Monday, January 27, 2014

Movies You May Have Missed - Soapdish (1991)

I hadn't seen Soapdish since its release, but I remember finding it fun and colorful and refreshingly harebrained—a glossy, big-production world of soap opera within a daytime soap opera. While saavy about TV production and particularly daytime (and nighttime) drama of the era, director Michael Hoffman and his production team were hellbent on wowing us with incredible set design and a super-solid cast of comedy players.

Released in '91, this is a movie that celebrates the big-screen possibilities and excesses of the 80s. It should be brought back for revival screenings because everything about it is absurd and gigantic—from the hair and makeup, to the multi-layered set designs and frantic background movement that recalls 30s-era screwball comedy, to the histrionic swings of emotions. And what a cast—Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Cathy Moriarty (always so great on the big screen), Robert Downey Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Elizabeth Shue,with smaller roles filled by Carrie Fisher (the great Carrie Fisher in a small role!), Teri Hatcher, Garry Marshall, Kathy Najimy, and Paul Johansson in teeny tank-top, oiled and muscular for his every scene. A DREAM CAST with big hair, freaked out mannerisms, conniving ways, and life-altering secrets that wreak havoc on all.

Sally Field is Celeste Talbert—America's favorite daytime-drama queen. She's been playing the role as Maggie on The Sun Also Sets for so long that younger, ambitious cast members Montana Moorehead (Moriarty, seethingly vicious in every scene) and Ariel Maloney (Hatcher), can't wait to get her kicked off the show. To that end, Montana sexually strings along producer David Barnes (Downey Jr., who's too young to be a producer, yet so funny and perfect as a spoiled, frustrated boy-man). David will only get Montana's goods if he gets rid of Celeste, which is difficult to do, since she keeps winning awards for her role. Their machinations result in real-life drama's intrusion into their glossy hyper-emotional television world,.

The Sun Also Sets is hitting a ratings slump. David's idea of moving the entire setup to (indoor, obviously phony) Jamaica and setting the drama within a soup kitchen full of island homeless extras hasn't helped. Some drastic casting decisions will be made, resulting in turning Celeste's professional and personal life inside out. Much sobbing and scheming ensues. Sally Field is such a good sport throughout the film. She's not afraid to let her emotions gush forth, making herself farcical to great effect. I'm not sure many actresses could have succeeded with this blend of unsullied clowning, alongside genuine ability to express realistic emotional-upset, which burbles out of her squinched-up face, scene after scene.

Then there's Kevin Kline. Who is better at playing handsome, arrogant, and hapless all at once? The guy's a national treasure. Here he's Jeffrey Anderson, stuck playing Willy Loman in a Miami dinner theater full of retirees in the midst of dementia. Add to this mix Whoopi Goldberg as Rose Schwartz, Celeste's exasperated longtime friend and head writer on the show, and Carrie Fisher as a man-hungry casting director, reversing the casting-couch gender stereotype with aplomb, and you got yourself a perfect Saturday-afternoon fun-time movie experience.

And now:

From the opening credits—pop-art, color-block cartoons, you get the proper setting for screwball daytime-drama comedy. You also think you're back in the 80s in a big way, and you might as well be with all the big hair, power suits and big-production values on display.

Celeste is having a bad day. The mirroring of her master-bedroom Boston ferns with her hairstyle is a clue to the fun set-design to come. 

Celeste's reactions to bad news are always funny yet heartfelt. That's why she's America's favorite tragedy queen.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey is doing Arthur Miller dinner theater, shouting his lines over breaking plates and near-deaf patrons.

Yes, we're in Florida now, in case you were wondering

More great set design. "Jamaica" exterior/interior set with rolling wave (mesmerizing to watch and used to great effect). Sparkly sand and endless sunset complete the look.

Down the halls of television they go. Lots of walking and talking in this film, with background "crew members" cleaning, setting lights, plugging things in, fixing hair, all manner of production shenanigans to keep the pace frantic and screwy.

Love Moriarty's "villain wear" - Downey Jr. may have ad-libbed some dialogue to great deadpan effect

Ratings are down—time for a creative meeting! An overhead shot conveys the true heart at the center of daytime drama—a surprisingly large number of men murmuring and glad-handing among one another.

Fisher plays one of the few women in power, whose elaborate office-set leads me to believe her role may have been bigger initially.

Somebody appreciates the male form

Elizabeth Shue makes her entrance. This set is completely insane, and bigger than most New York apartments.

Kevin Kline enthusiastically portrays self-centeredness sans dignity—that's what makes him great.

Set-design shorthand for deal-making in Florida.

Montana reacts to Celeste's heartbreak. Cathy Moriarty can do it all—farce and drama. She starred in Raging Bull for Crissakes... Here we see some of the fantastical two-storied glass-walled set in the palatial television studio where everyone works. Through these windows, production never stops so there's always background action, not only in the deep background, but going up and down lifts and cranes as well.

An anonymous worker on a lift going down, watches Celeste trying not to have her own breakdown while dealing with her nonplussed wardrobe assistant, Tawny (Najimy). A running theme, Celeste's age, and how this is reflected in her wardrobe and storylines, makes this a comedy of manners of being middle-aged in a youth-obsessed medium (and society).

Of course David's hobby is building remote-controlled vehicles, to emphasize his childishness.

Rose has had enough, dealing with the soap opera conspiracies and diva-ish behavior on a daily basis. This is another angle on David's office, which looks like a rich-kid's idea of a cool supper-club of the time.

More of David's lair. In the background—marionettes of the show's cast (never explained). In the foreground, sacks of mail, reflecting a huge ratings boost, back when mail could convey this. Now I suppose it would be shown in tweets, which wouldn't be very cinematic.

A glimpse of the elaborate set for a day's filming. On the left, Ariel adjusts her dress for maximum cleavage, Celeste's on-screen husband, Bolt, does pushups before his scene while Tawny oils him down. On the right, Celeste and Jeffrey rehearse while the foreground crew gets ready to roll. I wouldn't be surprised if the makers of "30 Rock" viewed Soapdish at some point during pre-production.

And we're rolling! Teri Hatcher as Ariel Maloney, playing Dr. Monica Demonico—neurosurgeon.

Rose's fishbowl of an office. Immediately before this scene, David conducts an interview with Leeza Gibbons (playing herself) on an automatic lift that glides down in the foreground before this scene between Celeste and Rose. A great use of set-design as scene-transition! Those light sconces are pretty great too.

Soapdish has it all...




And most of all, television!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Northern Soul - The Lost R&B Sound That was Made in the US, Appreciated in the UK

KALW San Francisco, is streaming Northern Soul radio (don't know for how long—catch it before it's gone) on their NPR channel. This was a genre of dance music that came on the tail of Motown, but never grew a sizable audience in the U.S. For some reason, Northern England took to it (because they were smarter), and DJs would play these singles in clubs all night long—from dusk to dawn. There might have been some drugs involved, I don't know. Anyway, Northern Soul was a big hit in Northern UK and rightly so.

Northern soul is generally faster tempo'd than its Motown-sound cousin. The keys tend to run minor, sentiments are darker—more emotional suffering is involved. And the bands are mostly unknown in the U.S.—that's a shame. Some people claim these all-night dance clubs were the dawn of the rave scene, but I think people have been dancing all night for longer than that even. When the rhythm is right...

Here's some hand-picked singles from my listening sessions on NPR. They're GROOVING. This is still truly an underground scene that deserves much more play, so rejoice.

The Contours - Can You Do It? I am dancing while I'm typing right now and I can't always claim that to be true.

Marlena Shaw - Let's Wade in the Water. Soul music, plain and simple.

The Profonix - Ain't No Sun. This is groovin'! Are you groovin'? Then this is your jam.

Pat Lundy - Play it Again. One of those please, Mr. DJ sentiments. Doesn't work in the YouTube age. Her urgency is sadly missing in this "click on this link" world.

Wendy Rene - Young Man. Full-on female sexuality on display here because that exists.

Dorothy Williams - The Well's Gone Dry. When the well's gone dry, the hope is gone. Hopeless dance songs—it's a genre.

Richard Temple - That Beatin' Rhythm. "Now there's that beat, and I must dance." Yes.

Patrice Holloway - Those DJ Shows. The pressure on DJs to not only play the favorites, but the favorites that will bring back lost love. Powerful stuff.

Jackie Ross - Jerk and Twine. "Pop your fingers, bend your back, you got the right idea, I like it like that." This song manages to rhyme "finger poppin'" with "hip rockin'"—greatness.

Alvin Cash and The Crawlers - Twine Time. Does this count as Northern Soul? I don't care. I heard it on the radio not too long ago and fell in love. It works for me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Weirdness That is Hearst Castle

I had such a lovely, penetrating write-up about visiting Hearst Castle. There were pithy accounts of Hearst moving centuries-old oak trees to make way for construction—dug up and encased in cement for replanting, at tremendous cost. There was praise for architect Julia Morgan's clever ability to work around any design challenge thrown her way, including hanging 14th-century hand-carved ceilings weighing several tons in rooms that she designed around those ceilings at the whim of her employer, William Randolph Hearst. There was a description of the world's largest private zoo, the zebra descendants of which still roam the grounds of this continuously working ranch (I saw one, grazing among the cows).

And infused throughout was my underlying confusion and dismay when confronted with conspicuous consumption on a level that short-circuited my brain within moments of our arrival. So brain-damaged am I from my visit, that I inadvertently deleted the entire post by somehow hitting some ctrl-command key combination sent from hell to torment me on Blogger until I finally learn to back up my work. Which I will never do, because I'm like Groundhog Day when it comes to blog backup.

Hey, that reminds me, did you know Twitter wasn't backed up or archived until sometime in 2010? It's true. I read about it in Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal, by Nick Bilton. So if Twitter could fail daily (remember the Fail Whale?—those were the days) and potentially lose all its data through mismanagement and hubris, I can suffer through a lost Hearst-Castle post and come out the other side a better person. A brighter day is just around the corner, especially during Northern California's unprecedented drought this winter.

Let's have a look-see at what new money and a bottomless desire for prestige and power can do to warp a landscape for all time, until the California State Park Department stops running it. Welcome to La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill)—Hearst's name for what we call the castle. Designed as a cathedral to the god of material goods, Hearst stuffed it with his ever-growing art collection, which included Roman temples and Spanish palace interior walls. He thought big and he thought non-cohesively and it shows.

I forgot to ask our knowledgeable guide what the deal is with these hairy sentinels on either side of the entrance. Why are they so hairy? Were they purchased or commissioned? Hearst installed ancient statuary alongside 20s-era sculpture throughout the grounds, so who knows? Internet, help me out here.

Hairy sentinel #1

His Sasquatch-like compatriot with club

Apologies for any blurry photos. No flash allowed within the castle, so I just tried to stand really still. Jackson took this photo which nicely contrasts the weirdness of mixing centuries of architectural interiors and decor. If you were eating your meal here, doted on by one of 80 live-in servants, you'd be regaled by the likes of anyone from Charlie Chaplin to crooked politicians buying up water rights throughout the Eastern Sierras. Fun.

I can't concentrate on my duck confit with that 14th-century ceiling overhead.

This has nothing to do with California or ranching, but it's on the ceiling, so enjoy.

Hearst and his longtime mistress, Marion Davies, sat in the middle, across from each other with guests seated in order of importance fanning out all the way to the ends of the table.

Here's our guide. He knew everything. He let us know that W.R. Hearst was no saint, having abandoned his wife and children. She wouldn't give him a divorce, so what was his choice, I guess. Tough times for human relationships among the rich and powerful.

More artistic mish-mash. The griffin statuary may be 1,500 years old. The torso, from the fourth century—who knows? Anyway, it was the holiday season, so you get that too.

Hearst, like Paul Allen, had a private movie theater, the better to see Davies' films that he produced. There are several of these caryatids in the theater. Hearst was very much into caryatids. Who isn't?


Globe-lamp poolside caryatids

Who's up for a swim in the Neptune pool? Apparently the castle's two extravagant pools were heated up until the 1970s. Hearst's granddaughter, Patty, and her family would secretly visit the house even during public tours. That means she could have been hiding behind a statue (she claims she did that) when I first saw this pool at age five. Maybe we made eye contact! We could have been star-crossed friends—me from the mean streets of Diamond Heights in San Francisco. She from the sheltered caryatid-enforced Hearst compound, wherever that was.

I love the idea of Charlie Chaplin and Louise Brooks hanging out here, sneaking alcohol into their guest cabins when Hearst wasn't looking. That Roman temple is authentic, by the way, reassembled for poolside splendor.

As you leave the pool in your damp 20s-era wool bathing costume, you spy some more statuary in a sheltered grotto. How...intriguing.

A saucy wood nymph alongside...

...Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden.

Enjoying your stay at La Cuesta Encantada?
I can understand if guests were desperate for more alcohol at this point.

Anything else? I took a wrong turn and led us to a dead-end (actually Hearst's bedroom balcony, which wasn't on our tour). The brochure said one of the fountains—maybe this one—featured statuary from Ancient Egypt that was over 1,200 years old. I can't fact-check because I threw the brochure away. I'm trying not to to be a hoarder like William Randolph Hearst, who eventually spent himself into a hole more than $100 million deep.

Tiles throughout the grounds were designed by Julia Morgan herself

And finally the Roman pool, part of a gym that was never completed, so it didn't get used much. Too bad because it's got atmosphere galore. Don't you wish a movie could be filmed here? It's very Gatsby-ish. If anyone can get financing for a Louise Brooks biopic, and this location, you're golden.

Monday, January 06, 2014

She Mob - Underworld

Another She Mob tune from the forthcoming album, Right in the Head—the slowest album-release of all time. Jackson helped me on this one. He's self-taught, you know.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Greetings from Bodie, California

Bodie! The Eastern Sierra boomtown that peaked in the late 1800s when gold flowed from the mines like water.

Bodie! Where crime and murder were an almost daily occurrence. Where a population of nearly 10,000 had 65 saloons to choose from, but only two churches (one that would burn down eventually).

Bodie! where the school burned to ashes in a fire set by a juvenile delinquent. And paintings of the 10 Commandments were stolen out of the Methodist Church.

Bodie! At an elevation of nearly 8,500 feet, it's broiling in the summer and often completely snowed in during winter. The city's namesake and early gold-discoverer, W.S. Bodey, died in a blizzard during a supply run and never saw the town grow to its epic proportions.

Bodie! Finally abandoned by its townsfolk in the 1940s, after the mines had long dried up. It became a State Historic Park in 1962. Two hundred buildings are still standing and it's open to visitors year-round, whether by rugged drive over three miles of rocky unpaved road, or via snow-mobile, cross-country skies, or snow shoes.

Let's take a look around Bodie.

The town is kept in a state of "arrested decay" by State Park Services, so we can peek in and see what's been left behind.

Bodie was the location for William Wyler's first talkie from 1929, Hell's Heroes. The Visit Bodie site has kindly put some scenes together so we can witness Bodie when it was still a real town, before the great fire of 1932 destroyed a large portion of it.

Scenes from Hell's Heroes filmed in Bodie, CA from Visit Bodie on Vimeo.

I am no stranger to ghost towns. My Mom was born in Jerome, Arizona, another mining town that was abandoned in the early 1950s when the copper reserves dried up. My Grandpa was a miner, who followed my Grandma to San Francisco, where she had hauled their six kids to keep them from working in the mines. (There also may have been an "other woman" involved, prompting Grandma's abrupt move—it's murky family history at best.)

Jerome was resettled in the 1970s by mountainous hippies, and is now an artist community and biker hangout. I'm going to assume the bikers are friendlier than the artists, who are generally a surly, paranoid lot. I've visited a few times—take my word on this.

Anyway, ghost towns are like cemeteries, but the dearly departed is civilization itself. What's left (and there's a lot left in Bodie) is a reminder of just how ephemeral all of this is.

The 38 Most Haunting Abandoned Places on Earth