David Bowie: a personal history

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It was the spring of 1979. I was 17 years old and, since it was a Tuesday afternoon, in a record store. I was into Elvis Costello and Talking Heads and I was looking for other “New Wave” records to change my life. I saw, up on the shelf, Lodger, the new album by David Bowie, pictured above.

Look at that cover. That was the cover of an album by a major artist on a major label. I saw that cover and thought: “Huh. That’s weird. What the hell isthis?” To put the cover of Lodger into context, here are some other albums I might have seen in that record store that day: this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

The cover of Lodger was, in fact, so strange and mysterious that it spooked me a little. It was printed sideways and backwards, for one thing, with the image wrapping around the side of the gatefold, and the record top-heavy in the front pocket rather than weighing down the back. Everything about it was wrong, weird, fucked-up. I put David Bowie in my list of “artists to keep an eye on” and moved on to, probably, this.

A year or so later, David Bowie turned up, in Chicago (I was living in nearby Crystal Lake), performing in a run of the hit play The Elephant Man before taking over the title role on Broadway. As an aspiring 18-year-old playwright, I was primarily excited about seeing a genuine “Broadway play,” the fact that pop-star David Bowie was in the show was a secondary concern.

Well, the show was great, and Bowie was great in the part, and his first appearance on stage was as he appears in the second image above: naked but for a loincloth, his body way too thin and way too pale, as if the baby Jesus had been caught in a taffy-pull. I’ve been told that the part in The Elephant Man is “actor-proof,” but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Bowie’s performance as he mimed John Merrick’s illness and distorted his voice to approximate the sound of a man with a head full of bulbous bone growth.

So this David Bowie fellow suddenly became very interesting to me. And he had a new record out, Scary Monsters, which had a cover almost as weird and fucked-up as that of Lodger. I snapped it up at my local record boutique, took it home and dropped a needle on it.

Well.

The Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and Scary Monsters was exactly the record I needed to hear in the summer of 1980. At this point, I was living in a trailer in southern Illinois, in a neighborhood where, no kidding, an 18-year-old kid could get beaten up for listening to David Bowie. Or for listening to anything to the left of this.

Scary Monsters had everything: huge amounts of weirdness, oddly tuned guitars, plenty of jarring, unsettling effects, great passion juxtaposed with jaded disaffection. It was, yes, scary and super, monstrous and creepy.

The following three years involved me soaking up everything Bowie had done up to that point. He became the center of my musical universe — he went to Africa before David Byrne or Peter Gabriel did, he worked with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno before Talking Heads did and hired Adrian Belew before Talking Heads did too, for that matter. His records swerved all over the place from weird and arty to weird and poppy to weird and soulful to weird and blistering. I rarely believed a word he sang, but sincerity somehow seemed beside the point — underneath and alongside the layers of irony and pose, covered over and thrown into relief by incident and marketing, the “message” in Bowie somehow always was located somewhere outside the lyrics. Now, the day after his death, I’m finding more and more that Bowie’s distance isn’t as distant as I first thought — his lyrics are sometimes oblique and confounding, but just as often they are solid emotion wrapped in technique.

 

In the midst of my obsession, 1982, I acquired my very first cat. There was no question what he would be named: Bowie was my avatar, my polestar, the banner of my identity.


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Some thoughts on Carrie Fisher

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Certain corners of the internet are rumpled with consternation over Carrie Fisher’s appearance in The Force Awakens. Specifically, people want her to shut up about having to lose weight to play the role of General Leia. I don’t generally concern myself with celebrity gossip, but this particular teapot-tempest has caught my attention.

Here’s the story as I understand it: Disney asked Fisher to lose 35 lbs in order to play Leia. Fisher, being past 50, had difficulty losing the weight. As anyone past 50 would. She has mentioned it in interviews, and on social media. With great grace and humor, because she is, in addition to everything else, a hell of a witty gal. She was under pressure to lose weight, as any aging actress — strike that, any aging woman — oh hell, any woman — is, and her current profile of “being in a new Star Wars movie” makes her struggle news. Who would not want to hear about an aging actress’s struggle to reclaim her signature role? want to hear about it. The story has “human interest” written all over it. Everyone over 50, and anyone who plans to live past 50, has an interest in hearing about her struggle. And, while she says that Disney asked her to lose the weight, nowhere does she say that they were out of line to do so. She’s Hollywood royalty, she knows the score probably more than anyone alive.

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Some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Poe Dameron and General Hux

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Tale as old as time: the younger generation repeats the actions of the older generation. Each generation thinks they invented the world, but, always, there is precedent.

When A New Hope came out in 1977, its success was driven by teens but it was also a perfect family picture — adults could get lost in the nostalgia for old-timey serials, and perhaps admire the classically-hand-tooled-leather-bound storytelling, while children and teenagers could be simply thrilled and amazed as they never had been in a movie theater before. It was the Beatles of my generation, the one thing everyone agreed on.

I had never seen a Flash Gordon serial in my life, as there was no Youtube at the time, so the vision of George Lucas was a searingly brand new thing for me. I didn’t know that he’d lifted things from Flash Gordon (and many other sources), from the title crawl to the names of his characters. Nor would it have mattered to me if I did. Clearly, clearly, Lucas had added something to his endless references. Kurosawa could immediately see that Sergio Leone had stolen A Fistful of Dollars from Yojimbo, but I’m guessing he’d be hard-pressed to identify the elements George Lucas stole from The Hidden Fortress, although he would have recognized his beloved screen wipes.

Today, The Force Awakens repeats the feat of A New Hope, with a twist: children are amazed and moved by the stories of Rey and Finn, and everyone else gets lost in the nostalgia, but instead of nostalgia for other movies, it’s nostalgia for Star Wars itself. The defining feature of George Lucas’s generation of filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma, Landis, Dante, Miller) was that they were the first generation of film-school directors: their movies were about other movies. Now, a generation later, filmmakers like JJ Abrams grew up on the movies of Lucas’s generation, and make movies about movies, about movies.  My father was shocked at Jaws, not because of the violence in it, but because the kid who directed the movie ripped off Hitchcock at every turn and didn’t even break a sweat to do it.  He took Hitchcock for granted. Now, that level of tossed-off cinematic reference is simply a part of the typical movie-going experience. In The Force Awakens, the Star Wars narrative, having launched a generation of imitators, has nothing to refer to but itself. What thirty-year-old genre could a new Star Wars movie refer to at this point?

A New Hope (God, I still hate that title) starred a cast of complete unknowns, with one special elderly guest star brought in to lend some gravitas to the proceedings. The Force Awakens repeats that trick, too, but in this case the elderly guest star is Harrison Ford, and he very much plays the Obi-Wan role, narratively speaking. The other actors are largely unknown, with the exception of Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron. Isaac, if you haven’t seen Inside Llewen Davis, A Most Violent Year or Ex Machina, is an incredibly serious capital-A Actor, the kind who, 30 years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead in a Star Wars movie. If you can imagine Al Pacino playing a minor role in A New Hope, maybe Jabba the Hutt, with his tail being tread upon by Han Solo, that’s the level of incongruity at work here. (Not to mention Max von Sydow — Max von Sydow! — showing up briefly.)

That’s another symptom of our current generation of filmmakers. A Star Wars movie, or a Marvel movie, or a Harry Potter movie, or a Hunger Games movie, is no longer considered an embarrassment on your resume, something you did “for the money,” like Max von Sydow doing Flash Gordon (as we come full circle). It’s a badge of honor, a sign you’ve “made it.” “Serious” filmmaking used to be done in the realm of drama, and Star Wars was science fiction, a gutter genre. All that has changed now, all the serious money, and serious talent, is drawn not only to genre pictures, but juvenilia, and “serious drama” is all on television now. And Star Wars is the engine that drove that change.

But, to the question at hand: What does Poe Dameron want? Spoilers within!

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some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Finn

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Some folks on the internet find a cynical motive behind The Force Awakens‘s re-use of plot points from A New Hope. They see it as a corporation playing it safe, pandering to the audience, protecting their considerable investment. And yet, if “playing it safe” was the order of the day on the production of The Force Awakens, why are the four principle “good guys” of the movie played by a woman, a black man, a Guatemalan and a 73-year-old Jew? That sounds like idle snark, but let me assure you, movie studios are the most risk-averse institutions on the planet. I was once asked to develop a science-fiction franchise, based on a series of novels about a teenage girl trying to negotiate her way through a futuristic dystopia obsessed with beauty, and I outlined an entire trilogy, which took two and a half hours to pitch, only to have the female executive ask me if I could make the protagonist a boy. That was before The Hunger Games, of course, so now it would theoretically be “okay” to recognize that girls like science-fiction too, but to have a female protagonist with a black co-lead, and to have her kiss him in Act III? For the studio who refused to market Black Widow toys in connection with its Avengers movies, because “Disney has the girl market locked up with princess movies, thanks?” This is, I guarantee you, a bold step forward.

But, more germane to our discussion here, what does Finn want?

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some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Kylo Ren

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The true protagonist of The Force Awakens is Kylo Ren. He sets the narrative in motion and drives the action, and, in fact, “changes” the most. He also functions as the antagonist of pretty much everybody else in the movie. This kind of protagonist, once a staple of cinematic drama, is more properly called an anti-hero. An anti-hero is a protagonist who is on the opposite of a hero’s journey, a person who is bent on self-destruction. Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas comes to mind. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, or any of his major roles, really, is a classic example. And, of course, Darth Vader in the prequel trilogy.

More after the jump. Please don’t get your spoilers spoiled!  Read more

some thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens Rey

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It seems hard to believe that everyone in the world hasn’t already seen this movie, but, just in case, please be advised that there are spoilers ahead.

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Some thoughts on Furious 7

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In 1962, Sean Connery starred as James Bond in Dr. No. This was not the first appearance of James Bond. The character had been around for nine years before that, in the novels by Ian Fleming of course, but had also showed up in both a TV adaptation and, of all things, a newspaper comic. But after Dr. No, Bond was everywhere. Connery’s performance lodged in people’s minds and by the time Goldfinger came out the character had become an immortal icon, a symbol.

But a symbol of what? As a child, I had no idea what the heck James Bond was “about.” The movies seemed to drag. They weren’t thrillers or dramas, they were light-comic pageants, devoid of suspense or surprise. Nothing of import seemed to happen in them. It wasn’t until later that I identified James Bond as a symptom of cold-war “lifestyle marketing,” related more closely to Playboy and Esquire than the espionage thrillers they purported to be. Bond was a hollow man, a collection of attitudes. A tuxedo, a gun, cool toys and a limitless supply of ladies.

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Some thoughts on Chappie

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I took my son, 13, to see Chappie last night. I warned him that the reviews have not been good. I wanted to see it because I love the way director Neill Blomkamp thinks about images; there were moments in District 9 where I had to remember to blink. Based on the promotional materials, what I was expecting was a kind of heartwarming sci-fi fable about a robot with an innocent soul who teaches the world something about what it means to be human, a sort of slightly-more-adult version of Short Circuit. I’m also a fan of Die Antwoord, the bizarre rap duo who have supporting roles in the movie, and wanted to see if they were as interesting as actors as they are musical performers. The reviews had made it clear that Blomkamp had slighted his attention to story at the expense of something, and that the fable-like qualities of the narrative didn’t sit well next to the science-fiction and action qualities.

Well, the movie pretty much took the top of my son’s head off. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited about a movie before. He couldn’t sit still afterward. He started using references to “termite art” and the limits of narrative and wanted to know all about Die Antwoord and life in Johannesburg. It was one of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of my life as a father.

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Some thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey

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Another weekend, another smash-hit movie that various guardians of culture have decided that no one should like because it’s “bad” — that is, wrong.

Last Tuesday, the reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey were at 76% “Fresh” at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s now Sunday and that percentage has dropped an astonishing 50 percentage points. What happened between Tuesday and Sunday? I have no idea, besides “more critics saw the movie,” but I get the feeling that the early reviews saw the movie for what it is, and the later ones felt a need to conform to a critical “consensus.” The consensus, in this case, is that a movie like Fifty Shades of Grey is “bad for us.” Most of the bad reviews I’ve read tell me nothing about the movie and everything about the reviewer. They worry that the movie is bad for women, bad for romance, bad for sex. They say that the movie doesn’t represent sex as they understand it, doesn’t represent their ideal of love, doesn’t represent their high-minded notions of what culture should represent. They sniff in disdain about the gutter origins of the project (it began as Twilight fan fiction), as though that had anything to do with its quality as a movie.

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American Sniper update

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American Sniper dropped 27% in its fifth weekend for a gross of $64 million. For the sake of comparison, Selma dropped 37% and Into the Woods dropped 42%, also in their fifth weekends. (Birdman and The Theory of Everything got “Oscar bumps” and rose 24% and 33%, respectively.) American Sniper‘s gross is now $200 million, $60 million beyond Gran Torino, Eastwood’s previously highest-grossing movie.

What accounts for the success of American Sniper? The slender percentage drop indicates that some people are going to see it more than once, which astonishes me, because frankly it’s a tough sit. It’s brutal and tense and upsetting. And then there’s the plastic baby.

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