Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Errol Morris Influenced Reality TV. . .for the best and worst

Every week, I feel like I survive I Survived.

Although it’s one of the top shows on my DVR now that’s its third season has started, every time it pops up on my queue I hesitate. Do I really want an intense emotional hangover? Do I really want my blood to freeze like it does when I’m reading a Cormac McCarthy novel? Do I really want to contemplate evil and danger in all its forms and how it can converge on me in without warning or pity?

Although I Survived covers natural disasters, animal attacks and freak accidents, it’s the experience of human-on-human violence that predictably sears the memory: An 11 year old girl awakes on a chartered boat to find her entire family massacred by the vessel’s captain; a tween is rescued from sexual slavery, only to face the vicious verbal assaults of her classmates and members of her community; two friends are attacked by a stalker and the survivor endures his threatening phone calls and even his desecration of her friend’s gravesite; a pregnant woman is invited over to a neighbor’s house only to have the unbalanced woman try to kill her and cut out her baby; a Texas lawman endures several attempts on his life that he later discovers were all masterminded by his girlfriend. These and other such survival stories are told by the victims themselves, although it seems unfair to call them “victims." In one incredible tale, a middle-aged lady is attacked in her home by a knife-wielding maniac and proceeds to turn the tables on the intruder, killing him slowly with her bare hands. Wow.

Surviving death is an evergreen topic. Just look at the last four weeks: the remarkable footage of a shooting at a public school meeting; the startling-to-the-point-of-peeing-yourself tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter; James Franco’s Carlos Castaneda-meets-MTV hallucinations in that forlorn slot canyon in 127 Hours. But what makes I Survived so effective is not just its harrowing subject matter but because of how understated and spare the show is. Its visual hallmarks are perhaps the most beguiling feature and are endemic of the series creators’ rare respect for their subject matter and for the suffering of others. It might as well be a radio broadcast because any images would be paltry competition for the hideous and vivid stories told by the survivors, whose faces are displayed in a direct but not harsh lighting with a simple black background a la the “witnesses” in Warren Beatty’s Reds. The subjects do not look directly at us but ever-so-slightly off-camera. There is no narration (save for haiku-like subtitles) and no voice of the interviewer. Any questions are edited with quick fades and blackouts that add to the unnerving quality of these stories. Not that they need that much help.

I Survived is almost alone in the TV universe – surrounded by shows with shrill or patronizing voiceovers, intrusively dramatic music, and worse of all, the “dramatic re-enactment.” That last one has been tackled from all different angles and varying levels of success. Mostly they’ve become comical Mack Sennett reels where hired Central Casting extras (of which I was one once – read my experience here) gesticulate wildly and play up the dumb show like it was a Monty Python sketch. The effect immediately takes one out of the dramatic action like a cold splash of water and trivializes the real-life struggles it supposedly is trying to enhance. (What’s worse is when the actors’ voices are audible: “I am going to kill you now.”) But I Survived cagily goes the other way. When it cuts away from the interviews, there are no re-enactments but Edward Hopperesque friezes of neutral, empty settings – a lonely country road, a forest clearing, the corner of a dark kitchen, a looming apartment building – that relate in some way to the story being told. These shots are so effective and atmospheric – giving a sinister tinge to familiar places we all feel safe in – that they approach gothic horror territory, like Ambrose Bierce mixed with, well, Errol Morris.

"SURVIVORS": A Film by Errol Morris

Morris’ most recent film is Tabloid about the bizarre true tale of a Wyoming beauty queen turned “Mormon sex-in-chains kidnapper.” Ironically, it probably the most exploitative and salacious topic that the 62-year-old documentarian has released. In recent years, Morris has turned out somber films about American foreign policy (The Oscar-winning The Fog of War, the muddled but painstaking Abu Ghraib exhumation Standard Operating Procedure), but his most well-known film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), about the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, was released right around the time the Tabloid News golem -- in the form of shows like A Current Affair and later Hard Copy -- was climbing out of the ooze. The Kafkaesque Line was a strange anomaly that on the surface seemed to share DNA with those shows: it did have re-enactments and broke down the wall between documentarian and participant. What’s more, TBL mirrored the show America’s Most Wanted, which debuted the same year as Morris’ film, in that it led to the release of the falsely accused drifter Randall Dale Adams from Texas' Death Row. Arguably, no other documentary in history had such a direct impact on the real life of its subject. It stands alone on that ground.

When The Thin Blue Line was released, staging dramatic re-enactments in documentary features was considered verboten territory. Initially, I remember being put off a bit by Morris’ restagings until repeated viewings showed that he was using them in a subtle, off-center way: obscuring the faces of the re-enactors, repeating the same scenes from different participants’ perspectives (Morris’ persnickety examination of a dropped milkshake is a fascinating example) and the elimination of sound or dialogue save for the hypnotic minimalist pulses of composer Phillip Glass’ score. Film critic Danny Peary, writing about Morris’ weird and wonderful feature debut Gates of Heaven, noted that in his interviews, Morris positions his subjects “so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps.” All of this combines to make Morris’ films almost Zen tone poems, which may account for why they've been criticized as “slow” and even “boring.” (I can second that: I fell asleep – in a movie theatre, no less – in the middle of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., and that’s my favorite film of his.) Vernon, Florida, about a small town of mutilated eccentrics in the Sunshine State’s panhandle, is only an hour long yet feels much longer. That’s not a bad thing: like the beaten up old truck spewing exhaust as it putters its way through the center of the town, the film dips you so deep in mood and atmosphere that its almost jarring to re-enter the world after its over. You have been taken to a different place and have emerged feeling changed as a result.

It's not always pleasant. But it works. And because his techniques have filtered so deeply into reality TV (I Survived is practically a smeared carbon copy of Morris' short -lived TV series First Person) and because they've been warped and dumbed-down by people without a modicum of his talent or restraint, we have Errol to both thank and admonish.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

When Your Doppelgänger Is Nominated for A Grammy

Musicwise, this week of Hannukah has been very good to us Angelenos: Bobby Bradford joining saxophonist Rich Halley in Eagle Rock and McCoy Tyner joining Michael White and Nels Cline at the Alice Coltrane Tribute -- both on Sunday night, no less; the epic alt-jazz documentary Icons Among Us screening at Ruth Price’s Moveable Feast on Tuesday and one of the film’s subjects The Bad Plus playing at the Mint tonight; Cryptogramophone Records founder Jeff Gauthier debuting his new ensemble The Wisdom of Goats Wednesday at the Royal/T Cafe two days before drummer Allison Miller’s powerhouse Boom Tic Boom (with Jenny Scheinman, Todd Sickafoose and the Bay Area’s brilliant keyboardist Myra Melford) plays the same venue. Whewie!

But the biggest surprise and possibly bigger triumph is the Grammy nomination of John Beasley’s Positootly! in the category of Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group. (Kudos to Bev Hills jazz impresario George Klabin's label Resonance Records.) Beasley will obviously get a huge bump-up in profile (we surmise Herbie Hancock, for whom Beasley once recorded a tribute album, needs no more statues on his mantle) despite quietly building up his credentials on the L.A. jazz/fusion scene for over thirty years. Consequentially, his credits are too numerous for anything but a short list: Freddie Hubbard, Carly Simon, Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, Christian McBride, James Brown, Dianne Reeves, Ry Cooder, Chick Corea, Queen Latifah. (I think the Spice Girls were in there somewhere as well.) As a leader, Beasley must have known that leaders don't scour without their sidemen, so he pulled in reedman Bennie Maupin, drummer Jeff “Train” Watts, bassist James Genus, trumpeter Brian Lynch and percussionist Munyungo Jackson for Positootly!

The Lousisiana-born Beasley hails from one of those families who seem to have music dripping out of every pore. His mother and father are both musicians and music teachers. His father, bassoonist and pianist Rule Beasley, taught at Santa Monica College back when it was still called 'Pico Tech' and is known for influencing future players like Nels Cline and Jesse Sharps. (As Cline once recalled, Rule's son was “the best musician in band.") What’s more, on more than three occasions I have been mistaken for Mr. Beasley – enough to to where I once dreamt I was sitting onstage at the Jazz Bakery trying to “pass” as The Beas, sweatily plinking out “Chopsticks” and waiting for the audience to find out they’d been ripped off. Personally, I think he’s much better looking than I.

John Beasley will be engaging in a double-gig relay race on Saturday, Dec. 11: First, he'll lead his trio at the Feed the Blue Whale Benefit in Little Tokyo at 7pm. Then, he'll act as the guest arranger with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra for "a repertoire of classic holiday favorites" at 8pm, Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal-State LA.

IN COMPLETELY TOTALLY UNRELATED OTHER NEWS: With the Grammys being announced last week, there was another view of the music industry on display yesterday when the Howard Stern Show had a call-in interview with the neo-legendary rock & roll groupie and workmanlike blowjob queen “Sweet Connie” Hamzy. Her past "collaborators" read like a radio station's record collection: Buddy Rich, Doc Severinsen, Chicago (yes, the whole band), Huey Lewis, Keith Moon, Leslie West, Willie Nelson, John Bonham, Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Paul Shaffer (?!?), Neil Diamond, Rick Springfield, Geddy Lee, Peter Frampton, Don Henley, Stephen Stills, Bun E. Carlos (really?!), Wayon Jennings and several members of the all-girl, all-lesbian horn band Isis (yow). (My fave Connie conquest: Floyd Sneed, drummer for Three Dog Night -- The Sneedster!). Apparently, Sweet Connie was doing promo for the upcoming VH1 rock doc Let’s Spend the Night Together: Confessions of Rock’s Greatest Groupies, which premieres Dec. 15th at 8:30PM on VH1.

Friday, December 3, 2010


My friends hate me now.
Emilio Estevez

Will it ever end?
Rob Lowe

When I saw it, I just knew, that's it.
Judd Nelson

Needless to say, not many participants came away from this film unscathed.

The term “Brat Pack” originated with this film and not – as the popular misconception runs – with The Breakfast Club, also released earlier that year. The term first appeared in the June 10, 1985 issue of New York magazine, two weeks before S.E.F. was released. Unfortunately, as we will see, Hollywood’s Brat Pack was the cover story that week (alongside the eerily similar “Ronald Reagan’s Great Right Hope"), which may have helped cement the moniker in the pop culture arena. The phrase had 19 days to sink into the consciousness of the American republic, which makes S.E.F. the quintessential Brat Pack film not through merit but through sheer perfect timing -- the kind a magazine editor dreams about.

David Blum (pictured above), a writer from Queens not much older than his subjects, was originally assigned to cover the rising career of Emilio Estevez. Estevez invited Blum to hang with him, Lowe and Nelson as they held court at the newly built Hard Rock Café in West Hollywood, much in the same way the original Hollywood Rat Pack (Humphrey Bogart, Erroll Flynn et al) held court in Holmby Hills and the Polo Lounge. Unlike the second and best-known version of the Rat Pack (Sinatra, Sammy, Dino), the young actors were not seasoned Hollywood vets who could get away with the privileged behavior of their antecedents. Observed Blum: “What distinguishes these young actors from generations past is that most of them have skipped the one step toward success that was required of the generation of Marlon Brando and James Dean, and even that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino: years of acting study.” Estevez (“the unofficial president of the Brat Pack”) was the son of established Hollywood actor Martin Sheen and was already on his way to building his pseudo-auteur writer-director-actor persona. (He was already at work at his scripts for That Was Then, This Is Now and the terminally idiotic Clear Intent -- later flopping in theaters as Men At Work -- and the bargain-basement vanity project Wisdom.) According to Blum, Estevez “stands as a vivid prototype of the Brat Pack he seems to lead. Barely 23 years old, he is already accustomed to privilege and appears to revel in the attention heaped upon him almost everywhere he goes..He is living the life that any American male might dream of—to be young, single, and famous.” These words would come back to haunt both writer and subject.

The young stars' universally negative reaction to Blum's profile was certainly understandable. If you are woefully unprepared for the demands of instant (or even gradual) fame, you will certainly be unprepared for anything not remotely worshipful that pops up about you in the press. But then again: Remember how invincible you felt when you were young? Now multiply that times 100 and add in agents, limos, parties, media buzz, hotel-elevator fellatio, pushy parents and everyone telling you “You’re It!!!” Blum adopts a by-now identifiable tone; today, this would be described as “snarktastic,” but it's really as old as newsprint itself: the adopting of a sort of big picture glibness that acts as a journalistic wedge between you and your subjects. It’s also the way a journalist “sells” a story to a reader, by taking a sort of removed-yet-commanding tone (e.g., America’s trust in newsman Walter Cronkite seemed to increase according to how stentorian he made his voice). After all, one of the first thing they teach you in Lamestream Media 101 is that it’s a fine line between an article and a press release.

Of course, some writers can – and have – go to far with this distancing technique, but reading Blum’s piece today, it’s surprising how tame it is. Lowe does not come off as a dick but as a fresh faced young kid from Ol’ Virginee who is simply and naively dazzled – like a child gazing for the first time at pretty Christmas lights – by all the hubbub surrounding him and his niggaz. Nelson, however, comes off as the guy who makes celebrity encounters with the common folk an awkward and unpleasant affair. (In one painful frieze, a young girl who is invited over to their table sits down next to Nelson, who ignores her while loudly opining to everyone else: “You can let them get close but you can’t let them sit down.”) When it comes to the actor he terms "the overrrated one", Blum's observations seem stung with the same kind of appropriate indignation anyone would feel as watching an entitled young scrub act like a bitter ass-jack: "And now, in St. Elmo’s Fire, [Nelson] shows—with his role as a congressional assistant—that he was better off when typecast.”

Yes, there is a sour vinegary aftertaste to Blum’s observations (“Estevez, who is only five foot six…”; “No one from the Brat Pack has graduated from college…”) but that was nothing compared to the pillorying Blum received from the actors themselves. “You’ve ruined my life! How could you do this to me?” yelled Estevez to Blum on the day the article hit the newsstands, when angry calls from P.R. agents overwhelmed the New York switchboards. Lowe was particularly vicious, running to both the Chicago Sun-Times, where he maintained that the writer had “burned a lot of bridges” and was "not Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe, he’s David Blum living in a cheap flat,” and the Donahue show, where he stated that Blum was “jealous of their fame and wealth and success” and joined the other cast members in calling him an “unethical creep.” (In an almost unforgivable betrayal from one of Blum’s peers, Time magazine movie critic Richard Shickel appeared on the same show and defended the Brats by calling Blum “sleazy.”) When jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, at the time Judd Nelson's manager and bed partner, encountered Blum at a screening, she called him a “vile human being” and publicly castigated him until he fled the screening. Schumacher later commented to a journalist that when he met Blum, “smelled about him the person who had never been invited to the party in high school—that he looked at this group of beautiful, talented, perhaps overpaid young people, and…he had found a way to get even.” Producer Lauren Schuler Donner agreed: “This is a guy seeing something that he didn’t have.” Thing is, Blum completely admitted there was a sliver of envy in his writing. But, his point was, so what? “I, like everybody else in America who isn’t a Hollywood movie star probably thought being a Hollywood movie star is a pretty cool thing.”

There is much that is prescient about Blum’s article—particularly his indirect foreseeing of the future of overpaid Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise, who would tip the balance away from directors and command enormous salaries that could make or break a production. But Blum’s most piquant observation comes from how the transistory qualities of fame and success might bite these young cheubs in the ass: “The Brats will be coming to New York this month to promote St. Elmo’s Fire, which all of them seem rather obsessed with. Each new Brat Packer movie carries with it an increased burden – if it is not a success, the young unknowns starring in the hit movie of the moment might come up from behind and replace them. And that would mean the end of the kind of ensemble efforts that created the Brat Pack.” Blum even gives Judd Nelson credit for having such self-awareness: “You can be ‘hot’ and be a shamelessly poor actor. It’s possible, now it’s possible to be at the top for half a second and then disappear. It’s such a strange thing, to try to build a career on this heat.”

If there is a slight unfairness about the article, is that Blum simply profiled three of the St. Elmo stars, and that actors who didn’t hang out with them or were interested in other things than partying got included in with the rest. (Moore, Sheedy and McCarthy were mentioned only in passing -- Winningham not at all.) Ally Sheedy told Interview in 1998: "[The article] immediately started this terrible association with us, that we were these kids who had too much, too fast.” Andrew McCarthy, who wound up nursing a nasty cigarette and alcohol habit much in the vein of his S.E.F. character, told the New York Observer in 1999. "It didn't have anything to do with me!  It didn't exist!”" McCarthy told writer Susanna Gora: "The media made up this sort of tribe. I don't think I've seen any of these people since we finished St. Elmo's Fire."

In some weird way, the “fallout” from the New York article prevented an even-more-embarrassing sequel to S.E.F. Screenwriter Carl Kurlander, who would later go to write and produce Saved by the Bell: The New Class, has admitted that Schumacher started him on a “St. Elmo’s II” script immediately after the first film but that it was too soon and also impossible to get the young cast members together again. Director Joel Schumacher has expressed interest in reuniting the cast for a sequel and claims he gets weekly letters and emails pleading with him to continue the story of our Georgetown urchins.

Evidence of general impatience about this forgettable unforgettable film came last August when ABC annouced it was readying a reboot of the movie as a TV series with Schumacher and New Brat Topher Grace among the producers. This prompted the folks at to imagine their ideal casting choices for the series, which makes all of us who grew up on the original feel mighty mighty old.

What St. Elmo's Fire says about the United States in the 1980s is not nearly so trenchant as what it says about bad art immemorial: that there will always be astonishingly poor taste, and people who shouldn't be succeeding in their vocations succeeding in their vocations to the great frustration of everyone with a shred of talent or sensitivity…The Brat Pack is about being facile little shits on top of the world headed for the painful fall of the rest of their lives--there's poetry, even familiarity, in that, and watching them when the world was their oyster has to it an air of cloying sadness.
Amazon comments by Thomas F. Redmond from Cleveland, OH, 3/31/05

Theoretically, if I could do it over again, I would not have done St. Elmo's Fire. I wouldn't have done it. But I have no regrets about any of it. Fame didn't get to me. I tried to behave myself. Looking back, I wouldn't have gone out as much. I would've stayed home more...I like to call it the exuberance of shame and youth."
Judd Nelson, Cybermutt, 12/01


Friday, November 26, 2010

ST. ELMO'S FRIDAY, PART XII: The Redemption of FuckFace


After no mention is made of the fact that she is now being comforted by the very same man who tried to date rape her a few nights previous, Jules* finally speaks in a denuded croak: “Do you know what I've been doing every day since I got fired? I've been sitting in the hospital with my step-monster. We've had the best talks we've ever had. Of course, she's in a coma, which really pisses me off. Because all that time I just waited for one word from that woman about why my father hates me so much.” So that’s it then? Daddy issues? We had no indication of this whatsoever. Jules mentioned in an early scene that his new girlfriend is her age, which bodes the contemporary question: Was Jules molested as a child? I know, I know, it sucks, but people weren't asking such questions in 1985.
*Jules trivia: Demi Moore wanted to play this scene nude but that Schumacher killed that idea because it would be too hard to film -- something Andrew Bergman figured his way around when he directed her for Striptease 11 years later. Back in the day, film-industry stroke mag Premiere alleged that Schumacher lit into Moore on the set, screaming at her until she was in tears. Hence, the real tears on film...
Oh wait, FuckFace is still talking: “Jules, you know, honey, this isn't real. You know what it is? It's St. Elmo's fire. The electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere.* Sailors would guide entire journeys by it. But there was no fire. There wasn't even a St. Elmo.** They made it up because they needed it to keep going when things got tough. Just like you're making up all of this. We're all going through this. It's our time on the edge.”
*Sorta true. St. Elmo's fire is a real phenomenon is quite real, whose origins are electrical in nature. St. Elmo's fire didn't appear in the sky but instead manifested around the masts of the ship, thus making it impossible to chart a course by.
**St. Elmo was actually two Roman Catholic saints: St. Peter Gonzalez and St. Erasmus of Formiae. Both are considered the patron saints of sailors.

Real St. Elmo’s Fire As Seen from the cockpit of an A319:

Believe it or not, the most famous image in the entire film – Lowe touching his lighter to one of Jules' aerosol cans and blasting a brief flame without managing to catch his mullet on fire – was Rob Lowe’s idea (“a burst of energy and beauty and youth and combustability that is there for an instant, then gone forever”). This is the strange twist buried deep in this film’s sparkly surface: Lowe’s character has been FuckFace for most of the film, but he redeems himself with his “St. Elmo’s fire” metaphor – much the same way Rob Lowe the actor has been coasting on his roguish good looks for most of the film, only to add the flame at the last minute and thus creating one of the most enduring images in ‘80s movies. Wethinks that FuckFace has earned the right – despite the phone book-sized list of crimes and misdemeanors he has accrued over the last two hours – to be called Billy again. (Case in point: The "old" Billy would have lit one of his farts to make the St. Elmo's fire metaphor.) The filmmakers have pulled off a great little bait and switch: It was Alec who began the film as our worshipped idol, and by the end, he is revealed as the consummate dickweed; the exact opposite happens for Billy.

JULES: I'm just so tired. I never thought I'd be so tired at 22.* I just don't even know who to be anymore.
*Susan Becker, the film’s costume designer, was the originator of this line. Judging from the awful fashions seen in this film, she should have taken a long nap.

BILLY: Join the club. No one was buying this together-woman-of-the-eighties stuff anyway.
JULES: And all this time I was afraid you'd find out I wasn't fabulous.
BILLY: It's cool. All this time I was afraid you'd find out I was irresponsible.

They're laughing! Hey Mikey!


Even Wendy – who apparently has won can’t believe his transformation. (Well, he sits on the floor playing his just-rebought-from-hock sax without once offering to help Wend paint her new apartment…but hey, Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a night.)

WENDY: So when did you get so sane?
BILLY: When I realized how insane I'd been trying to be like Alec. I'm not part of this after-college life. Careers. Marriage. Felicia and Melody'll be better off without me.

Apparently, Felice and Ray Slater have reconciled. Billy even pays Wendy back for the 4,000 times he’s hit her up for cash. “I'll get you the rest once I get settled in New York,” he resolves. “If I can find someone who's fool enough to let me play my sax.” This leads to Wend’s trite mini-logue:

You wanna know what's great? Last night, I woke up to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And you know, it was my kitchen, and it was my refrigerator and it was my apartment and it was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I've had in my entire life.

The best? Wend, your peanut butter and jelly ain’t got nothin’ on what’s coming down your pike:

BILLY: You still a virgin?
WENDY: Why is my sexual status so important to you?
BILLY: Have I abused our relationship too much or could I be so bold as to ask you for a going-away present?

He shoots, he scores! The Giants have won the pennant! We’re goin’ all the way tonight tonight we’re goin’ all the way toniiiiigghhhhht!*
*What the filmmakers have left out: Blood, lot's o' it.. "Owwwwuch!” “Um, oops, sorry”…Billy cutting away Wendy’s rubber fat suit with an Xacto knife…embarrassed crying…Billy using the thumb of a painter’s glove as a condom…lots of hot water and soap…Wendy turning into a total sheet-scorcher and batting Billy’s balls out of the park, making him eat out of a dog dish: "Billy. Your money’s on the dresser. I’m done with you.”


Our penultimate scene. Billy’s leaving on that midnight bus to New York. Everyone looks quietly relieved.

TITMOUSE (Alec): You're beautiful. Never shave.
BILLY: Don't go changing to please me.*
*It would make sense that he would quote Billy Joel to Alec, who seems to not be able to part with his Billy Joel record The Stranger, of which “Just the Way You Are” is the 3rd track.

Billy’s parting wisdom before he boards the Greyhound: “Go get out of hand.”

LESLIE: (voice over) I can't remember who met who first...or who fell in love with who first. All I can remember is the seven of us always together….

The other big change comes when that slut Leslie links her arms with the two men she’s been toying with like wounded little mice: “I've made a decision. I think I have to be by myself for a while. I love you both. I'm gonna try life without any miracles for a while. I hope we can still be friends.”

Ugh. Yet Alec and Kevin seem totally happy with that. No grappling necessary.

"Uh, Billy, I think I'm pregna -- oh, never mind"


The “sobering up” scene. The gang stops by St. Elmo’s Bar and stares inside: suddenly, the bar seems too loud and too stuffed with “kids.” They all have to get up early the next day and go to work. Jules has to find work. So does Kirby, who’s out on bail for the mysterious dissappearance of a young medical resident and her doctor boyfriend. They resolve to meet for brunch at another restaurant – “Hoolihan’s,” which I imagine as a nightmare hybrid of Bennigan’s and Applebee’s. These peeps are aging so rapidly that by the end of the scene they’re playing shuffleboard, wearing their pants up to their navels, watching Fox News, stealing free packets of Sweet ‘N’ Low from restaurants and going to bed at 4:30pm. Ah, the death of youth in time lapse.

JULES: Guess what? You guys will never believe it. I found out that it only costs $250 to bury a cat. So I figured, why don't I just put my step-monster into a large cat suit?

(Collective groan from the gang: “Oh, you wacky Jules!”)

ALL: A-booga-booga-booga, ah-ha-ha!

Last shot: The exterior of the St. Elmo’s Bar. Up with "Man in Motion" song.

The (merciful) end.
bobbything, forum, 11/11/09

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: Where we mop up the booth and assess the body count.

Monday, November 22, 2010


A few weeks ago I had a brief if pleasant conversation with the novelist Steve Erickson where we marveled at the recent spate of superlative film soundtracks: Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, Daft Punk’s for Tron Legacy, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ for The Social Network, The Roots' for Night Catches Us. I found myself throwing Nels Cline’s score for David Breskin and Ed Ruscha’s DIRTY BABY project into the mix even though the music does not accompany moving images but static ones. And with poetry to boot! Yet growing up in the shadow of Hollywood must have somehow seeped into Cline’s radar: this is perhaps his most cinematic piece of music and indicative of a sweeping and vision he’s only been hinting at. But now it’s official: Nels Cline wants to be a great American composer.

Even in his liner notes to the beautifully packaged objet d’art 2-CD box set, Cline makes references to modern musical cranks like Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives. Yet he declares in his lengthy liner notes that "a project like this unavoidably approaches (and yet naturally enough avoids) the very idea of SOUNDTRACK” – partly because some of the music has been improvised (yet so seamlessly incorporated into the composed bits that I defy you to notice where one ends and the other begins) and partly because of Cline’s embracing of the pastiche techniques used by John Zorn (Naked City) and Frank Zappa (Uncle Meat). Where the majority of songs on Cline’s albums with his regular group the Nels Cline Singers (bassist Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola form the spine of the 15-member DB orchestra) jump from one single genre to the other – something that Cline himself has admitted in interviews has become somewhat predictable – Cline does a more successful “mash up” of myriad influences. Punk, avant-garde jazz, film noir, doom metal, Middle Eastern drone, country-western, electronica, groove – all are mixed together more organically. Similar to other soundtrack composers like Michael Danna (The Sweet Hereafter) and Brian Keane (The Way West), Cline draws parallels between conflicting forms and comes up – despite the America-centric settings of Ruscha’s images and Breskin’s poetry – with a result that evokes a sort of borderless global iPOD.

The Cool School: Ed Ruscha, David Breskin, Nels Cline

It’s no wonder the guy grew up in Los Angeles. Cline, along with Ruscha, evokes the city’s uneasy codependency between the high and the low forms of artistic expression. In a 1999 interview, Cline stated that growing up in the city during the ‘60s explosion of psychedelic music and irreverent Pop Art led him to develop into “the king of aesthetic dichotomies until I was fully an adult. Everything for me has been an internal war between high and low art, between rock and jazz…I could never merge them until I was almost forty years old.” Where his twin brother Alex became a gifted visual artist and mercurial jazz drummer, Cline has since worked to incorporate live improvised music with improvised art, such as his longtime live collaborations with L.A. painter Norton Wisdom, both in the duo Stained Radiance and the punk-groove-jazz collective Banyan.

Enter David Breskin, a renaissance mensch whom Cline knew for his music journalism and production credits with ex-Cecil Taylor sideman Ronald Shannon Jackson, gutarist Bill Frisell and the aforementioned Mr. Zorn. In 2002, Breskin had produced RICHTER88, an art/poetry/musical hybrid featuring the abstract art of Gerhard Richter and the music of Mr. Frisell. This caught the eye of Mr. Ruscha, who invited Breskin to tackle some of his lesser-known paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Breskin selected 33 prints each from two different series – The Silhouettes (murky chiaroscuro images of Western expansion: tilted merchant ships, baying wolves, road signs, spiny cacti) and Cityscapes (abstract bars and strips). Although Ruscha is mainly known for his word-based paintings of American roadside signage, Breskin chose to go nonverbal: both sets of paintings are referred to as the “dumb blocks” (Ruscha’s term) or “censor strips” (everyone else’s). Breskin also chose to include his own poetry in the concise and airtight form of Arabic ghazals. Breskin then approached L.A. super-producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to soundtrack guy for Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) but Brion begged off after pleading unfamiliarity with Ruscha’s work. Cline seemed the next natural leap: he and Brion had been collaborating for years, including charmingly esoteric jam sessions at L.A.’s Largo club. “David did give me clues to what he wanted for the music,” Cline admits in his liner notes, “but no specific direction save for the initial Side A brief: create one long piece of music, not a collection of discrete songs.”

SIDE A, "NELSAANISQATSI": Breskin’s task was a little more specific: he wanted Cline to score no less than “a sort of shaggy-dog time-lapse history” of Western expansion: “The primordial New Land is “discovered” by European interlopers and settlers; they push westward; land and slaves are purchased, fences go up; cities are created, the land is altered in extreme; proximity and increased ease of communication beget, ironically, isolation.” Quite a chunk to bite off – that’s about 6,000 years, folks! – yet its remarkable how Cline calls on his music-nerd encyclopedia of a brain and yet makes music that sounds so eerily original. Side A begins with deceptive simplicity: back and forth acoustic strumming by Cline and acolyte Jeremy Drake, soon joined by Bill Barrett’s shape-shifting chromatic harmonica and Devin Hoff’s searching bass, calling up images of bubbling tidepools and oozing magma. Barrett’s harmonica mixes with Glenn Taylor’s understated pedal steel guitar before Wayne Peet’s atmospheric Hammond organ flickers over a plodding horse-hoof pulse. (The same BPM is maintained throughout the 42 minute cut). It’s an epic yet modern cowboy opera—music both familiar and otherworldly.

Cline’s adherence to his improvised-music roots yields some fascinating direction for his musicians: at one point, Cline cues them to improvise using only the chord-structure used by Nashville session players.* By the fourth mini-suite, guest Jon Brion (whom Cline managed to get to sit in) weighs in with a vintage EMI Synth, creating circular squiggles on which one can almost see the time lapse growth of the digital city like a metastasizing computer chip, eating up the desert as it expands. Despite Cline’s claim in his liner notes that “I pretty much messed up any literal timeline,” this could be the story of Los Angeles, our progression to “the end of the line.” Any doubt of this is smershed by the closing track: A terrifying primeval march/dirge, where Hoff’s bass growls and stomps like some slag-created monster oozing out of a cadmium-polluted urban nightscape – all doom, all the time. It’s a scary experience on headphones, summoning up dinosaurs and Maseratis alike drowning in the La Brea Tar Pits, both making distress calls in their own language. This is some of Cline’s most upsetting music – that is, until a banjo and a mini-guitar begin to rise in the background, stilling the ugliness and making it go to sleep with a choker hold.
*From Nels: "In Nashville songs are easily played/learned/recorded/arranged by just naming the chords as they appear in the diatonic scale - I - vii. So in C I is C, IV is F, vi is A minor, etc. Sometimes onstage playing little-known material a musical director will use numbers of fingers, sometimes charts are just these numbers."

SIDE B, "MISSION ACCOMPLISHIFIED": Breskin’s idea for DB's second half was, as he told an interviewer, “a kind of shooting gallery in which to set the Iraq conflict — back to the 'cradle' of that civilization, the nearly-destroyed nursery.” His direction for Cline was a bit more constrictive: 33 pieces, each no longer than a minute-plus. Cline came up with, in his words, “more than a string of amuse-bouche”: a sound-byte rendering of America’s wars in the Middle East. And it’s amazing how many far-reaching sounds and influences Cline throws into the mix and mashes together with great care. Track 6 (“DO AS TOLD OR SUFFER”) could be a race-car engine, or someone imitating a race-car engine by spitting though tightened lips, or even one long cartoonish flatulence. On Track 9 (“HEY YOU WANT TO SLEEP WITH THE FISHES?”), a bebop bass line is supported by a woozy, art-damaged surf guitar reverb. Some tracks punch you in the face before signing off abruptly. The Cagean Track 10 (“A COLUMBIA NECKLACE FOR YOU”) is more silence than sound. Track 11 (“NOTE WE HAVE ALREADY GOT RID OF SEVERAL LIKE YOU”) is of a lyrical piece with the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations of the late ‘50s. Track 15 (“I’M GOING TO LEAVE MORE NOTES AND I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS”) is chugging metal mixed with a free-jazz horn freakout. Even in these small pieces, Cline approaches the anthemic spheres of great FILM composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone. Even he is forced to conclude in his liner notes: “Maybe it IS a soundtrack after all…” Ah Nels. Long may you waiver!

*UPDATE (11/24/10): Listen to NPR reporter Andrea Raymond's profile of the DIRTY BABY project.

Friday, November 19, 2010

ST. ELMO’S FRIDAY, PT. XI: Tract Housing in Maryland?


After a wonderful morning overseeing the equal distribution of record albums, Leslie pulls up in Jules’ Jeep, only to find Kevin hanging around like a poozer. Wrapped in his beige trenchcoat, holding flowers wrapped in paper and a bottle of wine wrapped in beige paper. Kevin slaps the morning’s newspaper against the windshield right in Leslie’s face, grinning with cig smoke pouring out of his mouth. We catch his first byline:

THE MEANING OF LIFE: Observations by Kevin Dolenz

Only with the power of freeze-frame can we see some excerpts:

Pop tarts now come in twelve flavors; music videos are a twenty-four hour a day phenomenon; ordinary women can transform themselves into goddesses in aerobics temples. All signs indicate that we are in the zenith of contemporary civilization…[MIDDLE PART OBSCURED]…and take along your favorite albums, preferably THE DOORS, so you’ll have something to listen to. There’s life in my three volume set.

Uh-huh. Strange how now, reading these cryptic and incoherent scraps, we can see the parallels between Kevin’s observations and the rambling banality of Larry King’s infamous USA Today column.* The final sentence puts Kevin somewhere between King and Greil Marcus or David Fricke. Thing is, from all indications, the only a newspaper in reality that would publish a bunch of folderol would be The Hurley’s Old Timey Market Pennypincher. If that.
*Oddly enough, Larry King debuted his talk show on CNN in June 1985, the very month and year S.E.F. was released. Another moment for the Hmmm File.

Cut to Kevin mooning over Leslie, who is obviously put off by his fawning-faun expression and wimpy gratefulness. (Couldn’t Schumacher just pop in frame really quickly and slap him in the forehead with a rolled up copy of his own column?) Kevin pokes around in the fireplace, stoking the fire (hint hint): “I think I'll probably be back doing obits tomorrow.” Leslie continues to pump him up, which is probably the exact wrong thing to be doing: “You're gonna attract a lot of attention with this.” Horny and giddily happy, Kev practically fall on top of Leslie as he’s trying to read his piece: “You think? It's because of you. I couldn't write anything till you.” He starts kissing her. She says, “What?” Not a good sign. Hurricane Jules “blows” in wearing her “bad girl”* garb: black leather jacket with fringe on the arms. Yee-Uck. She seems utterly unshocked by Kevin and Leslie’s inept canoodling: “Don't you guys ever use a bed?”
*Bad girl, drunk by six
Kissing someone else's lips
Smoked too many cigarettes a day
I'm not happy when I act this way

Leslie jumps up to: (a) show Jules Kevin’s piece and (b) get away from the 5000 Fingers of Kevin D. Kevin barely lets her get two steps away when he blurts pout “Wait, wait, wait” before landing 20 more kisses on her face. This is an exquisitely painful scene for us literary-minded sensitive college guys: Kevin’s behavior is so annoying, so needy and grasping and unedited, that it still makes me cringe. Because we’ve all been there. I still think of my obsequious caveman desire to get laid at any price and the way it affected my behavior in so many pathetic ways. Come to think of it, there were a few lean years there where I “swore off women” just like Kevin and my friends began to wonder...

Poor Ron Dellasandro, who seems to be showing up at all the wrong times, shows up and sees Kevin mouth-washing Leslie. Kevin shoves it in his face: “Hi, Ron!” Unrelease the Gaykren!
Kevin: Blowing It

Cut to Jules pulling out a vial so full of coke that it looks like a White Out bottle with the label torn off. We see her coke-whore* look full on: red pulpy eyes, redness around the mouth and nose, paleness everywhere else. She plays with her hair like it’s a nuisance. Leslie stands in the doorway with a disapproving look, augmented by her church-doily collar. “Kevin has his first byline,” Leslie says, handing Jules the paper as she “blows” out again. “That’s great!” Jules shrieks, grabbing the paper absently and reading the first thing she sees: “Tract Housing in Maryland”?
*As any good S.E.F. loremeister should know, Demi Moore had a real problem with drugs. One day, she came to the set higher than a kite and Joel Schumacher kicked her off the set. In order to avoid getting fired, Moore went through rehab.
Jules: Also Blowing It

She gives Kevin’s piece a 1.1 millisecond glance – yep, been there before – before blowing back out the door to meet her banker sugar daddy Forrester. “She's out of control,” Leslie moans as she rushes to the window to check out Jules’ sugar daddy. Kevin, apparently on spring-load, shoots up from the couch to rush to help Leslie open the window. He’s rapidly losing points. Seeing Jules meet Forrester on the street below, he quips: “International banking has gotten sexier”—a sort of a rehash line that recalls FuckFace’s earlier “Welfare recipients are getting better-looking.”

Before she has a chance to inhale her next breath, Kevin slips his arm through hers and bleats out: “Speaking of which, not to get ahead of myself, but I was thinking: maybe we'd get a place together.” For the second time, Leslie responds: “What?”—but she’s finally dropped her veil of denial. When Kevin tell her he loves her for the 1000th time, she decides to stick it to him: “Kevin, sex isn't love.”

Now it’s Kevin’s turn for denial: “What's that mean?”

LESLIE: That means that you were sitting there with all these feelings – incredible feelings – tied up in a box with my pictures. And I needed to break away from Alec.
(Translation: “I needed something for myself that night. You were just the vessel.”)

In Kevin’s eyes one can see the beginnings of a fallen crest. To make matters worse, the phone rings and once again the consummate sloppy-seconds cockblocker Alec, whose timing has become downright brutal for Kevin’s love life. Leslie answers and Alec, who apparently can’t admit fault face-to-face, mumbles, “I'm not proud of my behavior.”

KEVIN: Hang up.
TITMOUSE: Who's that? That's not Kevin, is it? You're not with Kevin playing my records?

Oy. Again with the records! Their conversation plays out like a bad misunderstanding on a TV sitcom or an Abbott & Costello routine.

LESLIE: Stop it, please.
KEVIN: Tell him we're moving in together.
LESLIE: We are not!
TITMOUSE: So the two of you are moving in together!
LESLIE: I wish everything could be like it was, all of us friends.
KEVIN: I don't want to be friends!
KEVIN: I didn't mean that. I mean, it was an accident.

There is an agonizing pause. Leslie looks shocked, as if Kevin revealed he is a hermaphrodite. It’s not that bad of a sentiment: We are adults and I want to take this thing we have to the next level.

Irregardless. Leslie kicks him out.


A totally pointless scene but for the fact that it has a line that was in the promo trailer:

KIRBO: I always thought we'd be friends forever.
KEVIN: Yeah, well, forever got a lot shorter suddenly, didn't it?

Dejected Kevin and a rejected Kirbo – apparently out on bail for assault, trespassing and assorted mayhem – amble up to the bar window and look in. There, at their old table, sits Alec, who seems to have not skipped a beat in inviting his NEW yuppie politico K-Street friends to be his new gaggle of synchophants. Harsh!



Alec -- or for the purposes of this scene, Alexandru -- is dressed in ugly striped tie and short-sleeved dress shirt. He sits behind his metal desk in front of a ripped and yellowing poster of Nicolae Ceauşescu. The light coming through the windows is sunless and glaring, casting a harsh glare on the drab and depressing office: bad turquoise paint job, cracked walls, no pictures or plants, just gunmetal gray filing cabinets and piles of papers. The cheap lamp on his desk blinks on and off constantly. He is chain-smoking and fielding a phone call. (Note: The whole scene is shot in one take with a handheld camera.)

ALEXANDRU: (on phone) …do not complain to me, okay? Your bus driver brother Valentin should not have performed that illegal hotel-room abortion, much less requesting sex from both patients. (pause) I don’t care if the phone is bugged! You assholes over at the Ministry of Parking can fix anything, right? Half of your cousins have connections with the Securitate! Hello? Hello!?

Constantin, one of his office mates, a big hairy man with a thick moustache and sagging jowls, leans on the doorjamb, eating a large sloppy sandwich.

CONSTANTIN: Phones are out again, eh?

Alexandru, frustrated, hangs up, tries to turn off his desk lamp but gets shocked.

ALEXANDRU: Câcat! Why don’t they get some new lamps that don’t attack us when we touch them?

CONSTANTIN: I hear they got a bunch of new ones in the sub-basement.


CONSTANTIN: 1971, I think.

ALEXANDRU: This one is from 1980.


ALEXANDRU: So that means these newer desk lamps are actually older than this one?

CONSTANTIN: It would appear so.

ALEXANDRU: (rubs face) You know what? It makes sense in that it doesn’t make sense.

CONSTANTIN: (pops last bit of sandwich in mouth) Making sense is a luxury I cannot afford, my friend.

Alexandru stretches back in his chair, pulls out a bottle of Dakk Premium Vodka from his desk drawer and waves it in the air.

ALEXANDRU: How about some lunch on top of your lunch?

CONSTANTIN: I’m already drunk.

But he pulls up a rusty chair anyway and Alexandru pours two cracked, mismatched glasses full of vodka. Both clink glasses and drink deep, slamming the glasses on the desk. Then, for an uncomfortably long time, nothing happens. The two men just sit, staring into space. An air of defeat and resignation hangs in the air so thick that it could clog a woodchipper. Alexandru pours two more glasses and they drink again. Nothing continues to happen for about five minutes of screen time.

ALEXANDRU: What do you want?

CONSTANTIN: Oh, right. What was it….oh yeah. Your ex is here.

ALEXANDRU: What? Leslie? She’s here?



CONSTANTIN: Right now.

ALEXANDRU: No, you cretin. When did she come in?

CONSTANTIN: Oh. About six hours ago.

ALEXANDRU: Six hours!? Why didn’t you tell me?

CONSTANTIN: Well, you know, she had to stand in line. But before that she had to fill out the forms to stand in line. Then the spot check and strip search while a bunch of guards drank vodka and laughed at her body. Then she had to bribe them not to gang rape her. Then she stood in the wrong line and accidentally spent four hours in detention as an Enemy of the State. I’m wondering if I’m leaving anything out…

ALEXANDRU: Where is she now?

CONSTANTIN: Well, after they performed some “tests” on her, I think they had her tape a message of fealty to Our Great Leader.

ALEXANDRU: (rubbing eyes in frustration) Costantin…

CONSTANTIN: …so now, I think she’s on Level 2, debriefing, filling out her debriefing forms in quadruplicate. While having her body mocked by the debriefers.

ALEXANDRU: Hmph. I can’t say she doesn’t deserve it, but I’d better go check on her.

CUT TO a dingy subbasement hallway lit by flickering florescent lights. Alexandru is bribing two lummox security guards with packs of cigarettes and toilet paper. Then one of them stumbles into the interrogation room behind a rusty metal door. He comes back holding a dazed Leslie by the arm. She looks drugged and disoriented and is wearing a dull gray prison smock. The other guard hands Alexandru a clipboard.

GUARD: (burps rudely) Sign here. And here. And here. And here. And here. And here. Initial here. And here. And here. And here...

ALEXANDRU: (complying) This is absurd. I will inform your superiors of this incident, you can be sure of that.

LESLIE: (like a zombie) Daddy, I think they impregnated me…

ALEXANDRU: (to guards) Great. Nice job. (taking her by the arm and ushering her down the hall) Well, I always wanted us to have a kid. Not the way I expected it would play out, but whatever. Why are you here anyway?

LESLIE: I…I forgot…

CUT TO Alexandru’s office, where LESLIE is downing a shot of vodka.

LESLIE: It’s Jules. After she left for work this morning some men in dark coats from the Securitate came and took everything. I tried to call her, but her phone was tapped by so many bugs that it exploded. So I went over to her office, but someone had put a boot on my car…

ALEXANDRU: Valentin…

LESLIE: …so I went over to her office. She's been pretending to go to work. Turns out, she was fired from the Toilet Paper Dispensary three weeks ago. When I finally tracked her down and confronted her, she admitted everything. But then she went crazy. And now she's locked herself in the apartment and is performing illegal abortions. There’s already a line around the block!

ALEXANDRU: Wow, well that solves a problem right there. (pulls open desk drawer and removes an envelope filled with Romanian leu*) How much is she charging?
*Romanian leu = 0.3178 US dollars


The Climaxing Crisis Scene where all our friends come together for a group hug. Odd that it should be in the worst-decorated interior in the movie. But first, there has to be a modicum of challenge and difficulty. Titmouse, Leslie, Jules and Kirbo all show up at the same time outside of Jules’ apartment. Titmouse sees Kevin and immediately goes into chimp-throwing-his-poop mode: “What's he doing here? Did you call all your lovers? Will your high-school prom date be joining us too?”

They all scamper out into the fire escape – no one has yet thought to simply leave Jules to her personal pity party until she realizes that self-drama will not get her anywhere. We see the drama in the blue curtains blowing in the cold breeze* and Jules, sitting on her floor in a t-shirt rocking back and forth like a mental patient. (I don’t think this was a cliché yet.) She sits next to a disconcerting giant clown head. Not sure what this is supposed to mean metaphorically. Maybe nothing. The whole tableau looks like a David Lynch scene.
*After getting his heart broken by hotel waitress Lynn Sniderman, screenwriter Carl Kurlander tried to commit suicide by freezing himself to death in his dorm room. Unfortunately, his college was located in North Carolina.

Kevin tries the bars on Jules window and makes a snarky quip with political overtones: “The country's falling apart, but these bars are perfect.” He calls for an “experienced thief” and Kirbo says he’ll go get Billy, who as it just happens is now working at an Amoco station, which in all of 70 miles of Metro D.C. just happens to be right around the corner!!! Titmouse is shocked that he now knows a member of the working class: “Billy's working at a gas station?”

Then, out of absolutely nowhere, for lack of anything else to do, Titmouse grabs Kevin and dangles him Suge Knight-style off the fire escape. (This may be the antecedent to the final scene of There Will Be Blood. ) Kevin, like a pussy, takes it. His notes fall out of his pocket and flutter to the alley below: as Titmouse screams: “You won't be needing your notes on the ‘meaning of life” anymore!!” Well yeah, he wrote the article already so…

Kevin, remarkably calm despite being upside down (think John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda) gamely appeals to Alec’s political ambitions: “This won't solve anything. Think of your career.” Alec responds with a characteristically megalomaniacal sentiment: “After all I've done for you!” Again: the heart of their toxic relationship.
*STUDY GROUP QUESTION: Did Alec get Kevin the job at the newspaper?

An old junker tow truck pulls up into the alley and lo and behold, it’s our FuckFace to the rescue! He emerges from the truck in service station coveralls, Bruce Springsteen* working class hero bandanna, and his strange orange socks suck overt his pants cuffs: “Looks pretty out of hand up there!” He seems to have evened out as a person: the “old” FuckFace would have driven the truck into a wall and then played 40-minute sax solo with no pause for breath.
*Rob Lowe was a maniacal fan of Springsteen, and even patterned his saxophone-playing character after the Boss’ sax man Clarence Clemons.

Titmouse finally relents and pulls Kevin up—then, Kevin decides to get tough, glaring at him like, NOW it’s on! Nothing happens. T-Mouse then turns on Leslie—again:

TITMOUSE: Noble how you ran up to save your lover.
LESLIE: He's not my lover.
TITMOUSE: Bullshit!
LESLIE: Look, I've never lied to you since the day I met you, you cocky shithead!

This is supposed to be a great tell-off line. Hmph. I guess since Leslie has been such a boring character that this sort of works.

Kevin and Kirbo are trying to drag an acetylene torch and tank up the fire ladder. Are we sure there isn’t an easier way to get Jules out of her slump? But an acetylene torch is more visually dramatic because it shoots off sparks (sparks are essential to most MTV videos, of which this is a 2-hour one) and shows how cool our young charges are for even knowing how to operate it without frying off their facial features. Why not call the cops? Why not a locksmith? Does everything have to be so high drama. Yes! Titmouse, ever the territorial pisser, demands the blowtorch, but Kevin grabs it from him: “I know how to handle a blowtorch.” Either he’s standing up for himself at last, or he’s afraid this vengeful Republican will fry off his face.


Inside, FuckFace clamors up the stairs and beings loudly pounding on Jules’ door – everything this guy does is obnoxious. A door down the hallway opens and out pops the Gaykren, with flipped up collar and silver-and-black power tie. FF scrambles past him and grabs a fire extinguisher and holds it like an M-16. He shoots a steely look at Ron: “I'm going in.” This is supposed to be the “funny” moment, right?

Just as FF charges the door, Jules gets up from her incessant rocking and unbolts it. He comes flying in, sprawling on the floor like a consummate ass-hat. Kevin sums it up with an eye roll: “Hi, Billy.”

Billy wraps Jules in a blanket (she seems like a homeless woman – Myra’s revenge!) and runs around closing all the windows. Working at Amoco as a grease monkey has turned him a bit into a philosopher: “What's the big deal here? You lost a job? I've lost twenty of them since graduation! Plus a wife and kid. In a new development, a handful of hair in the shower this morning. You know, this smells to me like a little bit of self-created drama. I should know. I've been starring in a few of my own.”

Billy losing his hair? Impossible.

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: Where we wrap up this whole sorry affair in our glorious finale to St. Elmo’s Friday. Yeh.

Friday, November 12, 2010

ST. ELMO'S FIRE, PART X: "¡¡Amour Perdido!!"


We are at Moment of Truth for our protagonists, Kevin and Leslie. They hesitate, then….come together like two drunken ships colliding. Their lovemaking is so violent and physical, I’m surprised there were no broken teeth involved!* They fall to the floor, fumbling, bumbling, rolling around like a pair of sloshed wrestlers, Kevin whimpering, “Oh, I love you! I've always loved you!” He tires to undo her bra but she tells him the clasp is in the front.* Leslie pulls his hair and apologizes, but Kev apparently likes rough sex (“No, no, I love it! I love it!”). I wonder if he got that from Naomi…
*Remembers Ally Sheedy about this scene: “I could not wait for that to be over…I didn’t know that Andrew was going to be on top of me in a chair, looking like we were actually having sex.” For some reason, she later claimed she wasn't aware she’d have to be naked for the shower scene (?!?) and thought it would be just “kissing.” McCarthy had an equally tough time: “What I remember about it was Joel being unsatisfied that it wasn’t hot enough, passionate enough. And Joel, in the way only Joel could do, screamed out, ‘You're fucking! Action!’…Ally burst into tears and I just stood up naked and went, ‘What the fuck is the matter with you?’"

They spawn. Lots and lots and lots of sweaty, gasping SEX later…after pumping each other on the couch, a chair, the coffin (little do they notice that the corpse of one of Kirbo’s first victims lies rotting inside, wrapped in lye and plastic and covered in calla lilies). The love theme plays tenderly over this scene, even though the coital carnage displayed could use some speed metal, dirty hip hop, or the regional novelty song “Knocks Things Over” by the Milwaukee singer Pat McCurdy, which we advise you play over this scene for your own amusement or refusement.*
*Let's get together and knock things over
Let's get together and wiggle around
Let's get together and knock things over
I love to see things falling down
There goes the clock, a glass of water
We can't stop although we oughtta
'Cause we're gonna get a shock when the clock gets wet
Hey there goes the remote from the TV set
There goes the lamp, there goes the table
The radio, the TV cable
And when this little bed starts to shake too much
Hey there goes an ashtray full of cigarette butts
And while this room goes up in flames
We're gonna shake the pictures right outta their frames

Leslie still wears her long string of pearls and her gold bracelet while Kevin pumps her from behind in the shower. Ah, the shower sex scene, another wonderful trope of the 80s film—think David Naughton and Jenny Augutter in An American Werewolf in London (1981), Richard Gere and Valerie Kaprinsky in Breathless (1983) or Anthony Michael Hall, Ian Mitchell-Smith and Kelly LeBrock in Weird Science (1985). This one has some comedy when they destroy the shower door, sparking the first of many far-reaching consequences for this unholy union. Poor Kevin. What would his bud Naomi the Wise Hooker say in her husky nourish late nite DJ voice? Oooo there now, secret love, you playin’ but you already payin’…
Cut to a very tender post-coital scene in Kevin’s bed, on whose sheets is finally another person’s fluids besides his own. Leslie improbably still has her pearls on. With her haircut being shorter than Kevin’s they look like two young guys in bed together. Maybe Kevin is really I love with Alec and Leslie is the closest thing he can get without having to scream into his pillow late at night. Come to think of it, Leslie and Alec do kind of resemble each other...

Unfortunately, in a rare example of a plot point made earlier coming back into play later, Kev gave Titmouse a key so the latter could fuck the unnamed/unseen lingerie saleslady; now it comes back to haunt Kevin when he fucks Titmouse’s wife-to-be. This scene actually makes sense: Titmouse would go over to Kevin’s because he would be full of remorse for the night previous. He reels in like a slow fungus, cig clasped in his hand, hair mussed, cracking open a tall boy and sitting on down dejectedly right in front of Kev’s bedroom partition.

I know the look on Kevin’s face: it’s over and it’s barely started. Oh life, howst thou torment me!
Oh, Leslie, what you don’t know…

TITMOUSE: I'm only gonna ask you this once. Did you tell Leslie about my screwing around?
KEVIN: (lying next to a naked Leslie) No…
TITMOUSE: (nods knowingly) I believe you. I want you to know that I believe you, and I'm sorry I hit you. (pause) I don't think that I am ever gonna be able to get Leslie back.
Nelson delivers this line with just the right amount of deflated catharsis—a tool coming to terms with the effects of his toolhood. (His delivery of the last line, with tiny micro-pauses between every other word that starts and stops the sentence like a defective golf cart, is masterful.) Alec has truly fallen from grace, and is it any wonder that he starts becoming a secret-sex hound once he becomes a Republican? He seems destined for a cross back over the river until Kevin appear in his ratty Archie Bunker robe: “Buddy, I kind of got some company.” Then it's he presto, Back to Tool Land!

Titmouse can’t believe it…no literally, can’t believe it. He evens giggles “I never thought it was possible!” Never thought it was possible that Kevin could ever get laid? What kind of a condescending suckditch are you anyway? Here, at last, laid bare (no pun intended) is the true core of his and Kevin’s toxic relationship. Alec keeps guys like Kevin and FuckFace (and now poor Howie) around in order to feel superior; he secretly despises them for their perceived weaknesses, and Kevin is smart enough of realize this (FuckFace isn’t) but yet still not enough of an Alpha Dog to come out and say it, preferring to hang out with Titmouse to bask in the warmth of his hot wife and the sort of reflected glory he gets from being in his presence—and he hates him for it. Especially when the Young Yuppie God turns out to be a seriously flawed, skirt-chasing yahoo. Maybe Kevin wasn’t in love with Leslie all along—maybe his deflected angter towards Titmouse manifested itself in a red hot love jones for Leslie.*
*Good Lord, Freud really has ruined film criticism, hasn’t it?

Titmouse continues to act like a drunken, insulting ass and becomes inordinately interested in the unseen lass Kevin has hidden: “Hey, just a minute. Tell me. Is it the fat chick from the party? I have to know. Is it the fat chick from the party?” This was sort of funny way back when. Now, its flatly insulting to the poor full-figured sistas out there. The term "fat chick" has come to carry such a nasty frission to it, sort of like “Jewboy” or "Lesbian." This film continues to show such a contempt for the imperfects in life, and when Leslie finally appears, bare-shouldered and wrapped in a sheet, she delivers a line supposed to be dramatically devastating:

“It's not the fat chick.”
Twenty-five years later, it now sounds ridiculous and mean-spirited. A fat chick getting laid is not only beyond the realm of possibility, but the sheer thought of it is ludicrous! Imagine being a fat chick and enjoying this movie and suddenly the whole audience laughs at that line – and maybe some voices from the crowd add a couple of impromptu bon mots like “boy howdy!” or “roll ‘er in flour!” – and realizing that not only does the people who surround you think you're disgusting but the people in Hollywood who made this movie that you paid your own hard-earned money to see also despise you! Fat chicks everywhere, I feel your pain.

Any way, Alec finds out, is pissed, storms out, blah blah blah. Leslie has just punked him publicly twice in the last eight or so hours. Damn, don't fuck with Hillar--uh, Leslie!


Oh poor Mr. Kim! Note the hilarity of walking into the ruins of his mansion! Laugh at the comical situation of him once again being burned by the St. Elmo’s kids. Encountering Wendy and Howie sleeping on his stairway, instead of whipping out his Korean samjeongdo sword and slicing off their heads in one “Huwah!”, he asks them: “Where is Kirby Keager?” Wend tells him meekly: “He took my new car.” Kim suddenly realizes who he’s dealing with. His chauffeur lies in a coke stupor on the couch, blood dripping out of her nose…


After all the bullshirt Kirbo the Kockblocker has put him through, this doctor guy named Guy seems pretty cool and patient and polite -- although the quicker he can get this idiot's car jumped the the quicker he can ger back to "prescribing" plenty of bedrest for Miss Biberman. But why does he go and get a camera to take a picture of them? Why does he leave his beautiful young doctor-slash-fashion model alone with this unbalanced stalker?

Again, the scene -- if you really break it down -- makes no sense. But this is par for the course. Nothing HAS to make sense by this point. In fact, Kirby's whole storyline -- which, if you recall from our previous studies -- was the basis for the original short story that later became the basis for the S.E.F. screenplay. And yet it was almost cut out by the studio execs. The only thing that saved it, according to the St. Elmo's Lorebook, was the overwhelmingly positive audience reaction to test screenings when Kirbo finally grabs Dale and gives her a huge passionate smooch. It is a Yahoo! moment to be sure, like when Billy from Cobra Kai gets his face kicked in at the end of The Karate Kid.

And so, with triumphant music behind him, Kirbo drives his Grand Thefted auto into the sunrise, laughing maniacally despite the ruins of people's lives (including his own) he has left in his wake.

Thus endeth Kirbo's story arc. "Later, dude!"


A greasy spoon on Wendy’s turf, possibly chosen passive aggressively by her to make her father feel uncomfortable, and boy does it work like a charm. Pa Beamish practically lays down sheets of plastic before sitting down at the lunch counter. Wend has her "independence, Daddy!" moment when she informs him she is returning two possessions he has give her: the Chrysler and Poor Ol' Howie Brown. Oofta! Howie now disappears in the most unceremonious way (offscreen), just like Wendy's car -- although the gist seems to be that between the last scene and this, Kirby has wrecked it on his way back from the ski resort. Another great would-be scene struck from the record!

But Lil' Wend saves the best for last:

WENDY: I don't love Howie. I don't love him. I love Billy.
PA BEAMISH: Billy? From the roof?

Yes, Billy from the roof, daddy. Not Howie from the not-roof, daddy. Daddy's little girl is a girl no more...


The Raymond Carver scene. Jules shows up with some cardboard boxes to what looks to be a living space in the throes of a severe depression: discarded shoes and garbage lie strewn about their still-unwrapped new long couch. A blue shirt sticks out of the wall. Alec appears in his bathrobe holding a football amidst what looks to be a pile of dried crushed flowers. Awwww… “I took off work because I thought you wouldn't be here,” Leslie informs him. “I'm sick,” Alec whines. What follows is the most ridiculous break-up scene in recent memory, in which the love and commitment of a long relationship ends in a piffling battle over material possessions. Yes, it is true to life, but it’s also a great summation of 1980s materialism that later would be turned into a whole movie, 1989's The War of the Roses:

TITMOUSE: You can't have the Pretenders album. That's mine.
LESLIE: I bought it.
TITMOUSE: You did not! You can have all the Billy Joels. Except The Stranger
LESLIE: I'm taking Thriller...and Mahler's Ninth.
TITMOUSE: so fond of Mahler.
LESLIE: I moved in with Jules.
TITMOUSE: “Oh, how nice. Roomies again. No Springsteen leaves this house! You can have all the Carly Simons.
LESLIE: You got me those for Valentine's Day. Remember Valentine's?

And, if we haven’t fully turned away from this guy for being an inexplicable asswipe, he drops this wonderful stream of logic:

TITMOUSE: You fucked Kevin!
LESLIE: You fucked many!
TITMOUSE: Nameless, faceless many!

Apparently, Alec subscribes to the Tony Soprano rules of life: rules for her, none for him. Believe it or not, many men still cling to this antiquated way of doing things. I know, I know, hard to believe.

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: The Return of the Son of "What If This Scene Was Directed By...?"