Friday, December 18, 2009

ELVIS In March

According to, John Carpenter’s 1979 Emmy-nominated biopic, Elvis, with Kurt Russell playing Elvis Presley, is scheduled for release on DVD on March 2, 2010. The long-awaited release of the film on DVD coincides with the 75th anniversary of Elvis’s birth on January 8th. The film represents the first collaboration of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, and earned Russell a Golden Globe nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor. Serendipitously, as a child actor, Kurt Russell had a small role in Elvis’s It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), filmed late in 1962. My own memory of John Carpenter's Elvis is imperfect, although I remember liking it. The film appeared on American television in the years before I owned a VCR, and I’ve never had the opportunity to see it in the years since.

From the press release:

Timed closely to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth, Shout! Factory, in association with Dick Clark Productions, present Elvis on DVD for the first time March 2, 2010. This collectible DVD features the main presentation of the movie restored from the original film elements as it was meant to be seen, as well as an array of bonus features including: “Bringing A Legend To Life,” a featurette with archival interviews of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter (1979); commentary by “The Voice Of Elvis,” Ronnie McDowell, and author Edie Hand; rare clips and captivating photo gallery. Even 33 years after his passing, Presley continues to burn a powerful image of rock stardom and still conquers new legions of fans through his indelible mark in worldwide pop culture. Available for the first time in the home entertainment marketplace, this long-awaited DVD debut of the film Elvis is priced to own at $19.97. Directed by John Carpenter, the biopic of Elvis stars Kurt Russell and features the [70s] country music hitmaker Ronnie McDowell re-creating Presley’s signature vocals. Tracing Presley's life from his impoverished childhood to his meteoric rise to stardom to his triumphant return to Las Vegas, this film boasts an all-star ensemble including Academy Award® winner Shelley Winters (A Place In The Sun) as Elvis' mother Gladys; Season Hubley (All My Children) as his wife Priscilla; Kurt Russell’s real-life father Bing Russell (The Magnificent Seven) as Elvis’s father Vernon Presley; Pat Hingle (Batman) as Colonel Tom Parker; Robert Gray (Murder She Wrote) as Red West; Golden Globe nominee Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) as Memphis mafia member Joe Esposito; and Golden Globe nominee Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere) as D.J. Fontana.

  • “Bringing A Legend To Life” Featurette With Archival Interviews Of Kurt Russell And John Carpenter (1979)
  • Commentary By “The Voice Of Elvis” Ronnie McDowell And Author Edie Hand
  • Rare Clips From American Bandstand
  • Photo Gallery

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jennifer Jones, 1919-2009

Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones (born Phylis Lee Isley), who won an Academy Award for her performance as saint-to-be Bernadette in The Song of Bernadette (1943), died today at her Malibu home at the age of 90. The accomplished actress was married to two famously self-made men, motion picture producer David O. Selznick, who died in 1965, and millionaire industrialist Norton Simon, who died in 1993. Her first marriage, to actor Robert Walker, ended in divorce in 1945; she married David O. Selznick shortly after the divorce was final. Her final screen appearance was 35 years ago, in the big-budget disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974), but despite a successful Hollywood career in which she won the award for Best Actress and garnered several additional Academy Award nominations for her exceptional acting, she is notorious for having starred in the Sixties film produced by American International Pictures (AIP), Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969), subsequently re-released and re-titled Cult of the Damned.

In writer-director Robert Thom’s Sixties oddity, Jones, then at or near 50 years old and in her penultimate film performance, portrayed the icy, abusive mother of a painfully insecure daughter played by folk singer Holly Near. In the course of the film, Jones delivered perhaps one of the most oft-quoted lines in all of trash cinema, “I’ve made thirty stag films and I never faked an orgasm.” Yet despite its widespread reputation as a trash cinema classic, Angel, Angel Down We Go is not a total waste of time despite the efforts of some to transform it into camp, and is perhaps best described as a low-brow Teorema (1968), although Joseph Losey’s Boom! (with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams) was released earlier the same year, and has a number of contingent connections as well. I cannot say whether Robert Thom was directly influenced by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial film, Teorema, which, according to the IMDB, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1968, but Angel, Angel Down We Go—this again according to the IMDB—opened in New York almost a year after, in August 1969. In Pasolini’s earlier and overtly allegorical film, a strange visitor, played by Terence Stamp, arrives at the household of a wealthy family and sexually seduces all of them—the maid, the son, the mother (played by Silvana Mangano), the daughter, and eventually the father. The family members all seem to have something close to a transcendent experience as a result of their intimate experiences with the charismatic young man, but soon after his final seduction, he leaves, and each member of the family (except for the maid, a peasant woman) undergoes an emotional breakdown, presumably because they are selfish, self-indulgent, and coldly materialistic (except for the good maid—salt of the earth) bourgeoisie.

Produced by Jerome F. Katzman, son of the legendary exploitation film producer Sam Katzman, Angel, Angel Down We Go starred Jones (but why not Thom’s wife, actress Millie Perkins?), Jordan Christopher, Roddy McDowall, Holly Near, Lou Rawls, and Charles Aidman. The Terence Stamp role is played by Jordan Christopher (playing “Bogart Peter Stuyvesant”) who, while not exactly a dead ringer for Jim Morrison, is close enough in appearance to the Lizard King that the resemblance is hard to miss (and just so connection can’t be missed, he’s the leader of a rock band). The band plays a slew of songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, including Angel, Angel Down We Go, “Mother Lover,” “Hey, Hey, Hey,” “The Fat Song,” and “Hi Ho,” and has been considered by some as a sort of companion piece to AIP’s earlier Wild in the Streets (1968), about a pop star becoming President of the United States, which was also written by Thom. (According to Louis Black, Renata Adler and Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “Wild in the Streets is a kind of instant classic, a revved up La Chinoise or Privilege for the drive-ins in summertime.”)

Hence my belief that Angel, Angel Down We Go, which like Wild in the Streets also features a pop star as demigod, should be considered the Teorema of the drive-in set. After insinuating himself into the Steele household, Stuyvesant first seduces the plump neurotic debutante daughter, Tara (Holly Near), then the (neurotic) mother, Astrid (Jones), and finally the ineffectual father (Charles Aidman), with whom he is shown taking a shower - daring stuff for AIP in 1969. Thom seemed to wish to expose the ideological bankruptcy of Tara's materialistic parents, revealing their utter failure to be beneficent, nurturing parents as well as positive role models, in effect encouraging their hapless daughter to seek acceptance from a self-absorbed nihilist such as Bogart Peter Stuyvesant (“Bogie”). Thus, like other films of the 1960s such as The Chase (1966), it explores with a cynical eye the ideological exhaustion of that most cherished of American institutions, the American family. If you go over here, you can find a reasonably accurate transcription of the film’s action and dialogue, along with a rather interesting speculation about the way the film interacts with Gone With the Wind (1939), produced by Jones’ once husband, David O. Selznick (the Holly Near character is named Tara, after the name of the plantation owned by Scarlett O’Hara’s father).

Rather than disparage her participation, I have always considered Jennifer Jones’ appearance in the film as both bold and audacious, a “risk” that someone in her position could, and in fact, was ideally suited, to take. (She certainly did not need to work.) Although she gave up acting decades ago, the death of Jennifer Jones reminds us of the ever-receding cultural distance of Old Hollywood, as well as that elusive quality that made her a star, glamor.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Imagining Disaster

Recent releases such as WALL-E (2008), Terminator Salvation (2009), and 9 (2009) reveal that the imagination of disaster is a robust motion picture genre, as popular now as it was during the decades of the Cold War. Stories about the catastrophic end of civilization are ancient, of course. I was about to say that animated films such as Pixar’s WALL-E and the Tim Burton-(co)produced 9 reveal that post-apocalyptic stories are now being made for kids, but it occurred to me that outside of a few exceptions, they always have been. When I was a kid, books such as Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold (1964) transformed nuclear disaster into a big, exciting adventure story, in effect allaying any fears I might have about a nuclear war. (I was one of those kids you have seen in those old civil defense films sliding off his desk chair onto the floor and covering his head with his hands, playing “duck and cover.”) No doubt this is what Susan Sontag meant, in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster,“ that fantasy serves to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.” She said science fiction disaster films are a kind of “collective nightmare” that “reflect world-wide anxieties” but also “serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alienness, with the grossly familiar.” They are, finally, “in complicity with the abhorrent.”

While I think the vast majority of Sontag’s points are still valid, she wrote the essay 45 years ago, a couple of years after the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis” (October 1962) and decades before 9-11. What the events of that latter event reveal is the relationship between a catastrophic historical event and the subsequent instability of the so-called “metaphysical realm,” the way one’s “world view” is supported and enabled by one’s daily existence. Put in another way, the world looks vastly different depending on which way the gun is pointed. As long as the gun is pointed in the right direction, one’s life is both content and perhaps even banal - “routine.” But once the gun is pointed in the wrong direction, though, the beauty and stability of the world is no longer assured, and complacency is impossible. Do the post-apocalyptic films released since 9-11 reflect this fear? As David Byrne sings in “Life During Wartime,”

This ain’t no party
This ain’t no disco
This ain’t no fooling around

13 Songs About (Mostly Nuclear) Apocalypse:
Black Sabbath – Electric Funeral
The Clash – London Calling
Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Donald Fagen – New Frontier
Jimi Hendrix – 1983... (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)
Jefferson Airplane – Wooden Ships
King Crimson – Epitaph (including "March For No Reason" and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow")
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Men At Work – It’s A Mistake
Nena – 99 Luftballons
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Enola Gay
Rush – Distant Early Warning
Talking Heads – Life During Wartime

Monday, December 14, 2009

White Christmas

I’ve hardly done an exhaustive study, but I suspect that virtually every major popular singer or band has made a Christmas album, or at the very least recorded a Christmas song. I’m reasonably sure, though, that next to Bing Crosby’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” perhaps the most famous Christmas song is Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting over an open fire…”). But like Crosby’s version of “White Christmas,” the most widely known version of Cole’s “The Christmas Song” isn’t the original recording. Interestingly, both songs date from the World War II era, the first (surviving) recording of “White Christmas” dating from 1942 (issued on record in conjunction with the release of the film Holiday Inn) and “The Christmas Song” from 1944, written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells and perhaps inspired by the massive popular success of “White Christmas.”

The Nat King Cole Trio recorded “The Christmas Song” twice over the space of two months in 1946, the second version recorded with a small string section. It was this second version, released in November 1946, that became the huge hit. However, the version that receives the most airplay today, and the one I heard on the radio yesterday, is the version Cole re-recorded in stereo in 1961. As a consequence of hearing the song yesterday, I was motivated to peruse James Haskins’ and Kathleen Benson’s Nat King Cole: A Personal and Professional Biography. They indicate that although Cole won over a white audience in 1946 with “The Christmas Song,” he continued to suffer at the hands of white bigots. For instance, when he moved into a largely white neighborhood in Los Angeles in 1948, various acts of vandalism were committed against his house. At another time Cole’s daughter recalled, “Someone came in the night and on the front lawn they burned the word ‘Nigger.’ This was an isolated incident, but it was so powerful—burned in the lawn. I think I went out that morning to wait for the school bus, and here was this word. And it seemed to take the longest time for the grass to grow in. The shadow of that word was always there” (p. 81). In 1949, Cole was unjustly harassed by the IRS, and in April 1956—eighteen months after the release of the “beloved” Christmas movie, White Christmas (1954), starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye (pictured above, with Cole)—members of the White Citizens’ Council, an organization advocating regional resistance to the Supreme Court and Federal prerogatives regarding race, attacked Cole on stage in his home town of Birmingham, Alabama. (A month before, Martin Luther King was on trial in Montgomery, Alabama for leading a conspiracy to violate the state’s boycott laws, for which he was found guilty.) I conclude that ten years after Cole’s hit recording of “The Christmas Song,” and in the context of the Civil Rights era, the song could no longer encourage white audiences to believe that the suppressed anger felt by a black man could be channeled into ”harmless” music.