Top Secret! [1984)

And so we come full-circle.

As in the olden days.

When we first started.

Writing about spy spoofs.

And this is a doozy!

Val Kilmer’s first film.

As Nick Rivers.

Very much Elvis, but equally Beach Boys (at least on the opening number “Skeet Surfing”).

I would call this style of filmmaking “kitchen sink”.

It was a particular type of American comedy in the 1980s.

Fast jokes.

Set pieces.

Elaborate puns.

General silliness.

The setting is East Germany.

In the time of Markus Wolf and the Stasi.

Wolf retired in 1986.

The year after this film (1985), Vladimir Putin started his KGB career in East Germany.

But let’s talk about more important stuff…like how beautiful Lucy Gutteridge is!

A girl and a gun, said Godard.

And for a sequel, another girl and another gun…

Said I.

Port Said.

Fuad II.

Yes, Ms. Gutteridge plays the stunning Hillary.

Which roughly translates to “she whose breasts defy gravity”.

That’s a direct paraphrase.

What?

We almost get the Lawrence Welk Orchestra doing “Sister Ray”, but Nick Rivers and “Tutti Frutti” is close enough to alienate the visiting Russian operatic singer and his caricature faux-Nazi patron.

General Streck.

Not to be confused with Colonel Sturm or Sergeant Drang.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) strung us along the whole time.

And they directed a fairly decent film here…the triumvirate.

The Nutcracker turns out to be a ballet of literal protrusions.

The prop room is equally literal.

It’s both Joycean and daft.

But I had some genuine chuckles during this film.

They execute a priest as a demonstration.

And his Latin is a knee-slapping litany.

A greatest hits of that dead language.

Legal.  Medical.  String it together.  Make it flow.

Pig Latin.  Cow Latin.  Pidgin Latin.

Yes Elvis.  Yes Beach Boys.  And yes Beatlemania.

Sullivan.  Hysteria.  Hip sway.  Swooning.

Is it a bit of Fritz Lang with the magnifying glass?

Certainly prefigures the backmasking of Twin Peaks.

Swedish as a backwards language.

Like those hidden messages on (back to the) Beatles records.

I want to live in that loft of that Swedish bookstore…

clutching a volume of Strindberg and holding a Ms. Gutteridge.

How could anyone dream of more than two fireplaces at the top of a firehouse pole?

Many references.  The Blue Lagoon.  When Brooke Shields was just 14.

Like the Podestas, we end up next in the script at a pizza restaurant.

(!)

“Straighten Out the Rug” pulls out all the stops…and all the rugs…like Pejman Nozad on vitamins.

An incredibly detailed mock-up of the prison grounds complete with a toy train.

Bovine infiltration.

Eggs Benedict Arnold.

When instead of hollandaise, they’ve secretly replaced the sauce with Folger’s crystal gravy (on loan from the struggling PepsiCo).

While Trump protestors boycott every snack and cranny of this MNE.

But the dénouement is the underwater saloon brawl.

It is actually artful.  Postmodern.  High art in spite of itself.  Dodoism.

We must not forget the yeoman efforts of the great Omar Sharif in this film.

Sadly, Mr. Sharif passed away just this past year in his home country of Egypt.

At least he did not (presumably) need two hours of surgery to wipe the smile off his face.

“Who do you root for in the Virginia Slims tournament?”

“I always root against the heterosexual.”

“Do you know any good, white basketball players?”

“There are no good, white basketball players.”

All of this from the “Match?  Lighter.  Better still.” line which Robert Shaw sweated out of someone to fool his way into James Bond’s presence and trust for a short time…before he chose fish with red wine.

One wonders whether the East Berliners had the jelly-faced joy of seeing this arrogant Hollywood slap at the time of its release?

Most importantly, “kitchen sink” was the style of the ZAZ directors mentioned previously:  Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

Kentucky Fried Movie.  Airplane!  The Naked Gun films (with the exception of the last).

This really is a cute film.

And while most of it would have pushed the envelope for 1984, it would almost be a G-rated movie by today’s standards.

Still, there are some jawdropping moments…such as The Anal Intruder (with the Cuisinart on the shelf [in the jailhouse now]).

Turns out the Christopher Atkins character (played by Christopher Villiers) had gotten all the joys of the Russian sailors who rescued him…including sodomy, Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, and one more bloke.

And so we wonder…couldn’t the Butthole Surfers have made it into this film?

Just barely.

Three years later they would drop the masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician.

Ah, the Reagan era…

 

-PD

Иван Грозный Часть II: Боярский заговор [1958)

[IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART II:  THE BOYARS’ PLOT (1958)]

заговор.

It gets many people in trouble.

In Stalinist Amerika.

We don’t know what list we’re on.

We don’t know when our identity has been appropriated.

Or misappropriated.

No man can be prepared for such a state of techno-terror.

And so we clap together our stones of flint.

We eat what we have caught.

We waste nothing.

Because we have offended the great dictator.

14 years in the desert ye must wander.

40?  No, fourteen.

This was The Empire Strikes Back.

There would be no Return of the Jedi.

[and certainly none of the other rubbish]

THis was when intercutting between BW and color was bleeding edge.

And only in the hands of Eisenstein did it work.

This was a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Eisenstein the prophet, predicting.

But a voice as cryptic as Shostakovich.

Today.

We might see the propagandists with their unenforceable contracts give the game away in little breadcrumb details.

To let us know that certain “realities” have been faked.

For our benefit.

And it was ever the same.

That Stalin needed a role to play.

That of Ivan IV.

But what he saw in the mirror displeased him.

And so he smashed that mirror.

Seven years of oprichniki.

1947.

Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.

Houellebecq.  Perec.  Borges.

Finally we get Lithuania.

And Mikhail Zharov with his Elvis eye.

Wasn’t nothing but a hound dog.

An absolutely devastating chess move.

And again.

And again.

Blitzkrieg.

Hansa.  Livonia.

And now the Poles in NATO.

Ah!  …

Always a new wrinkle of literary ingenuity.

Disruptive innovation, gentlemen.

Cheap cheap cheap (funding) ECLIPSE.

<laurels Laurel (MD) laurels CHECK MATE>

I would really like to help you out, but I fear I’m too dumb to do that.

I’m certainly too old.

Because cost accounting must be strictly observed.

And local efficiencies must trump complete conception.

I understand.

It takes many losses to understand the causal mechanism.

The unclaimed coins will indicate our casualties.

And so we finally see that, historically, the CIA has been a crystallization of class warfare.

Operatives, analysts, technicians…were not the dogs of the upper crust.

They were not slaves.

But perhaps now there is a difference.

Not all Harvard grads are created equally.

Epic breaking of the fourth wall.

Brechtian epic.

Identify, friend or foe?

I’m an American.

I like our military.

I respect them.

I like our intelligence professionals.

I look up to them.

I loathe whomever is pulling the really nasty levers.

Whomever is giving the orders.

It’s only natural to look to the top.

And over their shoulders.

Beware of the researchers.

Brothers, do not kill your own.

Sisters, we might not have your erudition and immaculate logic.

Our rhetoric may be daft.

But do not reject us.

 

-PD

El espíritu de la colmena [1973)

I have wanted to bring my readers this film for some time.

Therefore, it is an honor to review The Spirit of the Beehive for you.

I first saw this film by chance one night on TCM long ago.

I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but it was either right before seeing this or right after seeing this that I found out I was going to Spain (the country of provenance of this film).

The opportunity to visit Spain was a miracle (as have been all my travels).  Never did I think I would see La Sagrada Família.  Never did I dream of seeing the Guggenheim in Bilbao.  These things were too much to dream.  But they happened.

And this film is the quintessence of that miracle experience.

Two little girls.  Ana and Isabel.

The sonic motif throughout this film is the name “Isabel” whispered by her younger sister Ana.

It is an entreaty.  A putting faith in someone.

Please tell me why this, and why that.

Few films have matched the magic of this one.  If you are a fan of Cinema Paradiso, this film will show you where that template originated.

Before the great Giuseppe Tornatore, there was the equally great Víctor Erice (auteur of the film under consideration).

There is a magic here which is akin to Amélie and also Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  It is a naïveté befitting of Erik Satie…a wonderment which is rarely expressed effectively in film.

For more modern viewers, the best parallel might perhaps be Beasts of the Southern Wild (on the soundtrack of which I had the honor to perform with my old band).

And so there you have it.

Bees, bees everywhere.  Like Mercury Rev…”Chasing a Bee Inside a Jar”…and “Syringe Mouth” (‘here you come dripping from the hive’).

The hum.  The drone.  Like a subway screeching through the turns in a New York subway tunnel.  And the honeycomb.  Like DNA.

I should add.  A certain sadness.  Like a tawny port.

It was only fitting that this film was kicked to the curb for me, the poor-man’s Henri Langlois, to find at this particular time.

And so I too whisper the name Isabel.  Isabel with your hair pulled back behind your ears.  Don’t be cruel.

 

-PD

Sweet Toronto [1971)

Symptomatic of the times.  Now.  Then.

Read the news and it’s just about enough to depress you.  If you’re not already cynical.

But here comes a boy and a little girl…trying to change the whole wide world.

Isolation.

If you find this film, it likely won’t be under its original title Sweet Toronto.

My copy says John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Live in Toronto.

Which shows you how much Shout! Factory thought of the director D.A. Pennebaker.

The changed the title of his fuckin’ film!

Sure, they tacked on a poignant interview with Yoko to the front end, but other than that it seems unchanged.

Reminds us of another director who got shafted making a music documentary:  Jean-Luc Godard.

What is most widely available today as Sympathy for the Devil was originally to be called One Plus One.

The producers tacked on the title song to the end of the film (playing over largely inconsequential footage…at least initially) and retitled the sucker.

Godard allegedly punched the producer in the face after the premier…but I digress.

Why should you watch this film under consideration?

There’s a couple good reasons.

The first is Bo Diddley.  Sure, it’s only one song, but it sets the stage (literally) for what follows.

Pennebaker uses Diddley’s music to usher in the motorcade of John Lennon and entourage.

And when we really get to watch Bo, he’s dancin’ and jivin’ and (by the way) doing a nice job of not stepping on his guitar cable.

It’s a long, jammy, droned-out piece:  “Bo Diddley.”  That’s right, the song is titled “Bo Diddley” by (who else?) Bo Diddley.

If you close your eyes you just might think you’re listening to The Velvet Underground.  That won’t be the last time in the night for which those words are applicable.

Pennebaker keeps the train a’ rollin’ with a complete change of pace:  Jerry Lee Lewis.

Again, it’s only one song, but the director builds the excitement of anticipation for the headliner.

Lewis…smoking his cigar…gold rings and jewelry on that pumpin’ right hand…up high on the piano…and occasionally a brown patent-leather ankle book (Beatle boot?) makes it’s way up to the top register to heel a little tone cluster of exclamation.

At this point, Shout! Factory (perhaps at the behest of Chuck Berry?) makes a decision to cut Chuck’s song.

And so we roll into Little Richard.  Again, we can imagine…Prince, Michael Jackson…we are seeing the entire history of rock and roll compressed into 70 (?) minutes…from Jerry Lee singing a song made most famous by Elvis all the way to the headliner who will take us to far out, groovy places which may or may not still exist.

Little Richard has the most cracker-jack band.  A couple of sax players…really tight.

And so after three fantastic performers in a row–three originators of rock and roll, we get the rag-tag Plastic Ono Band.

John starts ’em off nice and slow…reverent…”Blue Suede Shoes,” “Money (That’s What I Want),” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy” before the curve ball of “Yer Blues”…

So lonely…wanna die…ain’t dead already…know reason why.

Klaus Voormann hits a steaming helping of wrong notes throughout the early part of the set as bass player, but that’s why we love him, right?  Reminds me of those bum notes which they left in (didn’t edit out) on John’s first solo album titled (what else?) Plastic Ono Band.  But we also love Klaus because he drew the cover to The Beatles Revolver album.

But what Klaus lacks in precision is made up for by Eric Clapton on lead guitar.  Clapton with his beard…denim jacket…a generally pensive look on his face the whole time which seems to read, “What the fuck am I doing here?  Can’t believe I’m doing this.”  Clapton never glares at Ono (at least not in the shots we receive through the miracle of montage), but one can’t help thinking that a musician of Eric’s caliber might have been perplexed (to say the least) regarding Yoko’s musical contributions to the night’s proceedings.

[Alan White is, of course, great on drums.]

And so we slink into “Cold Turkey”…premiered this very night in 1969.  The rendition is like Booker T. & the MGs…very cool and groovy…laid back.

But most of all…about this film…John Lennon in a white suit…huge beard…long hair…little circular glasses.  His presence…

Remember, this concert was about four months after the Montreal bed-in.

And so the band launch into “Give Peace a Chance.”

And it’s still the most revolutionary statement possible.

Musicians are the only ones who have ever done anything worthwhile…

Truth be told, the rendition of “Give Peace a Chance” is a little lackluster.

“And now Yoko’s going to do her thing all over you”

With those words (or something close to that effect), John takes us into the final act of this opera.

And it is powerful.

Yes, these grungy musicians actually succeed in making time stop.

Yoko wails like a woman on the sea lamenting her lost child.

For all the naysayers, Ono actually did have a good sense of pitch.  It’s just that pitch (as the Western ear defines it…narrowly) is not her predominant concern (apparently).

It’s like the Damo Suzuki years of the German band Can…including their two Krautrock masterpieces Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi.  The same criticism that Ono gets for her far-out howling is rarely leveled at Suzuki.  Listeners of Can know that they are getting into an experimental vehicle when they plop a Can album on the turntable.

This, arguably, makes Ono even more revolutionary.  To go from “Blue Suede Shoes” to “John, John (Let’s Hope for Peace)” is truly high art.  The conceptual mind-fuck is equal to anything John or Alice Coltrane ever pulled-off.

And so it is that the night ends on a most bizarre note…a drone…three instruments perched against amplifiers feeding back…as if one is watching…and you will know us by the Trail of Dead.

You’ve gotta see it.  Either it speaks to you or it doesn’t.  For me, there are few more poignant ways to remember the radical genius that was John Lennon than watching a document like this.

-PD

Slade in Flame [1975)

And now for something COMPLETELY different…

Yes, it was in a flat in Brixton that I first learned a hallowed reverence for the name Slade.  A legendary band.

It’s one of those quintessentially British phenomena.  Like HP Sauce, perhaps.

But on with the film…in the tradition of The Beatles and Elvis before them.

Director Richard Loncraine did a fine job of actually conveying both the anarchy and oppression of rockroll.  Plainly put, this movie is a ton of fun, but the message which comes with the thrills is somewhat harrowing.

Loncraine’s filmography as auteur doesn’t really read like a Cahiers-approved canon.  An illustrative title might be his Brimstone and Treacle from 1982.

At any rate, he certainly did a fantastic job leading Noddy Holder and the group into cinematic immortality.

There are some priceless contributions from actors such as Alan Lake (as Jack Daniels, rockstar).

Tom Conti is the perfect foil to the antics of Slade (in meta-character as Flame).

Noddy’s first real bit is fronting a band called The Undertakers.  Like Screaming Lord Sutch, he gets locked in his coffin (think Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) on stage…a sort-of archetype to be later expanded upon for the “pods” sequence of This Is Spinal Tap.

What makes this film fascinating is the balance it strikes between the beer-swilling rock life and the Covent Garden big money managers who bring scruffy rabble to the masses.

I can’t stress enough how bad-ass this group was.  The first performance they give in the film, in a shitty little club, is a revelation…absolutely devastating in an MC5 sort of way.  The songcraft is impeccable–like Zeppelin meets Beatles.

Seeing the rows of council flats…a few mere years before Johnny Rotten laid waste to the decrepit stupor of Britain…this is a poignant time capsule.

Not only do we see Noddy as the veritable rock god he is, we get every angle of the meteoric rise to fame which has lobbed bands across the heavens since those heady mid-70s days.

Enjoy.

-PD