"HAS THE WORLD CHANGED, OR HAVE I CHANGED?"
-I spent a rainy, cozy Sunday morning under the covers with The Leather Boys. Oh, don’t let your imagination run away with you, you randies; it’s Sidney J. Furie’s 1964 kitchen-sinker about a troubled young married couple (Rita Tushingham, also of A Taste of Honey, and the dashing Colin Campbell), motorcycles, and the sexually inscrutable, deceptively devil-may-care young man that comes between them. It is, along with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Billy Liar, one of those Morrissey movies- Campbell is the cover star on the German "Ask" single, and scenes from the film feature prominently as “background” in the “Girlfriend in a Coma” video. It has the same clear-eyed sadness as those other movies, a similar acknowledgment of the moments in life that might seem mundane and unexceptional, but they’re oh, so important, and the vitality of the way most of us are trapped- and our attempts to struggle free- are offered up on these black-and-white platters with an emphasis and urgency that works beautifully because of a staunch resistance to overglamorization or overromanticization.
-Speaking of clear-eyed black-and-white Englishness from the sixties, I recently re-watched Victim, Basil Dearden’s 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde as a well-established legal man caught in a web of seedy homosexual blackmail. The film is tragic, but its dramatic and cinematic strengths keep it from being more dated than absolutely necessary. Another Smiths connection (of course!): Morrissey’s line from "Pretty Girls Make Graves," “Nature played this trick on me,” is taken from the mouth of a hairdresser grown despondent and desperate over what’s been made to feel like the unfair trip of his very harmless, morally neutral sexual orientation. The film’s refusal to be rose-colored is seen by some gay viewers as defeatist and depressive, which may have been a more valid complaint at the time of its release than it is now; in retrospect, it's all the more affecting for its honesty about the grimness of the then-contemporary situation.
-I then skipped on down to Seattle’s Varsity Theatre for The Weather Underground, Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary about the Weathermen, a certain faction of the Students for a Democratic Society which in 1969 split off, renounced nonviolence, started trouble with the law, formed an underground network, and were responsible for a series of minor bombings throughout the seventies. It’s comprised of present-day interview footage and archival stuff, and narrated by the likes of Lili Taylor (interesting connection: Mary Harron, who directed Taylor as Weathermen kindred spirit Valerie Solanas in 1996’s excellent I Shot Andy Warhol, executive-produced this film). It’s easy to damn what these people did, not least for being rather self-indulgent and lacking any self-awareness, but thankfully Green and Spiegel chose to show, with horrifying footage of the Vietnam war, just what it was they were responding to. It’s an oversimplification to parallel the Vietnam involvement with the present situation in Iraq... just yet; still, it’s a question that’s applicable today: How much sense does it make to try to subvert dominant madness with logic? Green and Siegel make it very comprehensible why these people felt that their precipitate inclinations were more than justified by the increasingly obvious rottenness of what America was doing while its people hid at home or were distracted by the bleak domestic front.
-Two recent not-quite-theres from some of my favorite directors: Joel and Ethan Coens’ Intolerable Cruelty and Woody Allen’s Anything Else.
Cruelty is probably the Coens’ most featherweight film, and it is entertaining, sexy (how could it not be, with the physically fairly pulsating duo of Clooney and Zeta-Jones?), and oh-so-winkingly-wicked. What it is not, however, is something that really feels like a Coen Brothers film. It’s their most collaborative effort, and although I’m wary of crying “compromise” or “sell-out,” it’s their least Coen-like film ever, and it feels particularly anonymous after the very strong and memorable The Man Who Wasn’t There. The most Coen-ish bits- that goulish senior partner, the asthmatic thug- felt a little unmotivated, almost like concessions on the part of someone involved (the actors, to the Coens? The Coens, to people like me who enjoy their “trademarks"?); all the parts don’t work as well together as they should. It’s clear that most of the dialogue wasn’t written by Joel 'n Ethan, and it really should’ve been. I would’ve enjoyed Clooney and Zeta-Jones exchanging the mile-a-minute, delightfully artificial patter of so many tradition-steeped/skewering Coen comedies at least as much as the other appealing exchanges the film suggests between the handsome pair.
Anything Else is Woody’s attempt to pull himself out of the muck that was Curse of the Jade Scorpion and, to a lesser extent, Hollywood Ending, and at that, it succeeds; it is an improvement over those two dubious efforts. Still, there’s something not quite up to par about it. Allen’s dialogue, characters, and scenarios have never been close to what you’d call naturalistic, but they were usually made charming, believable, and even profound by the actors who brought them to life under his direction. There’s a vestige of the odd, stilted quality of the last two films here; there are some scenes that work nicely, a few giggles, but there’s also a certain staginess that creeps in via a slackness in the direction and the fact that sometimes the people whose interactions we’re watching on screen, despite their supposed involvement in close friendships or their blood and/or sexual-romantic ties, seem not to really know each other. Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci both can be good actors, and at this stage in their careers they could’ve used the sharpness and discipline of Allen at his directorial best, the way he can have of whipping things into shape. Anything Else is a step in the right direction, but it’s underwhipped.
-The soundtrack of my life as of late has been the new Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It’s a mixed bag, not nearly the album that Fold Your Hands, Child... was. Still, it’s at least as worthwhile, from the stance of a loyal, hopeful fan, as Intolerable Cruelty or Anything Else were. Everyone was shocked when they heard it was going to be produced by Trevor Horn, the man behind computerized eighties publicty stunts Art of Noise and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but you can barely hear it, and when you do, on “Stay Loose,” it’s a tuneful, happy, free sound. Those adjectives cannot be applied to the whole of the album. The weakest spots are bassist Alice Readman’s big vocal walk-on, the musically muted, lyrically lazy “Asleep on a Sunbeam,” (a surprise, as last album’s Readman contribution, “Waiting for the Moon to Rise,” was a high spot), “Roy Walker,” and “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” (for all its diplomatic anti-war intentions, it’s just not a strong melody/lyric), and “Wrapped Up in Books.”
In addition to the aforementioned “Stay Loose,” there’s also the Gary Glitter-galloping workplace smuttiness of “Step Into My Office, Baby,” the title tune is suitably tuneful and empathetic, “If she Wants Me” is this album's “Don’t Leave the Light on, Baby,” saved from being a mere replica by Stuart’s brave never-higher falsetto, “Piazza, New York Catcher” is spare, melodically very strong, literary but not too complicated, “I’m a Cuckoo” actually rocks a little bit, “You Don’t Send Me” is pure Northern soul, “Lord Anthony” is an homage to the bullied nerd at school to stand with “We Rule the School” or Morrissey's "Ordinary Boys." The must-have Belle and Sebastian albums are still Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister, and their best long-player yet, Fold Your Hands, Child.... This one belongs on the shelf below with The Boy with the Arab Strap.
-Finally, if you want to see a more public example of my handiwork, check out the letters section of this month’s Vanity Fair, the one that looks like this:
...it earned me the opportunity to be called an “Angry Young Man” by one Jamie S. Rich, a compliment nearly on the order of the letter’s publication itself.
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