She's a Real Mother

Mutha's got eyes in the back of her head.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

One Mutha of a Film Festival, Day Four

The Festival continues with a day of films grouped under the title: "My Life Was Saved By Rock'n'Roll." Now, there are lots of films that have rock as a player or a subject or a backdrop, but in lots of these films -- the main character dies. And of course, what's more rock'n'roll than that? But I decided to take a twist here and list five films that feature rock in a way not so easily boarded on a doomed plane, over-dosed, offed by a get the picture.

High Fidelity
John Cusack is again my man in this wonderful adaptation of Nick Hornby's book by the same title. Breaking the familiar formula of rock films, Cusack does not play a musician but a record store owner (yes kids, records. Remember them?) named Rob who has elevated rock knowledge to a religion. His employees, played to high-art geek perfection by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, help Rob through the tedium of the shop and the torturous disintegration of his love life by playing a game in which one names their Top Five picks under increasingly obscure categories, including: Top five first cuts, Top five songs for Monday mornings, and Top five songs about death. Many favorite lines, but one in my top five would be: She's sort of post-Partridge-Family, pre-LA-Law Susan Dey-ish,

Hard Days Night
The first rock film to capture some of the genuine engergy created by the music itself. One only has to suffer through any of Elvis' films to acknowledge that Hard Days Night is a pop culture milestone, a moment when it seemed as if the fans got a hold of the camera. John, Paul, George and Ringo are incredibly funny, fast, giddy, and just great to look at. And just when you really think you're having fun, they lay a song or two on you as well.

Monterey Pop
Called the first rock concert film, and I would argue it does a better job of getting the music across than the Woodstock "documentary." Mostly because the performers are in much better moods and apparently on much better drugs. Okay, okay -- you have to suffer through a completely comatose Momma's and Poppa's, a dazed Jefferson Airplane, and Country Joe and the Fish just being themselves. BUT! You also get Otis Redding showin us how it is done, The Who trying their hardest to look badass next to Hendrix, Hendrix giving us the kitchen sink including the humped Marshall stacks and a guitar on fire, AND Janice Joplin at the height of her powers delivering Ball and Chain in a manner that could actually help you see God.

Speaking of The Who...This story of Mod versus Rocker explores all sorts of themes concerning class, gender, fashion vs. belief, and generation gap miscommunication. It has a distinctive visual style and is true to the edgy and angry energy The Who could dish up like no one else. But in the end, Quadrophenia lets us follow Jimmy, our anti-hero, through his experience of heart-twisting adolescence -- and if rock does not capture that piece of internal conflict then it is simply not rock.

This Is Spinal Tap
You didn't think I was going to forget this, did you? One very funny element to the Spinal Tap legacy is that so many bands have claimed it's about them. What could be a higher complement and proof that the film captures so many rock cliches? It simply has no equal in the genre of faux-rockumentary or, as some call it, mockumentary. Alright, line up and tell me your favorite parts. Put me down for the explanation of how all the drummers died and the line "I mean we look like we've got armadillos in our trousers."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Go Ahead, Steal It.

For those of you who are not Red Sox fans, Dave Roberts is probably an unfamiliar name. In short, he is the player who pulled off one of the most exciting moments in baseball history -- unless you are a Yankees fan.

In the fourth game of the 2004 American League play-offs, the Sox down a humiliating three games to their historic rivals -- the New York Yankees, Roberts did what might seem like a very small thing. He stole second base. But as we are taught over and over, this one act lead to other things. A hit up the middle and Roberts' speed meant he would score the run that tied it in the ninth. The Sox went on to win it and then didn't stop winning, until they had swept the World Series.

I saw an interview with Roberts recently, and in it, he said that when he was on first base that night, his manager Terry Francona gave him no sign to steal, no sign to stay put. He trusted Roberts, a veteran of the game, to know what to do. Roberts said he was thinking of the words of one of his mentors as he took his lead, "You can't be afraid to fail." He said he felt as if the whole world knew he was going to try and steal that base, and he wanted to be that guy; the one who rose to the occasion in this pivotal moment, or went down trying.

And, ah well. The rest is history.

How many times do I feel that moment; Roberts on first, taking his lead? How often do we let the cloud of failure loom low?

Life is not baseball, but I figure everyone needs a little encouragement to not only take that lead -- but break into a run.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I Ain't No Dog Tied to a Parked Car (Part 4)

This recurring section is devoted to the art of having a long-term relationship. The title is lifted from a Lou Reed song, in which he says,
"I don't want to give it up,
I want to stay married.
I ain't no dog tied to a parked car."

Okay,okay. He turned around and got divorced later, but that's not the point. Stick with me, we're going back to the cinema.

I recently saw Woman of the Year again. For those who don't know it, Hepburn and Tracey are the leads and considering it came out in 1942, the movie is surprisingly hip in some ways. Sam Craig (Spencer Tracey) seems legitimately turned on by Tess Harding's (Kathryn Hepburn) smarts, there is the clear indication that premarital sex is at least possible, and when the marriage gets off to a rocky start -- Sam does not insist she quit her job. And then there's the nasty business about returning the little Greek refugee boy to the orphanage...

But none of that is the real kicker. The backstage scoop was that this movie marked the beginning of Hepburn and Tracey's off-screen relationship, which would go on for some 25 years. One only need to watch a scene in which Tess asks Sam up to her pad after a date to get the hint why this turned out to be so.

The scene is shot in a shadowed room at a distance and includes only five or six lines of dialogue. The couple remains in silhouette, and yet even then the chemistry between them is obvious. They don't even know where to begin with one another.

And I think that scene shares the lesson we can shake out is this: Ain't nothin like the heat, kid. And don't you forget it.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Peppercorn Eye

My people come from Ireland and Poland (other places too, countries that don't even exist any more -- but for the sake of clarity, this is the majority of my blood line) and through generations both sides of my family have been Roman Catholic. As a child I went to the church on the end of my Grandmother's street in Camden, NJ. Now some of you may not know this, but Camden's latest claim to fame was that it knocked Detroit out of the number one slot for "Most Violent City" (Woo Hoo! My home town!). While it was threatening no one for the number one slot in the late 60's/early 70's, it was a rough place none the less -- but that church was a kind of neutral zone and at Easter time, it served most clearly as the center of the neighborhood. Back then, some of the Masses were still offered in Polish (my Grandmother and father still both spoke it off and on) and the congregation clung to the Vatican One way of doing things.

Today, I am thinking of one of those traditions.

On Good Friday, after the Stations of the Cross, you would bring a basket of food to the church to be blessed. This meant crawling on your knees down the aisle, with the basket in your hands, all the way to the altar. Did I mention the floor was marble? It was. But the pain in my knees is not the most vivid memory. What holds my imagination today is the contents of that basket: colored eggs, babka bread, and a lamb made of butter with a peppercorn eye.

It was the only time of year that butter was allowed to be shaped like an animal.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

My Momma's Jam

If you grew up in the tri-state area (a commuter-length in any direction from New York City) in the '70s, you may have seen a Sunday morning show called Wonderama. It was a kind of kid variety hour with a singing host, named Bob McCallister. There were Beat-the-Clock-type stunts, sing-along sections ("Have you heard any good news today, today? I wanna hear what you have to say!" and "Kids are people too" were big time personal favorites), and a quiz show finale -- all with a live kid audience. It rocked. But, by far, the high point each week was the Dance Competition. Kids had the chance to have an open go-go time and then three kids were given the chance to go solo and compete to be the winner, decided by who got the most applause.

Now, even at seven years old I could tell which kids watched American Bandstand and which ones watched Soul Train. This was, of course, many years before MTV and so these two shows were where you had the chance to catch popular bands, as well as the latest dance moves. Dick Clark (pre-mummy stage, but already too old to be on the pulse of America's youth) hosted American Bandstand and it featured a theme sung by Barry Manilow. Soul Train was hosted by the exceptionally cool Don Cornelius and featured a James Brown-style howl of the show's title as its intro ("It's time for Sooooooooooooooooooooooullll Train"). Kids usually were devoted to one or the other, but I loved them both. And so I was able to observe that week after week the kids who knew the Soul Train moves won the Dance Competition on Wonderama. This observation led me to hold this style of dancing in the highest regard. The Robot, the shimmy, the grind, I would seek to master them all.

Many years later, I worked in childcare and had the chance to observe that toddlers are thrilled by the invitation to dance. This inspired our own dance parties, which started whenever the spirit moved us. Most babies would jump or bob or clap, but I had one toddler named Dalia who, even at 2, had Soul Train moves. One day, Dalia jumped to her feet when a song came on the radio, exclaiming, "That my Momma's jam!" and proceeded to launch into her most impressive moves yet. "My Momma go like that!" she demonstrated, "And like that!" It was an inspiration, and the rest of the babies and adults joined in.

This leads me to my present day thought, which is this: when do children stop being thrilled by adults dancing and become embarrassed by it? I distinctly remember one of my sons being fine with my spontaneous supermarket dancing when he was 6. He would even put his hand out and insist on being twirled. But somewhere around 8 that all changed. We listen to a wide range of music in my household and I reserve the right to dance along to it, whether it be the Clash or Charlie Parker. And yet, if my son walks into a room in which this is taking place, he will immediately turn around and leave. If I ask him to dance with me, he will give me the unmistakable look of someone who wishes to do nothing but become invisible.

This is of course the way things are supposed to go, right? We think our parents are the center of the universe and then they slowly become more and more embarrassing until they hit a point that is excruciating (I believe the peek for me came at 16). It is only then that they can begin the slow climb back to what may be "okay". And so, I understand it-- but it also makes me a little sad. Momma's gotta have her jam too, after all.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Just a Second, Say That Again #4

"Sometimes you win.
Sometimes you lose.
And sometimes it rains."

- Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham

I have mentioned on this blog before that I am a big baseball fan, but this quote came to me today for a broader reason than the game. It came to me when my son became incredibly frustrated while trying to master something new. He cried, saying, "This is no fair. I want to quit."

It made me remember that my own father used to be fond of saying, "Well kid, who said life was fair?"

But, as I recall, that use to make me cry harder.

So I quoted Nuke instead.

Friday, April 07, 2006

All We Are Saying Is Give What a Chance?

I saw a video featuring the band Yellowcard the other day and the theme rang a bell: Boy takes political action in order to get laid.

It showed a young attractive couple who seem to be have decided to spend their first date at an anti-war march. The boyfriend even takes a daisy from a hyped-up National Guard's automatic weapon and gives it to his date. Cute, right?

Well, besides filling me to the brim with uncute feelings, it also reminded me of the years I spent trying to be part of co-ed political action groups in high school and college. Girls who did that sort of thing, especially the pinko girls, may have imagined their male counter-parts as potentially cool guys, but I found that often enough, that wasn't the case. Able to talk about feminist theory or not, these guys assessed you at the door: coffee/banner-maker or potential tiger-in-bed. AND if you showed up already someone else's political-action-girlfriend, then that meant you were pretty much invisible.

The end of the video featured a particularly poorly chosen reference to Tiananmen Square. Instead of that lone courageous man who stood defiantly in front of the tank, it was our couple-in-heat who were recreating the scene for us. The only thing I could think of was how relieved I was that their backs were to the camera -- because I'm sure he was copping a feel.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

One Mutha of a Film Festival, Day Three

As the "One Mutha of a Film Festival" continues, today's theme is "The Kids Are Alright": movies about kids or for kids that reveal something complex, true, interesting about the experience of growing-up.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
There ain't no touching the original here. Don't get me wrong -- I love me some Johnny Depp, but the most recent version of this film was down-right silly (and I don't mean that in a good way). I had the great good fortune of seeing the original as a child in the movie theater and I still remember the feeling when Gene Wilder (Willie Wonka) made his entrance with the cane and then the somersault, fear and wonder all at once. The story was changed for the screenplay from the wonderful original book (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but in ways that stay true to Dahl's understanding of children and their ability to grasp both the simple and the sublime. The art design (no computer graphics here folks), the songs, the pacing all stand up so well against the test of time. And did I mention you can lick the wallpaper?

My Bodyguard
No -- not The Bodyguard, My Bodyguard. No Whitney here.
This movie came out when I was making that crucial, painful move from junior high to highschool and I have felt a debt of gratitude to it ever since. It is a gentle story about how the new kid in school navigates around the threats of a bully (played by a 15-year-old Matt Dillon) by befriending the mysterious, troubled kid that even the bully is afraid of. Ruth Gordon as the wacky but wise grandmother is the cherry on top.

Say Anything
A movie to memorize, and I have. Say Anything is certainly a formulaic teen flick in many ways, but the dialogue and cast take it way beyond that. John Cusack is the relentless Lloyd Dobbler, the ultra-sincere thinking teen's teen, who not only takes us along on his journey through first love, but lets us meet his eccentric band of friends and family too. So many scenes to love, but one that stays with me always takes place at the Gas 'n' Sip and includes one guy's advice for getting over a broken heart: "Find a girl that looks just like her, nail her, then dump her, man."

The Outsiders
How the hell did Matt Dillon end up on here twice? My only explanation is that everyone is in this movie. It seems, they rounded up every good-looking white male between the ages of 15 and 25 and cast them right away, including Patrick Swayzee (way before Dirty Dancing and Ghost, don't worry), Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Ralph Macchio (you know, the Karate Kid. Not good looking, but as the most sorrowful character, he doesn't need to be). Although it has its own pulp fiction under current, the film captures the tightly wound energy of teen-agers looking down the barrel of dead-end lives. These young actors play off each so well you believe they have grown up together, while at the same time communicating a heart-breaking sense of loneliness.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Okay, now I can get my Johnny Depp love in here -- but he is not my favorite part of this movie. It is Leonardo DeCaprio, who is astounding as the retarded younger brother. But Depp brings a real tenderness to that relationship, as with his morbidly obese mother, and goes on to tell a moving story about how an odd-ball parentified kid might try to move on and live a life of his own.

Just a Second, Say That Again #3

There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

- Leonard Cohen

I once had a drawing professor who, upon surveying a drawing I had done of man, said: "I love the wart." That is what I think of when I hear this Leonard Cohen line. How wonderful, how interesting, how infuriating flaws are.

They make the world go 'round.