Saturday, October 18, 2014

Show Me the Magic

Show Me the Magic by Paul Mazursky

Writer/director/producer/actor Paul Mazursky's autobiography is an anecdotal collection of Hollywood tales, international adventures and reflections on growing up in Brooklyn. A real page turner, too! I ignored those around me and read this cover to cover in two evenings. Mazursky, who directed classics such as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, Blume in Love, Tempest, Moscow on the Hudson and An Unmarried Woman, has plenty of interesting tales to share.

The author recalls showbiz run-ins with Stanley Kubrick (Mazursky's first major acting role was in Kubrick's Fear and Desire), Orson Welles, Peter Sellers, George Segal, John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood among others. What's possibly the most fascinating is his relationship with Federico Fellini. It's a touching friendship and their meeting is something of legend. In addition, Mazursky includes several letters from the great Italian film director in his book.

The title "Show Me the Magic" comes from one of the most exciting pieces of cinema history; a piece of dialog from Mazursky's adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Forever imprinted in my mind is the scene where John Cassavetes conjures up a small miracle... in a film that plays it straight up until that point. An unpredictable moment on screen and perfectly fitting coming the mind of a man who lived an exciting and unpredictable life.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sensation: The Story of Tommy [DVD]

Sensation: The Story of Tommy a film by Martin R. Smith

I first heard the Who's Tommy as a teen or pre-teen after borrowing a copy from the Russell Library in Middletown, CT. That's really the age to delve into both the angst and sensitivity of the Who... in fact, it's the best time to explore music in general as that feeling of the world opening up to you begins. What followed this library trip was a huge Who obsession and, after the realization that Pete Townshend and I share a birthday, I was convinced there was some sort of connection between myself and the music. I'm sure I wasn't the only teenager who felt this way.

Martin R. Smith's documentary doesn't focus on the stellar musicianship of the band (that coverage can be found anywhere... I mean, listen to a Who album!); rather, it leads the viewer through Tommy's high concepts and tells the story of a band in a state of transition. It is evident we have a "pre" & "post"-Tommy Who for the history books. Tommy, an album many consider as the first "rock opera", legitimized Pete Townshend as a true composer, gave Roger Daltry the confidence to stand out front as the powerful lead singer (often in fringe), took the Who to opera houses around the world and turned the band into a stadium rock monster.

The film features interviews with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwhistle (archival), Keith Moon (archival), former Who manager Chris Stamp, Tommy album artist Mike McInnerney, Who biographers and a couple Rolling Stone Magazine nerds. It also has audio recordings of Townshend demos and several live performance clips.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Art of the Steal [DVD]

The Art of the Steal a film by Don Argott

The Art of the Steal is a documentary that addresses the issue of public ownership of artwork. Don Argott's film focuses on a much heated conflict in the state of Pennsylvania concerning the Barnes Collection and Foundation. Albert Barnes, a wealthy chemist turned art collector, acquired one of the most stunning Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world. He housed this uniquely curated collection along with a school as the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, PA. After his death in 1951, it was made clear by his will that the collection would not move nor would any of the work be sold under any circumstances.

Here's where it gets interesting... Barnes's wishes were not shared with many of the powerful Philadelphia politicians and society members. As management changed hands, the film highlights political nonsense and a long spiral of undermining of the collection's owner over a sixty plus year period. Many issues arise in the dealings with the collection of art (now worth an estimated twenty-five billion dollars) and we really don't have a clear cut understanding of whose interests are actually being served.

The Art of the Steal is a fascinating look into both the political and art worlds.

Friday, July 11, 2014

What is Visible

What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
Kimberly Elkins' What Is Visible is one of the best books I have read in a long while. I wept through it's final chapters, and yet, upon finishing it I find myself already sorry that I had reached the end so soon. A work of historical fiction, What Is Visible tells the story of a number of celebrated figures at the Perkins School for the Blind in the mid-nineteenth century, including Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, but most of all, the remarkable Laura Bridgman, who, at the age of two, lost her senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Although she relied almost completely on her sense of touch to perceive the world, Laura would learn English, and could read, so long as the print was raised so that she could feel the shape of the letters, could write, and conversed with others using a manual alphabet in which the two conversationalists would write or sign letters into each other's hands.
A world without sight, sound, smell or taste is difficult for most of us to imagine, but, as this book shows, none of these senses are essential, and it serves us well to spend some time imagining a life without them. Each chapter of the novel is written from the perspective of a different character. Most are written from Laura's perspective, but many are written from the perspective of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragist and poet, or from that of Laura's teachers, including her most famous teacher, the abolitionist, educator, and phrenology devotee, Samuel Gridley Howe (who was also Julia's husband). Elkins writes a compelling and moving portrait of each of these characters, and the story they tell together is both Laura's story and a fascinating glimpse at a small portion of 19th century America life. The stories told here are full of hardship and melancholy, but also of hope and perseverance and occasionally even joy. They are the stories of remarkable people with remarkable ideas, and of how they did, and did not get along.
I loved this story and the way it was told, and I can say with confidence that this is a book I will want to reread. I don't feel that way often.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Troubadour [Music CD]

Troubadour by the Stepkids

The Stepkids are a soul/jazz/rock/psychedelic/experimental trio from Bridgeport, CT. Their second album, Troubadour, is a wonderful collection of 70's and 80's inspired rhythm & blues and funk.

We're led into the album by a plunky banjo and what can be described as an earnest narrator. After the brief intro, it's off to the races with falsetto vocals, wild synthesizers, funky drumming, jazzy guitar and badass bass playing. The fun never stops either! While "The Lottery" sounds like a modern take on a Steely Dan tune, "Sweet Salvation" comes across like a hit from an era gone by with its soulful harmonies, synths and electric sitar.

At this point, I'm realizing that I've mentioned so many diverse (and possibly conflicting) genres. However, that's really the beauty of what the Stepkids do. Their musicianship allows the boys to take the music to so many areas and their superb songwriting reigns all of these various elements into a perfect funky, pop music collage.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In One Person

In One Person by John Irving

I'm glad I read John Irving's In One Person, though I almost gave up on it in the first few pages. The rambling conversational tone took some getting used to, and the sexually explicit language did not yet seem justified. Something in the quirky characterization of the protagonist, Billy, kept me reading and as the conversational tone became familiar and Irving's wonderful story telling took over, I soon found it difficult to put the book down.

What began as a strangely narrated story of a quirky child soon becomes an engaging coming-of-age story, then a touching examination of the life of a bisexual man in a world that is deeply uncomfortable with his bisexuality and the gender bending behavior of those he loves, and eventually a stark look at the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Over the course of the novel John Irving illustrates the changing attitudes towards cross-dressers and transwoman in American society from the 1940s until the turn of the millennium. While his portraits are certainly not representative they are believable and always sympathetic.

There is nothing titillating about In One Person despite its sexually explicit language and themes. This is a story about friendships, crushes, prejudice and acceptance.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Hangman's Daughter

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Whenever I go to New York City I make a pilgrimage to the Strand bookstore.18 miles of books, how could I not?! During my last visit I became overwhelmed, and after 45 minutes of wandering, snatched The Hangman’s Daughter from the “books everyone loves table.” To my surprise, the book was a lot of fun. 

Originally written in German, this mystery novel set in 17th century Bavaria has both an interesting plot and a plethora of historical detail. When the body of a local child turns up in a river with suspicious markings, the townspeople assume dark magic is afoot. Despite the lack of tangible evidence, the town midwife is accused of witchcraft. Jakob Kuisl is an unlikely detective (oh, and the town hangman) who stands out as the voice of reason in a world that is ready to accept witch hunts and gruesome medieval medical practices. Can the hangman prove that the midwife is innocent before it’s too late?! You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Those critical of language and authenticity may find the translation too modern but I found it approachable. An engaging whodunit!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Starstruck: Photographs From a Fan

Starstruck by Gary Lee Boas

I've spent a considerable amount of time with the square amateur photo book that is know as Starstruck. I first discovered it in the little library of my friend's basement/record studio. Often when someone is trying to get the tambourine part just right or the bass amplifier needs adjusting, I pick up a good book to browse... with pictures.

Starstruck is a collection of candid celebrity photos by Gary Lee Boas. The time frame ranges from 1966 (when the photographer was 15) until 1980. Boas was essentially an obsessed fan who would wait around Manhattan to catch stars going in and out of theaters, restaurants, clubs, etc. Although some shots are fairly washed out or rather out of focus, they're all completely fascinating. There's a charm to these shots and one can't help but admire Boas's obsession. Well, maybe "admire" isn't the right word!

Even with images of massive celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Stewart or Jack Nicholson, the real star of this book is New York City. Accidentally, Gary Lee Boas gives us an excellent overall snapshot of the world's greatest city at an electric time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

John Lennon once stated "Nilsson's my favorite group." 

Harry Nilsson, the tenor with the golden, three and a half octave  vocal range/the brilliant songwriter/the ultimate interpreter of songs/the boozer/the raconteur/the sometimes screenwriter, lived the most of his 52 years. His life was a colorful one that began with much sadness. Despite his setbacks and despair, Nilsson managed to keep his spirits high and he chose the path of adventure. He sang the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, released a brilliant run of albums from 1966-1980 (with music ranging from ballads to Beatlesy pop to country send-ups to wild rockers to standards from the Great American Songbook to Calypso to rude comedy numbers), conceived the animated children's classic The Point!, collected a couple Grammy's, raised hell with Ringo Starr and other music royalty, started a film production company and eventually settled as a family man.

Using a myriad of resources, interviews and quotes from Nilsson's unfinished autobiography, Alyn Shipton writes a loving biography without sensationalizing the life of this sensational artist.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie [DVD]

Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie a film by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller

Saying Morton Downey Jr. was a complex man would be the understatement of the century. Son of a famous singer, Jr. began his career in show business as a vocalist himself. He had a small hit with in 1958 with the haunting tune "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams". He later worked in radio and eventually became involved with the world of sports by first buying an American Basketball Association team and later co-founding the World Baseball League.

What brought Morton Downey Jr. national attention was his short run on the syndicated Morton Downey Jr. Show based out of New Jersey. The host who grew up hanging around the Kennedy family, became a loudmouth, conservative screamer on his late 80's program. The documentary pulled many clips that made the air where Downey Jr. gets in audience members faces and says some of the most horrific and offensive things you will ever hear in your life. His show seems to be pure theater and unfortunately it paved the way for future trash television such as the Jerry Springer Show.

Like him or not, Evocateur is a massively entertaining film. It's an excellent documentary of the strange life and quick rise and fall of a man whose life was filled with controversy.