Sunday, February 16, 2020

Wild and Crazy Guys (2019).

One of the interesting things to note about the history of the arts is how often you tend to find differing and separate individuals grouping together or clustering around what can only be described as a burst of creative energy.  This is a subject that's been examined more than once on this blog.  We've looked at least two types of this same phenomena, one of them occurring in the mid to late 70s.  The other happened quite a while back, and centered around artists like Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling.  Both of those instances had a kind of continuity between them, as each group was concerned with taking the major materials of the fantastic genres and molding them into the modern forms that we know today.  What's notable about this interlinked artistic development is how it is both important on both a historical and aesthetic level, while at the same time being all too easy to miss.  It's this lack of notice that poses a danger to valuable bits of history slipping through the cracks.

This same phenomena of artistic group clustering was not limited to just the fantastic genres, however.  There have been moments during the closing years of the 20th century when varying talents would come together in collaboration in the field of the comedic arts.  Unlike the New Wave Fabulists or the California Fantasists, this comedy oriented phenomena was a bit more noticeable, and has managed to carve out a lucky space for itself in the memories of pop-culture.  To this day, there are still people who can recall every single line of dialogue from Ghostbusters, or Beverly Hills Cop.  Guys like Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have managed to use their talent to etch their place in the hearts and memories of an entire generation of grateful fans.  Their collective ability to bring a laugh out of others is so impactful that it seems they're now in the process of winning over a lot of millenial fans as this is being written.  It's the kind of thing you hope goes on long after time has made them all take a final bow.

It's sort of why it's a service to future generations when some aspiring fan decides to set down a chronicle of the accomplishments of each one of the funny men of the 80s.  That's the goal Nick De Semlyen set out for himself when he decided to write Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changes Hollywood Forever.  At the center of this study lies a small, yet substantial number of talents, each of whom would go on to have a major impact in the shaping of the pop-cultural landscape, part of them originating, according to the author, from the NBC stages of Saturday Night Live.  "Many huge starts would be launched from the show, including Dan Ayckroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy.  Meanwhile, up in the chillier and considerably less glamorous environs of Toronto and Edmonton, John Candy and Rick Moranis were working alongside people like Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Catherine O'Hara, cutting their teeth at SCTV.

"Together they made up a sprawling, smart, subversive collective...Their approach to comedy was freewheeling, hip, and fearless.  And whether their on-screen mission was to save the world from supernatural forces, get the girl, or make authority figures fizz with rage, they were about to inherit the Earth (xv)".

Semlyen follows this statement up by asking a rhetorical question that has, at least as far as this critic is concerned, a definite claim to validity.  "Try to imagine what cinema would look like without them.  Collaborating with behind-the-camera talents including John Landis, Ivan Reitman, Carl Reiner, and John Hughes - and fellow stars such as Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, and Goldie Hawn - this new wave would produce a litany of big, brash blockbusters and evergreen oddities: National Lampoon's Animal House, The Jerk, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, The Man with Two Brains, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Fletch, Coming to America, and Scrooged to name but a few.  That list alone makes a compelling case that this period is as good as things have ever gotten for big-screen comedy (xvi)".

I'd have to argue that at least in terms of wit and delivery, that might be the case.  Although I don't think that's enough to erase all the genuine accomplishments of past cinematic eras.  Just recently I've had the opportunity to examine the work of old-timers like Carol Burnette and Tim Conway, and I found myself having to hold my gut just take in air.  It's a testament to level of talent involved, even before the 80s crew came in to take over things.  Because of this, I've got to go with the idea that humor is perhaps just a bit more timeless than a lot of jaded and cynical reviewers (the kind that are too focused on, or just plain obsessed with the present moment) are willing to give it credit.  This holds true just as much for older funny guys and gals like Lucille Ball or Mel Brooks, as for those who came after.  Still, the comics of the 80s have a fair share of accomplishments to their name, and it's the nature of these achievements that Semlyen is here to look at.  He lays out his goals of his study in the introduction as follows:

"This is the story not only of how these classic movies were made, against the odds and frequently under the influence, but how their stars handled the perils and pitfalls of fame.  Murray, Murphy, Martin, and company all hurtled onto the A-list, becoming global celebrities pursued by paparazzi and fending off, or accepting, frequent offers of sex and drugs.  Not bad for a bunch of guys - and despite the early promise of Gilda Radner, it was exclusively the men who hit big - who generally looked more like maintenance staff, or appliance salesmen, than members of the Rat Pack.

"There was plenty of fun, as these stars lived out an extended adolescence, getting paid obscene amounts of money to goof about in lavish screen fantasies.  But when you're flying so high, the pressure is immense, and even the seeming perks could become nightmarish.  "When I started plying stadiums, I did have girls trying to get into my room a few time," Steve Martin recalls.  "But it wasn't a fun thing like you'd imagine.  You don't want someone knocking at your door at two a.m. when you're exhausted and trying to sleep"

"Everyone acclimatized to the lunacy in different ways.  Rick Moranis wound up retiring in the early 1990s.  Eddie Murphy embraced his celebrity with both hands, strutting around in a red leather boiler suit from the stand-up set Eddie Murphy: Delirious and employing a full-time entourage.  Johns Belushi and Candy died tragically young.  Bill Murray sailed through rumpled but uncrumpled, seemingly doing whatever he damn well pleased (xvi-ii)".  The artistic highs and lows of the comic talents that came out of the SNL era is the kind of story that's well worth telling.  The real challenge for any chronicler of this particular artistic movement all comes down to two simple questions.  Is the story told well, and is it the truth?  

Saturday, February 1, 2020

RKO 281 (1999).

Orson Welles is and was the kind of personality that generates stories.  He collected tall-tales about himself almost as if was his own folklorist.  He would use them often in his interactions with others, especially when it came to funding his many celluloid endeavors.  That much is a fact of history, though its an open question of just how many today still realize it.  Perhaps its the director's penchant for taking creative license with his own existence that accounts for the strange back story for the film under discussion today.

I remember hearing that RKO 281 was originally slated as a big screen production featuring Marlon Brando as the main antagonist.  For some reason, however, the deal never managed to come together.  Instead, the whole thing wound up as a TV movie.  To be fair, that in itself is no determination of a picture's quality, especially not today, when guys like Scorsese, De Niro, and Peschi can use the small screen to deliver a film like The Irishman.  All that counts in the end is that the story is intact, or that there's a narrative worth telling.

The subject matter behind RKO 281 is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  That makes it ripe for dramatization.  There is a problem with this particular story, however, and its adaptation into film, that winds up raising more questions than answers.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Soundtrack for a Novel: An Experiment.

Can novels have their own soundtracks?  It's not a question most people would bother to ask.  The most commonsense answer would be to point out that a novel is not something like a movie or a record.  All a book amounts to is just a series of words on a page.  There's no sound or music to go along with it.  Even if its possible to say you'd like you're copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Fellowship of the Rings to have its own soundtrack accompany the words as you read along, the fact remains you're not going to find it anywhere in the book itself.  You'll either have to find some music that could go well with the words, or else just use your imagination as best you can.

That's as far as everyday commonsense can go when faced with such an off-kilter question.  By and large, the majority of audiences, including even the readers in the crowd, do not tend to make an automatic connection between texts and songs.  The reason for this seems to be because there is no essential reason for the two forms of art to mix.  One can exist just as well without the other, unless of course you're a band like the Beatles and you're trying to make a concept album with something like an actual narrative attached to it.  Then the singer must learn how to be not just a songwriter, but also a kind of storyteller.  That's a task that can be harder than it sounds.  A lot of talented artists who make great musicians are also pretty lousy at trying to be straight-up writers.  When an concept album like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? is able to mix both music with a sense of narrative its usually an achievement that goes underappreciated by both music and book enthusiasts.

The irony is that the commonsense response itself has left the door open for certain creative opportunities.  Let's recall that the answer boils down to three statements.  (1) Books and music are separate artistic mediums. (2) If anyone wanted music to go along with their reading material, they would have find ways of incorporating it from vinyl, CDs, or clips off the Net.  Those are about the only options anyone has left in terms of where you can get music to listen to.  (3) The third and final option is to just use your imagination in order to fill in all the sonic gaps provided by the text, if any.

The good news is that it is possible to meet all three challenges, if you know how to do it.  Take Tolkien's aforementioned Fellowship, most Middle-Earth geeks already have a soundtrack all neatly laid out for them and waiting in the wings, thanks to, and courtesy of Howard Shore.  All anyone has to do is grab a headset, pop in the CD, open the book, press play, and begin to read.  All of that amounts to one way of proving that it is possible for books to have the potential for a soundtrack.

I'd like to see if it's possible to go a bit further than that.  I want to try something.  I don't know if it's new, or anything like that.  In fact all of the materials involved are all pretty darn old.  However there may be a lingering sense of novelty about the whole thing for those who've never tried or thought of it before.

What I'd like to do is take a random novel, a handful of old songs, and then see what happens when an imaginative attempt is made to combine the two.  I don't mean to create anything like a new hybrid medium where literature and music interchange with one another to the point of being indistinguishable.  Instead, I'm trying something that I might have got from Walt Disney.  Allow me to explain.  In his 1940 concert film, Fantasia, Disney took the concept of the animated film, and combined it with music in a variety of ways.  One of them was a mix of images and music, with the goal of setting up a mood or atmosphere.  This was done in the film with sequences like Toccata and Fugue.  Another was to use music in a way that told a story.  This goal was best on display in Night on Bald Mountain, The Rite of Spring, and The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  As it turns out, Fantasia was not the only time that Walt would find ways to utilize music in the service of a legit narrative.  One of my oldest childhood memories is seeing a Silly Symphonies adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.  It was an animated adaptation of the entire folktale, and it was free of any real dialogue from start to finish.  Instead, the symphonic score of the legend was used to punctuate and accentuate the action and story beats happening up on the screen.  The result was a film that used music to tell its story.

I think it's a technique that's been tried here and there, once or twice more, though it's never the sort of thing that has ever managed to really catch on with the public.  We seem to have reached a point where we tend to like our medias unmixed.  Part of the reason for this might be down to the ways we've allowed imaginations to shrink and atrophy with the passage of years.  It didn't use to be like this back in the days when everyone lived in forests, and no one could live anywhere else.  Back in the old, Medieval peasant cultures of Europe, most groups never minded if a fiddler decided to provide some violin accompaniment to retelling of an old folktale or legend such as that of Robin Hood.  In fact, such techniques were said to enhance the experience.  That's one of the reasons why storytelling minstrels flourished for such a long time in an age when books weren't really a thing like they are now (if they ever were).

I'd like to see if I can bring some of these old materials back in a minor way.  It's nothing major, just a brief moment's diversion.  What I'd like to do is take a text that lends itself easily to a musical soundtrack, and see what happens when we mentally use various Golden Oldies to provide something like a musical compliment or commentary for the text.  I think the best choice for now is to choose a book like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.  I think this is the best course of action because King is a writer who likes to sprinkle the artifacts of pop-culture here and there throughout his works.  He can erase 99% percent of the world's population, and then have one of Marvin Gaye's songs start to play in an abandoned, imaginary record shop.  This makes King's work an ideal test case for my experiment.  I want to take the narrative beats of a novel like Hearts and see if it's possible to make a soundtrack for an already established text.  From here on in, I think it's best if I actually show what I intend to do, rather than just talking about it.  With that in mind, let's take a bit of mental leap and see if there's anything to find.