September 29, 2010

Ten Albums

A list of my top ten favorite albums of all time:

1. Maid in England, Divine – The best collection of Divine’s songs, including previously hard-to-find tracks like “Twistin' the Night Away”, “Little Baby” and rare B-sides like “Show Me Around” and “Give It Up”. My favorite Divine song of all time is here, “Hard Magic”, which perfectly captured the spirit of Divine with its silly jungle-themed beat and growling lyrics. Check out the video for “Hard Magic”, it can be found pretty much anywhere online. Goofy, catchy and a lot of fun.

2. Music Composed And Performed By Goblin: Their Rare Tracks & Outtakes Collection, 1975-1989, Goblin – My favorite compilation from Goblin, the prog-rock, synthesizer masters who became famous thanks to their contributions to the soundtracks for Dario Argento’s Deep Red and Suspiria as well as George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Often super-charged and kinetic, but also possessing the ability to be slow, atmospheric and moody, this group epitomizes the nature and energy of horror…from the otherworldly and terrifying soundscapes of Suspiria to the beautiful, thoughtful love theme from the obscure St. Helens (not a horror film, but dramatic nonetheless.) Goblin is, without argument, one of the most influential artists to the world of horror music – no doubt influencing John Carpenter’s simple piano-driven theme to Halloween (listen to Goblin’s title track from Deep Red and compare) to the current crop of synthesized themes in films like Resident Evil and many others. These are all babies born of Goblin!

3. Silk & Soul, Nina Simone - My favorite album by my favorite vocalist for reasons that are inexplicable to me. This is the album that I play most often – perhaps it’s the odd variety of songs chosen (although all of the songs in the Simone archives are from an astonishing range of disparate and unique sources). Historians would consider “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” to be the signature song from this album, but I find her brief tale of simple, matter-of-fact racism explained in “The Turning Point” to be much more devastating, perhaps since it’s told from the point of view of a child. All of the songs are wrenching and even her revisions of Burt Bacharach’s “Look of Love” and The Association’s “Cherish” are re-ignited with a more appropriate longing and yearning that only Simone can express.

4. Creepshow, John Harrison – My favorite horror soundtrack of all time. There is something about the opening piano theme that appealed to me even when I first saw ads for the film on HBO as a child (I was much too scared to watch the entire film, but I would torture myself by at least watching the opening credits). The child-like piano tune with the taunting children voices was spooky, fun and surprisingly catchy. This album was a sort of Holy Grail of mine growing up and I would often watch the film just to hear the music. It wasn't until many years later that I was finally able to get a copy of the record. Each story in the film is brought to life by a signature sound – from the Gothic, piano-pounding revenge motif of “Father’s Day”, the melodic and secretive tone of “The Crate” to the minimal synth soundscape that perfectly applied to E.G. Marshall’s roach phobia and germ-free apartment from the “They’re Creeping Up on You” segment. Each and every note is deliberate, brilliant and visual.

5. Bone Machine, Tom Waits – My favorite Waits album, probably for the simple reason that each song is like a tiny, separate horror tale embodied with an extremely visual style and brought to life by Waits’ rough, often inhuman voice. Each song is painted in charcoal black and tell stories about the hopelessness of...well...everything. “The Earth Died Screaming” is perhaps the most famous track from this album, but my personal favorite is the slow and mysterious “Black Wings” – a familiar tale of a neutral angel (or demon?) and his exploits, both good and bad. “Murder in the Red Barn” is an equally intriguing tale that one can easily visualize and it's peppered with ambiguous lyrics like, “there’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn - there's always some killin' you got to do around the farm.” I like to look at Bone Machine as a sort of audio short story collection of tales that Roald Dahl, Richard Matheson or Robert Bloch might have conjured up.

6. Thighs and Whispers, Bette Midler - A rare album that I actually listen to all the way through. This 1979 album has a diverse range of songs, including a great version of “Millworker” from the Broadway play, “Working”, and some cute disco-fueled tunes like “Married Men” and “My Knight in Black Leather”. Each song has some moment that gives me shivers, or at least slight goose bumps. One of those moments is in the song, “Big Noise from Winnetka” when they sing the line, “Once she was picking up the big boys…now I’m pickin’ up my little kids’ toys”. The whole album makes me feel really good with all of its emotional ups and downs...which, afterall, is basically what makes a perfect album. Right?

7. Cow Fingers & Mosquito Pie, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – My favorite compilation of songs from the incredibly insane catalog of Hawkins. All of the favorites are here – “Alligator Wine”, “Hong Kong”, “Little Demon”, “There’s Something Wrong with You” and, of course, his most famous track – “I Put a Spell On You”. Every song is unleashed in his inimitable way, through screaming, shouting and lip-smacking gibberish. His work makes me scream with laughter. I find that listening to his albums is the perfect remedy to road rage…just “singing” along with Jay is incredibly cathartic and relaxing! Take him along with you on your next commute. Who knew that spouting out silly words and making fart noises would become such a huge part of someone’s career? I’m totally in the wrong profession.

8. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), Eurythmics – Definitely the first official “album” I ever owned. Like most people of my generation, Annie Lennox mesmerized me in the music video for “Sweet Dreams” (which aired on MTV practically every few minutes). I was equally fascinated, terrified and hopelessly drawn to the pounding computerized beat, the throwback classical strings and Annie’s low, monotone delivery contrasting with her higher-pitched, "choir of angels"-type refrains. And who could forget her bizarre appearance? This is the perfect example of the power of the early 1980s music video: The song and accompanying video compelled me to purchase the entire album. I loved every single song on it – a rarity that I have not often found with other albums. With the eerie “Love is a Stranger” and the hypnotic “Jennifer” to the ethereal, jungle beat of “I’ve Got an Angel” and the fun and goofy “Wrap it Up”, I had unknowingly set the stage for my musical tastes. 

9. Hooked on Classics, Louis Clark conducting The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – This was an album I remember being in love with as a young boy when I would play the cassette tape of it over and over again. It was a great entry point for classical music. The often goofy, pseudo-disco element that was added to the medleys of famous classical music provided a fun and punchy rhythm to the proceedings that was perfect for a child. I found a copy of the CD recently and discovered that the album is still a fun listen. The quick, “clapping hands” backbeat now reads very silly and one can envision the album being played during low-impact cardio exercises at a YMCA. Though this album (as well as its sequels and spin-offs) has its vehement detractors, the album has a sweet innocence to it. It’s merely trying to make classical music a bit more accessible while not taking itself too seriously.

10. The Haunted Mansion, Disneyland Records – Though not officially an “album” by any means, this was a record I played quite often. Accompanied by a terrific illustrated book that detailed the exploration of the famous Haunted Mansion of the Disneyland world, your narrator leads you through the famous scenarios from the ride. Though only running approximately 5 minutes or so, the adventure leaves your brain with indelible memories, probably the most startling being the bride with the visible, beating heart. The B-side is what I remember the most from this album – a simple collection of sound effects, from moaning ghosts to the absolutely terrifying and intense sequence of a pack of dogs barking in the distance and getting louder...and ever so closer…

September 20, 2010

Scarier than Frankenstein's Monster

This may come as a shock to some, but I just watched Frankenstein (1931) for the very first time only a few days ago. I have never been a big fan of the Universal Horror monsters, except for the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I guess this is because I have always associated them with the now-cliche, homogenized, cartoon versions of the creatures. The ones where Dracula goes "bleh bleh" and Frankenstein walks like a robot, slowly stomping his feet up and down. I was very surprised by what I saw in the original 1931 version. When Boris Karloff showed up as the monster, it was totally unlike the slow, goofy giant that has now become synonymous with the name. Karloff's monster was fast and quite emotive. He even ran! His screams while being burned alive at the climax were absolutely chilling.

However, there is one particular character that stuck out to me throughout the entire film.

Baron Frankenstein: The Meanest Old Man Ever?

This character, played by Frederick Kerr, has got to be the most curmudgeonly, bitter and nasty old man I have ever seen in a film. Almost every single line of dialogue he spits out is a gruff, irritated question...and never mind him waiting for the answer, he just asks another. I'll let this crusty, salty dog of a guy speak for himself.

September 19, 2010

Card Sharks: Or in this case...Dogs, Cats and Lizards

Waterloo (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Wins on a Bluff), c. 1906

Over the years I have been revisiting an idea that features two anthropomorphic creatures playing cards. No doubt this idea was inspired by the famous "Dogs Playing Poker" oil paintings by C.M. Coolidge (did you know that there are sixteen total paintings?) These paintings have been considered, according to Wikipedia, "examples of mainly working-class taste in home decoration." I've always been in love with the idea of animals or monsters wearing human clothes and practicing typical, mundane activities (like grocery shopping, balancing a check book, buying carpet). Inexplicably, I keep returning to the idea of two characters playing a game of cards together - perhaps it's the idea of a casual social activity with the possibility of an outburst or explosion of anger lingering in the air.

The first incarnation of this vignette was a piece I did back in college, perhaps around 1995 or 1997 in a lithograph printing class.

Saturday Night, c. 1995

I like the idea of a "see-through" house where you can see certain details that would normally not be visible; upstairs rooms, plumbing, etc. There is a bit of anger in this one that is a tad too dark, note the expressions as well as the skull and crossbones on the Dog's shirt. Also, do these two live together? I see two separate beds upstairs that are completely on opposite ends of the room. Are they roommates? Clearly they do not like each other. This image was created by the process of engraving a drawing onto a sheet of metal and then using it to print onto paper - I also incorporated cut-out pieces of paper to shape the characters (and table) in an effort to highlight them.

Cheating, c. 2008

I found myself drawing this concept quite often. This second sketch was slightly different in that there is actual rage's definitely clear that the one character has cheated and the other (this time a Chicken) has risen to its feet to confront its companion. I began to give the characters more clothing and made the Chicken clench a cigarette in its beak. It is clear these two are a bit more working class than the previous Dog and Lizard of the original concept.

Winning Hand, 2010

The most recent incarnation is an improved, more thought-out version. Now there are added details, such as more items on the table that suggest a more relaxed atmosphere and the humor of a broken chair in which the Lizard is sitting. I also like the addition of the solitary light bulb that makes me imagine these two characters are in a basement somewhere...possibly avoiding their wives? Also of note is the fact that the Lizard is now much larger than the Cat (who clearly and most definitely is more of a working class type figure), whereas in the original idea, they were roughly the same size.

Work in progress, 2010

This is a new version in progress and I've already noticed that I've zoomed in on the action and made it much more intimate. As opposed to seeing the entire room or space they occupy, I'm honing in on the action. Also, the figures themselves are in much closer proximity to one another. I also like the idea of the Lizard character being more "squeezed" into the scene...almost as if he can barely fit into the room itself. I like the idea of it sitting in a room, knees up to its face with its head touching the ceiling. I also think I've perfectly captured the Lizard's expression. I think we know who is winning in this situation.

September 18, 2010

Unforgettable: Part IV

Part four of my series on unforgettable actors and actresses.

A Cornucopia of Character: Strother Martin, Borgnine and Jack Elam in Hannie Caulder (1971)

Ernest Borgnine is an important example of a character actor who had the opportunity to play not just supporting parts but also leading roles. In Marty (1955), a film that won him an Oscar for Best Actor, you had a film where the “character actor” was promoted to a leading role. Here was an actor who looked like a typical, everyday guy and he was the star of a major Hollywood film. Borgnine has had a wildly varied career that ranged to all points of the spectrum – from starring on television series like "McHale’s Navy" and "Airwolf" to voice over work on animated films like All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 and Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers (a film in which he voiced an action figure alongside his Dirty Dozen co-stars George Kennedy, Jim Brown and Clint Walker) to classics like Johnny Guitar, Ice Station Zebra, The Wild Bunch and, what is probably his most famous role, that of Mike Rogo in The Poseidon Adventure. This is when I loved Ernest the most – when he played the loud, blustery bear that screamed and shouted and threw his hat on the ground.  You aren’t turned off by his characters (no matter how repugnant), because you can just tell that Ernest was having a great time playing the role. He really got into it. Just one flash of his gap-toothed smile and you can see in his face an exclamation of “God, I love my job!”

Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I first saw Delphine in the incredibly haunting and hypnotic Daughters of Darkness, where she played the Countess Bathory, a mysterious and exotic vampire who seduces a young couple at a Belgium hotel. I was struck by her beauty, which reminded me of a 1930s glamour along the lines of Marlene Dietrich, and her wonderful voice, which, like Joan Greenwood and Carrie Nye, was slightly husky and topped off with a bored, aloof delivery. I then watched her in the strange and exhausting film, Jeanne Dielman – 201 minutes of Delphine playing a housewife going about her daily chores (all of which is filmed in real time). You would think this would make a viewer go insane (depending on their patience), but Delphine in the role made it a completely watchable and fascinating experience. Her subtle touches of showing the gradual unhinging of this woman was beyond beguiling. Watching her go about her day-to-day chores and then suddenly see her skip a beat as she slowly begins to unravel was chilling. She also appeared to have a good sense of humor that was evident in the surreal Donkey Skin, in which she co-starred with Catherine Denueve. Other notable roles of hers include the puzzling Last Year at Marienbad, The Day of the Jackal and several films with director Marguerite Duras, including India Song, a film John Waters said is “so posed, so formal and so glamorous that it almost isn’t a movie at all - it’s like watching a chic performance piece.” With Delphine as the star, I truly believe she could make anything, no matter how absurd or bizarre, completely and utterly watchable. Now if only she could have starred in something that is completely inaccessible to me, like Gone With the Wind or Sex and the City.

September 14, 2010

Unforgettable: Part III

Part three of my series devoted to memorable and favorite character actors from over the years.

Greenwood in a photo from Picture Show Annual, 1952

This is an actress I first noticed on the British sitcom, “Girls on Top” (1985-1986) - a sort of all-female version of "The Young Ones" which was created by and starred Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. Joan played Lady Chloe Carlton, the bizarre landlady to the four main female characters. Lady Carlton was a romance novelist who appeared to live in her own world and was kept company by her beloved and stuffed pet dog. The thing that struck me the most about her was her smoky voice and slow articulation - very reminiscent of Carrie Nye (who, in my opinion, has The Greatest Voice of All Time). I did some further research on Joan and discovered that she was in a film that I absolutely adored; Ealing Studios’ 1949 revenge comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets. I rewatched the film specifically to see her and was captivated by her feline beauty and, again, by that voice - sly and throaty with each line spoken through precise and perfect enunciation. Cult film fans may recognize her voice as The Great Tyrant, Black Queen of Sogo in Barbarella (1968). Greenwood, for whatever reason, was chosen to dub actress Anita Pallenberg. Although there is speculation as to whether or not it actually is Greenwood (since the voice over is uncredited), I can totally hear Ms. Greenwood when The Great Tyrant purrs such lines as, “Do you want to come and play with me? For someone like you I charge nothing. You’re very pretty, Pretty-Pretty.” Other film roles of note include another Ealing Studios’ comedy, The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Mysterious Island (1961) and Tom Jones (1963). A quiet, secret beauty who always appeared to have a slightly devilish gleam in her eye has been a mainstay on my list of favorites for years. Give yourself a treat and seek out her work. You won’t be disappointed.

September 12, 2010

Unforgettable: Part II

Continuing my series on character actor appreciation, here are a couple of additional people I would like to showcase.

Ottiano with Lionel Barrymore in The Devil-Doll (1936)

The second I saw this actress appear in Tod Browning's impressive The Devil-Doll, I fell hopelessly in love. Playing Malita, the damaged assistant to Lionel Barrymore's revenge-seeking, escaped convict Paul Lavond (who, in his effort to elude the authorities, disguises himself as an old woman), Ottiano's first appearance is a bit startling. Sporting a shock of unruly hair that includes an artistically arranged white streak (perhaps inspired by the Bride of Frankenstein?) and hobbling around on one crutch, I was reminded of two current actresses that I also admired - Grace Zabriskie and Diane Salinger. Perhaps a bit too stylized in an attempt to let the viewer know that she was the villain of the piece, her performance is fun and her facial reactions and wild eyes are put to great effect in a truly suspenseful scene where Lavond and Malita try to hide some stolen jewelry from a police officer. Plus Ottiano's ultimate intentions and madness come through when she declares, "We'll make the whole WORLD small!" - referring to Lavond's scheme of shrinking down his victims using a serum developed by Malita's deceased scientist husband. After seeing her in this role, I looked into other films that she had done and was surprised to see that she had quite an interesting career which further endeared me to her. A stage actress who eventually played opposite Mae West in the hit Broadway play, "Diamond Lil" (which led to the two actresses reprising their roles for the film version, She Done Him Wrong), another notable role for her was as Greta Garbo's maid in Grand Hotel. A line from Ottiano's Wikipedia entry made me laugh; "Throughout the 1930s, Rafaela Ottiano would often specialize in roles as sinister, malevolent, or spiteful women." This obviously means I need to see every single film she has ever appeared in.

Lassick in Deep Cover (1992)

My favorite male character actor of all time (running a close second to Divine), Sydney is a performer that I remember being a fan of even as a young child. I first noticed him in an episode of "Amazing Stories" back in 1985 called "Remote Control Man" where he played the tormented husband to Nancy Parsons (another favorite performer of mine and one who I will discuss later) who escapes his nagging family by constantly watching television. I thought he was absolutely hilarious and I loved watching his nervous, effeminate mannerisms and dialogue delivery. He reminded me of a mix of Joe Besser (a later member of the Three Stooges) and Richard Simmons. He's probably best remembered for his breakout role as Charley Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest where his manic outburst of, "Rules? Piss on your fucking rules!" is definitely one of the film's memorable lines. Sydney kept consistently busy during his career appearing in a wide range of projects, from guest spots on television shows like "Hawaii Five-O", "Eight is Enough" and "The X-Files" to unusual, unforgettable turns in such films as Silent Madness (where he is hilarious as a foul mouthed sheriff investigating a serial killer), Sonny Boy and a bizarre role opposite Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldbum in Deep Cover. I think about Sydney everyday and just thinking about his blustery screen persona and that inimitable voice makes me smile.

September 11, 2010

Unforgettable: Part I

character - adjective Theater
a. (of a part or role) representing a personality type, esp. by emphasizing distinctive traits, as language, mannerisms, physical makeup, etc.
b. (of an actor or actress) acting or specializing in such roles.

Earlier this week saw the sudden passing of actor Glenn Shadix. Len and I were totally shocked and deeply saddened by the news as we had previously corresponded with him at various points over the past couple of years. Glenn came across as an extremely friendly and generous man with great style and a terrific sense of humor. In early 2009, he had invited us to a housewarming party he was planning on having when he moved into his new home in Birmingham, Alabama. For whatever reason we were unable to go, but the very notion of him inviting us was a sweet and kind gesture on his part. He seemed like such a great guy and I'm terribly sad that Len and I never had the opportunity to get to meet him in person and share some time with him.

I first noticed Glenn (as I'm sure most people did) in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice (1988), where he played Otho, the snotty interior designer. It was a funny and memorable role and he got to deliver some great lines. The famous quote, "Don't mind her. She's still upset because somebody dropped a house on her sister", was his own and he was thrilled that Burton let him use it in the famous "Day-O" dinner scene. Soon after, I began seeing him in more films, like his bit as Father Ripper in Heathers (1989), Meet the Applegates (1991), Sleepwalkers (1992) and his second most well-known bit; as Associate Bob in Demolition Man (1993). I loved his role in this film - he was like an outrageous Buddha with his flowing, heavy robes and that sneaky, smarmy gleam in his eye. It reminded me of a 1960s Batman villain. In addition to numerous voice over roles in a wide variety of animated series - and, most notably, in his third most famous role, the voice of The Mayor in The Nightmare Before Christmas - Glenn was also an amazing photographer and overall champion and supporter of the arts - most recently, working closely with The Museum of Modern Art for the opening and closing of the Tim Burton career retrospective.

When I was a teenager, I would constantly make lists of all the character actors that fascinated me. For some reason I loved to write out their names and make up fake movies in my head in which I would cast them. Names like Nancy Parsons, Vincent Gardenia, Shirley Stoler, Pat Ast, Sydney Lassick, Don Calfa, Carrie Nye and many more. Glenn Shadix, by the way, was always on this list. Seeing one their faces pop up in a movie was thrilling and, more often than not, made the film much more watchable and certainly a lot more fun. The main detail that they all shared was their often unusual appearance, be it through age, body type, acting style, line delivery or just simply by having a memorable and unforgettable face. It's these people that further enhanced and reignited my passion and love for film.

Starting today, I am going to profile a couple of interesting character actors that have found their way into my heart. I will spotlight more over the next few days.

Glenn, this article is dedicated to you.

Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

I recently watched James Whale's 1932 film, The Old Dark House and was immediately taken by the appearance of actor Ernest Thesiger who played Horace Femm, an incredibly effeminate and grotesque old man who's amazing, emaciated skull-like face was used perfectly in his role as the snotty and nervous host to a group of stranded motorists. His delivery of dialogue is impeccable - try not to smile when he articulates the line, "Have a potato". Thesiger would reunite with director Whale for his most notorious role; that of Dr. Septimus Pretorius (best name ever?) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Browne in Basket Case (1982)

Probably THE most obscure actress I've ever been interested in. Basket Case (1982) features what is most likely the only role she has ever played on screen. Diana plays the evil Dr. Judith Kutter, a ruthless veterinarian who separates an unfortunate set of conjoined twins. They are on a mission of revenge and she is not pleased about it. The thing that immediately drew me to her was her wacky, Ruth Buzzi-on-steroids appearance and her persistent nastiness. Plus she meets a memorable demise at the hands of the monstrous Belial in a truly unforgettable example of amazing, low-budget special effects makeup. I asked director Frank Henenlotter about her, asking "Who was that incredible lady?" Turns out she was a friend of a friend and he ultimately lost touch with her. What a shame. I would have loved to have seen her in other films. I could have seen her playing parts like The Evil Judge, The Evil High School Principal or The Evil Department of Motor Vehicles Lady.