Friday, November 16, 2007

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

By Mike Gillis

I suppose it's odd I'm here chatting about "300" on the day "Beowulf" is being released theatrically. "300" is so yesterday and not even in 3-D.

But that's exactly the problem with "300" and probably, eventually, with "Beowulf". Pictures are made to titillate -- with sex, violence, language or technology -- not to stand up to time.

Looking back at the the reviews collected for "300" on, the top two, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Film Threat, respectively, both give the picture high marks for its technical achievement.

That's the bar. Many other reviews give the picture points for its visuals, knocking it a bit for its testosterone take on the famous Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans staved off thousands of Persians. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated, which makes the film and its graphic novel counterpart by Frank Miller a bit disingenuous.

Who cares. It's a sword and sandals picture meant to entertain, not teach. I get that.

And truth be told, it's a stunner to watch. The battle sequences are sometimes breathtaking, the landscapes are stunning and the villains are as nasty as any. All the more impressive, I suppose, because the whole picture was shot against a blue screen and the sets added by computer later.

To be honest, I hadn't really been interested in watching "300", but had to test out a new sound system, and once in the thick of the action, I fell for it. But something else happened: I had also tested out my sound system with a brief viewing of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Peter Jackson's epic take on the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and realized while watching the opening battle sequence, which was also created in a computer, that it already feels outdated. Not the movie, but the technology. Not quite like comparing it to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but you begin to see the machinery at work because the "wow" has worn off.

Then comes "300" and we're "wowed" again. And then "Beowulf."

Is that the only test of a movie these days? It's technical advancements?

Of course not. There are still plenty of great, little pictures being churned out every year. The best of them seldom get the attention they deserve, but they exist, and that's good. Some of them even embrace the digital future in the best possible way. A scene would look better with a tree in the background? Add one. I guarantee no one will notice the trickery.

I'm not a crank fed up with the bells and whistles of movie making, but what's happened to the epic? Where are the "Rans" or even the "Glorys"?

Watching a few scenes of "300" again, I know it will suffer the same fate as most of the "technical achievement"s before it. It has the benefit of two fine performances -- Gerard Butler as King Leonidas and Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo -- but it is beyond me how it survives the test of time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Joe Strummer – Punk Rock Warlord, Part II

Note: This is the second part of Mike Keating’s review of the new documentary about Joe Strummer. Read Part I here:

By Michael Keating

Spoiler Alert: If you’re a Clash fan stop reading now and get yourself to a theater. I’m bound to give away details you’d rather hear on your own. The film, which debuted in January at Sundance, is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., through Thursday, Nov. 22.

The Sex Pistols changed everything -- so much so that the London music scene could forever be demarcated into Pre-and Post Pistols. When Joe Strummer saw the Sex Pistols live, he knew he wanted to dive into the scene feet first.

Enter Bernie Rhodes, an itinerant band manager who was tight with Pistols lead singer John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).

Rhodes introduces Strummer to guitarist Mick Jones, suggesting he become lead singer for Jones’ band, the London SS, which included bassist Paul Simonon. The three immediately hit it off and with a few other mates formed the Clash in 1976. Strummer and Jones set about writing songs together, Strummer as lyricist, Jones as primary composer. A short time later they had enough material to take the stage and the Pistols did them a solid by letting them open a gig.

It was during rehearsals that Strummer realized he and Simonon had no idea how to play their instruments. During one practice Jones walks over and tunes Simonon’s bass, turning the tuning knobs as Simonon thumbs the strings. “I’ve always played all six strings (across) at the same time,” Strummer admits. “I never learned to play all the fiddly bits.”

What they lacked in talent the Clash made up for with bravado, determination and passion. While Jones worked the melodies, Strummer worked the words. “I like to think,” he says plainly, but poignantly. “I think thinking is good for you.”

In 1977, the band, after some personnel changes, was signed to CBS Records and released its eponymous debut album to both critical and popular acclaim. The English press fell in love and soon declared them “the only band that matters.”

At this point, in the new documentary “Joe Strummer -- The Future Is Unwritten”, director Julian Temple, who has so far told a pretty straightforward chronological story about his subject, turns testimonial.

Temple, who also directed three documentaries about the Sex Pistols (“Sex Pistols Number 1”, “The Great Rock And Roll Swindle”, and “The Filth and The Fury”), uses monologues taken from “London Calling,” Strummer’s BBC Radio show, that allow him to narrate his own life events. It’s a thoughtful, intimate effect.

Temple shoots all his interviews around campfires set up to look like squatters’ camps, whether they’re overlooking London, Lubbock, Texas, for punky honky tonker Joe Ely, or wherever the interview takes place. His decision not to use names and titles, as most documentaries will do to help the audience know who is speaking, works well for the most part. Perhaps this is the director’s way of saying that the person speaking isn’t what’s important, but rather what is being said.

The problem is, sometimes you really want to know who’s talking. It must be disconcerting for some non die-hard fans. While most probably know Bono from U2 on sight, others aren’t likely to pick out folks like director Jim Jarmusch as easily (Strummer appeared in his film, “Mystery Train," along with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Steve Buscemi, who says he was more nervous to act with Strummer than if it had been Marlon Brando).

Because of this decision on no names and titles you wouldn’t realize Temple himself played such an important on-camera role in his own film. I didn’t myself until I looked it up on IMDB afterwards and saw his photo. I just assumed he was another longtime friend of Strummer, which I guess he was.

The audience where I saw the film reacted in interesting ways as the cameos picked up speed. Some groaned at seeing Bono pontificate while sitting beside a beach front fire (presumably in Ireland). Others laughed out loud at the sight of Johnny Depp, who judging by the tasseled beard, might have been on the set of Pirates III. Still, Bono speaks well to how important the band was to aspiring musicians who, like him, weren’t all that talented either.

“Ideas became more important than guitar solos and more important than driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool,” Bono said. “You suddenly felt that, if the Clash can do it, then you can do it.” And that’s exactly what happened. Almost overnight, kids around the world started punk bands up in basements, attics and garages, emulating the look, sound, and political angst of the Clash.

Next comes the whole “rise and fall” crescendo where, in addition to Strummer’s monologues cut under concert and traveling about footage, we get an honest look at history from Jones and drummer Topper Headon. Earlier, a reporter asks Strummer if he lives by a moral code. With a mischievous grin he thinks for a moment and says, “Well, I’d never steal money off a mate. (Long pause.) But I’d steal his girlfriend.”

Headon, who explains that he got to know Strummer by spending three days alone with him in jail for stealing hotel pillows for the band’s bus, later tells us that when he kicked his girlfriend out of his hotel room one night he found her the next morning crawled up in bed with Strummer.

One old girlfriend says, “They were like a family of warring brothers.”

Despite major artistic successes such as the double album “London Calling,” which Rolling Stone ranked at Number 8 on its list of the 500 most important rock albums of all time, or the triple disc politically-charged “Sandinista,” which sold for the price of a single album so fans could afford it, the band lived up to James Dean’s, “Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” motto.

“We lived out of each other’s pockets for years,” Jones laments by way of explaining the eventual demise and rancor. “We never even got to take a vacation. Bands today get to take vacations.” Drugs also took their toll, especially for Headon, who was so wasted by the end that he could hardly keep a beat.

Still, it’s a visual, emotional rush to watch it all unfold on screen. You can’t help but get juiced as they take off on a flight to concur America. “Somebody had to prove it could be done,” Strummer says righteously.

Portsmouth, NH, readers who know Joe Stevens, the rock ‘n’ roll photographer who resides in that fair city, will get a kick out of seeing him on screen for a brief moment. Disembarking from the duty free shop at JFK the band is caught by a gaggle of journalists, with Captain Snaps himself in the middle snapping away.

Scenes from the triumphant run at Bonds International Casino on Broadway, which can be seen in all its glory in Don Letts' kick-ass concert film, “Westway To The World,” are especially interesting, including an aside from director Martin Scorsese who discusses the influence the Clash had while making his film, “Raging Bull.” While the soundtrack consisted of artists such as Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, the music in his head was all Clash, Scorsese said.

Strummer has a hard time landing on his feet after the Clash split up in 1986. He piddled around and did a bit of acting before landing a gig to write the soundtrack for “Walker,” a film by Alex Cox about 19th Century American soldier of fortune William Walker starring Ed Harris. The soundtrack is a gorgeous mix of Latin percussion and rhythms that harken back to his childhood upbringing in Mexico and presage his wonderful work to come with The Mescaleros. The movie, however, was a disaster.

Toward the end of the Strummer documentary, we learn why Temple chose to use the campfire device for his interviews. Turns out, Strummer was tuned in to the communal power of the campfire, especially as it relates to the cultural rites of indigenous peoples. He’d invite people over to his house in Broomfield, England, where they’d sit around the fire having parties, talking politics, playing music and talking about life.

As the film moves quietly toward its conclusion, you’re allowed to reflect on this man, Joe Strummer, and the power he had to change the world through music. The film ends with one last monologue from Strummer, recorded sometime between 1999 and 2002 for the BBC. It’s a sentiment worth ending with here.

“And so now I’d like to say, people can change anything that they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks. I am one of them. But we’ve all got to just stop following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything. This is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. It’s because they’re being dehumanized. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring, and follow that for a time. Greed ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Time Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”

Michael Keating was the former features editor at the Portsmouth Herald. He now works internal communications at a teaching hospital in Boston. He can be reached by e-mail at

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Pay More for a Good Movie? Sure!

By Gina Carbone

Movie studios and theater chains don’t want anyone moving their cheese. Even if you move it to a better spot.

Last weekend I drove more than an hour to catch the nearest showing of the Coen brothers’ new film, “No Country for Old Men.” I gladly got their three hours early to pay $9.25 for a sold-out evening show, plus parking and gas.

At the same theater are films like “Wristcutters: A Love Story” and “The Price of Sugar.” They are not selling out. Not mandating a line. Not requiring weekend planning. And yet tickets cost the same for all.

At my local multiplex, “Bee Movie” is playing every five minutes. It’s selling well. Also at my theater, but not showing quite as often or doing nearly as well, is “Gone Baby Gone.” Guess how much tickets are for both?

A recent Detroit Free Press article by Terry Lawson argued the one-price-fits-all model is outdated. I agree. I would add that the set-showtimes and free-for-all seating models are also outdated.

There’s no need for a sweet PG movie and a torture porn R to be sharing the same basic schedule. Odds are, the 10 p.m. “Bee” and 11 a.m. “Saw IV” are going to be echo chambers.

And when’s the last time you actually enjoyed watching a movie from the front row? It either killed your neck or made you nauseous or both. You could be the first in line for tickets, but if you decide to help sustain your local theater by buying an overpriced popcorn and get to a seat after your cheapskate neighbors, you may be split up from your friends and family. What’s the problem with setting a seat number when you buy a ticket -- like every other major concert or theater venue -- with the first two rows as the true cheap seats?

In the Free Press article, Lawson references Radiohead’s decision to release their album “In Rainbows” online at whatever price fans wanted. (Including nada.) According to the story, the album was downloaded more than a million times with the average buyer paying about $8.

Acknowledging that Radiohead doesn’t have the same corporate responsibilities as movie studios and theater chains, Lawson puts forth a proposal: “Consider the fate of a couple of great movies that no one is seeing, ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘Michael Clayton.’ What if the distributors of those movies advertised reduced ticket prices for these films, say on one Sunday? Or on weekday nights when theaters are empty, anyway? How about cheaper prices for those small, truly independent and foreign films that have been muscled out of the art houses by the studio's boutique divisions? Would that entice audiences and distributors to take a chance?”

This is hardly redefining pi. Most of the world already sets prices by demand. Parents are eating each other alive to get tickets to Hannah Montana’s sold-out shows -- in any unsqueaky clean way possible. A local band’s concert at the local concert hall is not going to go for the same as the Police’s latest reunion tour. Chances are your community theater’s production won’t require the hundreds you could dish out for a high-profile Broadway show.

Granted, you can’t see “Wicked” at any theater across the country; naturally it’s going to cost more when more people are vying for the same seats. But at least on Broadway you know what seat you are going to get. You and your friends can book the orchestra for X amount, if you are treating yourselves, or be content with a restricted view in the back of the balcony for less.

Movie theaters are long overdue to match this common sense price setting. The actual cost could be left to the discretion of the theater owners. If “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” is opening tonight, chances are about 100 percent it’s going to sell out. So you raise the price -- a lot. It’s not like Dad would risk patricide by staging a boycott. Meanwhile, you offer a cheap, art-house sweetie like “Once” next door for less -- a lot.

Spillover audience? Doubt it, but the law of averages would likely leave theaters in the black. They don’t make the bulk of their money from ticket sales anyway. They get you on the humungous popcorns, sodas and overpriced M&Ms. And you should pay, happily, or they’ll just start charging $20 for everything.

Joe Strummer -- Punk Rock Warlord

By Michael Keating

Spoiler Alert: If you’re a Clash fan stop reading now and get yourself to a theater. I’m bound to give away details you’d rather hear on your own. The film, which debuted in January at Sundance, is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., through Thursday, Nov. 22.

I once had the chance to see the Clash in concert, back around 1984 on the “Combat Rock” tour. My buddy Emmons hounded me to join him for the trek down from U. Maine Farmington to Portland, but it was exam week and I wasn’t doing so good that year. He still ribs me for being such a lightweight and I always admit that missing the show was one of the worst regrets of my life.

Turns out, maybe I didn’t make such a big mistake after all. In “Joe Strummer -- The Future is Unwritten,” a new documentary film lovingly crafted by director Julian Temple, we learn that by the time the Clash made it to Portland, ol’ Joe was the only remaining original member of the band.

“I don’t think we ever played another decent gig after Topper left,” Strummer admits three-quarters of the way through this wondrous 123 minute biopic tracing the life one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest preacher-agitators. Starting with his birth as John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, through to his death from a congenital heart defect at his home in Broomfield, England, in 2002, the film follows the jagged trajectory of his EKG.

The film opens with Strummer alone in the studio singing at the mic. Headphones on so only he can hear the music; Strummer starts belting out the lyrics to “White Riot,” spitting piss and vinegar in an all-out rage.

White riot -- I wanna riot
White riot -- a riot of my own
Black man gotta lot of problems
But he don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they tea
ch you how to be thick

Then BOOM -- the music comes in (Strummer on rhythm, Mick Jones on lead guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and Topper Headon on drums). Electricity shoots up the spine to the cerebellum and we’re witnessing the birth of punk rock.

Temple, a music journalist who chronicled the London scene in the ’70s and later went on to make music videos and feature films with the likes of Bowie, has a treasure trove of personal footage to unleash. He tells his story straight, chronologically, starting with home movies of a young Strummer playing with older brother David in the backyard, mugging for the camera -- beating his chest like Tarzan and turning cartwheels. He’s a cute little bugger with big-tipped Spock-like ears.

The details from Strummer’s youth foreshadow the life of the artist to follow. Dad was born in India and later became an English citizen, going on to become a member of the foreign office who colleagues describe as a “left-winger.” Mom was a nurse, a country girl born and raised in the Scottish Highlands. “Joe had the generosity of Anna and the questioning of Ron,” says a childhood friend.

The family moved around the world with different postings, from the first few years in Turkey where “Joe was heard screaming in Turkish at the age of three,” to Cairo for two years, to Mexico City for another deuce where he found himself in a school where everyone spoke only in Spanish (all of which would later influence the music of both the Clash and the Mescaleros). The family was posted in Bonn, West Germany, where the one-and only Elvis Presley would also be posted during his military service. Cue Soundtrack and Strummer’s favorite song by The King, “Crawfish,” from his 1958 film “King Creole.”

Temple’s 25-song soundtrack is culled from “London Calling,” Strummer’s radio show (named after the Clash album of the same name) for the BBC World Service (1999-2002) that attracted an audience 120 million. In addition to Clash rarities, such as a previously unreleased “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” demo, we get a mixtape that includes reggae great U-Roy, MC5, Eddie Cochran, Rachid Taha (doing a wild Middle Eastern take on “Rock The Casbah,”) and Nina Simone.

Coming into his teens, Strummer and his brother are packed off to boarding school in Surrey, England. “I really had to just forget my parents and deal with this,” Strummer is heard saying as black and white footage of children being tormented flashes on the screen. “This was a place where people hung themselves. It was bully or be bullied and I was one of the principal bullies.”

On school breaks he’d meet up with the family in far-off places and “return with lots of stories and lots of crazy records,” his friend states. Near the end of his grade school years David, who was said to always follow Joe’s lead, goes off the deep-end and becomes infatuated with Nazism, painting his room black and plastering his walls with swastikas and references from “Mein Kampf.” Not long after this, in 1970, he swallows a bunch of pills and OD’s in a park. Strummer is called to identify the body, an event he never speaks of with friends.

A self-described “lousy student,” Strummer takes the only escape possible after graduating. “Art school is the last resort of malingerers, bluffers and people who don’t want to work,” he says in describing his decision to attend London's Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design where he thought he might become a professional cartoonist. Drawings and doodles from this time come to life as animation in the film.

Influenced by music all his life, he’d grown to love the songs of Little Richard and Woody Guthrie, taking “Woody” as his nickname. The emergence of the Rolling Stones was life-altering experience. He soon picked up a guitar and began busking in the tube stations. A friend once jokingly said, “You can’t busk with one song.” To which Strummer replied, “Yes I can. These people will never see me again.”

He’s asked to leave art school after painting a canvas red with used tampons. After bumming and busking around a bit, he lands a job as a gravedigger in Newport, Whales, but is soon fired after being found sleeping in a grave.

Strummer returns to London where he joins other out-of-work squatters in a flat at 101 Walteron Road. The tenants form a house band, calling themselves The 101’ers, and perform for the community of squatters who have taken over abandoned buildings. It’s a loose-knit band of hippies, gypsies and émigrés, but they’ve got tough rules for admission and end up sacking more than 45 members over their short lifespan. “You knew you were done when Joe took you down to the pub and bought you a pint,” said one ex-member.

The band starts playing gigs in the pub rock circuit and footage shows a scruffy, longhaired but energetic Strummer looking every bit like the charismatic young Bruce Springsteen. The 101’ers start to gain a name for themselves and in one night come four lads to check them out who had just started a band called the “Sex Pistols.” A short time later the Pistols get themselves a gig and Strummer goes to check them out. “The Sex Pistols changed everything,” says Strummer. “After that night all bets were off.”

Tune in Wednesday for Part II of this review wherein we learn that “the Clash were like a family of warring brothers,” as one longtime friend states, and find out why Martin Scorsese says the Clash were his inspiration for “Raging Bull.”

Read Part II here:

Michael Keating is the former features editor at the Portsmouth Herald. He now works internal communications at a teaching hospital in Boston. He can be reached by e-mail at

Read Michael Keating's eulogy of Strummer here:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Norman Mailer Wrote Books, Too

By Lars Trodson

I went upstairs to get my copy of “Ancient Evenings”, and I suppose that is the great thing about living with books. I knew right where it was, I also knew that I had taken the dust jacket off some time ago – probably now lost – and I opened the book to a random page and started to read, and remembered that the book was dense, and not nearly as mysterious as I thought it would be; no one, I don’t think, would list “Ancient Evenings” as one of Norman Mailer's best books.

When I first heard of the novel, more than 25 years ago, the title, that lovely, evocative title, made me think of quiet nights with small buildings huddled underneath a warm, starry, purple desert night sky. A breathless quiet place of hushed voices, but the book seemed to have none of that. It seemed to me quite literal, with a vast cast of characters. The book didn’t have any of the energy that I remembered from “The Executioner’s Song” or “Armies of the Night.” Or even some passages of “Tough Guys Don’t Dance”, which I remember mostly from a description of a bar by the ocean where a couple of characters were having a drink at night. I remember thinking I wanted to have a drink at that bar. There is something particularly appealing about drinking at night near the ocean.

It occurred to me that Norman Mailer, white haired and corpulent, was in the movie “Ragtime”, which I went to see when it came out primarily because it had James Cagney in it, and I thought maybe it would be the only time I would get to see James Cagney in a movie released in my lifetime. But there was a scene in it with Mailer, as the architect Stanford White, bowing his head in a courtly manner just moments before he was shot by that jealous husband. And for some reason I remember an anecdote about Mailer and Marilyn Monroe. Maybe he wanted to sleep with her and she didn’t, or maybe it was the other way around, but it seems to be an anecdote from a messier time.

Which reminded me I had seen Mailer on the – what was it – the David Susskind show? Was it Dick Cavett? He was telling the story about how he had stabbed his wife, and he was talking about marijuana, and he was having a feud with Gore Vidal, and then I read “Armies of the Night” and I could not believe how precise and beautiful the language was and I thought about it for a long time. How does one write like that? And I suppose one is born writing like that.

I first heard the news of Mailer’s death on the Saturday morning edition of “Good Morning America.” I was reading The New York Times and the news, once again, seemed to be almost all bad, no worse or better than usual, just all bad, as though the earth was crumbling away just a little bit more, and then the young woman co-hosting the show mentioned, in passing, that Mailer had died. I was struck how she seemed to really have no idea who she seemed to be talking about: “…controversial author….two Pulitzer prizes….married six times…” This was celebrity reporting, of course, it had nothing to do with books, or what it meant to be known as a novelist in post-war America. To be known as an American novelist, well, that is a thing that may have now come and gone. This young news woman was much happier and more informed when she was hosting a fashion segment later on – it was all about “layering” – rather than having to read about some old goat that never made the cut on TMZ.

Mailer would not have appreciated, I don’t think, the punctuation in his obit that appeared on the crawl at the bottom of the screen on the New England Cable News network. It read, just like this: “Author, Norman Mailer, has died ….” I had to laugh. Maybe they could have thrown in a few more commas.

I suppose one day when I read the obit of a writer I won’t have to go upstairs and get my copy of a book. I’ll just log on and find the text. But it won’t be my book, of course. It won’t be the one I went out and bought because the author meant something to me. It won’t be my copy of “Armies of the Night” I bought at the used bookstore, or the new edition of “The Executioner’s Song” that I bought at the Brown Bookstore on Thayer Street in Providence. It won’t be anything to hold in your hand, or put back on your shelf. It won’t have that realness to it. I used to roam the corridors of the Brown Bookstore as a very young man – sometimes I took the bus into Providence before I could drive – and I looked at the rows and rows of books. I would pick one up and look through it, and put it back, and I’d always be amazed about the work, and slightly jealous of all those who had been published. I’d think of someone like Mailer as a giant, not just as a provocateur, of course, or just as a spinner of anecdotes, or someone who was fascinated by film but seemed to have no real feel for it, but rather as someone who made me think about all the ways in which one could be a writer.

Sometime soon, maybe tonight, maybe in a month, I’ll put “Ancient Evenings” back on the shelf where I got it. In a month or a year I’ll come across the dust jacket. I’ll keep the book as long as I can, and I realize this may be the last home the book will ever have. What’s a copy of “Ancient Evenings” worth to anyone, anyway? So I realize that no one will keep a guy like Mailer alive for me; I’ll have to do it myself. I’ll have to keep reading the books; I’ll have to buy them. And if I feel as though even a guy like Norman Mailer can be diminished by the world because the lady on “Good Morning America” had no idea who he was, I’ll go up to my shelf, and take down to the book, hold it in my hand, see the imprint of the printing on the pulpy page, and believe there is some permanence to the work, after all.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Good Grief, Or Maybe Not

By Lars Trodson

The opening shot was of the aged face of Charles Foster Kane whispering the word “rosebud.” At first I thought I had tuned in to the wrong program, because I wanted to watch the American Masters biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. But then the picture changed, and we were shown the famous strip in which Linus is watching “Citizen Kane” for the first time, and Lucy says, as she walks away, “Rosebud was his sled.” Linus reacts in that famous Peanuts’ way: “Aaaargh!”

But I wondered what in the world “Citizen Kane” had to do with Charles Schulz, and then we were told that Schulz was obsessed with the film. He watched it, by the accounts of the people in the biography, some 40 times. At one point, one of Schulz’s sons says something like this: “Watching a film 10 times I can understand, but 15 times is excessive. Forty times? What was he looking for?”

It was interesting to me that the show emphasized Charles Schulz’s melancholy nature, and his search for love. We now know how much of Schulz is in Charlie Brown – although we really shouldn’t be surprised. I guess what people never knew was how truly autobiographical a comic strip could be – especially one where the title character seemed such an outcast and always felt so sad.

All Charlie Brown wanted was to be loved, most certainly by the Little Red Haired Girl – who I guess was a true love of Charles Schulz when he was younger. Maybe Charlie wanted to be loved by just about anybody.

So I don’t think Charles Schulz was looking for something he couldn’t find in “Citizen Kane”, but obsessed with the notion of what he saw. I think he saw what I wrote about in my earlier essay on this site. I wrote that Charlie Kane spent his entire life looking for a love he couldn’t have – looking for someone to love the poor poet inside the rich man’s persona. Certainly, it seems to me, Charles Schulz remembered a time when he didn’t feel loved, before he became rich and famous, and of the time when the girl he truly loved didn’t love him back. And then the fame came and maybe it seemed like all of a sudden everybody loved him. You can hear him think what Charlie Kane thought: Why didn’t anybody love me when I was a nobody?

That’s why Charlie Kane fell in love with Susan Alexander; after all, she loved him, or at least liked him, the night they met. That was when she had a toothache, and he was covered in mud, and Susan didn’t have any idea who Charlie was. As I said at the time, Charlie kept the snowglobe that he took off Susan Alexander’s bureau, and I think he took it because she once loved him without reservation and he wanted desperately to remember that time. He took the snowglobe and kept it until the moment he died because it was a reminder of the one true moment of love he had.

The parallels between Schulz and Kane are unmistakable; and anyway, very few of us actually have the same perception of ourselves that the outside world has. Little Charlie Brown might be the Charlie Kane that never grew up to be rich.

There’s a scene in “Kane” when Charlie wonders what he would have been like if he hadn’t been born rich. “I might have been a really great man.”

“Don’t you think you were?” Asks Walter Thatcher, his guardian.

“I did pretty well under the circumstances,” says Charlie Kane, who laments that he always “gagged on that silver spoon.”

I think Charlie knew his wealth stopped him from being an artist; he didn’t have the discipline to follow through with anything.

I think Charlie Brown – if it doesn’t seem too silly to say it – is a great little fellow. Optimistic, he doesn’t hurt anyone; he muddles on and stays true to himself. He doesn’t ever change to curry favor with the people he so desperately hopes will accept him into their circle.

I’ve seen “Citizen Kane” maybe 20 times myself. Excessive? Almost certainly. Obsessive? Perhaps. While I have nothing to offer anybody except myself – I have no riches to bestow on anyone, nor will anybody be impressed with my stature in society – I think the yearning of both Charlies is the same. We have all felt like Charlie Brown or Charlie Kane. We want to be loved for who we are. And we have sometimes wondered, for some people out there, maybe even the person that we have fallen in love with, why that isn’t enough.

I think maybe if we had seen Charlie Brown grow old, the last thing he would have said was the name of the Little Red Haired Girl, and the thing he probably would have held on to was the little paper Valentine’s Day card he had gotten from her in class, all those years ago, even if he knew in his heart she didn’t really mean it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Three Dirty Men

By Lars Trodson and Anonymous

OK – here is a strange one for you. This is a thing we used to sing as kids: weird, slightly profane, odd – it’s the kind of Americana I’m thinking was started on a chain gang decades ago and just was handed down. I Googled the words, but didn’t find any links to a source for it, so it may be more obscure than I thought. We sang this so many times, it’s no wonder I haven’t forgotten it. I think the Dropkick Murphys should put this lyric to a song. That might be something.

At any rate, here it is, doggerel from the playgrounds of my youth, in the 1960s. Let’s call this, simply, “Three Dirty Men.” As you read it, give it a little sing-songy lilt. Here it goes:

Three dirty men, three dirty men
Were digging in a ditch,
One said to the other man
You dirty son of a
Peter Murphy had a dog
And a very fine dog was he.
He gave it to a country girl
To keep it company.
She fed him, she fed him
She taught him how to jump.
One day he jumped on her
And bit her in a
Country boy from Germany
Was sitting on a rock.
Along came a bumblebee
And stung him in the
Cocktails, ginger ale
Five cents a glass.
If you don’t like this
Shove it up your
Ask me no questions
And I’ll tell you no lies.
If a bucket of shit falls on you
Be sure to close your eyes.

Oy! If anybody, anywhere, has a theory on where such a poem would come from, we’d love to hear it.

Musical Choices: The Top 10

By Lars Trodson

It’s no secret that movie theme songs have degraded into a kind of chase for a chance to put another pop tune on the soundtrackT compilation. These songs seem to rarely connect to the movie itself, although younger directors, such as Noah Baumbach and Paul Thomas Anderson, certainly seem to be trying to bring back some magic to the art form. It’s nice to see them try. I thought the music to “The Squid and the Whale”, by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham, was gorgeous.

I was thinking of how perfectly some songs seem to fit into their movies when I was listening to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” the other day, which is on the “Superfly” soundtrack – out of which came one of the great movie theme songs of all time. It also came to mind when I watched the “American Masters” edition about Charles Schulz and heard once again Vince Guaraldi’s music from the Peanuts’ Christmas special. It seems to me that rarely has the artistic sensibilities of two people, Schulz and Guaraldi, been so beautifully matched.

I think the first time I became aware of music in a movie was when I was watching the Marlon Brando version of “Mutiny On the Bounty” on TV when I was a kid. The Bounty was slashing through the water, and I heard the big, swelling soundtrack, and I thought: Do they always put music in movies like that? I hadn’t paid attention to it – outside of the more obvious songs they sang in “Mary Poppins” or a movie like that. And then later on, in 1968, I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the theater and you couldn’t escape the perfection of the music in that, even as a kid.

So I started to think about this list. It is purely my own, and I even left a few out because they are so odd: who would put in their top 10 the theme music to “Soldier In the Rain”? That 1963 film, starring Jackie Gleason and Steve McQueen, captivated me as a child – Gleason or McQueen could do no wrong, in my book – and I’ve never forgotten Henry Mancini’s music. But who else would remember it? That moviegoing experience is so purely my own, so I left it off. I was going to include Aimee Mann’s music for “Magnolia”, but the movie is such an odd mixture of failure and success that I couldn’t put it on. I’m sure she’ll be crushed.

I also didn’t include such songs as “White Christmas” or “Moon River” because, you know, we’ve had it up to here with that, despite the fact that they’re beautiful songs. Some others, as you’ll see, you just can’t ignore. The others are the ones that have simply stayed with me since I first saw the movies to which they are attached and the music seemed to perfectly, utterly capture the feelings inside the films they were written for.

Here then, is my list of the top 10 greatest movie theme songs, soundtracks – or tunes - of all time. It’s idiosyncratic, for sure, but what movie list isn’t?

1. Shaft, 1970, Isaac Hayes. Propulsive, exciting, sensual – tied right into the themes of the movie. Exactly right in every way.

2. Fight the Power, 1989, Public Enemy (used in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”). Innovative, powerful and provocative. Three words also to describe the movie. Classic in every way.

3. Help!, 1965, John Lennon. Never has there been a sadder, more desperate song written for a frivolous comedy, masked by a memorable, upbeat tune.

4. "The Odd Couple Theme", 1968, Neal Hefti. There is whimsy to this, but you can also hear the loneliness people can feel in a place like New York.

5. Soundtrack to “Popeye”, 1980, by Harry Nillson. Absolute loveliness; rhymeless songs, capturing the sweet and endearing heart of this fractured universe.

6. Opening theme to “Southern Comfort”, 1981, Ry Cooder. Haunting and spooky and exotic, just like the movie.

7. "Superfly", 1972, Curtis Mayfield. Here you have the dead-end life of the title character captured in the lyric, weaved together by a delicate tune.

8. Soundtrack to “Bang the Drum Slowly”, 1974, Stephen Lawrence. This is a sad story, of course, made all the more humane by this empathetic music.

9. Everybody’s Talkin’, 1969, Fred Neil (and performed by Harry Nillson in “Midnight Cowboy”). The cacophony and dislocation of New York, writ small in a tune not written for the film, but used perfectly in it.

10. Theme to the Pink Panther movies, various years, Henry Mancini. You have to include this. You just have to. Don’t you? The song stayed as joyous even all through the truly dismal incarnations of the series that Blake Edwards put out, even after Peter Sellers was dead.

11. Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Scott Joplin’s rags, 1973, “The Sting.” Never has a movie used the sounds of one era – the early 1900s – to illustrate the rambunctious attitude of another – the 1930s. This choice was truly inspired.