Saturday, May 31, 2008

Time, Peace, And A Saucerful of Friends

In my blog entry of May 16 I discussed my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the year of 1968 in the order, as best as I could determine, in which they were released. Why 1968? I'll refer readers to the earlier blog for an explanation of the motivation for such an unusual project. At any rate, I promised I would post a June listening schedule, which can be found below. Since posting that earlier blog entry, however, I've discovered additional information which has prompted me to emend that earlier list, both adding and removing albums to more accurately reflect the current state of my knowledge. For instance, I'd listed Nilsson's Aerial Ballet as being released in March--at the time, an educated guess on my part. Information in the liner notes to the 2-CD BMG/Camden Deluxe 2000 reissue indicate July as the release date, which I accept as accurate, so I removed the album from the March set of albums and will include it as part of the July list. I still cannot claim that my list is infallible, but I continue to work on it. What I've found is that there were dozens of albums released in July and August, so those months' lists will be rather long (assuming the information I've come across is accurate). Perhaps record companies heavily slated album releases for the summer months, or, alternatively, some of the albums many sources indicate as being released in July were in fact released a bit earlier, that is, June. At any rate, here is what I currently have on tap for June, if anyone would care to listen along:

The Rascals, Time Peace: The Rascals’ Greatest Hits
The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble
The Beach Boys, Friends
Pink Floyd, A Saucerful of Secrets
Fairport Convention, Fairport Convention
Manfred Mann, Mighty Garvey! (6/28)
Otis Redding, The Immortal Otis Redding
Vanilla Fudge, Renaissance

List emended 7/22/68

Friday, May 30, 2008

Man of 1000 Voices at 100

Perhaps the most talented voice actor of the twentieth century, Mel Blanc, nicknamed "Man of 1000 Voices," was born 100 years ago today. Blanc died in 1989, but his memorable vocal creations live on in Warner Brothers cartoons and elsewhere. We all instantly recognize the images of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester Pussycat, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd--but rarely do we conceive of them separately from their distinctive voices. Indeed, these 'toon characters' bodily movements seem irrevocably sutured to their voice: if they couldn't move, they couldn't speak, and vice versa. In a sense, their voices animate them. Among his other vocal characterizations were Pepe le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote (when he spoke--rarely), Marvin the Martian, Barney Rubble, Woody Woodpecker (initially), the Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Yosemite Sam, the diminutive but feisty cowboy who was "the blood-thirstiest, shoot-'em firstiest, goshdarn worstiest bandit North, South, East and West of the Pecos!"

Because Mel Blanc is so strongly associated with his vocal characterizations, one doesn't immediately think of the few feature motion pictures in which he had supporting roles--Neptune's Daughter (1949) and Kiss Me Stupid (1964)--for instance; if not classics, they are still well worth seeking out simply to see the man as an actor. Although there are many websites devoted to Mel Blanc, a good overview of the "Man of 1000 Voices," by Kim Newman (find his link to the right), is available here.

That's all, folks!

Joseph Pevney, 1911-2008

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Joseph Pevney, the film and television director who directed some of the most memorable episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, died on May 18 at the venerable age of 96.

Pevney was a former Broadway actor who played supporting roles in several notable films noir—always inevitably the “sidekick”—in the late 1940s before turning his talents to directing feature films. If the Internet Movie Database is correct, I count he directed 32 feature films during the period 1950-1961, many of these B pictures with short shooting schedules, to be sure, but a remarkable stretch in any case. He made his debut as a director with Shakedown (1950), a film noir with Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and the inimitable Lawrence Tierney. I seem to be one of the few who admire Pevney's atmospheric The Strange Door (1951), featuring two fine performances by Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton. And although the film was made late in the actor's career, the Errol Flynn-starring Instanbul (1957) has a lot to recommend it, including a reasonably good role for Nat King Cole. The James Cagney-starring Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the silent film star Lon Chaney, is also widely admired, while Torpedo Run (1958) is a classic of the subgenre (pun intended). Other films Pevney directed during that prolific decade include Meet Danny Wilson (1951), starring Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters; 3 Ring Circus (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Female on the Beach (1955), starring Joan Crawford; and Twilight for the Gods (1958), starring Rock Hudson and Cyd Charisse.

Beginning in 1961, he turned to television, directing episodes of numerous series such as Wagon Train, The Munsters, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Virginian, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., Emergency, The Incredible Hulk, and Fantasy Island—all of which are television shows that are as familiar, to me anyway, as old friends. But it was, of course, Star Trek (TOS) that became Pevney’s most enduring television credit as a director and made him a familiar name to Star Trek fans.

Since his death, several Star Trek fan sites have noted that Pevney directed fourteen episodes of the original series—many of them fan favorites—tying with the late Marc Daniels as the credited director of the most episodes. He directed those favored episodes over the course of 1967, averaging slightly over one show a month:

Arena – 1/19/67
The Return of the Archons – 2/9/67
A Taste of Armageddon – 2/23/67
The Devil in the Dark – 3/9/67
The City on the Edge of Forever – 4/6/67
Amok Time – 9/15/67
The Apple – 10/13/67
Catspaw – 10/27/67
Journey to Babel – 11/17/67
Friday’s Child – 12/1/67
The Deadly Years – 12/8/67
Wolf in the Fold – 12/22/67
The Trouble with Tribbles – 12/29/67
The Immunity Syndrome – 1/19/68

The episodes he directed exhibit a wide range of subject matter, from some of the strongest dramatic episodes to comedy. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” from a script by Harlan Ellison, is generally considered to be the best episode of the original series by virtue of its compelling moral drama, although “Arena,” in which Captain Kirk battles the nasty, thuggish, and devious Gorn (pictured), is perhaps more famous episode among “non-Trekkies.” But there are some very good episodes in the above list: the Robert Bloch authored “Catspaw” featuring two byzantine aliens named Korob and Sylvia; “Journey to Babel,” in which Mr. Spock’s parents were featured, played by Jane Wyatt and Mark Lenard; "Wolf in the Fold" (also written by Robert Bloch), in which the soul of Jack the Ripper (Red Jack, or “Redjac”) has managed to transmigrate from planet to planet through outer space; and, of course, the inevitable “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a comedy in which the Enterprise gets infested with a gaggle of little furry creatures. (I've always loved the bit at the end of the show when Captain Kirk prepares to sit in the Captain's Chair and stops himself, thinking he might be crushing a Tribble.) I was barely a teenager when I first saw these episodes, and they have remained indelibly etched in my mind ever since. They are classic television.

Not a director ever likely to be championed by auteur critics, the films of Joseph Pevney have nonetheless formed a part of my identity every bit as significant as those made by more celebrated names, those of the putative "Great Tradition."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Name Game

Part 3 of The Squonk

At the conclusion of my discussion of the Buoys’ “Timothy” the day before yesterday, I observed that some readers might take issue with my interpretation of that somewhat obscure pop song, thinking it to be an aberrant decoding of the song’s meaning. An aberrant reading is simply a way of remotivating an artistic object, the switching of the external context surrounding it. Perhaps the most famous illustration of a remotivated art object is Marcel Duchamp’s goateed Mona Lisa, retitled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919; pictured).

Duchamp later said that the new name of his remotivated art work was a phonetic game. The most common claim is that L.H.O.O.Q., when said out loud in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” meaning “she has a hot ass" (or is "hot in the ass"), suggesting that the famous subject of the painting was not only in a state of sexual arousal, but sexually available as well. In a 1966 interview, Duchamp said, “I really like this kind of game, because I find that you can do a lot of them. By simply reading the letters in French, even in any language, some astonishing things happen” (see Pierre Cabanne, p. 63).

The androgynized, goateed figure of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q is the visual equivalent of the androgynous figure of "Rikki" in Steely Dan’s "Rikki Don’t Loose That Number," a song title that proves Duchamp's insight that with any series of letters, some astonishing things can happen. Like Duchamp’s letters, L.H.O.O.Q, the name RIKKI likewise invites us to play a phonetic game. While spelled Rikki, phonetically speaking, of course, it is the diminutive form of that most familiar of American nicknames, Rick—Ricky. For instance, Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy; in Casablanca, Ricky is what Captain Renault (Claude Rains) calls Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), rather than the more formal “Mr. Richard” that Sam uses, or the “Richard” Ilsa uses (at least in Paris). Rikki shares the same unusual spelling as the titular figure of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And yet, the lyrics of “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number” suggest not a world of innocence, but rather a sophisticated world in which people play sophisticated games:

We hear you’re leaving, that’s okay
I thought our little wild time had just begun
I guess you kind of scared yourself, you turn and run
But if you have a change of heart

Rikki don’t lose that number
You don’t want to call nobody else
Send it off in a letter to yourself
Rikki don’t lose that number
It’s the only one you own
You might use it if you feel better
When you get home

I have a friend in town, he’s heard your name
We can go out driving on Slow Hand Row
We could stay inside and play games I don’t know
And you could have a change of heart


You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don't even know your mind
And you could have a change of heart


I assume the "you" referred to is Rikki. Although initially the singer says he hears Rikki is "leaving," in fact Rikki is a coward ("you turn and run"). Rikki is a coward because he is "scared," scared of himself, that is, scared of what he is doing and what he has done. What is he doing, what has he done? We're not told, just that he was having a "little wild time" with the singer, a "little wild time" that had just started. Rikki has a number, the singer's phone number, and he's invited to phone (call) once he feels better about himself. Rikki is invited to "send it off in a letter to yourself," which I take to mean, "look at it to remind yourself who you are," the number in the letter serving as a reminder to himself of who he really is.

In the song, "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," also on the same Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, the singer tells the unnamed you (Rikki?), "You can try to run but you can't hide from what's inside of you," a virtual restatement of what is being said, in this song, to Rikki. "We could stay inside and play games," the singer says, meaning hide away and pretend, but again, the implication is that Rikki can try to run, but can't hide avoid the truth about himself, despite what he pretends to be true. Rikki's "change of heart" I take to mean the moment when he comes to terms with who and what he is, when he eventually can "feel better" about his true self. I've said "himself" because the rather inescapable implication is that singer is trying to make Rikki come to terms with his homosexuality, to feel comfortable about it, to stop denying it. "You tell yourself you're not my kind," a highly ambiguous phrase susceptible to many meanings, but its meaning in this context is highly suggestive of the similarity between the singer and Rikki. ("But honey, he's not our kind," is used in Janis Ian's "Society's Child" as a sign of racial difference, but in light of Janis Ian's subsequent outing, the song takes on an added level of meaning. Racial (external) difference is not the issue in Steely Dan's song.) That the relationship between the two is sexual can be inferred from the meaning of "our little wild time," "wild" a word in English having the same colloquial meaning as Duchamp's "chaud au cul," hot ass, or hot in the ass. I should point out that there's nothing to prevent my decoding of the song in this way, as I've simply expanded the meaningful context of the possible meanings of the deliberately ambiguous spelling of "Rikki." It seems to me I'm being invited to play this name game.

In my discussion of "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" of a couple blog entries ago, I linked that song with "Timothy" and "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," and subsequently I've queered all three songs. Initially, the key figure for me was the figure of the Squonk, invoked in the context of an unnamed figure in the midst of a personal crisis. In that song, the singer asks, "Have you ever seen a squonk's tears? Well, look at mine," the use of a fantastic creature suggesting some fundamental difference, an otherness, that the singer and the unnamed "you" share. The same idea is used in "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," although obviously without the figure of the Squonk.

I also earlier mentioned the song titled "The Squonk" on the Genesis album, Trick of the Tail (1976), made a couple years after Pretzel Logic. The song is used in that album as part of its general concept, songs about realities or things that no longer exist, are imaginary.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

Although highly feted during his lifetime, Sydney Pollack (pictured, with award), who died yesterday, May 26, at age 73, was never a director championed among auteur critics, and probably never shall be. While he had a long career in both television and the movies, as a director he was not as prolific as, say, Robert Altman (1925-2006), a director of his generation whose work ultimately is more significant and, overall, more interesting. But like Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, John Frankenheimer, and many other directors born during the decade 1925-1935, he is one of a select group of film directors who began in television in the 1950s and later moved to a distinguished career in motion pictures.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Sydney Pollack began acting in television in 1959 and directing in 1961. His first feature motion picture, A Slender Thread, starring Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft, was released in 1965, but most certainly it was They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), based on Horace McCoy's excellent depression-era Hollywood novel, that was his first significant work, and one widely admired by the critics. And despite the hesitations of its writer, John Milius, I still find Jeremiah Johnson (1972) a highly compelling, very watchable Western. However, nothing Sydney Pollack directed in the decade after much interested me--until Tootsie (1982), a fine comedy, in which Pollack himself acted and was excellent.

For me, though, his best film shall always be Out of Africa (1985), based on the remarkable memoir of Isak Dinesen, an old-fashioned screen romance to be sure, but which for reasons I cannot completely explain, I find the story of Karen Blixen at turns disturbing, compelling--and devastating. It was a film in development for at least a decade--in the early 1970s, for instance, Nicolas Roeg was attached to direct--but somehow, Pollack managed to get the film made, and won an Academy Award as Best Director in the process. I note that his audio commentary for the 2000 DVD release of the film release is excellent, and it remains one of my favorite films.

Perhaps that Best Director award was enough, for afterwards, he directed only five features in the next twenty years. I remember most vividly his acting appearance in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but I saw none of the pictures he directed after the mediocre Havana (1990). I found a very good obituary of Pollack here, in which critic Jeanine Basinger is quoted as saying, "Sydney Pollack has made some of the most influential and best-remembered films of the last three decades." I'm not deeply convinced of this alleged truth, but that he made at least one of my favorite films is quite enough for me.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Anthrophagic Killer

Part 2 of The Squonk

The linking of homosexuality and cannibalism in literature and art has been noted by both gay and straight critics. Critics have found the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism in the work of Freud, Herman Melville, Yukio Mishima, and, as we shall see, Tobias Schneebaum. Rupert Holmes, songwriter of the Buoys’ “Timothy” (1971) claims to have been inspired to write the song as a result of the serendipitous juxtaposition of working on an arrangement of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” (“...a coal man's made out of muscle and blood”) while watching a gourmet cooking show on TV, shortly after seeing the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) on television. I should point out that Williams’ play also links homosexuality and cannibalism, a feature of the story which Holmes doesn't mention but which would have been hard for him to have missed. A remarkable serendipity, to be sure, although most certainly the lyrics to "Timothy" support his claim about the song's diegetic action:

Trapped in a mine that had caved in
And everyone knows the only ones left
Was Joe and me and Tim
When they broke through to pull us free
The only ones left to tell the tale
Was Joe and me

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go?
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

Hungry as hell no food to eat
And Joe said that he would sell his soul
For just a piece of meat
Water enough to drink for two
And Joe said to me, “I”ll take a swig
And then there’s some for you”

Timothy, Timothy, Joe was looking at you
Timothy, Timothy, God what did we do?

I must have blacked out just around then
Cause the very next thing that I could see
Was the light of the day again
My stomach was full as it could be
And nobody ever got around
To finding Timothy

Timothy, Timothy, where on earth did you go
Timothy, Timothy, God why don’t I know?

If the act of cannibalism in the song is hard to miss, so, too, is the act of homosexuality, although both events are repressed by the traumatic blackout, hence the amnesia ("God why don't I know?"). A traumatic blackout, remember, also occurs in Ode to Billy Joe (1976), the film based on the song by Bobbie Gentry, in which a young man commits suicide after a homosexual encounter with an older man.

While Rupert Holmes, perhaps best known for the song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” cites Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer as part of the inspiration for "Timothy," there was a more sensational event linking homosexuality and cannibalism that Holmes might well have known about by 1971: the publication in 1969, by Grove Press, of Tobias Schneebaum’s memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. The memoir by Schneebaum (1922-2005) has become something of a cult classic, an early exploration into the question of embracing otherness (although an anthropologist might say it is instance of someone arguing for the principle of cultural relativism). In it, Schneebaum told how he, a gay New York painter, wound up living for about seven months among the Arakmbut (also spelled Harakumbut), cannibalistic people living in the rainforest of Peru.

In 1955, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Peru. Shortly after his arrival, he vanished into the Peruvian jungle and was presumed dead. Several months later, he emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He later said the experience had transformed him, although in a way he hardly could have imagined.

He wrote in Keep the River on Your Right:

...I knew that out there in the forest were other peoples more primitive, other jungles wilder, other worlds that existed that needed my eyes to look at them. A flash of real terror came over me.... My first thought was: I’m going; the second thought: I’ll stay there. No coming back ever. Death or life, it’s all the same. (Grove Press, 1994, p. 50)

The Arakmbut, however, welcomed him. Moreover, he discovered that homosexuality was not stigmatized there. Apparently Arakmbut men routinely had sex with women and with other men, a practice Schneebaum himself soon adopted. At any rate, perhaps the most profound experience for him was the day he accompanied the men on what he thought was a hunting trip, but which turned out to be a raid on a nearby village. The men of the nearby village were massacred by the Arakmbut (so much for the idea of "the noble savage"), and in the ensuing celebration, parts of the men were cooked and eaten. While not precisely offered a pound of flesh, Schneebaum was indeed offered a portion of a roasted human male, which he ate. Later during the celebration, he said, he ate part of a man’s heart (hence he was, for a time, an anthrophage, like the narrator of "Timothy"). Although some have found Schneebaum’s story very dubious, the author maintained the story was true to the end of his life. The documentary film, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale (2000), corroborates his claim that he indeed lived among the Arakmbut, although the issue of cannibalism remains unconfirmed.

Nonetheless, the important point is that the linkage of homosexuality and cannibalism is well established, allowing us to explore the meaning of a pop song such as "Timothy." While some may see my reading of the song as an aberrant decoding of the song, I'll point out that "Timothy" is not about cannibalism--that is the diegetic action we are encouraged to construct based on the clues the narrator gives us. To say what the narrative action consists of is not to say anything about what it means.