He waved at me and went the opposite direction. "Thanks again!" I said to his back. He gave me a thumbs up.
Two blocks and a right turn later, I found myself at James Joyce House. It was on a street with a lot of other inconspicuous houses. In the window was—you guessed it—James Joyce's head. A big picture of him from the shoulders up stared at me from the window of the building. Also staring at me, and a few others who had gathered on the stoop, was a sign that said:
"James Joyce House is closed today. We are sorry for any inconvenience!"
I looked at Joyce's face staring at me from the window. I could hear my interpretation of James' voice, negating the final words in Ulysses: "And I said no and he said no the sign said and we said no no oh no oh no oh no."
"Bollocks!" I yelled. I wanted to go Mookie on that window containing Joyce's picture, tossing a trash can through it. I was mad as hell. I walked, like two miles to get here, and the bastard wasn't even home!
My first exposure to James Joyce was in freshman year of high school. We read a story called Araby, which is from his Dubliners book. I thought it was one of the most beautiful stories I'd ever read. It didn't end happily, I recall, but there was some form of bitter acceptance at the end of the story. It was Joycean that my journey would end with my petty hopes of doing something I looked forward to being dashed.
I am sure that the tourists around the James Joyce head in St. Stephens Green that Sunday afternoon will tell their grandkids about the time they saw some pissed off looking Black guy from Joisey going upside it with a plastic water bottle.
Monday, May 18, 2009
In the summer of 2000, Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone, a spinoff of his notorious art film about an unemployed French butcher righting all the wrongs in his life, came to American television. The short-lived FX channel series was a vast improvement over the movie. A raft of brilliant scenarists (including Alexander Payne, Stephen Gaghan and Roger Avary) crafted propulsive tales of vigilante justice, family drama and, in its post-9/11 second (and final) season, the myriad complexities of homeland security police work. The story of The Butcher's rise from disgruntled meat-cutter to homicidal anti-hero to Paris' top cop riveted a small but devoted cult following.
The critics were slow to catch on. Salon's dismissive blurb, "Taxi Driver meets Highway to Heaven," actually counts as a startlingly precise encapsulation of what made the show such a heady, provocative clash of styles. It paved the way for other, far more successful (but less gutsy) FX shows, like The Shield, Nip/Tuck and Rescue Me.
I'm posting a VHS rip of the show opener as a small attempt at drumming up support for an I Stand Alone: The Series revival via either syndication or DVD. If you miss (or missed) this show, email the geniuses at FX and tell them bring back the butcher. In these recessionary times, we need him.
Monday, March 02, 2009
Last year, I went after some of the movies Black folks love, taking them to task for various offenses. As the 2009 Black History Mumf draws to a close, I offer my readers the chance to take me to similar task. Miss Ross and I made up earlier this month, but I got a lot of hate mail for dissing Irene Cara’s dress. So for those who thought I was mean to Sparkle, here’s your revenge. The Five Heartbeats is MY Sparkle. Much has been written about the film, most of it negative, but when I first saw it in 1991, I fell in love with it. I own a copy of the soundtrack which, excepting School Daze’s soundtrack, is the most played soundtrack in my collection. I own the 15th anniversary DVD as well. For those unfamiliar with the film, this next sentence may send you running for the exit:
Tyler Perry must have seen this movie.
The Five Heartbeats has a lot in common with the films and plays of Tyler Perry, though it is far better crafted than anything with Perry’s name on it. It has elements of comedy, drama, melodrama and music, plus a brief foray into a Christian theme of redemption. It is peopled with actors who, for the most part, were not household names in 1991. Heartbeats makes no attempt to disguise that it’s an audience pleaser, and the audience it aims for is similar to the one that bought Tyler Perry his mansion. As it spins its tale, many plot elements are historical shorthand for events that befell numerous soul singers and groups during the film’s 30 year time frame; the more one knows about the trials and tribulations of Black music, the more entertaining The Five Heartbeats becomes.
After Hollywood Shuffle, writers Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans scripted a story about a fictional singing group’s rise to the top. It started out as a comedy, but as Townsend and company did more research and interviews with musicians of that era, they added dramatic elements to the film. Townsend wrote himself a part as the group’s original songwriter and replacement fifth member, then cast a few veterans and members of his acting troupe amongst his newcomers.
Each of the Five Heartbeats is given a personality that carries throughout the picture. Duck (Townsend) is the group’s mediator, songwriter and leader. His brother JT (Leon) is the ladies man who can’t seem to commit. When JT tells him that he can’t stop sleeping with different women, Duck tells his brother he needs help. “They have Alcoholics Anonymous. You need Dick Control meetings.” The band’s David Ruffin lead singer clone, Eddie, could use the former self-help group. As embodied by Michael Wright (the crazed Omar White on Oz), Eddie is the film’s tragic figure. Rounding out the group are the high-note hitting Choir Boy (Tico Wells) and his counterpart at the other end of the scale, bass singer and group choreographer Dresser (Harry J. Lennix from Titus--someone cast him as Barack Obama stat!).
The film’s chaotic opening set piece is a premonition of things to come. It combines several musical numbers, a poker game gone wrong, a shooting, some verbal and physical comedy, a sex scene and a last minute entrance. Three of the Five Heartbeats are at a talent show, awaiting the arrival of Eddie and the original fifth Heartbeat, Bobby. Eddie and Bobby are playing a loaded poker game, and have to run when they’re exposed as cheaters. In the escape, Bobby is shot in the leg and never seen again in the movie, and Eddie comes sliding across the stage to take the lead at the last possible minute. Duck has JT take Bobby’s part, and he assumes JT’s part in their first musical number, “Nothing But Love For You.” The song’s Motown influence is evident in the lyrics.
Ain’t got no money.
Ain’t got no fancy car.
Don’t live the life of a millionaire
Or a movie star.
There’s nothing in this world that I possess
To equal your lovin’ and tenderness.
‘Cuz I got nothing but love for you baby
Got nothing but love for you baby.
The group loses to Flash and the Ebony Flames, a group headed by John Canada Terrell’s Michael “Flash” Turner. Flash is full of his nickname—he strips onstage, then rubs an audience member’s leg while singing “Shimmy shimmy yum yum, come on girl give me some!” The girl passes out as he sings “Are you ready for me?” I guess she wasn’t.
The Heartbeats’ loss doesn’t deter Jimmy Potter (Chuck Patterson) who wants to manage the group. Potter’s wife Eleanor (Diahann Carroll, looking stunning here) is skeptical. She points out that all the groups Potter has fallen for have all left him when they got famous. Potter has a good feeling about this group. After winning a few talent contests, including one sabotaged by a group led by Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle nemesis, Roy Fegan, Potter wants to press Nothing But Love For You onto vinyl. He finds a record company who wants to instead have the song recorded by his White artist, The Five Horsemen. This is an allusion to what actually happened to Black music more than a few times. The Five Horsemen are completely devoid of soul, just like Pat Boone. Unlike the horrific Tutti Frutti cover by Pat Boone, which went to number one on the charts while Little Richard’s version didn’t even chart, Jimmy refuses to have his record ruined by The Five Horsemen. Enter Big Red Davis.
Big Red is the proprietor of Big Red Records, which signs The Five Heartbeats, records Nothing, their signature song, and sends them on tour in the South. He is the film’s chief antagonist, a dangerous and corrupt record owner out to cheat any group he signs. But Hawthorne James plays the character so broadly that his every appearance sends the movie perilously close to self-parody. With his toothy smile and shock of conked red hair, Big Red looks like he stepped out of a comic book. His actions manage to be menacing, but James never is. When he hangs Roy Fegan out of a window over Fegan’s complaint about royalties (is this Townsend’s revenge for Fegan’s torment in Shuffle?), Fegan’s panicked reaction (and his split pants) sells the scene better than James’ menacing. James is as subtle as Madea, and just as important to his film’s storyline.
Now that the guys are going on tour, Potter hires a choreographer to give them some new moves. Dresser is offended, and challenges the new choreographer, a short older man named Sarge Johnson, whom Potter knew in the Army. Unfortunately for Dresser, Sarge is played by the late, great Harold Nicholas from the Nicholas Brothers, the greatest tap team to ever put on tap shoes. Nicholas sizes up Dresser’s moves and then, true to his former screen incarnation as Uptown Saturday Night’s Little Seymour, barks out “see, that wasn’t shit!” Nicholas then does a brief number which brought joy to my heart; anytime this man dances on screen I want to jump up and down. The gruff Sarge has only a few scenes in The Five Heartbeats, but Nicholas makes the most of his screen time. Whether asking for a verboten cigarette or threatening to whip two people’s asses at once, Sarge grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.
Townsend and Wayans give each character little mini-dramas to showcase the actor. Dresser frets over being able to afford his pregnant girlfriend. Eddie’s constant need to be loved and adored by fans leads him down the path of alcohol and drug abuse, leading to the departure of his girl-group singer significant other, Baby Doll (Troy Beyer, who unlike the Heartbeats, does her own singing) and his eventual replacement in the group by John Canada Terrell’s Flash. Eddie’s insubordination inadvertently leads to Big Red’s murdering of Jimmy Potter after the latter refuses to sell his share in the Heartbeats. Eleanor Potter loses her husband and both she and Dresser hold a grudge against Eddie. Duck and JT have a falling out over a woman. All of these subplots are well acted and, though they are predictable, manage to be compelling nonetheless. We’ve invested so much in the characters that the melodramas work.
Michael Wright has the most difficult part to play, and he brings grit and intensity to it. Had Eddie Murphy’s similarly plotted Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls been allowed the same rough edges as Wright’s Eddie, Murphy would have won his Oscar easily. Like Dreamgirls’ treatment of Effie White, Heartbeats skirts the narrative’s logical progression toward the death of its doomed character; here Eddie is rehabilitated through Narcotics Anonymous and the church, but not before a painful scene of Eddie hitting rock bottom. Wright is agonizing and sad as Eddie attempts to rejoin the group while strung out on drugs. Choir Boy offers him money, which Eddie refuses. Choir Boy later offers Eddie a chance to sing in his church choir, which he accepts. Townsend turns it into a rousing gospel musical number.
Speaking of the music, The Five Heartbeats is full of original material sung by session musicians such as Billy Valentine (who does lead on the Heartbeats’ signature tune) and The Dells, upon whose life story some of Heartbeats’ events are based. The songs are excellent and their presentation, with costume changes and full choreography, is a sight to behold. The best number, for a song called We Haven't Finished Yet, comes from Tressa Thomas, who plays Duck’s little sister. While Duck tosses balled up wads of paper with failed lyrics onto the floor, his sister picks them up and starts singing them. As she goes along, Duck tears up their room looking for other pieces of paper with lyrics on them to string together. Townsend and Thomas really sell the number; it works despite its cheesy nature and seemingly inappropriate staging (this isn’t THAT kind of musical). Patti Labelle sings the song over the end credits, and, sorry Patti, I liked the movie’s version better.
The Five Heartbeats is told as one big flashback, but the film goes in chronological order once it hops back in time. As each decade passes, we bear witness to some of the fates that befell real life artists. The Dells’ story about being stopped by racist cops in the South, and forced to sing to prove their identity, is recreated here, as is the robbery of soul artists’ royalties and pay by record label owners. Payola also appears here, as does the career-long battles between groups for fan appreciation and the refusal to put Black artists' pictures on their album covers. The film also tackles how inner group turmoil can cause its breakup despite seemingly lifelong bonds of friendship being forged early on. Townsend and Wayans sprinkle liberal doses of humor in the movie (watch the TV late in the film to see what happens to Flash’s solo career), but give these tragic items the dramatic weight they require.
Much of The Five Heartbeats’ criticism sounds similar to the reviews of Perry’s works: Too many jarring elements are put together in one film. I argue that, in Townsend’s case, his stitching holds the movie together. As writer, he lets us get to know the characters, and as director, he never loses his grip on the material’s sometimes bizarre mixing of elements. There’s a great movie inside of Tyler Perry, and it’s coming sooner rather than later (mark my words). And when it comes, it’s going to look like The Five Heartbeats.
And that, dear readers, marks the end of this year’s Black History Mumf series! Thanks to everyone who posted out here with comments, and to everyone who took the time to read my ramblings. Stay tooned for a few BHM extras unveiling in the next few weeks. I promised 29 pieces and you’ll get them, officially or not.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Women in Blaxploitation pictures were disposable characters who usually served two purposes: Screw the hero, and bring him information or a weapon. Youngblood Priest is seen in bed with White girls, but they get far less screen time than The White Girl (ahem, cocaine) in his movie. Shaft’s women are memorable for having a hand clenching orgasm and for telling him to “get it yourself, shitty!” Rudy Ray Moore’s “Kung Fu hos” assisted him in fights and love scenes, both of which were horribly choreographed. As in most B-movies of the era, women were there to be seen and not heard, regardless of race.
Pam Grier changed all that. Already a veteran of B-movies by 1973, she was cast in what seemed like the typical Blaxploitation female. In Coffy, she picks up two drug dealers with the promise of crack and smack. As one guy strips down to his purple boxers, and the other watches while prepping for his fix, you might be thinking that the guys are the heroes of this picture. After all, Youngblood Priest was a dope pusher and he’s the hero of Super Fly. Pam changes your opinion quickly: She calls Mr. Purple Drawers a word that rhymes with blubbermucker, pulls out a sawed off shotgun and shoots the guy point blank in the head. BLAM!! Then she turns to the other guy and demands he shoot up with a Secretariat sized portion of horse. “This will kill me!” he tells her. “Maybe it will and maybe it won't,” says Pam. “But if it do, you gonna fly through them pearly gates with the biggest fucking smile St. Peter ever seen!”
Director Jack Hill’s third collaboration with Pam Grier wastes no time in establishing its premise. Coffy has a problem with drug dealers, and she’s willing to lure them to their violent ends by any means necessary. It isn’t difficult when you’re tall, sexy, confident and have double D guns to go with your actual guns. This wasn’t the typical Blaxploitation hero. Shaft spent the first five minutes of his movie walking through Times Square. In the same amount of time, Coffy sends two bad guys to their Maker, one of them without a head. The poster was right: Coffy will cream you!
Before Coffy, Pam Grier appeared in chicks in chains movies like The Big Bird Cage, its sequel, The Big Doll House, (both by Hill) and Black Mama, White Mama. Mama, a personal genre fave of mine, pairs Grier with leggy blonde Margaret Markov in a sleazy update of The Defiant Ones. They’re handcuffed together, but it doesn’t stop them from having cat fights. Grier was tough, both as hero and villain in her earliest films, but they didn’t start writing her legend until she put on Coffy’s nurse outfit and took on the drug world.
Having a kick-ass female for a hero isn’t Coffy’s only deviation from the genre. The negative portrayal of drugs was also unusual, especially after Super Fly. Super Fly’s hero snorted so much cocaine I’m surprised he was able to stand up. It looked cool, the way Bette Davis’ cigarettes looked cool. Curtis Mayfield said that the film was “a giant commercial for cocaine,” and used his music to counter that. Mayfield’s Pusher Man is a boastful number, but the fool he’s besting in the song is the junkie he holds sway over with his product: He’s your Mama and your Daddy, that is, he owns your ass. It’s telling that Mayfield appears in the film singing this song. Later, he sings on the soundtrack “my life’s a natural high, The Man can’t put no thing on me.” Meanwhile, the people onscreen make Tony Montana look like a newbie.
Coffy has an anti-drug plot. Coffy’s 11-year old sister has gotten hold of some bad smack, and is now incapacitated. Coffy takes her cop ex-boyfriend, Carter (William Elliott), on a tour of what passes for the pediatric ward of the Betty Ford clinic. She points out that some of the patients are under 10 years old. Unbeknownst to Carter, Coffy has been roaming the streets at night, a year before Chuck Bronson would do the same, seeking revenge on the pushers who hurt her family. Unbeknownst to Coffy, Carter’s involved with some shady police dealings with the Mafia. When he backs out, they treat him like a piñata while Coffy helplessly watches. This is a bigger Mafia mistake than Godfather III; Coffy knows how to keep—and settle—a grudge.
Meanwhile, Coffy’s current boyfriend, Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw), is running for Congress. He’s not right for our heroine; he’s corrupt as shit and stupid to boot. He, like most of the men in this picture, underestimates Coffy. She thinks he’s busy, but honest. His campaign race gives Coffy time to execute her plan undetected. Little does she know it’ll all end up back at Howard’s.
Coffy goes undercover (and under the covers) as a prostitute for King George (Robert DuQui), the pimp whose bad heroin her sister injected. King George (his theme music goes “George…KING GEORGE!”) dresses in colors that will burn holes in your retinas, and he has a rainbow coalition-worthy stable of women. Coffy pretends to be a Jamaican ho, complete with an accent so bad it makes Miss Cleo sound like Rita Marley, so she can find his stash. She learns of its whereabouts from a hooker named Priscilla, who makes the mistake of threatening Coffy with a knife. Coffy returns the threat with a broken bottle. Check out some of the dialogue in this scene to find out why Grier says she’s a lesbian icon.
Priscilla: Now, listen. My old man's coming back any minute, and if SHE catches you here, she's gonna wanna kick your ass!
(after the bottle gets pulled by Coffy)
Coffy: Now I'm gonna give you another slice to match the one you got from that dope-pushin' pimp, unless you tell me where he keeps the stuff!
Priscilla: No, please! He'll kill me! Ow... ALRIGHT, alright! He's got a fireplace! It's in a box under the ashes!
(Priscilla's tough-looking black lesbian lover/pimp returns suddenly)
Priscilla: Harriet! Harriet!
Harriet: What the hell is going on here?
Priscilla: She busted in here tryin' to make me! Get her outta here!
Harriet: Come on, bitch!
After Coffy escapes Harriet’s clutches, Harriet turns her anger on Priscilla:
Harriet: I go away for half an hour for you to turn a trick... and I come back and find you ballin' some nigga bitch! You WHITE TRAMP!
Back at King George’s, Coffy gets into the greatest cat fight ever committed to celluloid. Titties and broken glass fly everywhere as Coffy’s Afro gives new meaning to the word nappy: One unlucky vixen grabs Coffy’s coif, only to discover it’s loaded with razor blades. (In another film, if memory serves, Grier pulls a gun from her Afro, making her hair the ghetto equivalent of Felix the Cat’s bag.) This display of feminine ferocity gets Coffy her first client for George, a freaky Italian guy named Arturo.
Grier’s Blaxploitation output has been accused of being misogynist, an argument I understand to a point. In all her films, Grier gets abused in ways far worse than the scene I’m about to describe. However, I counter that Pam always gets her payback. James Brown once sang that a woman has to use what she got to get what she wants, and Grier’s characters understand that it may come at the expense of luring the objects of her wrath with her sexuality. In her films, she gets slapped around, abused, and in a Foxy Brown scene her Jackie Brown director would lift for Kill Bill: Volume I, repeatedly raped while unconscious. It’s manipulative, yes, and even distasteful, but this isn’t Merchant Ivory. Without exception, Pam turns the tables and exerts her empowerment on her tormentors. I understand the claim, but it was par for the course in order to see the kind of Black feminine empowerment I enjoyed so much in these pictures.
Arturo is a sick son of a bitch. He spits on the half-naked Coffy as she’s on the floor. I give the film credit for deglamorizing johns, but the racial aspect is truly cringe-worthy, at least until Pam pulls that gun.
Arturo: Crawl, nigger!
Coffy: (pulls gun): You want me to crawl, white muthafucka?
Arturo: What are you doing? Put that down.
Coffy: You want to spit on me and make me crawl? I'm gonna piss on your grave tomorrow.
Speaking of uncomfortable racial aspects, King George is certainly not a nice guy, but what happens to him at the hands of Grier’s frequent co-star, Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding to you Rob Zombie fans) is truly disturbing. Coffy has set him up, first by replacing his heroin with Domino sugar, then by telling the Mafia that King George set her up to assassinate crazy ass Arturo. The mob gets its revenge by tying King George behind Haig’s car and dragging him down the street for a long, long, long time. I feel a tad hypocritical, baying for blood whenever Coffy gets the upper hand, yet cringing when the guy who set her revenge plan in motion gets his. The scene doesn’t look completely convincing, but its premise and imagery shake me every time I watch Coffy. (Full disclosure: I watched Coffy for the 7,000th time last night, and I punked out. When that scene came on, I went to do the dishes.)
As aforementioned, it all ends up at Howard’s. Coffy learns that her man is, like all politicians, corrupt. Howard, unlike Arturo, knows how to talk sweet when faced with Coffy’s wrath:
Howard: Now, maybe I have done a few bad things, but that's the way the world is today. Sometimes you have to do a few, little wrong things in order to do one big right thing and that's what I'm trying to do for you and for our people: that big right thing!
Coffy: You always were a good talker, Howard.
If you think Coffy’s going to let Howard off the hook, you haven’t been paying attention.
Coffy is the best of Grier’s run of starring roles in the Blaxploitation era. Hill keeps the film tightly constructed and paced, and it delivers the goods in a savage howl of fury. Grier channels her character’s anger and vengeance right through the screen and into the deepest animal recesses of your being. People have complained about her acting (outside of her accent in the Jamaican scenes, I think she’s fine here), but nobody can deny that this woman knows how to convincingly kick ass.
In the Blaxploitation book I assigned for homework yesterday, Jack Hill expresses regret for making Coffy’s pseudo-sequel, Foxy Brown. Foxy is almost a Coffy remake, but it’s meaner, more graphic, and less tightly paced. One plus of the film, besides Pam’s creatively disgusting use of an airplane propeller, is Kathryn Loder’s performance as a dick-crazy psycho White woman, Foxy’s nemesis. Loder chews the scenery better than Shelley Winters in the prior year’s Cleopatra Jones (which is a must see), baying for her man Steve’s love rocket throughout the picture. When Foxy brings it to her, minus Steve, she recognizes it immediately and drops it on the floor. (It’s that kind of movie, folks.) As the kiss off, Grier delivers the best line she has in the series that includes (in the order I like them) Coffy, Friday Foster, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby:
Katherine: Why don’t you kill me too?
Foxy: Death is too good for you, bitch. I want you to SUFFER!
See why I’m in love with this woman? Even today, where you’ll find her on The L Word, Pam Grier is still a looker, and the only woman tougher than my mother! No wonder QT is in love with her, and wrote her best performance in Jackie Brown, the movie that put Sam Jackson where he belongs, in Blaxploitation!
Hurt me. Hurt me good, Ms. Grier! Wham, Bam, Thank You Pam!