Friday, September 24, 2010

ST. ELMO’S FRIDAY, PT. IV: The Best & The Rightest

Who doesn’t regret the eighties to some extent?
Christine O'Donnell

Continuing our 10-minutes-at-a time breakdown of St. Elmo’s Fire, we realize our last post was a bit long in the wind. Here’s a short and sweeter one:



SCENE III: ALEC & LESLIE'S YUPPIE LOFT - NIGHT

We’re in Alec & Leslie’s cavernous airplane hangar of a loft apartment; NIKE prints on the wall convince us they are “bohemians” who can only afford to take over the rent on an ex-sport shoe sweatshop. They are yuppies at the forefront of gentrification! This being the upwardly mobile, go-go 80s, we get the inadvertent political gospel of Alec Newbury: “If we can find the money, we can get the longer sofa!”

This is one of the first scenes where the filmmakers’ sense of unreality about how college kids – even G-town kids – live six months out of college begins to push the film into the realms of farce. I, for one, bought it hook line and sinker: Oh yes. THAT’S how I’ll be living… Imagine my chagrin. It was the chagrin shared by, of all people, the actor Jon “Ducky” Cryer, who told writer Susanna Gora he was “filled with rage” when he saw the pulled-from-the-pages-of-Vanity-Fair lifestyles of our young ragamuffins: “I would watch it and go, ‘Oh c’mon! They’re just out of college, they can’t have apartments like that, what happened to the cinder block bookshelves? Where are the milk crates? Where’s the futon?” Since this is a Joel Schumacher film, we can pretty much lay the responsibility for this visual fudging at his feet – just as Schumacher himself eventually did: “I felt that a lot of youth movies were given a cheap production because, what did it matter? They were just youth movies. And I thought, ‘Why not give young people movie stars, with great clothes and great sets and great cars? Glamour was very much a concept of mine.” And this was twelve years before he unleashed the candy-colored spectacle of Batman & Robin

In this scene, Young Master Alec* supposedly lays a smelly bombshell on Leslie: He has recently started moonlighting for someone named “Senator Hodges” – a REPUBLICAN. (In ’85, this was supposed to be a shock.) It turns out, Al seems to be jumping ship from poor Democratic Congressman “Pomerantz.” You gotta love those stodgy ol’ school D.C. political names.
*Judd Nelson on Alec: “He’s from the right side of the tracks…but I don’t think that guy knows the difference between right and wrong. He is looking out for himself."

All this talk of sofas and senators gets Alec and Leslie* hot – this despite Leslie’s decidedly unsexy pajamas, which looks like it should have a trapdoor on its butt. Leslie wants to use birth control, but...
*Other actresses considered to play Leslie: Jamie Lee Curtis, Bridget Fonda, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Jessica Parker, Meg Ryan, Brooke Shields, Elisabeth Shue

ALEC: We’re getting married soon. Let’s play some Russian roulette.
LESLIE: Right, and who do you think carries the bullet around for nine months?
ALEC: Senator Hodges?

Can’t believe how boring this scene is before Jules* shows up. With her chainsaw-like voice, she reveals a horrid story of her childhood: a woman she refers to as her “stepmonster,” who used to lock her in a closet when she was young, has gambled away all of her alimony from Jules’ father and is dying at “some scuzzy welfare hospital.” She left Jules’s name as her “Next of Kin” and it is now Jules’ responsibility to pay for her funeral. Jules is mortified! She pours her and Leslie a shot of Absolut! They confer in whispers like two schoolgirls about Alec becoming a Republican!
*Demi Moore on Jules: “She’s someone who doesn’t know how to take care of herself….It’s so easy to say you should ‘be responsible,’ but when someone really doesn’t know how, and is so afraid to be who she really is – and almost doesn’t know who she is, which is probably why she’s so afraid – that to be still for any amount of time means you have to feel those feelings, fear anxiety…and that hurts. She keeps moving and doesn’t really deal…she’s like a duck in water, it just keeps gliding along on the outside and on the inside she’s just paddling, trying to stay alive.”

Demi Moore, years before she became a brittle, sculpted MILFbot, always had a hardness to her: in voice, in mannerisms, in career ambition. Even at that young age, she was too edgy to be an actual cuddly “Brat Packer”, which is probably why she was never in a John Hughes film. As the much-told legend goes, a pissed-off Demi was stalking out of Hughes’ office after apparently being stood up for a casting meeting. Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander were writing the St. Elmo’s script down the hall and heard her indignant sandpaper voice and cast her on the spot. Turns out, Moore’s hardscrabble life was perfectly suited for the damaged diva that is Jules Van Patten*: her biological father left her mother two months before she was born; her stepfather committed suicide; she dropped out of high school at 16; she suffered close to 40 relocations and the ravages of parental alcoholism; she married a rock singer in her teens. She had a kidney ailment and surgery for a wandering eye. She showed up for her S.E.F. audition on a motorcycle.
*Other actresses considered to play Jules: Joan Cusack, Jodie Foster, Tatum O'Neal

Demi Moore interviewed in 1985 by Mrs. Cleaver:

Alec shuffles out of the bedroom with folded bedclothes that seem to have been set aside specifically for Jules.

JULES: You're always coming to my rescue. What can I say?
ALEC: I won't come between two old roommates.

Wuss. Now I KNOW you're a Republican.

SCENE IV: KIRBO & KEVIN'S BACHELOR HOVEL - NIGHT

Welcome to MTV Cribs with Kevin Dolenz!


We are in the prototypical post-collegiate “wine bottle” abode – named for the endless supply of empty Boone’s Farm wine bottles that are often used to prop open student-tenement windows during the heated summer months. (There are at least two wine bottles visible in this scene, including the half-empty one that Kevin is imbibing.) Period detail: numerous half-melted candles, tastefully battered old-school Underwood typewriter (with paper sheaf tucked in – is Kevin “in the midst of creating”?), tall pile of books and old newspapers, vertical stacks of old vinyl LPs, artfully tiled lamp means these boychiks are messy! The Mickey Mouse phone seems out of place, although Kevin would certainly have that as an “ironic” device.* We will learn later what a creepy place this really is. But for now, it’s your garden-variety bohemian squat, one that would surely make Bill O’Reilly puke. Posters of Woody Allen (in his floppy hated late 70s auteur look) and Allen’s films Manhattan and Stardust Memories. Kirbo will prove to be too much of fan of Annie Hall.
*Much of the stuff in Kev and Kirb’s apartment were the actual possessions of screenwriter Carl Kurlander

Kevin is playing bongos to Aretha’s “Respect” – a famous but phony scene. First off, has anyone ever dressed up in fedora and sunglasses and played bongos whilst air-banding? More accurate scene: totally naked with hair-brush mike or tennis-racket guitar, smelly Afro wig left over from last year’s Halloween party, dong flailing like an upside-down bobble head. It would make sense that Kevin would enjoy old 60s soul records – didn’t we all want some blackness the rub off on us for our “street cred”? (I remember air-banding to some pretty odd shit, like Box Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle.” I know, I know, you don’t even have to say it…) Kevin seems embarrassed when Kirbo bursts in fresh from work, propping his motocross bike upside down on the wall hanger -- almost as if he’s been caught masturbating, which almost certainly would have happened in about 10 minutes had Kirbo not come home (there looks to be a box of Kleenex on the table by Kev’s wine glass). When I was caught airbanding, it always had that effect, embarrassment and a lame attempt to cover it up, as Kevin does when he asks his roomie: “Quick, what’s the meaning of life?” Kirbo repeats: “Dale Biberman” to him for the second time (the first was in the bar) and Kevin is finally discomfited enough to ask what the fuck he is talking about, if not in those words.

The Most Dangerous Man Alive: Kirby Keager

Both Estevez and McCarthy are immensely appealing in this scene. Many sensitive literary-minded 80s guys like myself could identify with the cynical edge of Kevin’s wit (“love sucks”), his innate defensiveness (“Who won [the sexual revolution]? Nobody!”), his nervous habits of smoking and pushing his hair back over his head, his claustrophobic fatalism (“All my characters die in the end”) and his Ragstock wardrobe. Kirbo, it would seem, would be the avatar for our inner romantic who’s just waiting to be swept away by loving a girl in a courtly, pining way. The thing is, Kirbo takes it to a different level. His very even-headness about what he is planning a testament to his abject insanity. I mean, how did he get Dr. Biberman’s hospital schedule? His behavior is shaping up to be the most problematic (obscured by Jules and FuckFace’s obvious shenanigans): he shows up at work at the St. Elmo’s Bar even after he’s been fired, laughing off his boss’ exasperation; he leaves work whenever he feels like to slip into hospital ER to impersonate an ambulance chaser—he is truly a frightening character in the evening news post-tragedy he-seemed-like-such-a-normal-guy interview kind of way. Kevin even references Kirbo’s habit of leaving “poorly written unmailed love scratchings”* around the house.” What we see here is a slow escalation of Kirbo’s psychopathic tendencies: in the past, he poured out his “love” to women but never actually got around to sending them. Now, he’s going right for the jugular: full frontal stalking!
*Andrew McCarthy on the role of Kevin: “It had a detachment, it had a sensitivity, with a ‘rotten before its ripe’ cynicism that was covering a thinly veiled, massive vulnerability. I was that boy at the time.”

Kevin responds to Kirbo's reverie with a sex-deprived conspiracy theory: “Love, love, you know what love is? Love is an illusion created by lawyer types like yourself to perpetuate another illusion called marriage to create the reality of divorce and then the illusionary need for divorce lawyers.”*
*In the closing credits, the producers thank something called Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre, a reference to the seminal West Coast comedy troupe who gave the world such memorable characters as quasi-hippie Randee of the Redwoods and pop culture critic Ian Sholes. Some of Kevin's more memorable lines were inspired by Shoales' bon mots.

Kirbo responds in kind: “You’re just pissed off ‘n’ bitter* because you haven’t had sex in, what, a year? Two years?”
*Pissed Off N’ Bitter: pub in Coventry, England; great egg & watercress sandwiches; Texans not served

The peaceful turn this scene has taken is ruined by FuckFace - it is truly amazing how many times in the film he does this. He just barges in a la Jules, looking coolly and elegantly wasted in his RayBan sunglasses held together with a safety pin (it’s night-time), sax strapped to his back like an M-16 rifle, gripping a bottle of some sort of brown liquor (with a paper bag over it, just to show us he’s hardcore): “I just can’t deal with the little missus,” he croaks. “Can I crash?” Kev and Kirb let him in a way that informs us: We do this all the time! To the left, Schumacher, wearing a chimney sweep's outfit, strokes his chin: “Crikey, did I make this obvious enough?”

If you think about it, this scene is an exact repeat of the previous one. Also: Kirbo mentions he had met Dale Biberman “tonight” which means all the previous action has happened on the same night. I remember staying up that late at that age and doing a bunch of shit but holy schnikes, these peeps are busy busy busy (either that, or no one on the crew noticed the time discrepancy). Are we to believe that Jules changed into an entire different outfit, that everybody went to St. Elmo’s and got drunk, that Alec and Leslie went back to their yuppie loft and began refurbishing it.

SCENE V: GEORGETOWN STREET -DAY

Conspicuous consumption: Awwww, Alec and Leslie ARE buying that new long couch! Thanks, Senator Hodges! Jules and Leslie are pouring out of a boutique with many bags (a frequent sight on the East and West Coast in the 1980s). Another 80s trope pops up just seconds later, with some rich yuppie dickface coming on to Jules: “Hi, beautiful. Like Porsches?” This was a halcyon time when that line could actually work.

The gang prepares to go on a tri-state shopping spree

FuckFace is (natch) chatting up some chickies on the street corner wearing another in his line of twisted, ill-fitting skinny ties (this one is stuffed incongruously into a button-necked shirt, just to show his ongoing rapacious cluelessness). Alec has just gotten him a job as a “pollster” which it seems FuckFace barely even knows what that is. The gang zips off to St. Elmo’s Bar in Jules' trendy open-air Jeep Cherokee, and Les drops the bomb on all of them about Alec working for crusty ol’ Senator Hodges.

KIRBO: What's the four-time president of Georgetown's Young Democrats doing working for a Republican Senator?
ALEC: Moving up, Kirbo.
OTHERS: Ooooooh!

Like so many times in this movie, this Alec-goes-G.O.P. plot point, like Jules’ stepmonster, is never dealt with again in any kind of meaningful story-arc kind of way. This contributes to the inevitable, creeping sitcom feeling.

SCENE VI: JULES’ TASTELESS NIGHTMARE OF AN APT. – DAY

After a brisk day shopping and then “sucking back a few Bloody Marys at St. Elmo’s,” Jules is predictably horny. She lures poor Kevin into her….uh, well, how do we describe this and give it proper credence? A Hollywood costume designer’s notion of gay man’s apartment? A fag hag cave? We’ll go with the second one. Everything is swathed in pink – it makes me think of the cheesy honeymoon suite in Superman II, the one with the pink bear rug, and the tacky nouveau rich Guidoisms of Ray Liotta’s house in Goodfellas. A Nagelesque portrait of Billy Idol sneers out from one of the walls. A glass table is held up by what looks to be concrete pylons. “You haven't seen it since I moved in,” Jules chirps. Kevin snarks back: “I only remember 800 pairs of shoes.” In his Bukowski-esque garb, he looks as out of place as I feel at Producers' Guild of America parties.



Jules, as we soon learn, is maxed up to her eyeballs in credit. She seems to think it is a God-given right “for fabulous people like me.” But she has other bidness on her mind:

KEVIN: Jules, why do I feel like I'm not here by accident?
JULES: I have been needing to talk to you.
KEVIN: Ah. I see one of our infamous conversations is coming. Like when you met my parents and decided I was adopted. Remember that?
JULES: I still think your mother’s hiding something from you.

Good lord, this lady is a true work of art! She mocks a man’s sexuality right before hitting on him! Now that I think about it, Jules must have been some sort of unacknowledged influence on the 90s/00s generation of third-generation feminists. Fuck with a man just because you can - and call it “empowering.”


JULES: Kevin, I'm curious. You know all those nights we stayed up talking? How come you never made a pass at me?
KEVIN: What?
JULES: Don't you find me attractive? You know you're the only guy at school who never made a pass at me?
KEVIN: Well, I never joined the Army either.
JULES: Kev, you've got a problem. You're gay, and you're madly in love with Alec.
KEVIN: Jules, there's the brink of insanity, and then there is the abyss...which you have obviously fallen into.
JULES: Don't be ashamed! Gay became chic in the '70s.
KEVIN: I'm not ashamed. I am not gay. And I am not staying.

Ah, yes. You don’t hit on me so you must be gay, because how dare you resist my wiles?. Jules practically attacks him, shrieking: “Kevin! Look at me in this robe! Are you hard? No!”

"Release the Gaykren!"

As if that isn’t enough ammo, she summons the Gay Kraken (or “Gaykren”), interior designer Ron Dallesandro (Matthew Laurance), the man responsible for Jules’ monstrous décor. Indication of the film’s breezy shallow laziness: How do we know Ron is gay? BECAUSE HE’S WEARING GREEN PANTS AND DRINKING A STRAWBERRY MARGARITA AT 3PM ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON. Schumacher must have kissed himself.

SCENE VII: SNOOTY RESTAURANT - DAY

First off, Kirbo arrives two hours early for his lunch date with the lovely Ms. Biberman.* Even the staff thinks he’s nuts (we see someone buffing the floor in the background). His OCD is making him loopy: he begins heedlessly marking up their menus with a red pen to figure out the best thing to order for his date. The maitre d' looks on worriedly as Kirb phones Jules for wine-ordering guidance (period detail: Kirbo needs a phone brought to his table a la The Polo Lounge) and Jules, smart-smart glasses on her face and a silk scarf around her neck, advises him.
*Joel Schumacher: “The studio wanted me to cut Emilio Estevez and Andie MacDowell‘s relationship out of the film—because they thought Emilio’s hairdo was too embarrassing, too humiliating.”

JULES: You could order a nice Napa Valley chardonnay. Or if she's worth it, get an import to impress her.
KIRBO: Well, money's no object.
JULES: Really? Then Montrachet or Meursault. And make sure you smell the cork.

Jules advises Kirbo how to cut up a body

We learn that Jules is a harbinger of the type of people who will 25 years later, cause the meltdown of the world economy: she is overdrawn on advances to her salary, yet she is living the deceptive surface existence that has earned her the moniker “Moneybags.” When she needs more cash, Jules resolves to have a talk with her boss Forrester. Will Jules play the va-jay-jay card? Stay tuned.

"Just a case of possession obsession...": Miss Biberman

The lovely Miss Biberman finally arrives, late. Kirbo lies that he hasn’t been waiting long and, apropos of nothing, blurts out a line from Annie Hall, the film they saw together: “I’ll be having the alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast!” She is confused and guarded—rightfully so. She smiles awkwardly. She is called back to the hospital. Kirbo’s date with Miss Biberman lasts exactly 50 seconds. “I hope we can do this again sometime,” she drawls. Frustrated in more ways than one, Kirb will rush home, don a horse bridle, and masturbate while shaving his scrotum in what has become a ritualistic ceremony of his decaying mind.

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: As Kirby continues his descent down the rabbit hole of fixation and socially inappropriate behavior.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

REST IN TEMPO

"I don't think you realize greatness. If you do realize that, you don't reach for it. I never look for what's going to happen later. You just do the best you can now and you accept what's happening."


William Marcel Collette
(1921-2010)

Eulogists
Greg Burk
Don Heckman
Brick Wahl

Listen
NPR's The Life and Legacy of Buddy Collette

Funeral Services
Thursday, September 30th
11am
Faithful Central Bible Church
321 N. Eucalyptus
Inglewood, CA 90302

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A SHOUT-OUT: Starlady1

We don't know who you are Starlady1 -- I mean, we've seen your kelplike dreads online, and we think your real name might be "Deborah" and your latest MySpace mood is "adventurous" and your listed occupation is "Production" -- but we've discovered your wondrous YouTube channel Community 101 devoted to the arts enclave of Leimert Park. It's especially valuable because it adds another great dimension to an area that, at least with music, still operates on a different sort of "social network" -- namely, word of mouth. For us squares in other 'hoods who love Leimert's culture and music, you have captured some important and remarkable moments that in the past would have stayed contained within the collective lore of the locals. Here's just a sampling of your lovingly curatorial captures:

Horace Tapscott live at Kabasa, Los Angeles:

Jesse Sharps Ensemble performs Abdul Salim's "Song for My Children":

Leimert Park Drum Circle:

Dwight Trible and Derf Reklaw at the Malcolm X Festival:

Randall Fisher and the Creative Arts Ensemble pay trib' to 'Trane:

A Tribute to Nathaniel Morgan:

An Interview with the late Billy Higgins:

Friday, September 17, 2010

ST. ELMO’S FRIDAY, PT. III: “What’s A Fugazi?”

At long last, let's get to the film. . .in ten-minute increments:



Precredits. Canadian 80’s schlockmeister David Foster’s famous “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire”* begins like a lush bath of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers with a quasi-classical musical prologue before launching into the familiar jumping hyper-strings and simple main piano melody we know from Pottery Barns everywhere. It’s slick, brainless, utterly unfettered 1980s movie music rendered with gold-standard professional technique, the best of its kind, to be repeated seven more times during the movie until it drills its serrated, fake-whitened teeth into your brain stem.
*It was common, way back when, for film soundtracks to have some sort of “Love Theme” (parodied to delightful effect in 1978's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), which were little snippets of musical cheese-whiz to be played over scenes of extensive liplock and/or fluid transmission between the lead characters. This hearkens back to June 28, 1969 (the exact date, 16 years later, of S.E.F.’s U.S. premiere), where Henry Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo & Juliet” hit an unexpected #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Unsurprisingly, "Love Theme” reached #15 on the Billboard pop charts in September 1985 -- 25 years ago this week! -- and hung around like a smell for two weeks. But its storied fortunes would end there. It was later nominated for a 1986 Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, which it lost to Jan Hammer's more muscular "Miami Vice Theme," which was not a love theme.

Mercifully brief clip of David Foster and Kenny G playing “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire” (May 23, 2008, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas):


There's a peculiar Internet subculture of amateur home pianists taping themselves playing the S.E.F. "Love Theme” and then posting it online:

What’s not well-known about the love theme is that there’s a version of the song with lyrics called “For Just A Moment” performed as a duet between Amy Holland, who was the wife of Doobie Bro Michael McDonald, and Donny Gerrard, who was in the early-70s Canuck power-ballad pioneers Skylark with – surprise! – David Foster. (Skylark had a hit single back in 1972 with “Wildflower,” which was later sampled by, get this, 2PAC Shakur.) For the S.E.F. soundtrack, Foster enlisted a Murderer’s Row of mullets: Chicago songwriter/producer Richard Marx, Massachusetts guitarist Billy Squier, British guitarist John Parr, Seattle saxophonist Kenny G, and, for some reason, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson and The Tubes’ Fee Waybill.

Here’s the video:


Opening credits. Large thin red lettering -- very similar to the opening titles for The Exorcist -- given a slight neon red glow. This was a familiar trope of 80s films. Also see: Opening credits for Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me (1984) and Martin Scorcese’s After Hours (1985).

Opening shot. Seven* characters are walking away from Frat Row across the Georgetown University commons (actually Frat Row from the University of Maryland at College Park) towards a Vaseline-smeared lens in their graduation gowns, locked arms. They are (from left):


Kevin Dolenz (Andrew McCarthy) – heretofore referred to as “Kevin”
Wendy Beamish (Mare Winningham) – heretofore referred to as “Wendy”
Billy Hixx (Rob Lowe) – heretofore referred to as “FuckFace”
Alec Newbury (Judd Nelson) – heretofore referred to as “Alec”
Leslie Hunter (Ally Sheedy) – heretofore referred to as “Leslie”
Julianna Van Patten (Demi Moore) – heretofore referred to as “Jules”
Kirby Kaeger (Emilio Estevez) – heretofore referred to as “Kirbo”

*STUDY-GROUP QUESTION: “Why do WASPY ensemble dramas about groups of wimpy white friends ‘coming to terms’ with sh*t always hover around a body count of seven main characters?” The numbers don't lie: The Big Chill (7), Queens Logic (8), Beautiful Girls (10), Friends (5), Fandango (4), American Graffiti (7), Metropolitan (7), Return of the Secaucus 7, Four Friends, Singles (6), The Class (8) = Average Ensemble Character Count: 6.6

From the looks of them, they probably never heard of Fugazi’s Revolution Summer (which actually was happening the very summer this film was released) or Bad Brains at the 9:30 Club. They certainly wouldn’t know the names of notorious local underground drugnitaries like Rayful “The Babe Ruth of Crack” Edmond III (a huge fan of the Georgetown Hoyas, the basketball team of St. Elmo kids’ alma mater, whose notorious drug dealin’ momma “Bootsie” Perry worked in D.C.’s Department of Health and Human Services, the same office that employs Mare Winningham’s Wendy Beamish character) or Cornell “The Ghost” Jones (the angel dust baron of Washington who peddled his wares in the shadow of the Capitol building) if they climbed on their corner-booth table took a growler in their leek soup. On the one hand, would these people know where to buy their cocaine? Were they aware of the more sketchy areas of the city, like the Northeast Quadrant or the Orleans or Hanover Place housing projects? How about the stretch of Ethiopian restaurants along 18th Street in the ethnic enclave of the Morgan-Adams district? Probably not. After all, this was written by people in Malibu* who don't like to finish any sentences.
*"The only evidence that anyone involved with the film even visited DC was a few seconds filmed at my college (I remember the film crews) and the Haagen Dazs across M Street from the bar. At the time this was the movie's only good joke, because Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye (of Black Flag and Minor Threat) had held down day jobs there. We kept waiting for these mopey little squirts to run into some of the punks who infested the neighborhood and get their heads rammed up their own sousaphones. Now, that would have been a Saintly act!" (Amazon comment by “Michael from Silver Spring, MD” 6/10/05)

So anyway, our heroes and heroines are walking towards the camera, laughing without a care in the world, when we hear the sound of a car skidding, crash, horn blaring…oops, looks like the Docksider paradise of youth is about to be shattered by…

SCENE I: GEORGETOWN HOSPITAL ER - NIGHT

…you guessed it, a car crash! This dizzying sequence where our friends arrive to the rescue of Wendy predates ER by almost a decade, and it manages to match that show’s smugness almost from the first few images: Kevin smoking cigarettes in the hospital (with nobody telling him not to); Alec, in a sun-yellow power tie and blow-dried yuppie haircut, bursts through the front doors and starts name-dropping and influence-peddling almost with his first breath (“Alec Newbury, from Congressman Langston’s office…”); Wendy has just gotten a new car from Rich Daddy for graduation; Jules, her ironed locks held together with hair combs, wearing some sort of pink crushed-satin party dress under a mink stole (?!?), makes fun of the naked fat patient wandering around in a daze. (Jules will wear this dress no less than four times during the film.) Their clothes immediately tag them as big-print characters splurped out of Some Screenwriter’s caulking gun. Most annoying is Kirbo (wonder if his middle name is “Kevin” or “Kendall”), in spiffy bowtie and Italian rez checkered apron, trying out his Young Lawyer shtick (“We're dealing with a first-time offender here. Miss Beamish won't press charges, so why not let it slide?”) to the bemused black DC cop, who snubs him wonderfully (“Forget it, counselor”) without crushing his Martin Sheeny little face. Jules mentions that “she had a lot of cash” – twice – without really knowing what to do with it.


As Jules and Leslie sit gabbing in the foreground, fat naked guy wanders behind them past Jules’ “date,” a Mad Men-looking poster boy in a black gypsy-moth tux. This is as salient an image of the Reagan 80s as we’ve seen, and we’re only two minutes in! But was it intentional? Is Schumacher actually fitting in some commentary on his idiotic main characters? Taken with Kirbo’s exchange with the cop, our vote is “no.” Watching these moments 25 years later, they take on the effect of watching one of Mad Men’s glorious anachronisms, especially the scenes where the lead (white) characters interact with marginal characters (ethnic, mainly black) and obliviously reveal their worst characteristics. Difference is, Mad Men intends this to happen: S.E.F. reveals the same characters as its filmmakers: superficial, uninterested in the barest of nuance, insensitive, cynical. Jules throughout the film reveals a particular mean streak, ripping on blacks, insane people, infirm people, welfare hospitals, homeless people, Arabs, Jews. Wow, someone was pretty thorough!

Wendy appears with a bandaged head and immediately assures her coked-out friends, “I'm fine.
I'm fine. The car my dad got me for graduation is totalled.” Alec immediately starts giving orders to Kevin, his chosen lackey for life: "Go find Billy. See if you can sober him up.”

Whose name are these coiffured feti expending all of this wasted energy on? Why, it none other than Billy “The Kid” Hixx*!
*EXCERPT FROM ROB LOWE’S CONTRACT: ‘Mr. Lowe wishes his character’s name to be spelled quote ‘real cool like…like with two or five XXs at the end or something that rhymes—I dunno, you figure it out, you’re the law-type guys, I’m outta here’ endquote.’


Billy the Kid is often described by reviewers as "frat boy of the group.” I never knew any frat boys from this time period who didn’t have Marine-short hair covered in white golf caps and some sort of sports sweatshirt and stone-washed jeans with the cuffs turned up slightly and those leather moccasins with the crepe soles and leather laces. This guy looks like he’s trying to meld Lester Young with Joey Lawrence. There he is, playing his saxophone on the back steps of an ambulance, bathed in devilish magenta neon, dagger cross hanging from his earlobe, hair looking all tousled and forbidden, like a camouflaged octopus strapped itself to his head. Now that we think of it, Billy looks a lot like singer John Parr (whose S.E.F. theme is only minutes from flying out of the screen and marking us forever) and his name matches his somewhat (Hixx = Parr). Kevin: “I wouldn’t strike a match next to him.”


Billy’s first line to the attending nurse: “Do you believe in pre-marital sax?” It is two minutes and 30 seconds into the film and he’s already earned the name FuckFace. Thing is, as it will happen countless times throughout the film, people around FuckFace react to his FuckFacedness with incredible mirth and restraint. The hot nurse actually laughs! It is a testament to Lowe’s charisma (mainly, eyes and rakish grin) that he pulls off this consummate dickweed’s appeal for so long, but it’s also a testament to the fraudulence of filmmaking: make everybody around him laugh and we will too. Well, we did. (Except for those prescient peeps at the Razzie Awards, who voted Lowe the Worst Supporting of 1985.) If you saw this movie when it opened, of course, Lowe was the favorite character, the way that the Joker was everyone’s fave in The Dark Knight or Marilyn Chambers was everyone’s fave in Behind The Green Door. Now, he’s a twit d’jour. He’s a sauerkraut fart let out in a mall boutique. He is – after all is said and done – the consummate frat boy. When he gets in the back of the squad car, we hear the cop say, “You have the right to remain silent..." You hope FuckFace will follow this advice. But you know he won’t. He just won’t.

Weird chat between Rob Lowe and portentous, obviously deeply depressed interviewer Brian Linehan (1985)

Alec: “Billy, four months after graduation and you’re still acting like every night’s a frat party.” FuckFace is abruptly worried about Wendy, but Kevin counters with a rich-girl joke that’s vaguely anti-Semetic: “How bad is it? Severe. She might have finally exceeded a limit on her father's Visa.” FuckFace’s 2.5 seconds of worry is completely done away with, and everybody laughs. Everything’s fine again! Wendy to FF: “We’ll be right behind you.” (In the Blue-ray version, you can see director Joel Schumacher standing just to the left of the screen, pointing with his thumb at the scene and winking to the audience: “Hah? Get it? ‘Right behind you’? D’you understand? They’re really really close friends! Can I make this any clearer?!”)


The consummate moment of the kind of historical weirdness we mentioned above comes in the bizarre and exceedingly worrying infatuation Kirbo develops with the young ER resident he bumps into during the fray, a tall corkscrew-haired Southern belle brunette who looks a lot like Andie MacDowell with the improbably Semetic name of ‘Dale Bieberman.’ Turns out Miss Beebs and The Kirbomeister had one date Back in the Day. She is also at least four feet taller than him and four years older. For some reason – or no reason – Kirbo watches DB disappear into an examining room where someone is screaming horribly, telling a (natch) young black child, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be okay” and decides that this chick he’s just reconnected with for 30 seconds (completely clueless to the fact that she’s a harried ER doctor) will be best stalked by him and him only. Kirbo will soon emerge as the movie’s scariest and most dangerous character.

S.E.F. spoof trailer, starring Kirbo, re-cut as a stalker-horror film:

The sound of screaming is tellingly drowned out by pumpin' rock music -- just the first in a series of displays of Kirby’s/the film's shocking ability to block out human suffering. The filmmakers echo this, drowning out the sounds and sights of the ER with the pinched, bendy guitars and compressed, computerized drums of the film's other famous theme song, John Parr’s “Man In Motion.”

The One, the Only, the Original “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr (1985):

This song was pretty much ubiquitous in Summer/Fall/Winter 1985. Parr himself was (and still is, we surmise) an English musician. Back in the day, he sported a giant mullet-mane and pumped up biceps that were always on display thanks to a pre-faded, pre-torn jacket vests and tight stone-washed jeans with cowboy boots a la Danny Bonaduce and appeared in videos usually wailing on his American-flag axe while in a windstorm or blowing rain, singing in a strangled, pseudo-croaky voice that was too high to come off as truly threatening. Parr and his band Ponder’s End had come out of the same Newcastle scene that birthed Dire Straits, although you’d never know it from Parr’s output. His first hit in the U.S. was the terminally shrill “Naughty Naughty” (No. 6 on the Mainstream Rock Chart in 1985) which like many songs of this era was a superbly subtle reference to “Nookie Nookie.” Parr’s band ‘The Business’ toured the U.S. opening for – wait for it – TOTO! (We hope no one was burned by the torch being passed…) While the Biz were on tour, they got a call from producer David Foster, who that same year Rolling Stone had called “the master of bombastic pop kitsch." Foster asked Parr to collaborate on a song for a new Joel Schumacher film. Foster himself looks like as much of an 80s musical archetype as Parr: leather jacket, expensive spiked haircut, preternaturally bland good looks, somewhat intense, sharkish expression, the ultimate music industry insider who looks to never have had a moment of doubt or failure in his entire life.

David Foster: Dark Svengali of the S.E.F. soundtrack

There seems to be some confusion as to when the song was actually composed and for what reason. In 2007, when Parr showed up at something called “the Sheffield Children’s Choice Awards” in the U.K., he told the audience that he was “not particularly thrilled” to be involved with S.E.F. and that his iconic (for better or worse) 80s anthem was actually composed in honor of Canadian paraplegic Rick Hansen. (The lyrical reference to “wheels” was about Hansen’s wheelchair.) Others have disputed this, maintaining the title of the movie was actually inspired by the song. But in interviews, Parr has maintained that the studio wasn't initially aware about "Man in Motion" until well into production.


Our verdict: The song’s original title was “Man in Motion” and was later changed to “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” to accommodate the title of the film, which was the original title of the short story first written by Carl Kurlander. Note the awkward way the movie title is shoehorned into the chorus:

I can see a new horizon
Underneath the blazin' sky
I'll be where the eagle's
Flyin' higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion
All I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin'
St. Elmo's Fire

Using a nautical metaphor to describe something with wheels? And then combining it with an aeronautical image of an eagle? What would Coleridge say? Maybe Poor Parr has a right to be bitchy. Then again, the guy took his S.E.F. success to the movie soundtrack bank, starting with "Through the Night," his duet with Marilyn Martin for the Kevin Bacon flick Quicksilver (1986) and progressing -- or maybe regressing -- to "Two Hearts" from American Anthem (1986), "The Minute I Saw You" from Three Men and a Baby (1987) and "Running Away With You" from The Running Man (1987)-- all without having a gun put to his head.

Maybe he got his revenge 21 years later when "New Horizon," a reworking of "Man in Motion" by the faceless dance combo Tommyknockers, became a surprise smash hit:


We surmise that Parr and The Tommyknockers are one in the same, and that it is part of a massive conspiracy conjured up by the singer to keep his One Big Moment alive in our hearts as long as his still beats. Our suspicions were further aroused (and not in the good way) when in January 2012 Parr emerged from his mole-cave once again with "St. Elmo's Fire" rewritten and rerecorded in honor of the compulsively genuflecting Denver Bronco QB Tim Tebow. It was titled "Tim Tebow's Fire." Like a Swiss Army Knife, this song proves to have so many uses!


SCENE II: ST. ELMO’S BAR. GEORGETOWN – NIGHT


The posse pulls up outside our home base for the next 90+ minutes: St. Elmo’s Bar* (apparently, located on M Street), and our young divas and divos pile out onto the street and into their favorite watering hole since their (offscreen) salad days.
*The fictional St. Elmo's was built on a Universal soundstage; the exteriors were shot at the famous Universal backlot "Main Street." (The clock tower used in Back to the Future is a 1/2 block away.) The bar itself was based on a Geo-town pub called The Tombs (1226 36th St. NW) and the exteriors were shot at a joint called Third Edition (1218 Wisconsin Ave.)

What’s immediately noticeable is that the filmmakers have given Alec, now a up-and-coming hotshot politico on the K Street scene, a crappy old hooptie. (Most of the Alec’s I knew had BMW’s by their senior year of High school: Greg Nikitas, I’m thinking of you...) Al hoists his suspendered pants and boasts: “I think I was con-ceeeeeved in the back seat!” This is known as “authenticity.” These impeccable dressed and coiffed people are after all still fresh-faced post-grads -- they’re still struggling, tryin’ to make it, but they can make it if they try, if they climb the highest mountain, they know they can’t quit until the game is won…

Sorry, sorry. Momentarily carried away by the fist-pumpin’ lyrics that play over this brief scene.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” live acoustic (??!?) version (2007)

John Parr clearly NOT playing “St. Elmo’s Fire” for charity – hilarious

I mean, Wow. There are many 80s power-rock tropes contained in this four-minute uber-inspirational ditty that have become beyond cliché when judged by 2010 standards. Hell, they were clichéd then. To whit:

(a) The use of mangled gerunds ("burnin'" "playin’” “comin’” “flyin’” “lyin” “movin’” “growin’” “blazin’”) to imply toughness. Practiced with workmanlike punctuality by the likes of Billy Squier, REO Speedwagon and the inestimable Survivor. The word “burnin’” in itself must be the preeminent mullet-rock cliche of the entire 80s (even Bono was an offender); usually utilized in terms of a “burnin’ desire” or a “burnin’ soul” and referring to some kind of fire in the belly that can only be satisfied by invading Grenada. Also see: Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose” (1981), Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On” (1984) and Starship’s “We Built This City” (1985).

(b) Persistent anthemic encouragement, always relentlessly upbeat with a near-sociopathic grandiosity (“You know YOU CAN MAKE IT IF YOU TRY!!!!!!!!!!!!”), as if the composers/singers had been chewing on human adrenal glands. Characterized by an oddly quaint a sense of optimism and pump-priming. Ideal music for weight rooms, aerobics classes, mountain climbing, skiing, parasailing, mounting military-style attacks on suburban McDonald's, mounting your uncooperative wife... Carries a positive message about our can-do American spirit with no attention paid whatsoever to how that always seems to go horribly horribly wrong. Also see:  Paul Engemann's "Push It To the Limit" (1983), Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best” (1984), Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (1982) and “The Moment of Truth” (1984), and Starship's “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” (1985).

(c) Pseudo-tough phraseology like “writing on the walls” or “play the game” and some references to “knowin’ the streets.” Parodied to brilliant effect by Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights (1997):


As for the attendant music video, it contains many of the archetypal MTV flourishes that defined the decade. They include:

(a) Pouring rain, shot through with that pesky neon light, usually osmium blue;

(b) Eyeblink-quick film clips, usually ones that have nothing to do with the video itself, interspersed with shots of the singer in some room somewhere else, standing and belting out the lyrics whilst looking toughly offscreen, only one hand in the pocket of his leather jacket with huge flaps, leaning clumsily on a “St. Elmo’s” sign;

(c) The appearance of a single bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, lighting up the singer’s chiseled features. Most of the time, it’s swinging back and forth (see “Missing You” by John Waite);

(d) Singer goes from “standing” to “walking” while he mouths the lyrics, both hands thrust into his pockets this time;

(e) Amazing, absurd teased bubble hair = 3 1/2 hours in the makeup chair;

(f) The “fire in a barrel” motif: just to let us know that these are the “mean streets”;

(g) The singer “performs” on a stage that further connects the video to the movie. In Parr’s case, the St. Elmo Bar, standing splay-legged with his striped Gibson Les Paul gee-tarr. He had no band to back him up; he looks sort of uncomfortable. The crowd is loving him;

(h) Singer standing behind a rain-beaded window, singing directly to us this time. Singer must always look unhappy;

(i) The inevitable appearance of the cast members from the film, who have no idea what they are doing: Parr walks around the darkened bar like a sleazy politician, giving a hand squeeze to each cast member in an excruciating one-after-the-other fashion. All they can do is look at him inanely while he mouths the lyrics. Highlights: Demi looks like she wants to blow him; Judd hangs his head and gives a quick pat on Parr’s back, as if to say Let’s get this over with QUICK; Lowe tries to give him a bro-hug and is not-so-subtly rebuffed -- poor Rob! Rejected by your own doppelganger!


Anyway, as “Man in Motion” plays in the bar, we get some rad and utterly unawkward exposition: we learn that Jules is an “international banker” – we will be reminded of this several more times in case the bar-crowd noise drowned it out – and that her nickname is “Moneybags.” We learn that Kevin is writing obituaries for the local paper (“All my characters die in the end; I’d like to write something about the meaning of life for a change”). We learn Alec and Leslie are some sort of premarital power couple with heavy shades of Bill and Hillary Clinton* – Leslie even sports a Hillaryesque (read: unsexy) hairdo. Alec gives her the “There’s some people I want you to meet, so don’t embarrass me” kind of line and she succumbs to it like Gloria Steinem never happened. We learn that FuckFace just has to carry that fucking saxophone around with him everywhere: it’s like an enormous brass pacifier. So surprise! We learn he fucked up at the job Alec got him and got canned. We learn he has a nagging shrew of a wife who rags on him for getting in a car accident with no insurance as well as waking the baby. Poor Felice: there’s a tinge in this scene that we’re supposed to side with FuckFace -- How dare this castrating harpie impinge upon our boy’s awesomeness! He's just a wild stallion who wants to rock! -- even though her complaints are completely understandable and justified.
*When he was working on the Clinton campaign, George Stephanopolous told screenwriter Carl Kurlander that S.E.F. "really meant something to him."


Upon entering the bar and finding their favorite table taken by a bunch of letter-jacketed undergrads, our heroes corral owner Wally (the film debut of Blake Clark, later to be the voice of the Slinky-Dog in Toy Story) into ejecting them (“Wally, undergrads sitting at our table?” “They’ve only been there for 10 minutes.” “We've been here four years!”). We glean their oft-repeated inside jokes, like going “ba-dump-bump-pssshhh” whenever someone cracks a bad joke (by then, the verbal rimshot was already calcifying into a cliché) and the more tribal "a-booga-booga-booga, ah-ha-haaaa!” for no apparent (to us) reason.* Kevin politely if ineptly pours his mates’ glasses of beer, which have more foam than a polluted Ohio river, before his own, immediately making him -- along with timid lil' Wendy -- the most selfless member of this sorry gaggle. They all smile so knowing at each other’s inside jokes that it starts to become irritating, contributing to a persistent air of smugness that never quite dissipates.
*This chant allegedly began as an in-joke between the young leads, who were imitating the sound of lookyloos who were watching location shooting and ostensibly commenting on/laughing at the actors.

FuckFace has Mr. Wrong written all over his taped up sunglasses. First, he blithely recites a joyous ee cummings-like recollection if the accident he almost died in: "Blinding white light. Skid. Tree. Impact. It was out of hand! It was a metaphysical-precision collision." Then, in a flash, he is hitting on a chubby bar skank right in front of poor Wend:


FUCKFACE: How about we cut out of here?
UGLY CHICK: Well, I came with some girlfriends.
FUCKFACE: Look, this face seats five.

Really, was that absolutely necessary? Again, FF says something blatantly offensive – to us, not the people onscreen – and some chick thinks it’s hilarious. Would this line EVER work if he wasn’t Rob Lowe?* Test this out by going down to your local neighborhood bar.
*Carl Kurlander: “Whenever you were in a room somewhere in 1985, if a woman was going to want to sleep with someone, it would be Rob Lowe.”

Alec persists on being Nurse Ratched to FF's Randle P. McMurphy:

ALEC: “Do you know what it means to have a suspended license for drunk-driving on your permanent record?”
FUCKFACE: “Yeah, it means I’ll never be a cop in D.C.”*
*I’ve seen this flick close to 250 times in my life – and that’s a low estimate – and I never understood why they all yell “Busted!!!” and waggle their fingers in the air after this exchange. Assumed this was another deep-cover inside joke that we weren’t really meant to “understand.” Turns out, thanks to the miracle power that is Closed Captioning, what they are saying is “Wally!” and all pointing quite obviously to Kirbo, who is sneaking a gulp of beer. Kirbo, called out again in front of his boss, mutters: “Betrayed!” and undoubtedly beings concocting a horrific plot of vengeance against his unwitting friends.

Meanwhile, Jules quizzes Kevin about his dormant manhood: "Don't you enjoy anything anymore? Like girls?" Kevin responds with one of the film's best lines: “I enjoy being afraid of Russia. It's a harmless fear, but it makes America feel better, Russia gets an inflated sense of national worth from our paranoia. How's that?” There are kids alive now who see this scene and think, "Russia!?"

The girls have their bathroom moment:

WENDY: Will you give Billy a break? He lost his job today.
LESLIE: The job Alec got for him?
JULES: Did you give him any money?
WENDY: A little.
JULES: Wendy! I thought you were cutting out things that don't work in your life.
WENDY: Doesn't leave much.
LESLIE: I better break this to Alec gently. (exits)
JULES: This thing with Billy is too destructive.
WENDY: Life in the fat lane.
JULES: Wendy, you're not fat.
WENDY: My thighs are fat. No diet works. Only way to lose weight in your thighs is amputation.
JULES: What you need to amputate is Billy the Kid.
WENDY: I know. I know, but I can't.
JULES: I don't get it.
WENDY: Me neither.

In this scene, Mare Winningham* reveals herself to be the saving grace of S.E.F. (with Andrew MCarthy, despite his bug eyes and general sensitive-guy douchiness, a close second). Look at the mousy/sexy way she says the line “Me neither." According to lore, when Winningham showed up for the role of this "daddy's rich little fat girl", the filmmakers discovered she wasn’t fat at all. By the time filming began, Winningham was pregnant. She was playing the group's lone virgin with a bunned oven.
*Twenty years later, in Ulu Grosbards' Georgia, she played a folk singer tasked with reigning in her shrill annoying self-destructive little sister (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), who thinks she’s a “musician.” Winningham received an Oscar nomination for this role, leading one to believe she called up all of her frustration with acting with Rob Lowe and took it to the bank.

The boys have their bathroom moment: FuckFace even lets Alec dunk his hair into a toilet for God’s sake – a talent the young Newbury probably perfect on nerds and dweebs in high school. (Quite honestly, if my friend dunked my head in a nasty bar toilet, I’d have left his larynx hanging out of his neck.) Having sufficiently fueled up, our group streams out of the bathrooms and joins an all-bar group singalong to "Give Her a Little Drop More," British jazz trumpeter John Chilton's ode to date rape:

I like a girl who drinks
Life for her just can't begin
Till she's had a double gin
She's stuck to the chase
When she gets a taste
Give her a little drop more

Yikes.

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: We continue to perform our body-cavity search of S.E.F. and get to the next ten minutes.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

p/funk

As we ordered both these new CDs we thought: "What is it lately about Brits and back-in-the-day California music?"

Because "regionalism" is all the all-the-rage right now, us obscurantist music snerds are benefiting from limey music curators. From Brit label owner "Jazzman Gerald" Short and Brit drummer Malcolm Catto comes California Funk (Jazzman/Now Again Records), their lovingly cherry-picked comp of 21 booty-bumpin' sides from forgotten Vietnam-era combos like Billy Larkin & the Delegates, Ray Frazier & the Shades of Madness and (our faves) L.A. Bare Faxx. Check out the L.A. Weekly's survey of the collection here.
On the more musically primitive side, UK writer/broadcaster Jon Savage, has chosen 26 raw and sweaty Cali thrashers for Black Hole Californian Punk 1977-1980 (Domino). And yes, the gang's all here: the Dils, The Dead Kennedys, The Avengers, The Screamers, X, The Zeros, The Weirdos...can we stop now? We respect Mr. Savage for being author of the best Sex Pistols bio ever written (England's Dreaming...roit!?) AND sometimes we need to rely of some John Bulls over the pond to remind us sun-dizzy Californians of our own rich music history AND we realize we haven't even heard the comp yet (it's out 11/11/10), but we're already wishing for a second volume because "Forming" and "We're Desperate" seem a little rote. For more info on the collection, check out this short piece from Fact magazine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

LIVE REVIEW: …For The Love of Don Preston: A Tribute Concert (South Pasadena Music Conservatory, Los Angeles, 9/11/2010)

Can’t think of a better date to have a BIRTHday celebration on what’s become the American Day of the Dead. Don Preston’s real birthday isn’t until 9/21, but Walter Zooi of the South Pasadena Music Center decided to have this tip o’ the hat to one of the few remaining original members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. (They’re becoming like WWI survivors.) Mr. Preston, of course, is so much more than just his affiliation with that gang of monster cross-dressing players: a perpetual self-educator who, as friend/colleague Alex Cline noted in a moving verbal tribute Saturday night, “always manages to stay up on his game in current music and technology.” This reminded us of a time last February when we saw Mr. P preside over an impossibly abstract concerto of electronic squiggles from various laptops while percussionist Andrea Centazzo closed in for the mind-meld.

Don Preston (left) f*cks sh*t up with Andrea Centazzo (Feb. 2010)

Whether it be classical, jazz, electronic music, new music, rock music, the man’s talent is simply, as pianist Ben Rosenbloom put it, “protean – able to take on different forms.” The point was punctuated by the art hanging just across the street at the funky new SPACE gallery…by Don Preston! Or the booklets of stories and poems sitting by the SPMC’s entrance…whoa and behold, by Don Preston! Or the jagged, experimental film playing onstage before the concert…

The Ugliest Band in the World: Don Preston (top, second to left) with the original Mothers

The 3 hour concert featured just as many verbal memories as musical odes, mainly from letters read from friends who couldn’t be here (like Preston's Project/Object bandmate Robbie “Sea Hag” Mangano) and MP3’ed shout-outs (like a hilarious greeting from Preston’s fellow Mother Roy Estrada, who sounded happily stoned). Zooi started the evening off with a story who’s gist basically described Don Preston’s slow, creeping takeover of the South Pasadena Music Center, first offering to teach, then offering to curate an adventurous music series that has become a new haven for L.A’s perpetually-struggling new music scene, and lastly, physically putting up curtains behind the stage so the polished brick-and-exposed-duct space wouldn’t look so much like a cavernous barn. The 78-year-old Preston, clad in his usual flowing silken robe and tunic, introduced himself by getting purposefully caught in the curtains before playing three separate piano pieces from three successive generations of the Preston family: an autumnal parlour reel written by his grandmother; a florid orchestral tune by his father, Don Sr.; and a piece that incorporated both those styles with jarring blops of abstract-impressionist paints all over the keyboard from Don, Jr. It was a remarkable lesson in musical genes. One could almost hear a “Preston Family Style” emerging, sounding like music to accompany nonexistent silent films, with abrupt but seamless shifts in mood and narrative underscored by doses of lyricism.

(Grand)mothers Bunk Gardner & Don Preston smell their instruments

Zooi stepped aside to let percussionist Christopher Garcia become the de facto Master of Ceremonies, who peppered the evening with many “Don Stories” that testified to the man’s restless musical spirit as much as his terrible memory. “I didn’t know this was gonna be a roast!” Preston called out from his pimp-seat in the front row (next to his ex-wife Tina). Vinny Golia answered from the stage, “Seventy-seven years old and the guy is still naïve!” before bringing up elder paterfamilias Bobby Bradford for a testy anti-duet the two dubbed “Sergeant Preston.” Before they played, Bradford told a short-but-suite Don Story from the days when they used to play avant-garde jazz together in SoCal penitentiaries: “In Chino prison, they guys in there, all they wanted to do was get out. Well, Don is the only guy I ever knew who they wouldn’t let in.”

Pianist Ben Dowling took the stage with bassist Putter Smith and drummer Alex Cline for an old school bebop tune “Stella by Starlight” featuring the ghostly wrists of Mr. Cline, whose wire brush strokes sounded like breathing, and the hard Irish knuckles of Mr. Smith, whose solo turned his head beet red and shifted the song into different time signatures at least twice. If that wasn’t enough, a beaming, obviously pleased-to-be-here Smith stepped up to the mike with memories of playing Chavez Ravine and an old L.A. dump called Via Frescate with Preston and Paul and Carla Bley, making a bold statement by deeming his old friend “the most talented person I have ever known.”

Even though Preston is primarily a pianist, the night seemed dominated by percussionists (at least three separate drum kits were set up onstage). Next up was a trio of Brad Dutz (drums), Tom Rizzo (guitar) and Bevan Manson (piano), who performed a percussive improv. Then came violinist Harry Scorzo with Ken Rosser (guitar), Putter Smith, Alex Cline and a just-added Michael Pierre Vlatkovich, whose unmiked trombone runs threatened to blast the other musicians out of earshot. Then Mr. Preston returned to demonstrate three different magic tricks which he used to do onstage with the Mothers, before inviting fellow Mother Bunk Gardner onstage for a few duets. Pianist Ben Rosenboom offered a rambling homage before sitting down to perform a Prestonian song he called “Thelonious Monk Meets P.T. Barnum and They Go Have a Hot Dog Together.” Alex Cline recalled the glorious debacle that was a 1970 show pitting the Mothers of Invention versus the L.A. Philharmonic and the experience of going to the Whisky to see Preston’s group Ogomoto open for George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Cline offered an Eastern-flavored solo percussion piece before bringing up Chris Garcia for an amazing “singalong” drum duet on Zappa's “Uncle Meat” and “Mother People.” Harry Scorzo returned with Mike Vlatkovich for a run through Preston’s metrically and emotionally difficult “Dead Children,” which prompted Scorzo to just hang his head and ask its composer from the stage: “Don, seriously why did you name it that?” Preston jogged back to the mike to explain that the song was written after a rash of local children were killed in drive-by shootings and was meant to "express my anger about it. I mean, get angry, people!”

Friday, September 10, 2010

ST. ELMO’S FRIDAY, PT. II: A Girl, A Bellboy, A Hotel & An Attempted Suicide

The roots of S.E.F. began in the Summer of 1980 and involved – big surprise – a boy pining for a girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. Carl Kurlander was a twenty-year-old student at Duke University who was working a summer job at the St. Elmo Hotel in Chautauqua, a bucolic resort town in the southeastern corner of New York state. Carl developed a mad crush on young Lynn Sniderman, a waitress at the hotel. “We would get grape sodas together,” Carl later recalled wistfully to an interviewer. “I’d lend her my sweaters during thunderstorms.” As such summer crushes usually go, Lynn didn’t feel the same way for the nerdy young bellhop. That fall, the heartbroken Carl returned to Duke and decided – with the encouragement of his English/Creative Writing professor, who suggested the “St. Elmo’s Fire” metaphor and title –– to compose a short story so beautifully written that Miss Sniderman would have no choice but to fall in love with him. She didn’t. A rejected Carl tried to kill himself in his dorm room by opening all the windows and freezing to death — unfortunately, he tried to do this in Durham, North Carolina.

Carl Kurlander

Cut to 1982: young Carl, heartbroken but all the wiser for it, wins a MCA-Universal Studios Scholar Award and decamps for the bright lights of Los Angeles. There he endures more punishment as the intern/lackey for Thom Mount and Bruce Berman, Universal’s then-heads of production. His many duties included the all-important film industry practice of getting food for production meetings. Someone at one of these important meetings requested a bowl of gazpacho with no croutons or sour cream and a chopped egg on the side. This man was a fledgling film director in his early 40s named Joel Schumacher.

Schumacher was a true American mutt: he was the son of a Jewish-Swedish mother and a Baptist preacher from Tennessee. After attending two prestigious fashion institutes in New York City, Schumacher also escaped to Los Angeles and became a costume designer – most notably for Woody Allen’s futuristic farce Sleeper (1973) – while nursing designs on the director’s chair. His next move up the ladder was for screenwriting, and he landed improbable writing jobs for two “urban” films of the late 70s: Car Wash (1976) and The Wiz (1978). His first directorial feature was the berserk anti-consumer fantasia The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) starring Lily Tomlin, who later complained that the openly gay Schumacher “made the whole [film] look like Necco wafers” while at the same time praising his “casually debonair handsomeness of a male model and an impeccable fashion sense.” With those backhanded compliments, Ms. Tomlin summed up the attractions/repulsions of watching a Joel Schumacher film.

Joel Schumacher, sweating profusely

Schumacher’s second directorial effort was D.C. Cab (dream cast: Mr. T, Gary Busey, "Wojo" from Barney Miller), an attempt to replant the success of Car Wash to a wacky taxi company in our nation’s capital. As the legend goes, Schumacher was filming around Georgetown University when he began to notice the new crop of university grads and how they managed to be both distinctive to their time and perennial in their struggles. “It was yuppie madness,” Schumacher told writer Susanna Gora. “Georgetown seemed to me like an entire town of these upwardly mobile young people with these university educations, and it was the period of time where you were coming out of college, and you had to already be recruited by some company and have a twenty-five year plan; you were wearing very expensive clothes, you were sort of pretending to be an adult.”

By this time, young intern Carl had eked out a spec script for Thom Mount based on his short story about the St. Elmo hotel and had acquired a literary agent. Kurland recalled to interviewer Clint Morris: “I was on the Universal lot and the production coordinator Mary Courtney Edwards invited me to see ‘dailies.’ I asked her if it would be all right, and she said sure, the director was a sweetheart. Well, the lights came up after dailies and Joel looked over at me and curtly asked who I was - I was nervous as hell and said, "I'm Carl, I got you gazpacho, no sour cream, no croutons, and chopped egg on the side a year ago." Joel laughed and had me get him a Perrier, lemon, no ice."

Hired as Schumacher’s assistant for D.C. Cab, Kurlander and the director began a running dialogue about recent college grads facing the uncertainties of the 1980s. “Joel kept telling me that it was not just ‘my generation,’” Kurlander recalled in a recent interview. “But every generation which goes through this – the ‘this’ being that these feelings in your twenties about whether you can actually become a ‘real person’ with your first job, your first apartment, your first real love.” Under Schumacher’s tutelage Kurlander wrote feverishly all during March 1984, leaving the finished pages on the wetbar of Schumacher’s office in the morning, which Schumacher would then edit/add/rewrite. “The whole script was written very quickly, but we re-wrote many things, even on the set,” Kurlander told Clint Morris. “So in the end, I consider the characters in the movie to be a product of both Joel and I and our friendship.”

When the script was completed, it was rejected almost every major studio in Hollyweird. Then it was picked up by Columbia Pictures, who was eager to cash in on the success of Universal’s The Breakfast Club, which was filming while the St. Elmo script was being conceived. Equally prescient was Columbia’s confusion over what exactly the “St. Elmo’s Fire” title meant. “The studio said, ‘We can't call it St. Elmo’s Fire. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't have anything to do with the movie’,” The film’s producer Lauren Shular Donner told writer Kenneth Plume in 2000. “We said, ‘You come up with a better title” and nobody could come up with a better title, so we stuck with it.” The first table read of the script was on October 1, 1984 in Burbank. Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez were all veterans of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club (where, amusingly enough, they played high school students) and Sheedy and Rob Lowe had appeared in the college rom-com Oxford Blues, Kurlander described this first meeting of the young minds that would soon be labeled the Brat Pack as “guarded.”

Let’s get to our first tantalizing images of what would come to be called “the quintessential Brat Pack film.”

Movie Poster.* A sepia-toned perp line of smug and lily-white college kids staring glumly out from the bench in front of the fictional St. Elmo’s Bar in D.C.’s Georgetown, feet splayed out in front of them like some half-assed Abercrombie & Fitch kickline. The shot is one of those harbingers of “instant nostalgia”: what you see hasn’t even happened yet, and we’re already looking back at it.
*The movie poster was a “happy accident.’ Our seven heroes were all just sitting on a bench and kicking back between scenes when producer Lauren Schuler Donner said, “Shoot that!” Note Emilio sitting next to Demi: they will later hook up on-set and become each other’s “first loves”

St. Elmo’s Fire Original Theatrical Trailer (1985)

Since the first few moments of the trailer contains one of the most famous movie instrumentals of all time – David Foster’s quasi-classical “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire”* – it is pertinent to pause and acknowledge the cultural distinctions of soundtracks to movies of the 1980s. Music played as important role (if not more important) than the actual script. Smack dab in the middle of the decade, “Mall Music” was at its apex, a pleasantly nonthreatening cocoon of repetition, a pulsating and debased quasi-American Graffiti soundtrack (but without the silk-gloved curatorial care of that record) that assaulted one’s ears as you walked through the brain-frying neon signs and caramel candy-smelling world of the American mall experience. (Roger Ebert once referred to malls as “hypnotic temples of consumer spending.”) The music of the 80s was the music of consumerism, selling you a bill of goods without you even knowing it. So, cruising to the mall all jammed into your friend’s tiny Honda Civic, you’d be stuffed with vapid ballads: “Careless Whisper” into "I Want To Know What Love Is" into “One More Night” into “Say You, Say Me.” You’d hate it, but what was the alternative? Bob Seger and Led Zeppelin oldies? NPR? If your cheap-o red plastic radio couldn’t get XRT from Chicago, you were fucked—and stuck with a mall intercom that spooned “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and “Sussudio” and “We Built This City” up your arse until you were forced to buy clothes and CDs and perfumes and video games to relieve the massive pressure on your cranial/intestinal walls. According to a YouTube comment by ‘nickystartup’: “The only thing worse than 80s music was the movies they shilled for.”

Is it any wonder that most malls were in a wallet-toss from or outright connected to a local cinema? Is it any wonder that 1985 was the zenith of movie soundtracks*? There was: Simple Minds’ “Don't You (Forget About Me)” (The Breakfast Club), Huey Lewis & the News’ “The Power of Love” (Back to the Future), Madonna’s “Crazy for You” (Vision Quest), Cyndi Lauper's "The Goonies R Good Enough" (The Goonies), Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill,” Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives” and Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me” (White Nights), Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (The Ballad of Billie Jean), DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” (Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon) and, of course, John Parr’s monumental “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion).”
*I once knew a guy who lived two doors down from me in my college dorm who was a total asshole for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the wind would come through my room and slam my door shut, and he would appear instantly at my door to admonish me in the most uptight-yuppie-wannabe attitude I have ever experienced. Apparently, he was a noise pollution freakazoid. A real tightass just waiting to be let onto the corporate job market so he could fuck people over and declare himself a “player.” Other times, I’d be playing my stereo at an agreeable level and I’d feel a presence behind me, turn around, and see that he walked into my room without knocking and was standing over me with his arms folded, dressing me down yet again for my noise infractions. Yet, at the same time, he would blast his stereo with the door open at least twice a day; the music he played was so strange that when I went to complain about his aural hypocrisies, I caught a glimpse of his CD collection and realized why: ALL 80s movie soundtracks! And not even good ones! Halloween II?! Best Defense?! Red Dawn?! Rhinestone?? Blue Thunder? Christine?! Crocodile Dundee?! Howard the Duck?! It was the most classless, arid, emotionally frigid CD collection I have ever seen, the soundtrack to a man who has no soul, music for standing in your crisp white dress shirt power tie and power suspenders, staring out at the magenta sunset cradling a square tumbler of cognac, utterly and completely alone. I have since dubbed this chap “80’s Guy” because the whole decade was all there in one nasty little package. It also explains my being allergic to film soundtracks to this day.

In fact, the week in June that S.E.F. premiered, "Heaven" by Bryan Adams was the Number One song in the nation and even that was reheated food from a movie made two years previous: the unintentionally hilarious proto-cougar flick A Night in Heaven (“Will One Forbidden Night Change Both Their Lives Forever?”). Even songs that weren’t “movies” per se had attendant MTV videos that played like miniature movies with cinematic grandeur imprinted in their DNA (oops, sorry, VMA). It was a thoroughly insidious web of consumption: the videos were cut from the movies, which made you want to see the movie, which made you want to buy the soundtrack album, which made you want to maybe buy some of the clothes worn by the movie characters/rock stars. It was relentless and seductive and an utter drain on your teenage wallet. We didn’t figure out we had been taken until years later, in our Introduction to Marxism 101 classes. And oh were we pissed…

TUNE IN NEXT FRIDAY: We’ll get to the film, WE PROMISE.