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Archive for the ‘Music in Film’ Category


I would have to characterize this as one of the most truly bizarre spectacles ever to grace an entertainment venue. Especially one as grand as the Royal Albert Hall. It was inspired by Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I like the song about the Romans, and the singer with the gap between his teeth. And the bagpipe procession. And the part about the sheep. And the love scene is particularly enticing. And the soaring “Find Your Dreams.” And of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” And the bonus lumberjack and Mounties.

There must be 400 musicians and vocalists, giving the silliness full-scale operatic treatment. Among the cast: Mrs. Betty Palin, who alludes briefly to her time in Alaska giving birth to a governor, and Biggus Dickus makes a cameo appearance.

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The name by which I first knew this film isn’t what appears on the picture above. But it’s the same. Actually, it’s been known by several titles:

Tabor ukhodit v nebo (the approximate Russian)
Gypsies are Found Near Heaven
Queen of the Gypsies
Gypsy Queen
Gypsy Camp Vanishes into Thin Air
Gypsy Camp Vanishes Into the Heaven
Gypsy camp vanishes into the blue
Gypsies Go to Heaven

I saw The Gypsy Camp at the Fox Venice Theater, so it was in the late ’70s or early ’80s. My first thought was, “I can’t live without this music.” But of course it was not available. Movies on videotape were possessed only by people who owned editing studios. And it was made in Russia.

Years later, when VCRs got popular, I even wrote to the Russian embassy to see if they could help me get a copy of the film, or at least of the soundtrack. No luck. And after a whole lot more time, when I finally got online (years later than most of my contemporaries), I searched for The Gypsy Camp, but no luck then either.
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Finally I found a press release about how hundreds of Russian films were scheduled to be released on portable media. They were gradually being converted, one by one, and according to the schedule, the one I wanted would be released in a couple of years, in the summer of 2004. But then when I checked again in the fall of 2004, it wasn’t available yet.

When it finally came out, the only source was a pretty dicey-looking outfit that I didn’t want to give my credit card number to. Eventually, it showed up on eBay, but only on DVD, which I didn’t have the technology for, but I bought it anyway, figuring I’d go over to a friend’s house and watch it. Months went by and it never seemed to be the right time for that. Then one day my housemate brought in a DVD player

So finally, I watched The Gypsy Camp again, and yes, you can repeat a peak experience. It is so damn gorgeous to look at and the music is deliriously wonderful – it’s every bit as good as I remembered it being 25 years ago or more. Just fabulous.

Of course there are plenty of parallels between Gypsies and the homeless folk and vehicle dwellers I knew from Venice Beach. They only own what they can carry, the food supply is undependable, they have to deal with the weather as best they can, and put up with criminals in their midst. And of course they can be killed with impunity. The way the soldiers in the movie treat the Gypsies could be a template for the LAPD and their ilk, in their treatment of the homeless. Go in and bust up their shelters, throw their bedding and other possessions in a pile and burn everything, put pressure on everybody in the whole group so they will betray anyone the authorities are looking for, make them keep moving, provide no public toilets and then bust them for pissing in the alley, provide no washing facilities and then tell them they stink, and on and on.

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A Staggering Work of Smart Humor, Yet Serious as a Heart Attack

Rev. Billy is an activist preacher whose road show choir sings out in protest against the commercialization of Christmas. They do performance art, infiltrating Times Square or the Mall of America, where they prophesy the Shopocalypse. Finally the holy flash-mob winds up at Disneyland, home of the Antichrist, aka Mickey Mouse.

The average American spends 5 hours a week shopping, so some poor bastard is out there shopping 9 hours a week to make up for me. Some people are clinically addicted to shopping. (One such addict calls herself a shopping bulimic, always buying a mountain of stuff she can’t afford and then returning it.)

The action is interspersed with interviews with real people, and Python-esque animations, one with a sound effect that is somewhere between a Latin liturgical chant and an auctioneer’s spiel. Sometimes Rev. Billy gets arrested. And when the Stop Shopping Choir goes caroling, look out!

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Burn After Reading

It’s wicked funny. It’s smart funny. Frances McDormand is in it. John Malkovich’s part was written for him, so what does that tell you? This is a gem.

Malkovich plays Ozzie Cox, who gets fired from the CIA. His boss says he has a drinking problem, but that’s not true. We see him scrupulously waiting till 5:00 to pour. I love to see a weathered, bald guy trying to explain to his father why he “quit” his job to write his memoirs. Especially when the ancient dad is incapable of speech anyway.

McDormand is Linda, who wants to have 4 different plastic surgery procedures so badly, she’ll do anything. Everybody’s having affairs with everybody else. I love the way Harry’s wife snarls, “Honey!” I love Tilda Swinton as a sadistic pediatrician.

The big surprise is how goddam funny Brad Pitt is. When he’s talking with his blackmail target, his attempt to look hard and evil is wonderful. The filmmakers say that in this work, Pitt has “embraced his inner knucklehead.”

The score is great, just on the edge of parodying the suspense genre. Carter Burwell wrote it and, as Ethan Coen told an interviewer, “his soundtrack fits the movie the characters think they are in, rather than the actual film we are watching.”

Here’s what they mean when they say, if you’re writing a screenplay, show it, don’t tell it. Linda goes to a movie with a guy who doesn’t laugh at the part she thinks is hysterical. When another guy invites her to the same movie, she pretends not to have seen it. They both laugh at the part she thinks is hysterical. It’s love! And when he takes her home and shows her his new invention, she doesn’t freak out. The invention alone is worth the price of admission.

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The Business of Fancydancing

You want to know what chanting and ceremony are all about? Here it is. Plenty of fusion-style music too. The sound track is great. The screenplay is by poet Sherman Alexie, whose fictional stand-in is a gay Indian poet called Seymour Polatkin. The film opens with the poet reading from his work to, apparently, no audience. He’s behind a store window, so there is a glass wall between him and the people, who blithely walk by. Which is how any artist feels, at least part of the time. We see some of the reviews he has received, e.g. “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.”

An eternal problem for the screenwriter is how to cram in all that exposition, the necessary minimum of information the viewer of this fiction really needs to know about the characters and how they got there, and where they are, and what year it is, and so on. I like how the back-story is presented here. The poet is looking at himself in a mirror, dressing for an event. Another man is in the room, standing behind Polatkin, and what he says reveals part of the back-story.

His name is Steven, and his life has been deeply affected by the poet’s work. “You wrote the poems that keep me awake,” he says. Steven recites one of the poems. What a nice, personal, loving tribute for a friend to offer. This is a father poem, and Steven confesses that he had not talked to his father for many years. “When I read your poem I picked up the phone and I called him.”

We can tell these two guys are friends, and before long it’s evident they are lovers and partners. We also learn more about the poet and his past through his public appearances. He tells a bookstore audience how he emerged from the closet and told his grandmother he was a two-spirited gay man.

Polatkin also frequents another venue, a disco where the dancers are all different kinds of people who probably wouldn’t be found together. I’m reading this as Seymour Polatkin’s subconscious, inhabited by all the people he knows from his different worlds.

That is the essence of the poet’s problem. He belongs to many cultures, and some people tell him that is the equivalent of belonging to no culture. But Polatkin isn’t buying it. Which is what makes him a poet. He talks it all out with a TV journalist, on an eerily empty stage where the two of them regard each other intensely and engage in verbal fencing matches. The Interviewer is his anima, his conscience, his guardian angel who practices tough love, an alternate personality, or some amalgam of those entities and more. It’s a very effective cinematic device to handle introspection.

On the rez, a man called Mouse has committed suicide. He was a genius violinist and a general hell-raiser. In a flashback, Mouse bitches about how Seymour Polatkin stole pieces of his life and used them in poems as if they were his own. Even though Mouse is a gifted musician, he doesn’t understand how art functions, probably not even his own. The person Mouse complains to is Aristotle. They all grew up together, and were partners in petty crime, and so on. Another flashback shows their degenerate drug habits. These rez kids huff gasoline and gases from spray cans. This film is just wonderful for finding ways to visually and aurally express thoughts and emotions. For instance, we know that Mouse understood Aristotle, whose spirit inspired some of his finest music. We aren’t told this, we see and hear it.

At a poetry reading, Seymour reads a piece about selling his blood for money to travel to Mouse’s memorial. He sees the apparition of Mouse sitting in the audience, looking real as anybody, judging the poem.

Seymour Polatkin makes it to the memorial. The 13th Step is the rez community center, its interior walls painted in vibrant colors, not bland Caucasian eggshell. Agnes is there. She’s half Jewish and half Indian. They met in college and had an affair, then Seymour told her he was gay, and switched over to men. He didn’t plan to ever go back to the reservation, but Agnes decided to move there, and teach music. She more or less accuses him of being a race traitor, but their relationship still appears to be about 90% good. They love each other in a highly individual way, and she always stoutly defends him to the others who say he’s sold out, etc.

Seymour and Aristotle started college at the same time, but Aristotle just couldn’t take it. There is a very affectionate scene between the two of them, which may be a fantasy. If nothing like this ever happened, the poet certainly wanted it to happen. Anyway, for Aristotle, the price to live in the white man’s world was just too high, and he dropped out. Even though he was, as a school official condescendingly said, “one of the bright ones.”

And Seymour, despite being both Indian and gay, preferred to take his chances in the larger world. He never did understand Aristotle going back to the stifling prison of the rez. The Interviewer also asks Aristotle many questions – which I read as Seymour’s efforts to understand his friend – but Aristotle stoically refuses to say a word. He just sits there, and finally gives a warrior yell.

At the memorial, Seymour stands up in front of the people as if to say something. He stoically remains silent, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer. But inside he’s screaming, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer and the bureaucrat. He walks out of the communal hall and leaves the reservation.

In the last song, the music teacher expresses her sadness for the sadness of the poet.

Extra bonus: Two “Northern Exposure” actors are in The Business of Fancydancing.

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Under the opening credits, scenes of New York in 1920s or ’30s. Black and white newsreels of a big celebration – the end of World War II? Anyway, it’s sometime in the first half of the 20th century. And we’re lucky it doesn’t start with scenes of Morocco, which probably looks pretty much the same now as it did then. So that would be really confusing.

A young couple, Kit and Port, travel with a friend. On their foreign-shores arrival, Port defines the difference between a tourist and a traveler. Kit tells their friend Tunner, “I’m half and half.” It’s a clue that she is already half inclined to get a new life. In her luggage we glimpse a copy of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood – So it’s 1936 at the earliest, and the book is a nice period touch -just what this character would be reading. Did I mention that Kit is played by Debra Winger? And Port is John Malkovich. How often are two of my personal idols in one movie? Not very.

Paul Bowles, who wrote the original story, is narrator, though thank Goddess there are only a couple of lines of narration. He’s this dapper old dude hanging around the Grand Hotel and watching the couple, Porter and Kit, interact, and the third guy travelling with them, as if they were his own private soap opera. The Bowles character is interesting. If this story is anything like his real life, it exactly expresses how he would be looking back, as an old man, at his younger self. Or you could make a case that he’s the Witness, the part of one’s self that always stands back and watches.

In the café, Tunner carries on like a picky tourist just because there are “corpses” (bugs) in the soup. Kit and Port slurp their soup in unison and with enthusiasm, making their friend feel like an outsider. But when he leaves in a huff, they admit to each other how lousy the food is. Couples do this. They exclude others, but they also bring others into their relationship and use them as pawns, or retaliation tools, or jealousy goads, or whatever. This is primarily a relationship movie, and it depicts faithfully the couple dynamic, the games played, the underlying loyalty and solidarity.

In the hotel where they all stay, Kit and Port have separate rooms. But when Tunner quizzes her about it, she says it’s not good to confuse sex with sleep. This is a woman after my own heart. Later, Kit rather pointedly shuts Port out of her room. But the next day, she invites him to rub her tummy. But they don’t make love, apparently. They seem to have a complicated thing going on.

Then, she doesn’t want to go for a walk with her husband. Port goes off on his own and finds beautiful scenery, overlooking a lower place. You can tell he’s bitter that Kit is not there to share it. He lets a man lead him to a courtesan. To reach her, they have to climb down a ladder to a valley where the fires of many encampments burn. It’s like descending into hell, in a symbolic kind of way. Port learns from experience that, unlike his native land, in this country the courtesans kiss. A lot. At least, this one does. She also steals his wallet, but he knows, and gets it back. Instead of just leaving quietly, he flaunts the fact that she didn’t succeed in ripping him off. To her way of thinking, however, it’s the foreign visitor who stole something from her, by daring to recover his own property. She ululates an alarm, the men come running, and there is a desperate pursuit.

Tunner peeks into Kit’s room, and into Port’s room. He knows Port hasn’t been back all night, but Kit rumples up his bed and tells a lie, she says Port already got up and went out. But then Port returns from his wild adventure, and there’s his wife and their friend, in his room, with the bed messed up. Naturally, he suspects a dalliance. Kit takes out her bad temper on Tunner. “Stop trying to be interesting. On you it looks terrible”

Kit and Port go off on long bike ride, and end up on vertiginous overlook. They make love, but then he starts talking while they’re doing it, and apparently they talk too much, I think we’re supposed to conclude that he loses his erection, and Kit is obviously frustrated.

In town, a funeral procession goes by, with the deceased carried on a litter at shoulder height by several people in a way that is businesslike, not at all dignified or stately. They move so briskly, the corpse bounces around.

Port asks Kit “Could you be happy here?” Talk about foreshadowing! They talk about the fact that they’ve been married seven years, which Port doesn’t think is a long time. “We will stay in El Gaa” is another prophetic utterance.

Tunner intends to follow them to El Gaa but actually, he and Kit have gotten together by now, and Port wants to keep them apart, so he and his wife move on to another town. Port is desperate to find transportation, but a clerk tells him it’s impossible. From a handful of currency, he flings bill after bill at the man in negligent flicking way, then grabs the front of the guy’s clothes. Having seen the money and the violence, the clerk asks “American?”

Port falls ill, and Kit goes off to look for the hotel, probably hoping someone will come back and help her carry him. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who play their curative music over him. He intuits that the music is beneficial, and beckons them closer. Kit comes back, finds Port on the ground in the midst of all this, and tells the shamans/musicians to stop. But Port flings more money, and they start playing again.

After some horrible days in a bare room, Port dies. Kit flags down a passing caravan, and is appropriated by a desert sheik who takes her home to be one of his paramours, and there’s a very exotic love scene. But then the other wives and the rest of the people in the settlement drive her away.

Tunner is still hanging around in the couple’s last known location, where he’s been waiting for three months to hear something. He seems to have gone somewhat native. He’s wearing baggy pants, anyway.

Rejected by the locals, Kit tries to steal or buy some soup in the marketplace, but she’s not allowed to do either. The people set upon her. Next, we see her in a hospital. Her hands and feet are covered with either henna designs or tattoos. A Red Cross woman takes her away in a car. They arrive at Tunner’s hotel, and the Red Cross woman leaves Kit alone while she goes to find him, but when they come back Kit is gone. She wanders around and winds up back up in the same place where the Paul Bowles character is still hanging out in the dining room. Then he does some voiceover philosophizing about how we think we have forever, but we don’t, and how the number of times when we will do the things we love are finite.

This movie has a great look, especially the window treatments in that part of the world. I forgot to check the credits to see who was the fly wrangler. A lot of flies were around when Port was deathly sick. Are they real flies? Or added by digital magic? Here’s my last question. If black absorbs heat, and the body loses 80 percent of its heat through the scalp, why in this scorching desert climate do people enclose their heads in cloth that appears to be treated with tar? Is it tar? Don’t their brains bake? Why not, at least, wrap up in white cloth, to reflect some of the heat? Or why not just go bare-headed, and take advantage of the natural air-conditioning properties of hair? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these people know what they’re doing. They’ve had centuries in which to perfect their ergonomic relationship with the climate. I’m just wondering how this seemingly counter-intuitive solution works in practical terms, that’s all.

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

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bad-timing

Under the credits, a man and a woman wander through a museum in Vienna, comporting themselves like lovers. We get close-up views of luscious romantic Klimt paintings and then – a Schiele canvas, in which a man desperately holds onto a woman who looks very much like she wants to get away.

He is American research psychologist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and she’s an American too, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), who comes and goes across Austria’s border and has a husband over there in Czechoslovakia. Russell is beyond superb. While directing the movie, Nicholas Roeg fell in love with her, and you can sorta tell from the way the whole thing is a showcase to display her. She deserves it. (They got married, had a couple of kids, and divorced.) Her eyes seem to change color in different scenes – there’s one in particular where they are the palest icy blue, yet seem a minute later to be dark.

The first question you have to ask about Milena is, what does she live on? When she moves, she only takes along one small bag. Yet she has fabulous clothes and an apartment full of stuff. Is she a trust fund baby, or does she hold onto the Czech husband because he’s rich, or what? There’s no indication of her ever doing any kind of work. She can get away with being drunk, having irresponsible, impulsive adventures, and so forth. Her source of income isn’t relevant to the plot, but geez.

Along with his research and teaching, Alex Linden does occasional jobs for the US intelligence services. For instance, a spook hands him two files, and tells him to find out if either of the subjects “sniffs cocaine or plays with little girls or boys.” Linden, who should know better, is a poor security risk. He brings files home. He brings home a file on Milena’s husband, which includes her photo and biographical information.

We learn the story of Milena and Linden in flashbacks. In fact there’s probably more cutting back and forth in time than in any movie ever made. It’s pretty disorienting. So go ahead and watch it twice.

In the present, an ambulance takes the overdosed Milena to the hospital. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) extracts the story from Linden. Milena had called him up and said “I’ll be dead in a minute, I wanted to say goodbye” and of course he went right over. It was no big deal, she’d overdosed before. Linden paints her as a wild woman who denies herself nothing, a woman to whom something dreadful was bound to happen sooner or later.

But the inspector sees a few discrepancies. Linden says he talked on the phone with Milena long after she would have already been comatose. And his car radio is tuned to a station that doesn’t start broadcasting until midnight. And so on. In other words, Netusil suspects exactly what happened. Far from rushing to Milena’s side and summoning help immediately, Linden waited to make sure she would die, and “ravished” her in the meantime.

We see how it went down. When Linden first arrived, Milena was still semi-coherent. Collapsed on the floor, with almost no motor skills left, she managed to get the telephone. Linden pulled the jack from the wall and replaced it later, after it was too late. Looking around the apartment, Netusil somehow intuits all of this. He even seems to have psychic visions that tell him what happened.

Linden puts Milena on her bed, saying “We don’t need anybody else. Just you and me.” While waiting for her to die, “It’s better this way, believe me, there was no other way.” After pacing around for a while, he cuts her clothes off and rapes her inert body, saying “I love you.”

At the beginning of their affair, Milena had pursued Alex, who hung back at first. We see them in happier times. He reads to her from the poetry of William Blake, the verse

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. *

A scene where Milena’s in bed with her husband implies that she isn’t getting sexual satisfaction from him, although that’s not the only reason she goes out in search of adventure. He’s 30 years older, for one thing. Once when Milena goes missing for a week, Linden calls her husband, who is bored, dismissive, and contemptuous of this weak American, who can’t muster the necessary intestinal fortitude to deal with such a woman. The husband tells Linden that a man has to love Milena even more than his own dignity. And, as Linden learns, more than he loves being told the truth. She persists in lying about her marital status, and Linden crosses over to Czechoslovakia and bothers some hostile bureaucrats to try and find out if she’s divorced or what.

Linden wants Milena to move in with him, he wants her to return to the States with him and marry him. We sit in on one of his lectures, where he speaks to the students about how we are all spies. He knows all about this, because he spies on Milena a lot, and suffers terribly from jealousy, while she relates to a lot of different men.

But that’s not all. She does heedless things, like burn his car’s upholstery with a cigarette. She can be an embarrassing drunk. In one horrendous scene she’s invited him over. Her place cleaned up as if by the world’s most dedicated housewife, and she’s wearing some kind of mock-sexy outfit and enough makeup to turn her from a flashy woman into a grotesque clown. She’s changed herself into what he seems to want her to be. He leaves, and from the balcony she hurls bottles into the street, yelling at him so the whole neighborhood is disturbed.

Soon their discourse is reduced to “What?” and “Why?” as brilliantly encapsulated in one scene. He wants to possess Milena, who can’t be possessed. “You don’t own me. I don’t own you,” she says. She enumerates some of her priorities – to get up when she wants to get up, and eat when she wants to eat, and not to be with people she doesn’t like. (These are core values I recognize, and I don’t think a person who holds them is necessarily a monster of selfishness.) They have a terrible argument on the stairs and she declares, “I just want to be allowed to give where I can – what I can – to who I can.” What she most likes to give, and there’s nothing wrong with this, either, are the Lineaments of Gratified Desire.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting to emphasize the twinship of sex and death. From Milena’s orgasm to her convulsions on the emergency room operating table. From the couple having sex, to the doctor spreading her legs and going in with a speculum to look for rape evidence. From Milena’s head hanging over the edge of the bed during sex, to the doctors doing the tracheotomy.

With unflagging persistence, the inspector interrogates Linden. He’s fully tuned in to the atmosphere of claustrophobic obsession and sexual pessimism reminiscent of certain Leonard Cohen lyrics. The intuitive genius detective is the role Harvey Keitel was born for, and this isn’t the first time he’s filled it, or the last. Anyway, he’s just about gotten Linden to confess when Milena’s husband appears at the door. More bad timing. She’s alive, and will recover.

I like how the art references in the film hang together. For instance, we see Milena reading The Sheltering Sky, and later we see her with Linden on vacation in Morocco, which apparently was their last happy time. This is where he made the mistake of talking about marriage, which left her completely unimpressed. As he waits for her to die, he plays a record of Moroccan music instantly recognizable as the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Which is ironic, because this is supposed to be healing music. Maybe that’s why Milena survives the drug-induced coma. You’d think the professor would be smart enough not to play the wrong kind of music to die by.

So Linden gets away with attempted murder, and loses Milena of course. There’s a flash-forward to a future scene, when they’re both back in their own country. She gets out of a cab, he gets into a cab. He had asked her to return to the States with him, as his wife. Instead, their only meeting is accidental and brief, and she looks at him with hatred.

*These lines, incidentally also figure in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the characters initials (like the author’s) are LGD (for Lineaments of Gratified Desire, of course.)

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