Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Explain All These Controls"

U2 at The Spectrum, April 1985

There was a demographic study done a few years ago that came to the following conclusion: people, especially men, tend to come back to the music they listened to between the ages of 16 and 20.

As I approached 50, I knew that I should probably consider treating myself to something. Tonight, exactly six months after my birthday, I get my treat: I am going to see U2.

Now, I realize that, to some — even many — going to a concert, much less a U2 concert, might not look like a treat. To me, it is.

U2 released their first album when I was 15 and in the process of figuring out my own taste in music. I still remember a friend coming up to me in the hallway at school, telling me about these “Irish kids who started a band.”

My parents were teachers but both had been performers, an actress and a dancer, so I feel like I grew up with a fair bit of show tunes in the house. Of course, it was also the 60’s, my parents were beatniks-turned-hippies and I heard a lot of “that” kind of music.

By the time I was 15, I had gone through a heavy AM radio Top 40 phase (can you say “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack???) and I found myself listening to quite a bit of classic rock — even though it wasn’t going by that name back then.

Rock and roll is music for angsty teenagers. It seemed odd to me even at that point, to be listening to so much music rooted in the 60’s and ’70’s, music that people who were 15 five or ten years before me had listened to. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to have a deep and passionate love for Led Zeppelin, am in awe of “Born To Run”, still enjoy Motown and take pride in sharing my hometown with The Sound Of Philadelphia.

Still, the music always felt like it belonged to someone else, that it had always been there, waiting for me to discover it.  That’s the point, it was archival.

I guess that, even then, I was looking for the music I could grow up with, music that was new to the time, new to me, not something I was borrowing from a teenager who was now an adult.

So, how did my musical taste develop? Someone gave me an ELO album when I was 12 so I guess I liked ELO whether I did or not. I went to a KISS concert when I was 12 and, well, it was pretty hard to be a boy that age at that time and not get wrapped up in the spectacle, if nothing else. 12 to me equals KISS, Star Wars and Steve Martin. It was a pretty great year.

When I was 13, my father and three younger siblings took a six month cross-country trip. I was lonely much of the time (even though I did manage to experience my first real kiss — in northern California with a girl in her bedroom covered with posters of Star Wars, The Bee Gees and John Travolta) and found myself staring at the radio, trying to find a “good” station in whatever town we were in. “Just What I Needed” by The Cars popped out at me and struck me as especially contemporary. 1978: I saw “Grease” six times in the theater. I also saw “Halloween.”

Somewhere in there, either very late ’78 or very early ’79, I heard The Police for the first time.

At that point, I was already a bit of a media junkie, especially interested in following the exploits of the notorious Sex Pistols, eagerly awaiting The Ramones movie “Rock And Roll High School” but also acutely aware of the snowballing mainstream Disco culture — it seemed every movie or TV show had to have a disco sequence. The cheesy 1980 horror movie “Prom Night” deftly combined two dominant trends in late 70’s pop culture — slasher movies and disco.

Even though these things were happening around me, were contemporary, I knew I didn’t fit in. I’m not inclined towards discos, don’t dance well and, much as I liked the music, culture and aesthetic I am not a Punk.

If I am completely honest with myself, I was a pretty happy, well-adjusted kid with very little to be angry about or rebel against. I simply could not play dress-up and make believe. Many people around me managed to assume the persona quite well. Good for them.

Let’s be honest, the worst of punk was frequently as vapid and empty as the worst of disco, too much of it strained to give the impression of being meaningful — as if yelling and playing loud enough was somehow equal to saying anything. They were opposite sides of the same coin.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate punk, maybe even more today than I did back then. As a film professor, I frequently refer to Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1958 rude, crude and groundbreaking “Breathless” as “cinematic punk rock” because, long before punk shook up the music industry, it did the same thing to Hollywood —- stripped movies down the bones, cut away the excess, made them vibrant, spit in the face of the over-produced tame product that Hollywood was selling.

I think that almost every great movie or filmmaker since 1958 owes something to “Breathless.” Goddard took to the streets with a camera in his hands, no money, no script and managed to slap something special together with sheer will.

In the early 90’s, I took the same approach with “The True Meaning Of Cool” and I have taken to calling “Stomping Ground,” my feature film, a “punk rock production” because it is so lo-fi, was shot at such a breakneck pace, fueled by passion, DIY spirit and, in my own way, a desire to comment on what bothers me about too many movies.

So, back to 1980, I heard U2, I saw The Police and someone gave me “Remain In Light” by Talking Heads. To paraphrase a much later U2 song, I think I found what I was looking for. Always conscious, for better or worse, of the transient nature of music, I frequently found myself in record shops, trying to decide to part ways with my money, asking “am I really going to be listening to this album in ten years?”

In 1982, I saw The Police for the third time (followed by fourth and fifth times in ’83 and ’84), saw The Clash twice, Talking Heads, The Specials and so on.

I was doing a play in 1983 when U2 played the Tower Theater so I couldn’t go. It was a great play and I was good in it but a big part of me still wishes I could have gone to that concert.

Thirty years ago, in 1985, I finally saw U2. Back then, it was just four guys on a stage — no special lighting, no video screens, no costumes. I was 20, they were 24 and 25. It was amazing.

Approaching their 40th anniversary as a band, it is sometimes easy to forget that U2 is a band and not a mouthpiece for superstar singer/activist provocateur Bono. As a longtime fan, it can be hard to experience their often painful very public growing pains. Sometimes, you just wish they’d shut up and play some music.

Prone to grandiosity (onstage and off) even early in their career — “The Unforgettable Fire” might be one of their more forgettable efforts even if the title song is one of my personal favorites — the frequent attempts at “reinvention” or, from another perspective, admirable attempts at artistic growth and “not standing still” have been awkward at times.

From the somber, strained Americana-esque “Rattle and Hum” to the wildly revisionist but wholly successful “Achtung" Baby and “Zooropa” era to the overblown and almost embarrassing “Pop” (Hey, I like “If God Will Send His Angels”) phase and back to staggering new highs with “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” I have stayed with the band, sort of growing up together.

“Moment Of Surrender” from 2009’s politely received “No Line On The Horizon” is, to me, absolutely one of the best pieces they have ever produced.

Now, eight or nine months after the infamous “Apple drop” where they “released” the new “Songs Of Innocence” collection to every iTunes subscriber regardless of popular demand, some of those new tunes have gone into heavy rotation on my internal playlist.

Evolution is tough. If I look back over the past 40 years of my life I see more than a few missteps, awkward moments and stuff I’d rather forget.  However, like the band, I also have an interest in not standing still. Part of me wants to defy that demographic study and, to that end, I have discovered plenty of new music since I turned 20. Of course, I am acutely aware of not being 15 in 2015 and I have little interest in pretending to be.

I know U2 is struggling to remain relevant. They are one of the few bands out there that has lasted this long with their original line-up intact. As I transition into the second half of my life, I still wonder what I mean to anyone. It’s way too late to be the hot, new youngster on the scene so I can only hope to become the wise old man who still has some gas in the tank.

People who went to see a teenage Sinatra also went to see an 80-year-old Sinatra.

Relevance is relative. U2 is relevant to me. Tonight is my treat.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ben Stiller Does Not Remember Me

Ben Stiller, circa 1976

Ben Stiller’s mother, actress and comedian Anne Meara died on Saturday, the day after the 25th anniversary the death of Anne Greenberg, my mother.

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows that Ben Stiller is the biggest name I can drop, having been cabin mates at a Maine summer camp in 1976. He was a bit of a ball of energy. I remember him laying in his bunk, belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” but, more than anything that summer, I remember when his mother came to visit.

At 11, I was already well into what would become a pretty long geek phase — yes, my glasses did break that summer and yes, I did bind them back together with a thick wad of masking tape. But I was also deeply in love with movies and just beginning to recognize my calling as a writer.

I wrote movie reviews for the camp newspaper. On parent’s weekend, Ben Stiller pulled his mother over to me and said “Mom, mom, this is the guy who wrote the movie reviews!” She smiled at me and said “You’re good.” That’s it, two words but, when you’re young and impressionable, two words can make a difference. It wasn’t because she was a celebrity, it was more that she was an adult, a stranger and unmistakably genuine.

Obviously, I remember the moment, nearly 40 years later and not merely because it involved famous people. I remember the moment in 4th grade that two teachers told me that I should be be in the advanced creative writing workshop that was reserved exclusively for 5th and 6th graders.

My mother was my English and Drama teacher in high school. I remember when she really liked a story that I had put a lot of hard work into. I remember the writers she introduced me to — Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard  — they are my biggest influences.

Ben Stiller doesn’t remember me. Why should he? But today, I am thinking of him, remembering his mother and mine.    

Monday, May 18, 2015

Advice From Ultron

At one point in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular Ultron, a sort of artificial intelligence bad guy, says “In order to survive, we must evolve.” He could be talking about movies. 
Back in the late 50’s, during the Golden Age of Television, people were staying away from the movies in droves because they could sit at home and be entertained. Of course, it didn’t help matters that, at that point, movies had settled into a groove, gotten stale and boring. To combat TV, movies became bigger, epic, offering cinemascope spectacles that could not be contained on the little boxes in the living room.
Today, it’s happening all over again, with countless networks and streaming services series offering high quality shows, movies are, once again responding by being big, loud, long and, much of the time, less about showing human beings on screen and more about technical artists creating worlds, creatures and events with software.
Of course, I have been watching drawings on screen since I was little, fascinated by Bugs Bunny and Speed Racer as well as the matte paintings that made up so much of King Kong and the like but this stuff is different, new and represents something I have mixed feelings about.

Filmmaking is no longer about film, it’s about mouse-clicks and it has been for quite awhile now. I am not an anti-technology Luddite. The digital revolution made movie-making democratic. Almost everybody has access to enough technology to make something we, for some reason, still call a film.  I think that’s great but I also think that, just because you have everything you need to make a film doesn’t necessarily mean that you know everything you need to know in order to make a film. Making cool stuff appear onscreen is not the same thing as telling a story. 

The art of cinema is about getting an audience to believe in what they are watching whether it is a car commercial, a documentary or a sci-fi extravaganza. Special Effects have been around since the beginning of film. Georges Melies was in the audience that night in Paris when the Lumière brothers screened their films for the first time and, since then, the question has been there “What are movies for, spectacle or reality?” Melies, a magician, crafted wild images on film and used them as part of his act.

It’s been said that nearly 80% of the shots in Citizen Kane involved a special visual effect of some kind. Welles was actively involved with the process, pushing the team at RKO past the limits of what the optical printer could do, taking it into new territory. Nobody comes out of Kane talking about the special effects. What was special was that they had the effect of serving the story, making the audience believe they were seeing something that they were not actually seeing and drawing them into the film.

If you come out of a movie and say “The special effects were amazing,” then they weren’t, they took you out of the movie, disengaged you from the story to the point where you were captivated by pixels moving around on a screen. That’s not why we go to the movies.

Every movie trailer ahead of the Avengers was another CGI-fest and, by the time the film started, I had already had enough, Don’t get me wrong, I love super-hero movies — at least I did but I couldn’t escape this question of “Is this what movies have become?” I sat there, unable to figure out what Age of Ultron was even about much less even care. I was watching computerized drawings.

Yes, movies have to survive the battle for our attention when there are always so many other options pulling at us. I don’t blame movies. I just found Age of Ultron so empty, soulless and, if I can presume, it was like they didn’t even care about writing a story; plot is just downtime between big action sequences. Any dialogue is there to set up a snarky line - who knew superheroes could be so sarcastic or bawdy? 

The question about what a film is or should be is also near the surface of While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach’s new film about a middle-aged couple going through an identity crisis after befriending a younger couple and becoming seduced by their lifestyle.