Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jean-Michel Basquiat At 50

By Lars Trodson

Today is artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 50th birthday. He was born Dec. 22, 1960 in Brooklyn and he died of a drug overdose, just as his fame was at its peak, on Aug. 12, 1988 in Manhattan. There’s Basquiat merchandise available now and in the last few years some of his paintings have sold for millions of dollars.

Basquiat died a year and a half after Andy Warhol, and it’s a little startling to think that, as young as Warhol was when he died (he was 58), he still had 30 more years than Basquiat. The two artists were frequent collaborators in the mid-1980s. Something in the New York art world has never been quite the same since they left.

I first came across Basquiat when I watched the eponymous Julian Schnabel movie from 1996 that starred Jeffrey Wright. Wright gives an absolutely beautiful, stunning performance in this movie -- completely overlooked, in my view -- and it is one of the (very) few movies about a painter in which you see the actor playing an artist actually paint. The scenes in which Wright -- as Basquiat -- sort of lopes up toward his empty canvases and starts to paint his images and words are unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a movie about art. They’re hypnotic.

There is also Tamra Davis’s documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”, which I have not seen, and the amazing “Downtown 81”, which stars a very young Basquiat and was shot over two months at the end of 1980 and early 1981 in New York, when the post-punk scene was glowing. I’ve seen this little movie, and it’s an incredible document -- even if the soundtrack was lost and the voices, including Basquiat’s, had to be dubbed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blue Christmas: Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment'

By Lars Trodson

I suppose it’s not traditional to think of Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” as a Christmas movie, or to even recommend it as something to watch during the holidays. It’s the saddest romantic comedy ever made. But the heart of the story -- the broken heart center of the story -- takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

This is a movie for people who maintain hope that their lives will work out okay, even if their run of bad luck has been long and arduous. That probably applies to a big chunk of the population during any Christmas season. Not everything is easy, but no day is ever without hope. This is to some extent what “The Apartment” is about.

This is not meant to be depressing. But not everyone is headed to joyous homes filled with family, presents, holiday decorations, a big fat turkey and reunions with long-lost loved ones. Some people are sitting in front of slot machines and at the bus station, waiting for something to happen. If you're lucky enough not to be doing that this year, you may be able to remember the times when you felt like you were.

Billy Wilder’s movie, which was released in 1960, catches that lonely feeling. But since it ends so joyously, with the right touch of reluctant bliss, it makes you feel almost like “It’s A Wonderful Life” does -- you feel like you’ve been on a tough journey, a real journey, with real hurt, and that you’ve come out all right on the other side. That may be what any given year feels like for most of us. Real hurt, real joy for 11 months -- but hopefully we’ve come out okay at the tail end.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

'Holiday Affair': A Christmas Gem From 1949

By Lars Trodson

Finding a holiday movie that you like but haven’t seen before is akin to hearing a new Christmas song that’s worth hearing a second time. It’s a rare bird indeed. But I came across a little movie, from 1949, that I had never heard of before despite the fact that it stars my main man, Robert Mitchum.

The movie is called “Holiday Affair” and it has not only Mr. Mitchum, looking his post-war movie star best, but it also has Janet Leigh, in all her early MGM beauty, and this movie is a little treat. What’s nice about Christmas movies from the 1940s is that they’re not only sweet, but they also have a tinge of realism to go along with the syrup. There’s a hard won reality to these stories that almost always make them worthwhile.

I guess this little bit of pepper was deemed too much for modern movie audiences, because as time has gone on, each successive movie about the Christmas holiday has become so unbearably sweet as to be intolerable.

But anyway, here is “Holiday Affair”, which tells the story of single mom Connie Ennis (Leigh), whose husband was killed in the war (some of the pepper) and who is raising their son, Timmy, all by herself. Connie calls her son “Mr. Ennis” and he calls her “Mrs. Ennis” and this at first seems like a sweet affectation until Steve Mason (Mitchum) accuses Connie of trying too hard to keep her dead husband alive and not leaving any room in her heart for anybody else.

Connie and Steve do meet cute. He works in the toy department of a large New York department store. When Connie buys an expensive train set -- she’s a comparative shopper for another store -- and then returns it the next day, Steve gets fired for giving her money back. In the meantime, little Timmy (Gordon Gebert) catches a glimpse of the train when it was brought home, and he thinks it’s for him.

When he finds out it isn’t, and it’s returned to the store, the story begins to unfold.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The New York Revue: SantaCon 2010

By Lars Trodson

Photos by Joan McCabe

The bus careened down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem. I would guess we were at 135th street, and I was looking into the lighted windows of the apartments, just as I did when I came in on the bus to New York on the way to school more than 30 years ago.

It was a cool crisp night, and we lurched into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at about 5:45 -- we were an hour late coming down from Providence -- and the Peter Pan bus pulled up to the gate and we all emptied out.

I walked down to the subway and got on the A train to go downtown to West 4th street and I sat next to three guys who were discussing a new haircut one of their members had just received. When I got on the train this new haircut was the first thing I saw. The back of this guy’s head, which was still glistening with product, looked vaguely like a tangled black fishing net with a bunch of crap caught in it.

The two other guys were telling the other guy who good he looked, but when New Haircut Boy got off at 14th street, one of other guys immediately said, “Dude looks ridiculous.”

They were selling Christmas trees right there on 6th Avenue, right in front of the CVS as I crossed the street, which was full of revelers and movie-going people, and just a little while later I was at the Barrow Street Theatre watching Michael Shannon in “Mistakes Were Made” -- a shaggy-dog tiny little wisp of a play but during which Shannon doesn’t ever leave the stage or stop talking. It’s a 90-minute monologue, with one minor character coming on stage at the end, and Shannon pulled this thing off with more artistry than maybe the play itself deserved. Shannon, you may remember, played the disturbed son of Kathy Bates in “Revolutionary Road.” He was the only good thing in that disaster, and he was nominated for an Oscar.

The next day my friend Joan and I were walking up to Washington Square, and I pointed out that this was where I first saw some kids break dancing, this was back in 1979 or 1980, and it was the first time I had ever seen such a thing, and you knew you were looking at something completely new.

We saw some Santas drifting through the Square, more than one, these elves dressed up in such a way that made you realize they had no pretense of making children happy, and one of the Santa Claus’s, lighting up a cigarette, had dropped his hat. A woman came over and yelled, “Hey, Santa, you dropped your hat!” and so Santa went laughingly back and she gave it to him and he and three or four other Santas stood on the corner smoking.

This was my introduction to SantaCon 2010, a five-year old tradition in which thousands of people dress up as the merry old elf and walk around the city in a free-style revel.

It was a few hours later when the entire city-wide congregation of Santas seemed to have drifted down to Greenwich Village, there were Santas coming in from every direction, many of them already on their way to some kind of yuletide nirvana, and they poured into a square tooting their horns and flirting and yelling and screaming and drinking out of cups and water bottles.

Suddenly everyone walking by had a smile on their face, and everybody took out their cameras and cell phones and videocams. Everyone was laughing, and there was a mixture of Santas like you have never seen in your life.

I don't want to bother distinguishing whether a man or a woman was a Santa or an elf helper, they were all Santas, no matter what their sex, on this day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Leave John Wayne Alone

By Lars Trodson

More than 30 years after his death, John Wayne still can’t get a little respect. The latest sideways attack, in the pages of The New York Times, seems as unnecessary as it is unfounded. It came in the form of a formless and unfocused article by Michael Cieply (published Dec. 3), headlined “Coen Brothers Saddle Up a Revenge Story (or Two). Maybe Cieply needed to denigrate Wayne in order to fawn over Joel and Ethan. Who knows?
The topic arises, of course, because the Coen brothers have made a new version of “True Grit”, the film that, in the words of Cieply, starred a John Wayne “well past his prime, (who) won his only Academy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn.” The use of the word “only” I suppose is there to indicate that one’s career is somehow deficient if you only won one Oscar. Okay. I’ll agree. John Wayne is certainly no Kevin Spacey.
Cieply says that Wayne’s “selection fiercely split those who felt justice was thus served from those who viewed this original ‘True Grit’, released in June 1969, as the last gasp of a Hollywood stuck in its own past.” Hollywood wasn’t stuck in its own past; it was conflicted, as always, about its future. Cieply notes, but does not seem to grasp the importance of the fact that the year Wayne won, the Best Picture Oscar went to the X-rated (at the time), “Midnight Cowboy.” So it wasn’t “stuck”, it was falteringly moving from the past into the future. But for Hollywood, unfortunately, the future never seems to arrive. It’s always today in Hollywood and it's almost always late about everything.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Rhythm Man: Drummer Colin Bailey Has Played Jazz With (Fill In Just About Anybody Famous Here)

Colin Bailey
By Lars Trodson

The first track on the album "Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus" begins simply enough: a bass line and the rythmic beat of drums. The tune, "Samba de Orfeu," was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa for the film "Black Orpheus" and on this record was being interpreted by pianist Vince Guaraldi, bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey. The drum-bass combo lasts about a minute, and then the piano kicks in. The music hits a beautiful, easy stride.
"Jazz Impressions" was a big hit, and it spawned a monster single called "Cast Your Fate To The Wind," which won a Grammy for composer Guaraldi in 1963. This isn't music that gets a lot of airplay today, unfortunately. Guaraldi's stature as the creator of the iconic music for the Charlie Brown TV specials has overshadowed, to a very powerful degree, the fact that he was a hugely respected jazzman. And he had a rhythm section, Budwig and Bailey, that was peerless.
Drummer Colin Bailey is the only member of that trio still living. Budwig died in 1992 and Guaraldi passed away in the 1970's. Bailey is still active, playing drums in jazz bands and teaching. He's written three hugely influential books on drumming, and he's adapted his teachings to DVD.
And he's played with just about every major jazz figure in the 20th century — and then some. This is the only guy who may have played with Miles Davis and George Shearing and Roy Clark. Bailey's done it all.