Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Fabulous Art Direction of A Star Is Born (1954)

Remember "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson? Well, don't BOTHER with that muck-colored, would-be weepy (Streisand, a rock goddess?--no). This 1954 remake (the first version was made in 1937) starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor, is the only "Star Is Born" you need to see. Ever. Period. Even in its studio-butchered truncated edit, or if you're a glutton for overwrought musical dramas, the restored version currently available on DVD (with stills and sound tapes standing in for lost footage on the cutting-room floor).

Some people don't like this film, claiming: Too long! Too ham-fisted! Judy's weight fluctuates too much and she's too old! Who did her hair, for God's sake! James Mason is too drunkenly psychotic to be considered charming! To that, I say: Pooh. Have you no appreciation for art direction? Cinematographer Sam Leavitt's use of CinemaScope is stupendously rich and eye-poppingly colorful. Oscar-nominated Art director/Set Decorator Malcolm C. Bert earned every vote of his nomination. I always thought I'd grow up to own a house where I would decorate every room as an homage to every set in this film. I was a strange and underdeveloped 23-year-old, I admit. But, look, this musical is just saturated with creative thought processes, some of them in need of editing, some of them overly ambitious. But they add up to a bunch of errors in judgment that somehow manage to stand the test of time.

So while elements of "A Star Is Born" don't jive with today's hip, now, happening world (like the entire story, for instance), one thing is for sure: Ms. Garland has the most fantastic voice in Hollywood musical history. She really belts it out here and manages to be completely heart-felt as well. Plus her Vicki Lester/Esther Blodgett is a sweet-natured, enabling, loyal sort. If her relationship with James Mason's falling-down-drunk Norman Maine is unhealthy, who are we to judge? I mean, look at Norman's fabulous bachelor pad--who wouldn't fall for that? And that is successful art direction. And now...

Look at the pinks and sparkly tiaras of the opening scene! Only there to wow us with their pinkness and sparkliness.

Which are echoed in this fading-out chandelier. Wowee-wow-wow.

What alternate universe is this? This scene just keeps going into "over-budget" territory.



This is a great room to pass out in, and the fact that he manages to hit the bed first shows what a pro drinker Norman Maine is.

Nice matte painting from Hans Koenekamp and crew. I like to give matte painters credit when possible, though I don't know who actually painted this.

The bamboo interiored, intentionally fake palm-tree night club, was built from the ground up with no purpose other than to get Norman from this end of town to the other while looking for Esther and her ultimate singing voice. I mean, she's not even here. And he just leaves, ignoring the advances of the would-be groupie sitting at table 12. And still, I want to go to this club.

Oh, there she is, at another club, after-hours, belting out The Man That Got Away. Check out that multi-colored screen, back on the left. Just a minute detail to liven up the joint. Judy sounds fabulous in this clip, but how does she muster this energy so late at night after two performances already? I don't wanna know...

You go, Garland.

The cheap motel Esther must reside in, between on-the-road digs. Very JC Penney in scope, but kind of sweet. I've stayed in worse, believe me. There was this Motel 6 in Portland--oh baby, let's not go there...

More of Norman's Asian-inspired digs. What's that thing to the right of the fireplace? Visual interest.

Nothing much to see here, folks. Just thought I'd note the two hanging sconces on either side of the bed with the lamp in the foreground. Someone needs a lot of light, perhaps for reading all those star contracts and screenplays.

When I saw this needless scrim, I got so excited, I dropped my optical mouse off the desk. Needless scrim--a rarely used theatrical device that just looks cool.

The intro to the seemingly endless Born In A Trunk. Check out the juxtaposition of the pants against that flower backdrop. That's movie magic.

I used to work with some former Midwestern art students who became San Francisco hipsters.They would play Born In A Trunk in their restaurant at closing time. There's nothing like the sound of plates and wine glasses clinking together on the way to the dishwasher with this epic show-business saga pumping through the ceiling speakers—made clean-up a breeze.

And look at this funky art direction. George Cukor had left town for Europe when producers (including Garland) inserted into the film. It has a spare, minimalist (cheap) look that doesn't match the rest of the art direction. Plus, viewers complained: It goes on too long! Well, they obviously never bussed tables at midnight like I did. Thanks, Judy, for getting me through every weekend my sophomore year in college.

Norman's bizarro studio-lot dressing room. Bigger than most NYC apartments and full of weaponry. Ominous, and not a very beguiling view of the studio-system way of interior decoration.

Norman and Esther/Vicki's magnificent beach-front property. It's a miniature. I would love to have this on my fireplace mantel.

Fabulous parties featuring multi-room views and swanky guests holding strong cocktails.

 Too many cocktails can undo a man. Norman's Asian inspiration has been feminized under Vicki's guidance. She's taking over the world, his world and ours.

Mid-century modern. This set was designed to be completely overrun by Vicki's number Someone At Last. Take a look at every inch of this still. She will use all these props in a dance routine that is exhausting but somehow uplifting for Norman, whose star is on the wane. And there's jazz hands too.

Throw pillows, furniture, leopard rug, lamps, a wall clock, strobe light, and even houseplant fronds all have their moment in this one. Not the most P.C. of numbers but better than watching kitties on the Internet.

Christmas at the fabulous beach-front property is not a festive affair with Norman in a sanitarium attempting to dry out. What's in all those packages anyway? I think they're home-versions of TV game shows, like Password and To Tell The Truth. That's what my parents used to get for Christmas.

Some miserable modern art, to go with Norman's demise.

And we end on a bleak note. Sorry. Vicki will triumph of course, because it's Hollywood. But for now, her master bedroom suite is a textured honeycomb of misery and despair. Still, she will pick up the pieces and carry on the dream of being Mrs. Norman Maine and when all is said and done, that's apparently a step up from being Esther Blodgett.

An excellent and very detailed account of the design, building and dismantling of the fabulous Malibu beach house is at Jetset Modern. Writer Sandy McLendon includes an anecdote about what happened to all the mid-century modern furniture that Judy used so well in her Someone At Last number. It's a funny story, like so many in the movie industry.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Freaky toys for freaky people

It's TOY SEASON. I mean, Christmas, Joyous Noel. But seriously, as my mom told me during our exhausting shopping excursion today, "It's really for the kids." Well, my kid doesn't even know what Christmas means. We don't go to church and he actually doesn't have a concept of God, so for him, Christmas means ordering toys from Santa. He even brought a catalog last year to show Santa the exact makes and model numbers. He's very practical, my kid.

I wanted to bring my movie camera into the toy store so many times this year, but of course I always forgot each time we went. And it's too late now. The shelves are getting picked clean like Christmas carrion. And chances are, even if I'd brought my camera, the toys wouldn't have worked properly. Like the time I walked down a baby-doll aisle at Target and a whole line of dolls "woke up" and started cooing out to me, crying, trying to mechanically climb out of the boxes, designed to look like cribs, and basically scaring the be-Jesus out of me. If I had my camera. They would have just sat there, looking innocent and in need of batteries--I'm sure of it.

So here's a brief round-up of weirdness at the toy store. It's all about the economy. And Baby Jesus, of course.

Fisher Price Bigfoot. No comment. Just see for yourself. Many children would not forgive or forget if you gave this to them. Others would LOVE it, and those are the ones you should watch with an eagle eye at all times.

Barbie Sweet Talking Ken Dollwas just released in time for the holidays and what a find. Girls record sweet-talk into his chest, then push one of three buttons on his back for deep-voiced Ken, medium-voiced Ken, and I guess, girl-voiced Ken. I know when I was a teenager, I would have gotten a lot of use out of this, recording the choices phrases I heard yelled from the quarry-truck drivers as my friends and I walked to school on their route each day. Hearing Sweet Talking Ken bellow unspeakable obscenities back at me would have given me the incentive to throw him over the roof of our house over and over again. How cathartic.

Monster High Dolls. The sexualization of our teenage monster dolls has got to stop, don't you agree?

I haven't watched any Phineas and Ferb but apparently this is a Perry karaoke system. I believe Perry is, judging by his pricey electronics line, some kind of angry blue platypus, though he looks merely perplexed here. Could be because he resembles a footstool more than a karaoke machine. He's also a digital camera and an alarm clock, none of which costs less than $60. Disney Channel markets to children like the free-market system is imploding into a black hole any moment now. You gotta admire their immediacy of action when it comes to leveraging their hit shows.

Face Bank! Eats and burps. Just like a real...face.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sorting Myself Out

I've been working on a movie-still project for the blog but it's a long movie. Some might say "vanity project," so it's taking a while. Work requirements and the stern task-master that is Christmas have already butted in, plus Daria-watching in the morning with a bowl of cereal on my lap. It's a very hectic life I lead. In the mean time, please enjoy:

From the lazy, self-indulgent and always funny Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.

Also: this octopus is carrying a coconut. Just so you know.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Classic Rock Vocals for the classic rock minimalist

I think Clear Channel Communications, Inc. should seriously think about a radio station that only plays classic-rock vocal tracks--just to mix it up a bit. Especially around the Bay Area. How many of you Bay Areans are driving around (and you're always driving around) thinking, "MAN, I wish these classic rock stations would play even more Steve Miller Band." Well, for you, perhaps a vocals-only station isn't necessary. But for the rest of us--we need a little variety around here. Even if it's the same regurgitated music, broken up into separate tracks.

The classic classic-rock vocal by David Lee Roth. Imagine standing in a tiny recording booth with a big mic and this comes out of your vocal chords. Pretty awesome--goddammit baby, I ain't lyin'...

I need more reverb (and background vocals--the unsung heroes of many pop songs).

Ladies! You have not been forgotten. Once a month, Classic-Rock Vocals-Only station will play this song. So just quit bugging us already, OKAY?

Baby boomers--you're included too. KFOG needs a vocals-only show even if it's at 3 a.m. People over 57 have lots of sleep issues.

Some of us have wondered over the years, how in the world did ABBA sing like that? The answer: high-waisted leather pants.

Add background vocals and instruments for instant ABBA.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Girl Bands That Time Forgot

Some of you might remember them. It helps to be over 40 and if you hung out in a college radio station for a few years, so much the better. Before the Internet, we relied on cooler people than us and fanzines for our information. Now there's YouTube to continue this information-gathering legacy.

Kleenex - "Nice" The lawyers at the Kimberly-Clark Corporation encouraged them to change their name, so they did (to LiLiPUT). This was recorded in 1978 from the mean streets of Switzerland.

The Mo-Dettes - "White Mice" They only made one album back in 1981, so if you blinked, you missed them.

The Slits - "Instant Hit" The Slits were truly making it up as they went along. Lead singer Ari Up would go on to celebrate dub reggae in the New Age Steppers. RIP Ari Up.

The Raincoats - "The Void" Dammit, every time I embed something by The Raincoats, it gets ripped away from YouTube like a copyright-infringement tornado. I don't know what the issue is with Raincoats songs. They're not that precious. And yet, they actually kind of are...

Tiger Trap - "Words and Smiles" In this batch of girl-groups, this is relatively recent--1993. But I don't hear a lot of praise for Tiger Trap lately, so let's hear it for Tiger Trap--yay!

And while I'm thinking of the 90s, here's Bratmobile, who seemed to be touring constantly during the early part of that decade. They kept sounding like this on a regular basis and so I say, hats off to you, Bratmobile.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Neolithic dioramas to mull over

Taken with a camera phone at the San Francisco Public Library. If some of the images are a little blurry, sorry--it is the Neolithic era and not everything can be sharp-focus during the stone age. A fine job from the students at Presidio Middle School with emphasis on farming and hunting. You know the kids who featured "hunting" were thinking, "Hmmm, gotta get some blood in there..."

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Disco Afflictions

Disco wasn't just a celebration of debauchery and dancing in shiny Lycra finery. No--it was problematic on several levels. The music spells it out clearly and succinctly: inappropriate boogying, disaster, hangovers--it could all lead to Armageddon--but what a blast.

The Trammps - "Disco Inferno" Usually infernos are considered bad things. Nobody wants to be part of a raging inferno, but The Trammps made it sound fun; inviting even. Try to resist their invitation to "burn baby burn." You can't, can you? You're out of control but it's so entertaining when the boogie starts to explode.

The Sylvers - "Boogie Fever" Disco dancing as treatable disease. But it's a good thing. If everyone did the bump all night long, think how much our recession-era malaise would lift.

Diana Ross has a "Love Hangover" but she doesn't want a cure. Understandable, since she's fabulous.

Evelyn Champagne King - "Shame" Her youthful self-worth is careening toward a bottomless pit of confusion and insanity. Nonetheless, we cannot keep our feet from tip-tapping across the dance floor. Shame!

Sunday, December 05, 2010

L.A. - Songs and Inspirations

Southern California might possibly the most sung-about region in the United States. These songs always bring up memories of sunny skies, shopping, dive bars, hipster diners and inexplicable angst--my L.A. concepts.

The Go-Gos - "This Town" OMG--I love this song so much. Throughout the 80s, I really didn't give The Go-Gos enough credit. I liked them and all but with hindsight I've come to see how fantastic they truly were. Partially because no other all-girl band has come close to their chart-topping success, and partially because having been in an all-girl band (plus a guy, eventually), I have large doses of appreciation for their song-craft and composition skills. Plus they had chops. And they were adorable, and as Belinda Carlisle points out in her autobiography, Lips Unsealed, there was chemistry, which is extremely evident on stage and on record. In looks, attitude and soundz, they were Fun.

This is a haunting and dynamic composition. It's not their usual straight-forward pop due to the bit of pathos running through it. It gives you a taste of life in Los Angeles, where the club scene was their playground.

X - "Los Angeles" What band is cooler than X? Uh...possibly The Velvet Underground. Maybe James Brown and his orchestra. Drawing a blank now. X is such a coagulation of contradictions that my ears can barely keep up with all their musical ideas. There's the pounding stop-start rhythmic breaks, Exene's continuously "wrong" harmonies, sounding absolutely right alongside John Doe, their tight rhythms backing the loose, almost sloppy, dark poetic melodies that run all over the beat. And that's just on this one song. One of the finest bands to come out of Southern California, or anywhere.

The Fall - "L.A." This song will automatically make you cooler just by listening to it. Try it. Do you feel cool by the second verse? It's drone, spoken word, and rock all of a piece. Mark E. Smith is the grand master of word salad. There's sense to his nonsense and this incarnation of his ever-changing band line-up was perfect for him and 1985. I miss putting the needle on the record and being astounded, like I was the first time I heard this.

Big Boys - "Hollywood Swingin'" Austin-based Big Boys didn't just riff on Kool & the Gang--they made sure they had a decent horn section to do this great song justice. A very early punk-rock cover that still sounds fresh almost 30 years later.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Let It Be - Gylne Tider - possibly the best thing ever made by humankind

OK--maybe not the BEST, but damn good. Keep watching--it gets more astounding as it goes on. From Norway it comes, for the show "Golden Times" (Gylne Tider). I know a bunch of entertainment-type people are going to watch this and be mad they weren't included; and then be secretly relieved they're not included, but then still feel left out. I think most of us can relate.

As seen on Tim Goodman's Twitter machine.