Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Not arriving

The Old Curmudgeon (um, that's me) says science-fiction movies have been on a steady decline since 2001. Well, since 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. 2001 was widely seen as the first adult sci-fi movie, one that was not intended for kiddies or the feeble-minded. There were no bug-eyed monsters, no blasting laser beams, no buxom women in skintight spacesuits. It made an implicit claim to verisimilitude—we all thought this might really be what space travel could be like in the year 2001—and involved issues of morality and philosophy. This film was thought to be the harbinger of a new wave of SF movies. [I’m going to use SF from here on in, as this abbreviation caught on briefly in the 60s when it was thought it could stand for both science fiction and the larger genre of speculative fiction.]
Now, it looks like 2001 (the climax of which is pictured above) was more a dead end than a new route. Though it was popular and commercially successful, most of what came after it seemed to be a reaction against the direction in which it was pointing. To be fair, the dialogue was (intentionally) banal, there wasn't much of a narrative—and what there was presented elliptically with a wildly ambiguous ending—and the pace was slow. And, of course, it was made by a cinematic genius, Stanley Kubrick. Maybe there was nowhere to go from here except backwards, way back to the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers B-movie serials of the 1940s, but with bigger budgets (Star Wars, etc.)

I have followed rather casually the flow of SF movies over the years and though few have attempted to follow 2001 (maybe Solaris and Sunshine), many have stuck to the modified space opera formula of Star Wars. But with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another genre strand emerged: the personal, intimate SF film, leaving behind the monster scares of Them! and Tarantula, and thecosmic philosophies of 2001, to focus on an individual's personal journey. It may still have impressive SF effects but it often comes down to being about the transformation of one person or family. Examples include Blade Runner, Moon, Interstellar, and The Martian, hitting bottom with the execrable Signs, which was about how God sent a huge destructive alien force to Earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father. Of course, no matter how scientific science fiction stories get, they have to be about people to give us a way in. But instead of focusing on the awe of the science, or the scientific mysticism, or the possibilities of the future—all of which Close Encounters did very well, while still being about people and family—most of these recent films put the SF stuff in the background while foregrounding the personal story, instead of, more or less, vice versa. (To clarify, I like some of these movies, most notably Blade Runner, but am not crazy about this being the "winning" genre.)

I thought that Arrival might be different. The film, which feels like an update of The Day the Earth Stood Still, is about the arrival on Earth of large, hovering spaceships piloted by creatures who can't speak our language. It got rave reviews and is up for several Oscars. The lead actors give very good performances. Amy Adams is a linguist who, we come to believe, is divorced and has recently lost her daughter to cancer, and is sort of sleepwalking through life when she is approached by the military to try and figure out the language of the aliens. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who is part of her project team and with whom she develops a close and trusting relationship. At first, their process of learning to communicate with what they call Heptapods (they look a bit like octopi with seven tentacles) moves slowly, and the researchers in all the countries in which the aliens have landed share the knowledge they gain. But soon Russia and China become distrustful of the visitors and cut off communication. Because of the fear that some nations may use force against the Heptapods, Adams and Renner soon have a very tight timetable.

As the demands of the traditional puzzle narrative would insist, Adams has a breakthrough just in the nick of time. But, as in an M. Night Shyamalan narrative, this solution ends up changing our perception of much of what we thought was going on. No spoilers here, though I will say that I rather liked the twist involving the alien language, but was less excited about how that twist affected the rest of the story. The cosmic "awe" that I thought I was headed for here turns into a kind of sloppy "Awwww…" involving the fates of our characters. I'm sure part of my reaction is just me being recalcitrant and looking back fondly on 60s and 70s cinema which will never return, but I felt doubly disappointed in Arrival because it was so highly praised. I'm thinking I'd better lower my expectations for La La Land.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Take the Fifth

The 5th Dimension was basically a 60s sunshine pop vocal group that managed to outlast the "sunshine" trend and kept having hits into the mid-70s. They had 30 songs reach the Billboard Hot 100 between 1966 and 1976, in a wide variety of styles, but their biggest hit was something of a fluke: a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In." The lyrics and to some degree the music was on the hippie-trippy side of 60s pop and they never really did anything else like it, even though it was their biggest hit.

I’ve always loved the group, and I own not only the CD reissues of their 60s album but also the 2-disc Up, Up and Away: Definitive Collection from 1997. But I am pleased to add this new 3-disc set, The Complete Soul City/Bell Singles, 1966-1975, to my collection, if for no other reason than it contains the single edit of "The Declaration" by itself as a 4-minute song and not as part of a 10-minute medley. But this set also gave me a clearer look at the career of the group from their non-hit beginnings in 1966 to the end of their chart hits in 1975.

In their first phase as The Versatiles (four songs included here), they were a generic Motown-type R&B vocal group, not bad but nothing special. When Johnny Rivers and Marc Gordon signed them to Soul City Records and changed their name to The 5th Dimension, the two men also changed their musical direction to what is often referred to as sunshine pop, not jangly enough for bubblegum but not lush enough for easy listening. They began having mid-chart top 40 hits, most notably with what became their signature song, "Up, Up and Away." Their arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, became more complex, and they recorded songs by two of the most well-regarded songwriters of the era, Jimmy Webb ("Up, Up") and Laura Nyro ("Stoned Soul Picnic," "Wedding Bell Blues"). Sometime after the huge success of "Aquarius" in 1969, perhaps because sunshine pop was falling out of fashion, they transitioned to a third phase, easy listening, with strings and slow tempos and saccharine romantic lyrics ("One Less Bell to Answer").

What I noticed listening to the singles (A-sides and B-sides) in order was how their vocal style changed. As The Versatiles, Billy Davis Jr. took the lead part, but through most of their sunshine phase, there weren't really traditional lead vocals; either singers took turns or sang in unison or, often, did both in one song ("Carpet Man," "Sweet Blindness"). There were exceptions—Davis on "Aquarius," Marilyn McCoo on "Wedding Bell Blues"—but it wasn't until the group's third phase, easy listening, that McCoo pretty much took over lead vocals ("One Less Bell," "Love’s Lines, Angles and Rhymes," "Never My Love") and the arrangements reduced the others to just backing singers. Those above songs are fine, and "Angles" is one of my very favorite 5th songs, but this was a definite move away from the 60s rhythmic sound to a lush orchestral feel, from interesting arrangements involving sitars and tack pianos, and sometimes a political message ("The Declaration," "Save the Country") to a more conventional sound.

The later songs also reveal clearly what a great singer McCoo is. Her creamy voice is on a par with Karen Carpenter's, and with different handling, she might have had a strong solo career, but that never happened. After his Versatiles songs, Davis never again felt as confident as an R&B singer, though his voice remained distinctive. The B-sides allow the other three (Florence LaRue, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore) to handle some leads and they're fine, but McCoo had the strongest voice, and strongest visual appeal, in the group. None of the B-sides are lost gems but a couple are of interest: "I Just Wanta Be Your Friend" has a loose War feel to it, and "Skinny Man" and their cover of "Feelin' Alright" are as good as any of the hit sides. I still think it's a shame that one of their strongest songs, Jimmy Webb's "The Girl's Song," wound up wasted as a burn-off single released by Soul City to draw attention away from their newer work on Bell Records. Generally, even their most cringe-worthy hits (like "Living Together, Growing Together") are worth hearing, though two of their last songs, "Ashes to Ashes" and "Flashback," are ones I'd skip next time around. Still, 2-1/2 discs worth of great music is a solid legacy for the group.
I would say that this is now the definitive collection of 5th Dimension music, but it's missing two strong songs from the earlier collection, "Orange Air" and "Time and Love." Plus, these are single mixes so most of them sound like mono, and a couple sound a bit muddy compared the album versions. So go ahead and splurge for this and for Up, Up and Away (which has since been reissued as The Essential Fifth Dimension.