Sunday, September 26, 2010

Walkers on the wild side

Just finished a good book called Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell: The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, by Dave Thompson. He covers the early years of the three musicians (late 60s-late 70s) when they worked together at various times and places and influenced an entire era of music. The well-researched book is ordered chronologically and bounces around among the three men, examining their friendships and their falling-outs, describing concerts and recording sessions in some detail, and follows to a slightly lesser degree their romances and drug adventures.

If you lived through this era and liked these musicians, you'll like this book, but I'm not sure it's the place to start for young'un newcomers to the 70's glitter rock era. To start with, Thompson doesn't stray far from these three and their immediate friends and entourages--a fair amount of space is given to the Velvet Underground (though I would have liked to hear a bit more about poor, tragic Nico, who is quoted frequently early on), Mott the Hoople, and Marc Bolan, but you'll get no larger musical context in which to situate the glitter/glam scene.

The subtitle hints at another problem with the book: the author's own prejudices creep in to the book too often for this to be considered a definitive, objective history. The word "dangerous" seems to be there for the sake of sensationalism: nowhere does he really make claims that they were dangerous to anyone except themselves and their loved ones. For better or worse, it's probably due to David Bowie that Reed and Pop got strong toeholds on the ladder to rock stardom as he produced or co-produced their biggest commercial successes (Reed's Transformer, and Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life), but the author presents Bowie in a fairly bad light, as a fickle and inauthentic copier who never stayed interested in any one artist long enough to bring them to full fruition. He gives much more positive attention to Reed and Pop, though it sounds like just as many former friends dislike Reed as dislike Bowie. But I admit to be being titillated by all the gossipy and bitchy details of their interactions.

There's no arguing which one of the three is the biggest star: Bowie. But Pop was a major influence on the punk scene, not just his violent antics at concerts but his sparse and equally violent sound, dark lyrics, and rough-edged vocals (you can hear his influence in punk bands like Joy Division and Sex Pistols, and even in the current band Jet, whose big hit "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" sounds an awful lot like Pop's "Lust for Life"). Reed has arguably had the most marginal career of the three, remaining active but not particularly important or interesting except to fans of the New York avant-garde. Still, it's amazing how much Pop's vocals on Lust for Life sound like Lou Reed. Listen to "The Passenger" from the YouTube clip below and you'll swear you're hearing a Transformer outake (vocally if not instrumentally). Overall, a fascinating read about some fascinating musicians.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Princess of Mars; or, Love and hate and B-movies

I still love movies, but I don't love current movies. My formative moviegoing years were in the 70's--late-high school, college, and after--and I was lucky enough to enjoy mainstream Hollywood films (both Jaws and Star Wars came out while I was in college) and older movies as well, which I grew to love in large part because I was able to see them on the big screen at revival houses on and near the Ohio State campus. Foreign and underground films were also part of my movie diet.

In fact, the two-year span of 1974-75 (senior year in high school, freshman year in college) was perhaps the most important stage in the development of my moviebuffhood: Jaws turned me into a drooling fanatic--I saw it 15 times the summer it came out, all in theaters (no home video back then); That's Entertainment brought a taste of old Hollywood back to theaters; Nashville, a precursor of the later indie film boom, came out that same summer, though I didn't catch up with it until a year later at a 2nd run theater; OSU-area theaters introduced me to classics (Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, Gone With the Wind, Duck Soup), foreign films (Juliet of the Spirits, Death in Venice, Swept Away), and fringe cinema (Flesh Gordon, Phantom of the Paradise, Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I saw during its initial mainstream release, before the midnight crowds turned it into a hit).

My love affair with mainstream Hollywood began going bad in the 90's; the fact that I had American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies on cable to turn to for older movies, which I began to find far more entertaining and thought-provoking than the current hits may have been a catalyst. Now I pretty much despise the state of current films. I see perhaps 7 or 8 movies during their first theatrical release; I do keep up with the others via DVD and cable, but I rarely get enthused about any of the hits. Only the B-film market seems to provide me with the charge I used to get from major studio productions.

Admittedly, B-movies are an acquired taste, and it was Turner Classic Movies' airing of the wonderful B-films of the 30s and 40s (mostly from Warner Brothers, but also RKO and Republic) that helped me appreciate them. These movies have lower budgets, cheaper production values, lesser stars, shorter running times, and weaker scripts, but when you understand that and have a few of them under your belt, you approach them on their level. You can still find good performances, artistic direction, and interesting stories--Detour (1945), one of the cheapest productions ever, is recognized today as a high-water mark for the film noir genre. Today, B-movies are mostly relegated to the home video or cable market. Some of my more enjoyable movie experiences of the past few years have been thanks to films which either never played in theaters or never got national theatrical distribution (Night Train, Kabluey, Ira & Abby).

Which brings me to Princess of Mars. This 2009 direct-to-DVD film, based on the first book in the "John Carter in Mars" series of pulp sci-fi novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was apparently made to capitalize on a big-budget live-action Pixar film due in 2012 (not to mention a somewhat dubious claim made on the cover that this story inspired James Cameron's Avatar). The plot involves a soldier, John Carter, who during a moment of crisis, is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars where, because of the gravity, he has great strength and can leap great bounds, and has adventures with green four-armed Martians and the beautiful two-armed Princess Dejah Thoris.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a very good movie. In this version, Carter is a soldier in Afghansistan who is left for dead and transported via flash drive to a Mars-like planet. That could be clever, but the idea isn't developed beyond what is needed to get Carter to a planet called Mars 216. The acting is terrible: the stars are former underwear model and soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. (as Carter) and former porn queen Traci Lords (the princess). Both have substantial career credits, but both are just plain bad. He seems to be constantly looking for his acting coach, not finding him, and just speaking the lines as written; she tries for emotions but the Botox gets in the way--that grimace on her face in the picture above is there for almost the entire movie. Despite Lords' presence, there is no sex appeal, and the chemistry between the leads is non-existent. Matt Lasky, as the Martian Tars Tarkas with only two arms, doesn't have to struggle with a 4-arm costume, but he does have to act with a heavy rubber mask with wobbly tusks. The best acting comes from Chacko Vadaketh in the villainous role of an Afghan drug dealer who also winds up on Mars 216. And the effects are sparse; some digital work, but mostly costumes and camera filters.

However, I knew what I was getting into so I had my expectations lowered considerably. I expected bad acting and got it in spades; in fact, Sabato and Lords are MST3K bad and therefore almost enjoyable. I expected bargain basement effects and got them, and was even pleasantly surprised at the effects that worked: the Martian landscape and skies, the giant airship (seen below), and even the cheap trick that goes back to the Superman serials of the 1940s of having Sabato leap up, followed by a cut to a cheap shot of a flying man-model, followed by a shot of Sabato landing with a thud.

What I liked about it for real: no snarky ironic tone to the dialogue, no comic-book humor, a fast-moving story arc, and a lovely lack of digital sheen. Yes, CGI can create marvelous effects and looks, but when overused or poorly used, they look just as fake as the FX of old. I am still interested in seeing what the Pixar folks come up with (I'm sure the Martians will have four arms), and it will be spectacular-looking on the big screen, and with Willem Defoe, James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds attached to the project, the acting will surely be fine. But there is something light-on-its-feet about this version that is appealing, and I will miss that up against what will undoubtedly be the the dead seriousness of the Pixar version.