“That’s Not Writing…”

California Typewriter is the latest in a flourishing documentary sub-genre: the death of the world we used to know. It’s possible that documentaries by definition have always had that preoccupation as part of their DNA—we need to capture this now, because it won’t be here forever—but it seems particularly acute in this era of digital explosion. I’d need some help in compiling an extensive list—hey, maybe I could look it up online—but off the top of my head: All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (death of the record store), Page One: Inside the New York Times and Obit (death of the newspaper industry), Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film (death of print photography), Frederick Wiseman’s just-released Ex Libris (death of the public library), etc. I’m simplifying to make a point—at least a couple of those try to make the argument, implicitly or explicitly, that this thing (in this case, a typewriter repair shop in Berkeley, more generally the typewriter itself) is not going away. But they all felt like eulogies to me. Which may say more about me than anything else.

“Stolen Moments”—Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 cover, not Oliver Nelson’s—is perfect for such a mood; I’ve always heard that as a song of sublime calm, but in California Typewriter it suggests melancholy and death. Jamal weaves in and out throughout the film; because you’re spared the flute solo from Nelson’s 1961 original, in at least one way I prefer Jamal’s version. I was surprised by how much non-pop music turned up in California Typewriter that has a strong connection to me in one way or another. Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” plays towards the end, and that too has a stillness that feels sad in this context. At different points in my life, I’ve included both of those in Top 100 lists of my favourite songs. Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” on my very short list of favourite Christmas song ever—it basically comes down to that or Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody”; I went with the latter on a Facebook countdown 10 years ago—is played when Ken Alexander, the store’s lead repairman, works on the store’s Christmas display. There are a number of famous interviewees in the film—Tom Hanks, Sam Shepard, David McCullough, John Mayer (who I trust is famous—don’t know any of his music myself)—and they’re all thoughtful and funny, but Alexander is the film’s hero. Elevating him to a craftsman isn’t enough; without ever saying so explicitly, the filmmakers view him as an artist, and I wouldn’t disagree.

More music—a couple of odd detours. There’s a bit of classical that I recognized but had to hang around for the credits to identify. It’s by Chopin; I know it from The Deer Hunter, the piece George Dzundza plays sitting around the bar the night before De Niro, Walken, and Savage ship off to Vietnam. It’s one of the film’s best moments: he finishes playing, looks up from the piano at his soon-to-be-departed friends (Dzunda, who’s staying behind with Cazale, looks shell-shocked), and we begin to hear helicopter sounds in advance of the next startling cut.

Weirdest of all—with another Cazale connection—is some of David Shire’s score from The Conversation. I’ve been trying to make a connection between Coppola’s brilliantly austere exploration of paranoia and the dying world of typewriters, but I’m coming up short. Somehow, it works. (It’d be nice if I could provide exact details as to what was happening on-screen while Shire’s music played, but such recall seems to vanish more and more instantaneously with me.)

Actually, Shire’s inclusion wasn’t the weirdest music to be found in California Typewriter. That would be BTO—not that BTO, the other one; the Boston Typewriter Orchestra—who never ever learned to read or write so well, but they play their typewriters just like ringing a bell. And sometimes they even destroy them after a performance, like Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix. I think they might have been inspired by Jerry Lewis, I don’t know—this clip was making the rounds when he died a few months ago.

I should also mention John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and a great clip of Dylan from Don’t Look Back. He’s not playing, he’s just sitting at his desk typing away. Maybe the lyrics of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”? Doubtful—I suspect a typewriter didn’t have a lot do with the creation of that one.

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“That’s Not Writing…”

Beyond the Seas of Thought

Six Feet Under is important to me. It was the first “prestige” television show I ever watched in its entirety (I’m not counting Twin Peaks or The Larry Sanders Show before it—the era that kicks in with The Sopranos, I mean). When I finally did catch up with The Sopranos and Mad Men long after the fact—and when I watched The Leftovers, House of Cards, and four or five others during their actual run (some of which I still have to finish, and one, Mr. Robot, that I abandoned partway through the second season)—Six Feet Under was my frame of reference. The list of shows I haven’t even begun is long; as it continues to grow exponentially, I’m quite sure I’ll never catch up, even with retirement looming. But no matter how many I do eventually get to, I expect I’ll always look upon Six Feet Under as important.

Being kind of in limbo with a couple of those in-progress shows at the moment, I started a rewatch earlier this week. I’m a few episodes into Season Two; it only ran for five, so I’ll probably finish within a couple of weeks. I’ll come back here and write about its use of music when I do—I remember it becoming increasingly important not too long after where I am now. The episode I finished yesterday, “Driving Mr. Mossback,” is really the first time anything (outside of the always excellent score, which regularly summons a strong emotional response from me) felt significant thus far. Nate and Claire have a conversation about Sleater-Kinney and grunge, Yo La Tengo’s “Our Way to Fall” plays as Nate and Claire arrive at Lisa’s—perfectly capturing the domestic tranquility represented by Lisa, who if Lili Taylor weren’t such an engaging actress would amount to little more than an Earth-Mother parody—and something called “Drive” by somebody named Joe 90 (no recollection at all) finishes the episode as Nate and Claire head back to L.A., Mr. Mossback in tow. This is 2002, still well before Mad Men; it’s like the creators are catching a glimpse for the first time of how limitless the possibilities are (“We can use…any song we want to, pretty much”).

There is one—literally one, right out of the blue—memorable bit of pop music in Season One: in the episode where Nate discovers that his dead father, Nathaniel, kept a private room in back of an Indian restaurant, payment for services rendered, he has a vision of the secret life his father led in there, backed up on the soundtrack by the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of Your Mind.” It’s not quite accurate to say the song comes out of blue—it’s used diegetically, appearing when Nate, in close-up, takes one of his father’s old albums out and puts it on the turntable. As “Journey” plays, we get a collage of Nathaniel engaging in all sorts of debauchery—dope, biker parties, hookers—ending with him pointing a rifle out the window, Charles Whitman-style, and unloading on whatever’s out there below. (Presumably firing blanks, or into empty space—we come to learn over the course of Six Feet Under that Nathaniel Sr. had a wickedly mischievous sense of humour, but psychotic he wasn’t.) He also dances, both gracefully and with great abandon. This is a man Nate did not know.

Scenes of people playing records in a movie (or TV show) go way back—I can think of at least a couple from the mid-‘60s, but I’m guessing a little research would indicate that such scenes are as old as records themselves. It’s a tradition I’m starting to mentally catalogue as I encounter more and more examples—I posted about a great one here very recently from 20th Century Women. Steven Rubio, who was part (along with Jeff Pike) of a favorite-movie countdown I did on Facebook a few years ago, has written about this too, specifically about how he usually hates such scenes, in large part because the filmmakers tend to fluff up the details. Here’s Steven on the “She Smiled Sweetly”/“Ruby Tuesday” scene from The Royal Tenenbaums:

But the whole business of her playing vinyl on an old record player…and setting the needle down so that she is picking the song…fetishizes vinyl and record players and draws attention to the act of playing as much as it does to the song itself…It’s all precious artifice, and when “Ruby Tuesday” comes on, it’s fake artifice, because that’s not the next song on the album, which is being obsessive but I think the scene invites it.

(The first two ellipses there are Steven’s, the last mine.)

The Amboy Dukes scene probably fluffs up the details too, although I can’t say for sure. We see Nate place the tonearm on the first song of whichever side he’s playing; “Journey” was indeed the first song on side two of the Amboy Dukes’ second album, but we also get a clear shot of the back cover Nate holds in his hands, and it’s clearly not the same album (I checked). It’s possible Nathaniel kept a garage-type compilation with “Journey” in his record collection (Lenny Kaye included the Amboy Dukes on the most famous of these, the original Nuggets, but he went with “Baby Please Don’t Go,” not “Journey”), but I don’t know—it seems more likely that no one gave a second thought to either the record or the cover and just used whatever was close at hand. Once you start being mindful of this stuff, it does distract.

A few other playing-records-in-movies scenes besides the three already mentioned that stand out for one reason or another. Just a handful for now—I’ll keep the list open-ended and add to it whenever I come across something interesting.

“Hello It’s Me”/“Alone Again (Naturally)”/“Run to Me”/“So Far Away,” The Virgin Suicides: It feels like I’ve written about this scene about a thousand times elsewhere and don’t need to say anything more, except that shots of the actual records are fleeting and few, and it’s hard to check for accuracy.

“My Generation,” Quadrophenia: I mentioned this is that 20th Century Women post. Jimmy and his friends are at a party where everyone—including Steph, the girl he’s infatuated with—are dancing to the Cascades’ ultra-wholesome “Rhythm of the Rain” (one of those records that typifies the highly selective theory that rock and roll disappeared between Elvis’s induction and the Beatles). Jimmy sneaks up to the turntable and throws on the Who, causing the room to explode and Steph to vacate. One of those annoying little details: we can see a two-fer of A Quick One/Sell Out propped up against the wall, which is a) the American version, not the British, and b) a reissue that came out in 1973, nine years after the year in which the film is set.

“America” and “Sparks,” Almost Famous: Two turntable scenes in a two-minute span. Just before Zooey Deschanel leaves home, she plays Simon & Garfunkel on the family’s big living-room console stereo (my own family had one just like it—everyone’s family did). “One day, you’ll be cool” she promises her younger brother, who retreats to his room and pulls out the surprise she left behind under his bed: a carrying case filled with albums he begins to flip through, including (in order) Pet Sounds, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Led Zeppelin II, Axis: Bold as Love, Wheels of Fire, Blue, Blonde on Blonde, and Tommy, running his fingers over the covers like they’re precious Egyptian artifacts. Prompted by a little note from his sister, he plays “Sparks” from Tommy. The album has an old Decca label, so that much seems accurate, but tonearm placement is very suspect: “Sparks” is the fifth of six songs on side one, and William/Cameron Crowe drops the needle not even halfway through the side.

“Tomorrow Never Knows,” Mad Men: Everything checks out when Don Draper famously plays Revolver’s last track: old Capitol label, tonearm at the end of the side. No surprise, I guess, for a show so fastidious about period details. Don even appears to indifferently place his fingers on the vinyl surface, which in this context—unlike when Daniel Stern did it in Diner, where he was supposed to be a maniacal collector—makes perfect sense.

“Devil Got My Woman,” Ghost World: In an echo of Robert Crumb playing his old 78 of Geeshie Wiley in Crumb, Enid listens, for the first time, to the Skip James record she jokingly bought from Crumb surrogate Seymour at a flea market.  (Nice touch: the album is warped.) She finds herself mesmerized by something she intuitively understands and, implied by a dissolve and a change of clothes, sits there playing the song over and over again. Greil Marcus on the matching scene in Crumb:

“…R., explaining how in old American music he hears the purest, deepest struggle of human beings to confront the truth that ‘not to be born prevails over all meaning uttered in words’ (Sophocles, not Crumb), puts on a treasured 78, lies back on a daybed, and lets a peace beyond dreams float across his face.”

“Dry the Rain,” High Fidelity: There must be playing-records scenes all over this film; the one I remember is John Cusack playing the Beta Band and promising a co-worker he’ll sell five copies of their Three E.P.’s immediately. (I’d never heard the Beta Band when I first saw this—maybe hadn’t even heard of them—but I developed an infatuation with their “Dr. Baker” from the same record soon after.) It’s the best scene I’ve ever encountered at capturing what it’s like to work in a record store when the store’s really busy and whatever’s playing over the sound system means everything in the world. (Actually the only one, but still.)

Back with more on Six Feet Under when I finish.

Beyond the Seas of Thought

Great Shark Incident

When I mentioned this commercial a couple weeks ago to Phil, I was stammering to remember what it was a commercial for. Which isn’t a surprise, given that it’s not so much touting a product as an annual event: Shark Week. (Oof—how on earth could I have forgotten Shark Week?) I might have neglected mentioning this spot entirely had Phil not cited “Kiss From a Rose” in his O.J. entry. Pretty far afield from “dreamily ornate,” but it’s a spot that needs to be preserved somewhere.

Great Shark Incident

Another Kind of Trip

I drew up a list a while back of 10-15 films I want to eventually write about on this blog. I’ve since added a few more. The People v. O.J. Simpson was not on there—I never even expected to watch it, much less have reason to post about it here.

Forget the exact timing, but I think I’d decided that even before I knew about the ESPN documentary. All it took was a couple of clips to realize I simply couldn’t adjust to watching a recreation of something I immersed myself in—and I mean like nothing else ever, with the possible exception of the 2008 and 2016 elections—for 15 months in 1994 and 1995. Once I saw the documentary, my favourite film last year, the FX version became even more of a non-starter.

But they were rerunning the entire 10 hours over the weekend, and I ended up stopping for about five minutes: a scene with Marcia Clark and Chris Darden (Clark: “You know what O.J.’s biggest problem is?” Darden: “He did it?”), followed by a scene with the defense lawyers where Robert Shapiro comes in with his brainstorm for a manslaughter plea, greeted with blank stares from everyone else. Pretty good, I thought, so the next day I picked up a bootleg copy at a flea market.

Something that occurred to me about the documentary as I watched the recreation: I don’t know if there was any pop music in the documentary at all, whether period or something more thematic. If there was—and there must have been, right? it too ran eight hours—I don’t remember anything, which from my perspective says something about how great it is.

The FX series—to my surprise for some reason; I shouldn’t have been—has music. Not a lot, but most of what’s there tries to zero in on period, the summer of ’94, with a little bit of dance-pop thrown in from a slightly earlier and much happier moment. I once listed 1994 as one of my five favourite years for pop music ever. I was definitely primed to respond.

Great jumping-off point: second episode, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” for the Bronco chase. Or at least for the beginning of the chase, as cops jumped into their cars, headed for the highway, and maneuvered into position—before long, of course, the chase was more like a VIP motorcade than a chase. I wrote at the time that Spike Jonze’s video for “Sabotage” was one of the very few ever that had made me love a song I’m pretty sure I would have disliked otherwise; in foreshadowing everything that was tawdry and B-movie-ready about the upcoming trial, perfect choice—think I even spotted Vic Colfari in one of the LAPD cars.

I made the link between “Sabotage” and 1994 instantaneously, tied in, I think, with a strong sense of that summer’s Radio On, the fanzine I put out through the ‘90s: Five Easy Pieces cover, the issue where I wrote a 2,000-word review of Frente’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” that was 99% about O.J. “Sabotage” finished second on that issue’s end-chart, and right away I thought, “I wonder if ‘Fantastic Voyage’ will turn up somewhere?” (Third on the same chart, my own favorite record that issue, also my #1 at the end of the year). Didn’t have to wait too long: in the fifth episode, with the trial underway, Coolio’s Lakeside cover scores the scene where the defense team “redecorates” O.J.’s house in advance of the jury’s Brentwood/Rockwood field trip. It is indeed a fantastic voyage. Down come the photos of O.J. with various white celebrity friends, replaced by African art on loan from Johnnie Cochran. Other than not having the song play loudly enough, nailed it again.

Two episodes after that, you get Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” overtop Marcia Clark getting her hair styled into the curled perm that caused so much commotion. (My memory was that this was her style right from the start, and that there was only one change; there were in fact two.) In the same way the documentary is structured around the convergence of two parallel stories—O.J. the color-neutral celebrity on the one side, the four-decade story of race in America (and L.A. in particular) on the other—The People v. O.J. lines up well with the Hillary-Trump dynamic played out last year, with Clark subjected to the same kind of insidious carping directed at Clinton. (Leaving either O.J., Johnnie Cochran, or the defense team in general as Trump—not sure which.) In any event, “A Kiss from a Rose” sounded just as dreamily ornate as ever, an inspired and empathetic (some might hear irony; I didn’t) match for Clark’s unhappy gambit—or, more accurately, one she was pressured into.

Three for three. In addition, you get arguably the two most famous examples of whatever they called C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” and Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody” at the time (house-hop?). C+C play when O.J. sits in his cell and daydreams about his party life before the murders; Black Box during the after-verdict celebration at a local club. I believe they’re also among the two most famous examples of gorgeous video models lip-synching the vocals of someone else, in both instances Martha Wash. Which may or may not be a comment on O.J.’s no-there-there real self. When the jurors revolt over a variety of issues (deputy assignments, privacy, preferential treatment for the two white jurors), they dramatically enter the court almost uniformly dressed in black as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” plays—a bit too easy, maybe, but it works anyway. (I remember juror issues, but in all honestly have no recollection* of their big sartorial moment; here’s a contemporaneous, somewhat more modest account of what happened.) There’s other music here and there throughout the 10 episodes, but the only other thing I’ll mention is the strangest: Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat, used early and then again over the final episode’s end credits. Like most people, I imagine, I know this piece from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Which may or may not be a comment on…I couldn’t even begin to guess.

Did they overlook anything can’t-miss from 1994? Well, the #1 song in Radio On that summer was Beck’s “Loser,” and if I drew up my own Top 10 for the year again, I’d probably also put it at the top ahead of Coolio. Where would you use it, though? In the midst of this race-gender-celebrity maelstrom, on whom could you hang something so definitively slackerific?

*(I’ve been wondering why someone doesn’t put out a massive DVD box-set of the entire trial. Something that should never surprise anyone: you can watch the whole thing on YouTube, preliminary hearings right through to closing statements and the verdict, all of it chopped up into 493 segments. They seem to have been posted sometime last year—how long they remain up before some commercial interest intervenes, I don’t know. It is a major temptation for me to download everything and get it onto a USB for safe-keeping; the time and effort involved in doing so—never mind ever actually sitting down to watch it—are all that’s saving me from myself right now.)

Another Kind of Trip

The End of Time

The movie is famous, the last scene is not (I don’t think). I’m talking about Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice, Paul Mazursky’s lampoon of encounter groups and wife-swapping and other topical concerns of 1969. I had some tangential Facebook interaction with Fritz Peterson the other day, the New York Yankee pitcher infamous for swapping wives—families, actually—with Mike Kekich in 1973. I’d bet money that Peterson and Kekich had both seen Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice at the time.

Pauline Kael liked it, and her review produced one of her more memorable (if a little cruel) lines: “(Dyan Cannon) looks a bit like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bits.” Some critics—John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, I think, or at least one of them; I’d have to check—considered it irredeemably trendy junk. I suspect the opening scene, Bob and Alice on a retreat at “The Institute,” was very much on Matthew Weiner’s mind when conceiving the final Mad Men episode.

I think the movie holds up well. The topicality might be anchored in 1969, but the execution is very deliberate, far from flashy. If you want to see what a badly dated stylistic version of 1969 looks like, try Goodbye, Columbus (which I actually like for other reasons)—clunky zooms, grotesque close-ups, subliminal editing, etc.  Even Midnight Cowboy has some of that. Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice mostly consists of four people sitting around talking, though. Found this piece by Ron Reed on Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, also 1969: “The people in this film love to talk, and they’re good at it…The flow of language, the swirl of ideas is almost intoxicating; the stuff of friendship, a means of seduction, the overflow of abundant hearts.” There’s more sex (“balling”—yikes) and less flow of abundant hearts with Mazursky, but same basic idea.

Take away Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice’s final three minutes, and I’d still like it for the performances of Cannon, Elliot Gould, and Robert Culp. Culp’s limitations as an actor—I don’t remember I Spy, but he seems to belong very much to the ‘60s action-hero tradition, chiseled in rock and campily suave—are perfect here; when he solemnly announces “Insight” to signal the formulation of a profound thought, he’s Matt Helm getting in touch with his feelings, and you feel the full weight of the circuitous route he had to take to get there. I’m with Kael on Natalie Wood. She’s far too wholesome for this group. (Does she look great? This blog is a safe space for a resounding “Yes.”)

The final scene. Having balked at consummating the foursome promised by the film’s most iconic image (with their second thoughts conveyed through a series of glances that range from wry to dreamy to shell-shocked; in a way it’s like they do consummate, having reached simultaneous insight), the group leaves their Las Vegas hotel room and, just before boarding an elevator, Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now” cues up. It comes out of nowhere—to that point in the film, there’s been virtually nothing in the way of music.

Mazursky is editorializing: just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice already had full possession of what they’ve been searching for all along, what the world needs now, what the world needed in 1969. They exit the elevator, leave the hotel, and—as the Jackie DeShannon song plays for its entirety—are followed by a long procession of couples who, in a reprise of the film’s opening scene, break up and begin to mingle encounter-group style outside the hotel. People stop and face each other, looking deep into one another’s eyes (read souls). Alice pairs up with a roly-poly bearded guy played by Larry Tucker, Mazursky’s co-producer (he’s the gay pimp in Advise and Consent; there and here, he’s engagingly goofy), then drifts over to Ted, with the film fading out on Bob and Carol in the foreground, Ted and Alice behind them.

Far too much description, I know—I’m dodging how the scene makes me feel, which involves lots of emotions I hardly ever feel in real life. It makes me think people are the greatest thing ever, that they radiate nothing but grace and wisdom and benevolence. I see mountains and cornfields, oceans and moonbeams, a never-ending vista of goodness and beauty. I want to be part of what’s happening, right in the middle of it all, looking deep into Natalie Wood’s eyes. With some historical perspective, I might call it the greatest pop-song scene in any movie ever up to that point. The “Ticket to Ride” scene in Help!, “El Watusi” in Who’s That Knocking at My Door…I can’t think of much else I’d place alongside it.

The End of Time

A Puzzling Grace

Prompted by an ILX post last week contending that Marie Antoinette was Sofia Coppola’s best film (the discussion had started with The Beguiled, which I’d just seen and didn’t care for), I said I would finally get around to watching the DVD I bought a few years ago. With much prejudice, I admitted—there was just no way I was going to love it the way I do The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. “Marie Antoinette is like Barry Lyndon scored to Gang of Four and Bow Wow Wow—how could you not like it?!” countered Jer Fairall. Barry Lyndon scored to the Chieftains is pretty great as is, but, suitably intrigued, off the shelf Coppola’s film came.

(The question of why, if I held her first two in such high regard, I hadn’t watched Marie Antoinette already, well, that’s easily explained: Barry Lyndon aside, and maybe The Leopard, I have a lifelong aversion to costume dramas. So much so that I probably tuned out on Marie at the time before I even gave myself a chance to hear about the film’s anachronistic soundtrack. I’m sure I would have investigated otherwise.)

No surprise, but no insult: I did not like Marie Antoinette as much as The Virgin Suicides or Lost in Translation. There are very few films from the past 25 years I’d rank with those two—they’re not Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (for most of the world, I mean; they sort of are, for me), but I suspect they’ll always occupy the same place of privilege in Coppola’s body of work that Welles’ first two films occupy in his. (Are there any other filmmakers where that’s true? There must be…) I’m happy to say, though, I liked it quite a bit, enough that I will watch it again before the year’s out. My list of favourite costume dramas has ballooned to three.

It’s definitely of a piece with the first two—the soundtrack, the general dreaminess, specific shots (Marie resting her head on the window of a moving carriage as scenery rolls by in reflection, exactly like Scarlett Johansson does in Lost in Translation). Occasionally I even second-guessed myself as to the sequencing of the three films: did Marie precede Lost in Translation? It really seemed like a blueprint for the earlier film at moments.

The Gang of Four appear almost immediately, laying down the key question the rest of the film will dwell upon: “The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?” It’s an audacious start, mitigated by the fact that I’ve never really gotten the Gang of Four, not when I saw them live in 1979, opening for the Buzzcocks, not today—their appeal, their critical deification, why they continue to fall flat for me while LiLiPUT and Essential Logic are very much alive. Let’s say I felt the thrill of detached admiration for Marie Antoinette’s first few minutes.

Much more immediate: the chaotic, sumptuous celebrations played out to Siouxsie & the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden” and New Order’s “Ceremony” (an adumbration of “Dreams Never Die” in Carlos), and, what I really loved, the ambient part of the score for scenes I can’t even detail two days later—Marie and her entourage, in long shot, are climbing an imposing outdoor staircase in one of them—but are most emblematic of the film’s overall mood. Checking the soundtrack, I assume these pieces belong to Aphex Twin, Radio Dept., and/or Air, the first two of whom I know nothing about. Ordered the soundtrack off Amazon yesterday—I’ll sort them all out later. A song showed up towards the end where I thought, “Is that the Strokes?” It was, which in the distant future will allow people to pinpoint the film’s release within a window of 15 minutes. (David Edelstein, who I agree with far more often than not, wrote “On the other hand, the music—New Order, Bow Wow Wow, Gang of Four—is mostly godawful” in his review for New York; “Did Coppola want to suggest that these royals are just, you know, like you and me?” As a general principle, I would never go looking for meaning in the post-Scorsese soundtrack. If it’s there, great—if not, just revel. Music aside, Edelstein’s review is laudatory.)

I wasn’t altogether convinced by Kirsten Dunst. She’s a little too…sweet? winsome? I don’t know if that fits with the stubborn, going-rogue Marie of the film. I did like Rip Torn and Jason Schwartzman, the now and future kings. Both had to contend with my previously fixed conception of each: Schwartzman will always be Rushmore’s Max in my eyes, while Torn’s saddled with Arty from Larry Sanders. I don’t know if Torn is able to overcome that—he’s still basically Arty here, but I guess I respond to that character in any incarnation, even in a powdered wig. Schwartzman, though, really reins himself in and leaves Max behind. There was only one moment when I caught him napping: standing alongside Marie’s brother, he wryly suggests that the elephant the two of them are admiring be hitched to an elephant belonging to the brother in an arranged marriage that would mirror his own. Pure Max—waited expectantly for an “Oh, are they?” that never came.

 

A Puzzling Grace

When You Get Near It

New Waterford Girl, a Canadian film from 1999, always stayed in my mind. I know why: cued by an overhead shot of Liane Balaban’s Mooney gazing up at the clouds and dreaming away, the entirety of Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line” is used over the opening credits. I remembered the rest of the film as a genial coming-of-age story centered around an oddball girl, kind of a Canadian version of Garden State (which appeared later, and which everybody hates; I don’t) or The Sterile Cuckoo, but it was “Draggin the Line” that was a little reminder lodged in the back of my mind to revisit it one day.

waterford-2

(Sidebar: I often watch DVDs at home with the English subtitles switched on nowadays. Mostly because of my own diminished hearing, but also because I’m convinced the manufacturers do a substandard job with the audio. The subtitled translation of “Draggin’ the Line”’s chorus here—see song title for correct answer—is priceless: “Livin’ a lie, livin’ a lie, livin’ a lie.”)

What a great moment for pop music in movies. Boogie Nights came out late ’97, Rushmore a couple of months later, The Virgin Suicides a year after that. (At festivals, anyway—IMDB lists The Virgin Suicides as 1999, but elsewhere fixes its official release date as May 2000). What I’d completely forgotten about New Waterford Girl—or maybe just didn’t appreciate at the time; CBC’s Trudeau, which I wrote about elsewhere here, may have made me more receptive to this—is that, in its own way, it’s almost as ambitious as Coppola’s and the two Andersons’ colossal triptych. Putting Tommy James and a couple of other stray songs aside (including Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels”), it’s another attempt to curate a mini-history of Canadian pop.

Trudeau, mirroring its subject, covered a couple of decades, from the Beau-Marks to (I think—can’t confirm this) Teenage Head; New Waterford Girl sticks to the ‘70s, with a little bit of overlap between the two films. You get two songs from A Foot in Coldwater—“(Make Me Do) Anything You Want,” held in high regard by many (never much cared for it myself), and also “(Isn’t Love Unkind) In My Life,” which I think a friend of mine, Tim Powis, included on a Top 100 he drew up for me in the late ‘80s—Fludd’s “Ticket to Nowhere” (very “No Expectations”-like; Trudeau had “Cousin Mary”), April Wine’s “I’m on Fire for You Baby” (“Fast Train” in Trudeau), and the Stampeders’ “Wild Eyes.” (All that, and no Guess Who in either film?) There’s a scene inside a club that brings together (the notorious) Ashley MacIsaac with the Matt Minglewood Band for a version of “Whiz Kids.” Never heard of it, but the original came out in 1979 on the Minglewood Band’s second LP. Works pretty well with MacIsaac’s fiddle up front, but the recorded version, which I looked up on YouTube, isn’t nearly as glammy as you’d hope it would be.

The “Wild Eyes” scene sets up what may or may not be a great allusive joke. As the locals dance to the Stampeders’ K-Tel version of fuzzed-out Prairie metal, Mooney’s friend Lou (Tara Spencer-Nairn) walks over and yanks the song off in favor of Betty Wright’s disco-y “I’m Gettin’ Tired Baby,” exactly like Phil Daniels yanks “Rhythm of the Rain” off the turntable in Quadrophenia for “My Generation.” Even better: in this town, at this moment, 8-tracks rule the day.*

The best reason to see the film is Balaban (no relation to Bob). A cliché, but she’s right out of Modigliani. I remember once sitting a row or two behind her at Toronto’s old Cinematheque (now the Lightbox) soon after New Waterford Girl came out. That I still do remember this says enough. Waterford ends with Mooney on a train, ambivalently leaving her small town behind for a scholarship at a Manhattan arts school. Every train-leaving and bus-leaving scene in the history of movies is great, and so too is this one.

*Admission: until I looked at A.O. Scott’s New York Times review, I wasn’t entirely sure if the film was set in the ’70s or closer to 1999. You’d think that would be obvious—if I were a bigger hockey fan, the snippets of Hockey Night in Canada audio would have clarified this—but I don’t know that there were any other definitive clues (I took the 8-tracks to be part of the joke), and the appearance of MacIsaac further confused the issue.

When You Get Near It