Recently a new list of the 50 greatest films ever made was complied by experts. Usurping the past favorite Citizen Kane was a newly elected film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Two undeniably great motion pictures that have something in common, both of them were scored by Bernard Herrmann! Herrmann had worked with Welles in Radio back in NYC and went to Hollywood with his Mercurey Theater compatriots.
His first film score was Citizen Kane, his last was Taxi Driver, he died right after the Christmas Eve scoring session. The Taxi Driver score is one of the all time greats and it seemed Herrmann was heading into new uncharted waters with this score, if he had lived who knows what he would have come up with. The use of the harp and snare drum is so cool. I wonder if the snare was influenced by Gene Palma’s presence in the film, he is the Drummer Man, a fixture on midtown streets back in the 70’s, he’d call out the name of a jazz drummer “Louis Belson” and hit a representative lick.”Buddy Rich”, “Gene Krupa” one day his snare drum was stolen, he just played on a mailbox. NYC was full of characters back then.
This is a film I’ve heard about for many years and now finally it can be seen, thanks to Netflix streaming. Written by the great Terrence Malick a couple years before he directed his masterpiece Badlands, Deadhead Miles is a paean to the open road, a picaresque tale of two and eventually one traveler. That one traveler is played by Alan Arkin, a terrific performance and one of the weirdest Southern accents ever. Arkin is the driver of the big rig of destiny. Beautiful cinematography, 35mm, rich color,awe inspiring landscapes, 1971 locations make this movie a kind of low ball visual feast. And a cool country music score, by Tom T. Hall. A great supporting cast, including some real gems.
But the reason I knew about this movie is that a friend of mine worked on it. Bud Smith, great editor of such films as The Exorcist, Putney Swope, Cat People, Zoot Suit, Sorcerer, Personal Best and many other films, told me about his time on Deadhead Miles. Bud was hired to edit the film, he stayed in Los Angeles while the crew shot on location and sent the film back. Bud cut the film as it came in. At the end of the shoot the director took a few weeks off to recuperate from the rigors of a road movie. When he came into the editing room Bud was ready with his first cut of the movie. They screened it. The director said,” Can you take that all apart and put it back in dailies?” Bud said, ” You mean there’s nothing in there that you like?” ” Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.” “Well, I guess you got the wrong guy to work on your film.” And with that Bud left. Tony Bill , the producer, wisely duped Bud’s cut before having it disassembled and after a little while Mr. Bill fired the director. The new editor used Bud’s original cut for a lot of the film which then languished in obscurity until now. So check it out, a unique film.
The great R&B music maven has passed on. Johnny Otis was a colossal influence on American music from the 40’s till now. He discovered many great talents and influenced, inspired many others. Like James The Godfather Of Soul” Brown who got his seminal funk guitar player, Jimmy Nolan, from Johnny’s band. Frank Zappa recalled going to Johnny’s Rock n’Roll shows at El Monte’s Legion Stadium. I always thought Zappa’s signature mustache was a nod to Johnny’s facial fuzz.
Johnny with Don and Dewey, that’s Don SugarCane Harris on the left
When FZ was makingPeaches in Regalia he asked Johnny to get him Sugar Cane Harris to play on the album. Johnny did, although FZ had to pay SugarCane’s bail, and Johnny’s son Shuggie played on it as well. Zappa returned the favor by getting Johnny a contract with Kent records for his great Cold Shot album.
Johnny with his son , incipient guitar genius Shuggie
Johnny was a white kid who grew up in a black neighborhood and basically lived as a black man. Black people assumed he was black, even my mailman, an ex-jazz drummer, told me that when he was a kid The Johnnie Otis TV show was the first time he saw black musicians on TV. Johnnie had a hit with Harlem Nocturne with his big band, then Willie and The Hand Jive with his Rock/ R&B outfit, and he would have been rich if he had gotten his fair share of Hound Dog, the original version of which he produced for Big Mama Thornton, but Leiber and Stoller ripped him off on a technicality. Farewell Great Johnny O, we all here on Earth will miss you but we’re all better off for your having been here.
Well I went to Disney Hall to see the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari accompanied by Clark Wilson on the mighty Disney Hall Organ. What a disappointment! Some moron left the lights on in the concert hall, this is a movie, they are supposed to be screened in the dark, if you don’t understand that fundamental rule of showmanship DO NOT screen films in your facility. Also although Mr. Wilson is a very good performer, the music was WAY TOO LOW! By that I mean it wasn’t Loud Enough! Here is an instrument the size of a giant Sequoia and played at less than the volume of a single trumpet. What a waste! I wanted to hear and feel the thundering bass of that magnificent instrument, some clown homogenized the hell out of what should have been an enjoyable evening. Also the tickets were WAY TOO EXPENSIVE! On top of which they charged an $8.50 fee per ticket for ordering online, then $9 to park. The audience was 99% white, Occupy Wall Street should occupy this concert Hall. Frank Gehery, this was a travesty of what your amazing space and instrument should be used for. One last note, Mr. Wilson gave a speech before the screening on the history of live music accompanying silent films and how some of the more famous organists wound up in Hollywood composing music for studio pictures. He mentioned Carl Stalling, who worked at Warner Bros. writing music for their cartoons. But Carl Stalling did not write Powerhouse as Mr. Wilson stated, it was written by Raymond Scott, composer and synthesizer inventor.
Another rare discovery on Netflix streaming, the 1974 Grand Prize Winner of the Cannes Film Festival, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights or Il fiore delle mille e una notte. I saw this film on it’s initial release back in 1975 in NYC and this is the first time I’ve watched it since then, I started watching it around midnight last night and couldn’t turn it off, I was so caught up in it’s mystic spell of storytelling, just like the caliph who can’t bring himself to kill Scherezade because he wants to hear how her story turns out.
It took a lot of courage for Pasolini to travel to these exotic locals (Yemen, Ethiopia, etc.) for one he was homosexual and in some of these places at that time that was punishable by death. He got the creme de la creme of Italian film artisans to work on the film, costumes-Danilo Donati, Set Design- Dante Ferretti, Editing- Nino Baragli, Music Ennio Morricone, Camera-Giuseppe Ruzzolini.
Pasolini and his intrepid crew penetrated hermetic societies, filming in locations that had never been seen by Western audiences, these places are like something out of a dream, it imbues the film with a sense of poetry and magic, bringing the intertwined tales of the Arabian Nights to life in a primal, savage, beautiful way. It is interesting to compare it with Korda’s Thief Of Bagdad,they both spring from the same source and have similar scenes, the prince transformed to an animal, discovering a princess in her garden, taking on a beggar’s clothing, but Arabian Nights tells the tales in a more authentic way, truer to the original. Pasolini was fascinated with the early roots of the novel, picaresque tales of travelers, collections of anecdotes that gave rise to the novels form. The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales come to mind, storytelling at it’s most basic interpreted by a 20th Century poet. A beautiful work of Art by a great artist. Check it out.
Here is another Netflix find,The Libertine. An Italian sex film from 1968, directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile (writer of such classics as Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard) starring the lovely Cathrine Spaak and Jean-Louis Trintignant, it features a wonderful jazzy score by Armando Trovaioli. The sets are super groovy 60’s Italian style modernity. Frank Wolf appears as a dentist and Phillippe LeRoy as a tennis instructor, both of these actors were in a lot of Italian films from that period. Wolf’s most noteworthy role is in Once Upon A Time in the West as the doomed patriarch. LeRoy is featured in Fernando DiLeo’s Milano Calibro 9 as a killer out for revenge. Check it out for some super cool 60’s fun.
I got an email announcing the release of a CD, Maurice Jarre’s score to the incredible Sundays and Cybele. The music has been re-recorded by Robert Lafond and the example I heard was very faithful to the original. It’s been a while since I’ve seen this amazing film but I do remember being struck by the soundtrack, especially some intriguing electronic tonalities.
This score so impressed Sam Spiegal that he hired Jarre to score Lawrence Of Arabia. It’s wonderful that his music from this forgotten gem is being brought to life once again. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Mr. Jarre on a film a few years back, Michael Cimino’s The Sunchaser. He was a warm, sensitive person and his score was great. All the musicians at the scoring stage were in awe of him. It was magical to hear his music come to life. Thanks to Clement Fontaine for bringing this to my attention. He is the producer of the album entitled Unpublished French Film Music available on Disques Cinemusique . See The Movie, Listen To The Score.
My great friend Daniele Luppi has collaborated with Danger Mouse to produce an album of cinematic music entitled ROME. Inspired by their love of Spaghetti Western Soundtracks they recorded in Rome at the same studio (Forum) used by Morricone, Bacalov, Umiliani, etc. during the Golden Age of Italian Cinema. They also worked with some of the same musicians that played on the classic soundtracks. They were joined in this labor of love by two magnificent contemporary artists, Norah Jones and Jack White. Incredible. And it was recorded in all analog glory on magnetic tape! I’m getting the record, vinyl that is, I can’t wait. As some of you may know Daniele composed the score for my film One Night With You so I’m very familiar with his work. Here’s a little movie about the project.
That’s right, here’s your chance to beat the unemployed holiday blues by watching a magnificent film about a super rich guy looking for love and it’s FREE! 35mm projection no less, the Grand Daddy of all Primitive Accumulators, Charles Foster Kane! SEE Deep FOCUS cinematography as pioneered by GREGG TOLAND and his custom made F-stops, hear Bernard Herrmanns first film score. See the great actors of the Mercury Theater. Here’s a piece I wrote about KANE. Here’s the info for the screening. Tuesday Dec 21, 11am LACMA.
Unsung hero of Low Budget Cinema! Beatnik wordsmith riffing like Charlie Parker high on Dexedrine, O Charles B. Griffith we salute you. Roger Corman always gets the credit for these way out films, he deserves some of it, he directed them but they originated in the feverish brain of mastermind C.B. Griffith. Chuck created the characters, Walter Paisley, Seymour Krelboin, Audrey Jr. He even voiced the flesh eating plant, his grandma appeared in both films and C.B. played a hapless burglar in LSOH. He should be lauded, he should be crowned with the laurel wreath and given the Keys to the Kingdom.
Charles B. Griffith about to be eaten by the plant with his voice
A Bucket Of Blood starts off in a coffee house, a poet reciting an Ode to Art, Creativity is King, All Else is nothing! “Where are Joe, Jim Jack, jerk, dead!” he intones as Paul Horn improvises along on his Alto Sax.
Walter Paisley is a nebbish busboy working at the joint, desperately wanting to be an artist so he can be in with the other cooler cats and so he can get with the hot art babe he pines for.
So he tries creating some sculpture and in the process accidentally kills his landlady’s cat. He gets results, attention from the hipsters, all he has to do is keep creating but in order to do that he must commit murder. The end justifies the means in Walter’s limited mind, at first he’s forced by circumstance to kill, he even mumbles Seymour Krelboin’s mantra “I didn’t mean it!” and here’s the point I’ve been wandering up to. These two films are almost exactly the same. They both take place in a ” store”, a commercial space where money is made from the public. Art vs. Commerce, the Eternal Conflict. The main characters are nebbishes desperate for attention, success, so they can “get married”. (The goal of almost every silent comedy).
They achieve this through murder. They each have an avaricious boss who becomes aware of his hired hands nefarious antics but because business is good and the coffers are filling decides to turn a blind eye to the shenanigans. Gravis Mushnik meet Leonard DeSantis. Both films have a climactic chase through nighttime crummy L.A. neighborhoods and both end with suicide by becoming part of their Art , Walter hangs himself after turning into a sculpture/Seymour jumps into his plant creation Frankenstein ostensibly to kill it but ultimately becoming one of its blossoms. They both feature a score by the amazing Fred Katz, actually they both feature some of the exact same cues, re-cycled by Corman.
Bucket didn’t perform very well at the box office and Corman had to be convinced to try another comedy but didn’t he know he was making the same film? Maybe the addition of a man-eating plant made the project appear more commercial. Dick Miller star of Bucket was offered the role of Seymour Krelboin in Little Shop but turned it down. I think the failure of BOB was such a disappointment to him, he couldn’t go through it again. Miller believed in Bucket Of Blood, he blamed it’s flopping on the cheap production value and when he heard Corman made a bet he could shoot Little Shop Of Horrors in two days he passed. He did appear in the film as flower eating Burson Fouch. A few other Charles Griffith notes, the wheat germ bagels and odd health food favored by the Beatniks and Seymour ’s mother’s medicinal cuisine. Jack Nicholson skimming through PAIN magazine at the dentist office. Griffith had funny fake magazine in his opus Dr. Heckle and Mr. Hype. So here’s to Charles B. Griffith as Quentin Tarantino dubbed him, The Poet Laureate Of The Drive-In.
Here is the great opening poem accompanied by Paul Horn blowing a cool Alto.
Here are some scenes from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the likes of which we’ll never see again, Mastroianni, Ekberg, Fellini, Nino Rota’s music, B&W Scope. The shots of Ekberg in the fountain, her blonde hair cascading down her back like the water behind her, some of the greatest in Cinema! And the mysterious ending, dialog no one can hear, looks , gestures on an existential beach with all the sound added later, so atmospheric, so lovely and sad. Enjoy!