Monday, September 18, 2006

John Coltrane: Heavyweight Champion Ad Infenitum

When looking back on jazz musicians past, they've all had "hot streaks" or flashpoints along their recording trajectory during which they cut their important stuff and Coltrane, in my book, had two: one was when he left Miles Davis' outfit for Atlantic Records in '59, right after wrapping up his tracks on the Kind of Blue LP (he'd already begun recording the Giant Steps album) and finally stepped up to the plate to helm his own ensemble and the other's when he went to Blue Note. The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings chronicles the jazzman's tenure at that groundbreaking record label.

As compilations go, you can put CD's 1--6 on shuffle and forget about it, you're set. But if you'd like to cut to the chase for a quick pass, here's a list of deep cuts to jump to labeled disc/track:
1/3; On "Bags & Trane" JC and Milt "Bags" Jackson (vibes) saunter along like Siamese cats and Paul Chambers' bass--bowing solo would make Charles Mingus crack a crooked grin.

1/6; The hit--and--run intro on "Bebop" will raise your eyebrows (and pulse) as Coltrane lets the fingers do the talking. After Bags lays it down from the left side, Trane releases a rope--a--dope with a white--hot barrage of notage that will put you on your back -- his solo on this is one of my top 20 solos on any instrument, in any genre....

1/9; Coltrane bounces up in your face on "Giant Steps" which was re-popularized on Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues.This alternate version is my fave because it's a couple of ticks slower than the LP cut; isn't as rushed, making it easy to settle into...

2/1; On "Spiral" the rest of the quartet really shine; Tommy Flanagan's piano vamps (and solo) infused with Art Taylor (drums) and Paul Chambers (bass) keep the timing in the pocket --- Trane unveils an ever--stellar performance out in front, this is one of those cuts on which you can feel everyone involved breathing together as if they were on a stage in front of you...glorious...

2/3 and 2/2; "Countdown" (both versions) is worth noting because it's essentially a song--length solo that's that's akin to watching Bruce Lee working it out in the dojo -- no plotlines to follow, no villains, just the protagonist flexing out with his nunchuku --sonic stream of consciousness poetry, yo...

2/6; "Mr. PC" holds another one of those great cross genre solos. In it, the breathing thing returns and is evidenced when Coltrane begins to knead together a handful of his signature glisses with an authority that trumps the Franklin Mint's any day of the week --when he hits those bullseyes, you'll know it. This is another joint where Flanagan unleashe a porkpie--rockin' solo (check for the breakdown). There's a reason that the Giant Steps LP will never go out of style...

On disc 3 the quartet's lineup shifts a little when Wynton Kelly (piano) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) take their respective places. The overall feel is tweaked and exemplified on the first cut, "Like Sonny," (3/1) that feels like "this is something else" --Cobb keeps time wiht rim shots and Kelly doesn't keep his foot on the piano pedals as long as Flanagan would've; Chambers has another sweet--spot solo on here when he strums it up and Trane pours sugary stuff all over everything...

3/7; Coltrane joins forces with Ornette Coleman's Avante-Garde partners in crime Charlie Haden (bass) and, Neneh and Eagle Eye's dad, Don Cherry (trumpet) for the speedy "Cherryco." Trane and Cherry cut loose in one of tghe best sparring matches caught on tape.Here, the two dive headfirst into the (then) controversial subgenre that the LP was named after. all the pinions are firing on this joint and Coltrane's run--for--the--border note reduction will cause a white--eyed rolled--back when unleashed; this is the shite Jimi Hendrix would be searching for years later with his Stratocaster...

3/9; Charlie Haden's bass line walks you right into the brick wall of shrieking brass that's found at the beginning of "Focus on Sanity" which then segues into a Trane riff wherein the sax maestro blasts your wig back with an intricately stacked barrage of notes. Not to be outdone, Don Cherry parries and thrusts when he muscles in, first toying with the tagline and then there's a Dizzy Gillespie-ish stroll that's tied into a perfect bow when Ed Blackwell brings the gatling gun wrap--up on the drums...Trane's take on this tune is every bit as tight as it's author's (Ornette Coleman).

Discs 4 and 5 are much more mellowed out than the ones before them and the highlights that I'd point to are "My Favorite Things" *4/3), "Central Park West" (4/4), "Summertime" (4/7), "Mr. Knight" (4/10) and "Blues to Bechet" (5/6) featured sidemen include McCoy Tyner (piano), Steve Davis (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). These cuts signify Coltrane's post Avant-Garde jump back into the blues which becomes clear early on. Too, the listener can hear Trane nice it up on the soprano sax which he hadn't really done earlier.

On the sixth disc of this set, there are three standouts :
6/1; Liberia" begins with a gospel-ish testifying that expeditiously morphs into an infectious canter, with Tyner,Davis and Jones at his back, Coltrane takes the pulpit and sounds off with a heavily embroidered past wind-up -- and off they gallop! After cartwheeling through a couple of passes that allow the quartet's frontman to cut loos, McCoy Tyner rocks wild with his right hand while his left hand pops out some of the phattest chording since the Flanagan stuff mentioned above--- on like popcorn!

6/3; "Equinox" is the quintessential cafe cut on this set. The staff's primary objective, to keep everything solid while Coltrane grinds his mortar and pestle, is achieved as Trane explores practically every possible angle during the 8:32 stretch. Tyner doesn't solo on piano as much as he keeps the melodic foundation going--why fuck with the fung shui, if it's working, son?
6/4; My last "skip to" joint is the sonic odyssey that is that is "Ole" which features bass players Art Davis and Reggie Workman; Eric Dolphy on flute and Elvin Jones on drums. Coltrane pulls out but the tenor and alto saxes for this bruiser of a tun. He and his crew make use of every second of the 18 minutes to say what they have to say and it's all good---this must be what those whirling dervishes hear when they're getting'll feel it too and that's word...

Disc 7 contains 22 cuts that were thought to have been lost in 1969 when a fire destroyed practically all of Atlantic's unissued recordings ---the building was the label's archival storage facility. 6 boxes of Coltrane material wre auspiciously uncovered later on and, in keeping consistent with the compilation's title, these 22 tracks make up the set...The disc, seperated from the other 6 and presented in a CD-sized replica of an old Scotch Reel box holds 9 versions of "Giant Steps," 5 versions of "Naima" and 8 versions of "Like Sonny." Mind you, these are not all full---on recordings ;there's false starts and songs that stop midstream but still it's interesting to get a sonic glimpse of Coltrane in his element, unfettered...

In addition to all of the above, there's a hardbound, 73--page,CD-sized booklet written by Lewis Porter that dives to the core of why this portion of John Coltrane's body of work is as important to the jazz idiom now as it ever was. In it, Lewis points to articles in publications like Downbeat, Melody Maker and Critical Inquiry...there's intimate verbiage from Trane contemporaries like Yusef Lateef, McCoy Tyner, Nat Henthoff and the late, great ,engineering wizard/ producer Tom Dowd--- check for the incisive Q & A in which Joel Dorn (the compilation's producer) speaks with ("Cousin") Mary Alexander who reflects on other sides of John Coltrane that the public never saw...

There's a special place in my heart for John Coltrane's musical legacy. For me he's one of the four horsemen of saxophone (Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk are the other three) and without question the world of music took a turn for the better when he stepped into to it...

Billy Bob Thornton: School for Scoundrels (Q & A)

Last Friday, I participated in the rounds for School for Scoundrels press junket at the Four Seasons during which I sat with the film's director Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky & Hutch and Road Trip), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite and Bench Warmers), Jacinda Barrett (Ladder 49, The Human Stain and The Last Kiss) and the Oscar winning Mr. Bad Santa himself, Billy Bob Thornton. Here's what took place during Thornton's session:

Q: What's going on, man?

Billy Bob Thornton: Nothin' much.

Q: You've gotten a little tan going on there.

BT: Oh yeah, well I've been off for a little while, so...

Q: Were you on vacation?

BT: I went to San Diego, I don't go very far. I don't like to do that. [laughs]

Q: So, did you get to do any preparation for the role of Dr. P, tag along with any teachers/ professors or anything?

BT: Not really, I mean unless there's some kind of highly technical stuff, I usually don't do research. I mean, this is just people you know -- I would do research on something like when I played the head of NASA in Armageddon you've got to know what all that junk means, you can't just go say it. When I did Pushing Tin, I actually trained as an air traffic controller for a few weeks, so if you ever fly into Newark, I know how to land ya. [laughs] But other than that this is just really, to put it very simply, when you do press all I've got to do is just sit back for maybe five minutes and I know [what] all the questions are [going to be] and one of them is obviously going to be 'oh, he's such a hard-ass, he's an asshole. Does this work?' -- that sort of stuff. Instead of trying to be slick, here's the deal: why did I do this movie? I did this movie because they offered it to me. I liked the script, I like Todd Phillips, he's a good kid and I liked Napoleon Dynamite. It's fun to do comedies. Every since I did Bad Santa, they call me up when they need an asshole. [laughter]

Q: --y ou mean you've never played the asshole before? [more laughter]

BT: -- I mean, it's kind of that simple. If Bad Santa hadn't been successful, that wouldn't be the case. Because it was -- you know how the imagination in this business has gotten narrower, so the difference between this character and Bad Santa and the guy in The Bad News Bears is that those two guys really operated more from their heart, even though they were kind of crusty on the outside. [Mr. P] is operating more from his head and I would say that that's the major difference. And for me it's a good challenge, it's fun to play somebody like that. I mean in real life you don't get to boss people around like that, so, why not?

Q: You know any guys like that?

BT: I've known some teachers and coaches that were like that -- pretty close to that kind of guy.

Q: Would you ever reprise the Santa role, like in: "Willie Gets Out of Jail?"

BT: [laughs] You know, I'll tell you, if I were ever going to do a sequel to a movie, I would probably say that would be right at the top of the list. I would, absolutely, if they ever wanted to do a sequel, I would do it.

Q: Didn't they talk about it?

BT: You know what, there's always talks about a lot of stuff in the papers and on the internet -- I would say the internet is the biggest thorn in my know, I don't want to lie to you and we all know that for many years there have been things that have been said...It always starts out like that and I can remember coming in here before and someone was like "so, I hear you're don't the movie 'blah-blah-blah" and I'd never heard of it. So, that's the way that stuff starts -- there's never been any talks about doing a sequel to Bad Santa or Sling Blade or anything else. In Sling Blade, I guess, you can't really do a sequel.

Q: -- that was an incredible film, an incredible performance --

BT: -- thank you, and you can kind of see how you would want to leave it -- you don't want a sequel. Bad Santa, on the other hand, because it's a comedy who cares? It's not like you're trying to preserve some sort of dignity or anything like that --

Q: -- but it did have it's own integrity --

BT: -- it did, it absolutely did. Bad Santa actually had a pretty decent message in it but I would absolutely do a sequel to that -- I loved doing that movie. Other than that, I couldn't think of any other sequels I'd do.

Q: You think the internet is more of a Wild, Wild West than any of the tabloids are? Because you can't control the internet at all.

BT: You can't because anybody can be a critic, anybody can be a gossip monger it's not confined to being regulated [by] any sort of professionals. I mean, even if there's gossip in the papers or whatever, at least these are people that get paid to do it. Now it could just be, like, your neighbor: "he's a bastard." [laughs]

Q: Do you ever check out the stories on the internet about you?

BT: Oh gosh, no. Hell no, I don't even know how to run a computer. I don't even know how to turn it on, my girlfriend has one but I don't know anything about it. The only reason I hear about stuff is because people bring it up to me, they'll say "hey, did you see what's on the internet about Jack Johnson?" and I'm like 'no, what?' , "it turns out he hit George Clooney in the knee with a pipe" and I'm like 'I don't know.' [laughter] I went to do a TV show the other day and they said 'listen, we're running about a half hour behind, you know Whitney Houston filed for divorce, so we've got to cover it right now' and I was like "okay, I'll be over here." [laughter]

Q: You still have reporters waiting outside your house looking for your comments on certain issues?

BT: Not really. Every once in a while, you know, I'm not really that popular -- I mean I'm known more as an actor than as a celebrity. A lot of the reason is because I don't go anywhere, I don't really go to parties and I don't go to the events or anything, so...and I'm not in the celebrity marriage or relationships...I'm not really good cannon fodder.

Q: So it changed a lot when you got out of the celebrity marriage with Angelina?

BT: Absolutely, there's no question. The only time I'm really visible is when I've got a movie out, that's really about it. What's really a shame to me is that the movie's not enough. That, right now, I think the really big thing about this movie is going to be [that] I have a line in there about "the next thing you know, you guys will be adopting a Chinese baby." [laughter] Honest to God, that line was in the script, it was perfectly natural for that to be in there -- that's a big thing, adopting Chinese babies, is a big thing. This guy is saying, in the movie, [Roger, Jon Heder's character] says "oh, she and I are so tight and everything" and the joke is: yeah, I'm sure, the next thing you know, you guys are going to be doing this. It had nothing to do with anything in my life, you know what I mean? Nothing at all. It's just a line that's in a script and it's perfectly natural, it's a comedy bit that if anybody else had said it, nobody else would think anything about it. But the fact of the matter is, if somebody wants to write something negative about that, somebody out of their own ignorance, then they're bringing that on themselves. Because, first of all, Angie never adopted a Chinese baby in her life and if you want to be a racist and say "all Asians are the same," well okay but she adopted a child from Cambodia which is a different country than China. And also, an African baby -- very different from China, so it had nothing to do with that. And now I've got to deal with it. Like every stinkin' time I talk to somebody now I've got to deal with it and that was on the internet -- that started on the internet. You know, she and I are friends --

Q: -- you're still amicable?

BT: Absolutely, I mean she laughs about that [internet conjecture], she doesn't think [the adoptions are] weird but it's just so funny that people would say that. That they would want to put some negative spin on it and try to dirty our friendship which is very clean.

Q: You've always taken the high road about everything that's happened in regards to your past and that's hard to do in this business.

BT: I've had two or three relationships, in my life, that were public and I've never said a word about anybody. And I've had a couple of those relationships where I got talked about in a huge way -- I just choose to not say anything. It doesn't do anybody any good. Sometimes you suffer for it and if you don't defend yourself then somebody at K-Mart in Souix City, Iowa reads this in the grocery store -- all they have to go on it that. They don't see me defending myself, so...but you know what, I'd rather do it that way. It's just plain and simple.

Q: So, do you see yourself, since you take the high road in real life, channeling all of that anger out in the characters that you play?

BT: Probably. [laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly. Every now and then you've got to play an asshole just to grease the machine a little bit.

Q: So, is Mr. Woodcock also an asshole?

BT: Yeah, but Woodcock's a different kind of asshole. Woodcock is probably closer to Bad Santa than Mr. P. It's very darkly funny. I would say Woodcock is not as broad a comedy as School for Scoundrels. It's dark, I mean it's a commercial comedy but it has elements of an independent film in it and Scoundrels has a broader appeal, it's a slicker commercial comedy.

Q: You do an improvising with the lines that end up in the final cut?

BT: Pretty much everything was in the script -- we did very little improvisation. Some of the other guys, maybe, because they were in a lot of scenes with each other which I wasn't, so I can't speak for them. Especially when you have guys like Horatio Sanz from Saturday Night Live who are used to that. I generally improvise a lot but I didn't in this.

Q: Did you see the original version that this was based on just before shooting?

BT: I saw it years ago, I loved Terry Thomas, I thought it was great. What I did see the other night was Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and I thought he was great in that. I hadn't seen [the original in years]. I tend to not -- if I'm doing anything that has to do with an older version, like The Bad News Bears, I didn't watch that one before we did it either. I'd seen it, obviously, before but if you watch stuff just before you're about to do [a remake] it can influence you a little bit -- even if you don't mean for it to, it can kind of sneak in there, so I purposefully didn't watch it.

Q: You play music, right? What instrument?

BT: Well I grew up as a drummer and I still play, we're making a new record right now as a matter of fact, I was in the studio last night and it's pretty good.

Q: How would you describe your music?

BT: Because everything's so categorized now, you sort of have to say what it is. I mean when I was growing up radio stations would play a Deep Purple and a Black Sabbath song and a James Taylor song, all at the same station. But now everythings real compartmentalized, my stuff would probably fit into the Americana category like Steve Earle, people like that -- that's where the songs that we've had have been on the radio. Like, the Americana stations and as a result, not a whole lot of people know about my music simply because it's not on a lot of the stations.

Q: You plan on touring again?

BT: We will -- I really want to tour Europe again, too. I haven't been there in a long time...I had a great time...We were in Hamburg for three days, it's always nice to have days off in a cool place. Sometimes -- I think we had three days off (between shows) in Topeka, Kansas [laughter]...I mean I love Topeka, I love Kansas, that's kind of where I grew up in and near places like that and you can only hit a Wal-Mart so many times. [laughter] On my last two albums it's just been me and one other guy, me and my guitar player -- we do everything.

Q: You ever think about bringing on guests?

BT: On our second record we did but actually I haven't [thought about it]. Actually, on the new record, Randy Scruggs plays guitar and co-wrote one of the songs with me but other than that it's just me and the guitarist...I don't know what it's going to be called. I don't like to always name it after one of the songs but in the end, you kind of have to, I don't really know. There is a song on the new record called "I Got to Grow Up, " maybe I should name it that. [laughter]

Q: Did you do your own stunts in the movie?

BT: I think there's only one thing -- I think where he actually tackles me and we hit the tennis court, my stunt double, Mickey, did the actual fall on that because [Jon Heder] drilled [Dr. P] into the cement there but all of the being whacked with a racket and the ball shooting out of the machine, that was all real.

Q: What's with the Astronaut Farmer? That's with Virginia Madsen, right?

BT: She's terrific. The Astronaut Farmer is like a Jimmy Stewart movie, really. [As an actor] there are a few things you want to do in your career, one of those things is you want to play one of those guys in the '40s, like Bogart or, in my case, Montgomery Clift -- I've always wanted to play those parts. I got to do that with The Man Who Wasn't There by the Coen brothers. I got to play Davey Crockett and I was in Tombstone, so you always want to do a western. And I think that this was one of those things that's on most actor's lists -- I want to do that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life, they want to do that movie at some point in their career and, for me, this is the one.

Q: It's a feel good movie?

BT: Yeah, it is. This is my first more commercial movie, more accessible movie and when you get to know these guys, they really have a lot of heart and this movie does. And I've got to say, it's going to go on the list of my top three or four movies that I've ever done. I've seen it, I mean, it'll make you laugh and cry -- the whole thing. You know what's great about it? It's like an all-American, patriotic kind of movie and yet very subversive -- in other words, it's like real patriotism, not toward our current government which actually are opposed to that kind of message. It's about dreamers and how this society has started to kill dreamers. It's really, really good.

Q:You're going through a pretty good phase in your career. There's ups and down but how do you feel?

BT: I feel that I hit a stride when -- One False Move is the film that got me kicked off within the business, when [the press] and people in the business knew it. And Sling Blade is the one that got me out there to the public and then I did Armageddon and Primary Colors and I still wasn't really the guy carrying the movies. I think I hit a stride with A Simple Plan and I think from then on it's been pretty steady. I wouldn't say -- I mean, I'll probably stay about where I am for my whole career because I'm not the matinee idol type who's going to have this huge thing, where I have movies that gross 500 million dollars and stuff like that but when you look at it this way, I made Bad Santa for like 17 or 18 million dollars and it makes 70 -- percentage-wise, that's what my movies have been doing. If you looked at it that way, I don't have the huge-grossing movies but the ones that I have that are successful will always be successful within the world that I'm in now which I'm happy with. I mean, I don't really require that much. As long as I keep a good fan base and you guys like the movies okay and I do a good job in them, that's really as far as I want to go. So, I think I'm on a pretty steady path, it doesn't necessarily climb that high but it stays where it is which I think is a very good place, you know.

Q: Would you ever write a comedy?

BT: Yeah, I'd like to. I really would like to write a comedy at some time.

Q: Like a School for Scoundrels or what?

BT: I think it'd be a little more darker. I think it would be more along the lines of somewhere between the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch. [laughter]

Q: I've got to ask you this, for the copy. What do you think the underlying message to Schools for Scoundrels is?

BT: Well, I think that the double-message here is, that yeah, it's probably better to be yourself and be honest to your life but you should never let honesty and being yourself become a weakness. I think if Dr. P has a message, it's be strong. But he puts it out the wrong way. And Heder's character, he just needed to be stronger. So, Dr. P, in that sense, was right but he wasn't necessarily trying to help as much as for his own selfish reasons.

Q: Didn't you just have a baby?

BT: Yeah, well, she'll be two next month.

Q: Did you get married?

BT: Uh, no. [The baby's] name is Bella and she's just a doll. I mean, she's a great kid.

Q: Well, congratulations.

BT: Thank you.

Q: Have you met Shiloh [Angelina's baby] yet?

BT: No, no I haven't. Well every since [Brad Pitt and Jolie] did that, they've been gone, you know. And when they got back here, I was gone, so that's the problem. We don't get to see each other very often because she's all over the world. The only time I see her is on the news, really. [laughter] But we saw each other months and months ago when she was back in L.A. for a little bit but it was before the adoption and everything...

Just like the time I sat with Angelina Jolie, the media myth belied the energy of the actual person. To me, dude seemed to be at ease with everything and the lore of the crusty wild man, writer/ actor guy was laid to rest...oh yeah, the movie's funny too, yo...

School for Scoundrels opens nationally September 29th.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

See American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986

I just checked a screening of American Hardcore: The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986 that I had Mogged about earlier and the verdict is in: it's a hands-down must-see... I was in a room with 30 other music geeks and it was unanimous and it was everything that Afro Punk wasn't...the viewer's given a glimpse of what it was like to be in on one of the most mis-understood/ mis-used subgenres in the music industry...Ian MacKaye (of Minor Threat) reveals why he got out of the scene, Henry Rollins (first of S.O.A. and then of Black Flag) drops some insight as does Bad Brains' Darryl Jenifer, Dr. Know and more prolifically, HR, who's morphed into the antithesis of what he used to be in terms of delivery -- still tight, tho...for those who've heard the lore, this film will shed a lot of shine on what went down in New York's Alphbet City, Hermosa Beach and Calvert Street in DC; the no-holds barred exposition of Keith Morris (Circle Jerks), John Joseph and Harley Flanagan (the Cro-Mags) cuts right to the chase as all of these cats throw in their own brand of snap, crackle poo with humorous and incisive results...there's also Lucky Lehrer (Circle Jerks), Chris Doherty (Gang Green), Flea (who played in Fear before slipping on his tube sock with the Red Hot Chilipeppers) and David Brockie (from Gwar, yo!) the list is long, son-- hell, fuckin' Duff McKagan of G'n R drops a little bit science and it's all butter...

American Hardcore does not disappoint and covers a lot of ground in n addition to exploring the scenes in D.C. and Los Angeles director Paul Rachman goes up into Boston then cuts into the deep south and moves into Texas, the mid-west, the Pacific North west and circles back down into San Francsco, LA and the South Bay area...driven along by a rock-solid soundtrack, hardcore rockers will see rare, grainy (oh, how punk) footage of live performances like "Corporate Deathburger" by M.D.C. or "Seeing Red" by Minor Threat or "Joshua's Song" (Bad Brains) or "Kill a Commie" (Gang Green) goes on and on...Posers need not apply: even though X wasn't covered in it as I'd hoped, this one's a must-see for anybody remotely interested in what the hardcore scene was really about -- I'm going to go and check this one again, in a big movie house that houses industrial-sized, THX speakers...This one will hold you from beginning to end and if you're not careful, you might learn a little something-something -- it's all killer and no filler!!! American Hardcore:The History of American Punk Rock 1980-1986 opens in NYC on Sept. 22nd, LA on Sept. 29th and everywhere else in October...check it when it drops...

Monday, September 11, 2006

On 9/11: Don't Forget to Live

Five years ago, right about this time on this date I was shake awake by my new roomate who had a wild-eyed look on his face that I'd never seen before as the horror show, that unfolded into the day that we now call nine-eleven. Although I'd relocated to Los Angeles, as a person who'd live in and still loved New York City the reality of what was taking place was surreal and to some extent it still is...many people cope with larger-than-life adversity like those planes crashing into those towers by different means -- I feel an acute sense of dread whenever I think about what went on there and the many twists our lives take wherein we're given the chance to either learn something about ourselves and those around us or we don't...

A few weeks ago I went into one of my hangouts on Melrose to watch the rest of a golf match. I kind of just walked right in and pulled up a stool while my eyeballs were glued to the leaderboard. Soon I noticed that there were a group of people pestering the guy sitting next to me -- it was Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. I nodded a what's up and asked him if the admitted Crüe were doing anything that day -- there was a popular L.A. Music festival going on that weekend called Sunset Junction. He assured me that he wasn't and he was just kicking it on Melrose, same as me. I felt for the guy as the tourists kept buggin' him but you'd never know it; he was as gracious as they come when eh really didn have to be because the shine's worn off of him a while ago.

After the golf game ended, I went to my meeting which was on the other side of Hollywood in Los Feliz in a French Bistro over on Vermont. I arrived a few minutes earlier than I'd planned and ordered a whiskey to sip on while I read a magazine at a table out on the sidewalk. Eventually I finished the magazine and realized that it was around 7 PM, the guy I was supposed to meet flaked and left a message on my voicemail instead of calling -- I wasn't really in the mood for glad-handing at the moment anyway; the sun was setting behind the trees across the street from me and as I looked up Vermont toward the affluent neighborhood on the hill it climbed, the suns's golden rays began to dapple the green treetops with it's halcyon rays and further up they appeared to make this big white art deco mansion glow like a pearl in the green fields that lead to the Griffith Observatory...I realized that a placid scenario such as this might've taken place on a side street in the city of Pompeii just seconds before Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried it's inhabitants white ash and mud...according to the books, there were foreshocks and warnings that went because the citizenry had gotten used to the rumbling mountain; the way things were...and they paid the ultimate price for it...
That chain of events and the scenario came to my mind when I woke up this morning and realized what day it took me back half a decade to the day and made me wonder aloud "had we, as a country, learned anything from the loss?" I've braced myself for the onslaught of "in memoriam" activities that will be held today and it brings a chill to my spine thinking of the vultures who will use this day as a political football ad infinetum...who will continue to cause pain and suffering in far away lands while lining their pockets because everyone's just grown used to the drumbeat of the status quo -- be it in their best interests or not...this day has become, for me, a day of uneasy anticipation and of undeniable hope. It's been said that many people define their existence by the experiences they live through and no day like today brings that home clearer to me...I shudder to think of what raced through the minds of the thousands who got buried alive on that day and it makes me realize that no matter how tough things get, I have a little say in the matter. The innocent people who went down in those planes that razed the Twin Towers didn't have that luxury, neither did those people who happened to be in Pompeii during the first century; all of this makes me stop and take a pause to take stock of why I do what I'm doing here and in other places...try more to enjoy the paths that life takes us on because you never know when your time is up...I don't think that there's ever going to be full closure in regards to what went down on today's date five years ago, however, we shouldn't let that dissuade us from soaking in the world around us and the unique places/ scenarios we might find ourselves in, no matter how quotidian and mundane; savor the moments that you have as they're all precious and can be taken away in the blink of an eye...

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rater Haters: Kirby Dick & Eddie Schmidt

Two weeks ago I covered This Film is Not Yet Rated which is set to hit theaters in L.A. and NYC today -- although there's a definite skew to how the film's presented, I think it should still be seen. Here's what went down two weeks ago at the Four Seasons when I spoke to Kirby Dick (director) and Eddie Schmidt (producer).

Q: So do you think once this film's out, you'll ever be able to get another movie rated?

Kirby Dick: "We'll see, we'll see. On the blacklist we've risen to the top. (laughs) I think what it all comes down to is: if the film makes money, I'll be good. "

Q: I take you've had run-ins with the MPAA?

KD: Yes, in a sense, yes -- not in terms of any of my films getting rated in ways that I didn't want them to get rated. But "for many years, I, like many film makers, have been pretty upset with the way that the ratings have been administered, in particular, the art films get such stringent ratings. I've wanted to make something on the MPAA and it's rating system for many years but because they are so secretive, all I could [conceive] of making was a clip film of interviewing film makers and hearing their experiences."

And then when Eddie and I hit upon the idea of hiring a private investigator, we realized that this really could make the film because we could follow the arc of this PI. You're sort of in a cinema verite fashion which is where we come from. And also, if we outed the raters, we'd be able to hit at the core of the secrecy. So, yeah, I've had it in for this rating system for a long time.
Q: Isn't that a really strong bias to hire a private investigator to find certain things? It's like she found what you wanted to find.

KD: What she found was just facts. The facts that everyone should know about -- if this rating system is for the public [then] it should be [made] public. In Western Europe rating system, everyone knows who the raters are, so what she did was something [the MPAA] should've done a long, long time ago; what many journalists have tried -- you know 60 Minutes, Nightline -- and were unable to do and finally, we were able to do. I mean, this was something that should've been out many years ago.

Eddie Schmidt: "It's interesting that you ask about the bias. We didn't want to -- at first we wanted to research the film in the traditional way but the MPAA doesn't release the information on how films are rated. You can't get a file and see how they voted on, like, Mission: Impossible, you can't do that, it doesn't exist." I mean it exists up until around 1969 or something, if you go to the Academy library, and then it's cut off as soon as Jack Valenti takes over. So, there's no way to find out about the processes since the raters are kept secret, unless someone really wants to go out on a limb, you can't talk to them. I mean when we were trying to find raters -- some raters would say "I can't talk to you, how did you get this number?" And even if you were like 'I just want to know about your experience' they'd say 'I had a great experience but I can't talk to you.' "We wanted to talk to people within the studios who were able to work the system well, they didn't want to talk because they didn't want to lose their jobs." And we tried to get interviews with Dan Glickman and Jack Valenti and we got no response at all -- there was an effort made to try to get their side of the story but they don't want anyone to examine the system at all so there's really no way to get their side of the story.

Q: I agree that the system's screwed up in some ways but did it ever come up to mention the Senate hearings a decade or so ago wherein the studio heads were getting screamed on by the public? Did you ever think of looking into why the studios don't want to back off of the MPAA system? Did you guys realize that those hearings were something to talk about?

ES: Yeah, we were aware of that, but they were being chastised for their marketing -- it had to do with their advertising and kids seeing advertisements for R rated films so we don't cover advertising. We're covering the arc of the film, itself, going through the process and having scenes from it excised so that the actual work of art gets altered, so we don't really cover the marketing side.

Q: Well, when a studio looks at a movie, they also look at what they can use for advertising because the MPAA also governs their market.

ES: They do, that's totally true. I had a background in [editing] trailers so, I knew about all of the marketing stuff and it would've been another film. The congressional stuff we actually did look at -- had copies of the transcripts and looked at it -- but it had more to do with what time television spot's in and what kids saw of certain things at certain times. It didn't have [anything] to do with the ratings board because the trailers are administered by MPAA execs, not by the ratings board -- they don't weigh in on the trailer decisions. So you're right, it is significant but we thought it was significant in that it had to do with marketing.

Q: There was also something in there about censorship but isn't censorship more of an issue with the government, rather than the MPAA because they can't censor, according to the definition of the term?

KD: Well, they do though. I mean censorship can be economics, censorship can be the government -- there's only one ratings system, one major ratings system in this country. If the MPAA gives the rating of NC-17, it restricts how that film gets out into the marketplace. I think we should back up here just a little bit. The MPAA, I think, really don't cares whether there's ratings or not but if there is going to be a rating system, they want to control it. Because they want to make sure that their films get out to the widest possible audience and so they make the most amount of money. They tend to make films that are more targeted towards adolescents, films that tend to have more violence -- those films get less restrictive ratings. And their competition's films which are foreign films and independent films often have much more adult sexuality -- those films get more restrictive ratings. So they've set up a system where their films can get through and they can make more money and their competition's films are hurt. Now, you can call that censorship, you can call that restraining trade, you can call it whatever you want to call that. But that's the net effect of this. Remember, the MPAA controls 95% of the film business -- I mean, pretty much they run the show. This is what this film is taking issue with: if they're going to set up a system, then set up a system that's open. Why not have it open? What are they hiding? There's no reason not to have it open -- set up a system that's fair. And then we can discuss whether the specifics of the ratings are appropriate or not. If there's a problem.

ES: The studios know which video chains and theater chains won't carry certain [types of] films with certain restrictive ratings. And they're also, since they're controlling 95% of the business, they're putting money into films with contracts where directors are beholden to a certain rating. Then they're also setting up the system that administers the ratings, so, you're pretty caught. If that's not de facto economic censorship [then what is]?

KD: And the last thing is that "the studios, they claim that the raters' names are kept secret is to protect them from [any outside] influence but the studios are the only people who have access to [the raters]. Heads of production, post-production supervisors have an ongoing relationship with these people -- it's like what Matt Stone [Southpark co-creator] said, it's been corroborated time and time again, if it's a studio film -- you're given advice even before you submit your film -- there's a dialogue that goes back and forth through the entire process - [with] the independent film makers, you have no clue. In fact, because there's so little information that gets out all of the film makers who got NC-17 in our film, that we interviewed were all trying to make an "R" rated film, in fact they had because there are no standards published -- they don't have this access to find out. If they were working with a [major] studio this would not have happened."

Q: Essentially you're saying that it's like it was in the early days of American cinema when the major studios formed cartels with movie houses across the country to keep out foreign competitors?

KD: I think so -- the ratings are just one aspect of it. Again, they look at every aspect of the business to maximize profit and this is one of the ways that they can do it.

Q: Is there one ratings system in particular that you'd like to implement other than the one that we have now?

KD: "I feel that the most important thing is that the information about what is in a film gets out -- the parents can make the decision. Right now, without written standards, these lettered ratings do not mean a whole lot and parents know that. Terry Webb, who's associated with UCLA, her studies bore out the fact that there are many R-rated films that had much less violence in them than [some] PG-rated films. It's not a professionally developed set of standards. They don't have experts on the board [of directors] and so it's a very haphazard, in that way -- very subject to outside influence, again, because it's secret. I would like to see an open system, experts on the board, written standards. I'd like to see a system where you can make a film for adults and not get an NC-17 rating that stigmatizes it. Perhaps there should be a rating between the R and the NC-17; in other countries you could get an 18-plus, certainly there's a lot of press around it, but it doesn't stigmatize it. Here, it very severely impacts it."

ES: "You know, in every other Western European nation, the ratings board members are known to the public -- they're only kept a secret here. I mean the secrecy, it just, I mean in a democracy, secrecy of any kind where it relates to the public -- public good, public interest -- is generally bad."

KB: I mean if it's for the public, it should be public -- look what's happening with the Bush administration.

Q: - set standards by who?

KB: That's a good question and "I think to develop a professional set of standards takes time. Obviously, there are constituencies that would have to weigh in...I agree that there are parents that don't want their children to see certain films, there are adults who don't want to see certain films. The should know what is in those films so that they can make that choice. I don't think it should just be Matt Stone and Martin Scorsese making the system, I think it should be the entire range of the industry, outside the industry as well. I completely agree with that. And I think it would take some time...Keep in mind, kids do [eventually] see the films here -- they see them on DVD. The MPAA has set up a system here where they get to see the same film twice -- the R-rated version or the NC-17 version, then the unrated version that comes out on DVD. Again, this is another way that they're very cleverly using the ratings system to maximize profits. "

ES: -- and I do think that -- if you think of it this way -- if they're seeing three films a day and they're mostly seeing Hollywood films, Hollywood knows how to market its violence in a certain way. So, if you're conditioned to seeing, let's say, certain cliches to the genre, or an actor that you know well who you know is going to triumph in the end, you might be inclined to take that content in a different way than for a film that you're not familiar with where the tone is a little different and you think 'oh, this film doesn't -- you may not even be fully conscious of it -- that it's following the subconscious rules of Hollywood film making. Therefore, it is going to be under a stricter standard and I think that applies to both foreign films and independent films that deal with more edgier topics or may have a more gray area of tone, it's not black and white -- it's more adult. I think that's where you're finding those films having trouble because they're being held to standards that are for 17 and under, very clear cut, black and white: not challenging."
Q: What would you want people to take from this film?

KD: I would like people to -- I mean this film deals with ratings but it also deals with other issues too like history of the House of Un-American Activities...I think for too long people, even academics, have looked at the film business in terms of stars, grosses and directors. I want people to look at this industry just like any other industry and realize that it's a bottom line business -- that's what business is -- and oftentimes they make decisions that are not in the best interests of the public. I want that critique to be out there, this information to be out there because right now Hollywood is a marketing industry and they market themselves very, very well and this is just a little bit of a wakeup call, I think.

Q: You said in the film that a lot of the hit films made in the 70's (A Clockwork Orange and Deliverance come to mind) wouldn't have even been made these days. Do you think the current political climate that the country's in right now has allowed what goes on at the MPAA to be even more pervasive than at any other time?

KD: I think that that's a part of it but I think in the 70's the studios were interested more in making art movies, taking chances -- they're not anymore. They've got a formula now that's much more geared towards adolescents and that's where they see their money is. They don't even want their film makers going out in that [artistic] direction except for maybe to make a few Academy nominated films. I don't even see a film studio making a Midnight Cowboy or anything like that -- that's all changed...Films can be made for any audience and everybody has a right to see whatever film they want to, that's all we're saying. We want you to have access to the films that you'd want to see...that's all we want.

ES: And I think that as far as what you were asking, why Deliverance would get rated more harshly today, is because the system won't allow us an opening. You know John Waters asked in the film if he got a harsher rating because the Abu Gharaib pictures were released a week before they viewed [A Dirty Rotten Shame] -- it's because the system's closed, there's no way for us to tell.

This Film is Not Yet Rated opens in LA & NYC today.