Sunday, February 18, 2007

Track Marks, Part One

You never know what you’ll get with DVD commentary tracks. Some are pointless recitations of the action you’re already watching; others are brilliant and insightful companion pieces. Some will keep you rapt, others will have you hitting the STOP button after five minutes.

In the Netflix era, many commentaries probably go unheard in the rush to return the disc and get another. And if you weren’t that crazy about the film the first time, why watch it again? But occasionally the commentaries are hidden gems, sometimes more compelling than the films themselves.

They can also be instructive, specifically about how certain scripts were conceived, developed and eventually filmed. In his commentary for the special edition of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, director William Friedkin refers to the film’s handful of deleted scenes as “scaffolding.” You need them during the construction of the building, he says, but once it’s built, they’re redundant.

That’s true of writing fiction as well, I think. I had Friedkin’s remarks in mind when I cut nearly 20,000 words out of THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE before delivering it for the first time. The initial draft had a lot of backstory on the characters, which was necessary for me to know as I was writing it. But once I’d completed that draft and understood the characters more, I could mercilessly trim what wasn’t essential.

Commentaries can also be master classes on the film in question, even when they’re recorded by someone not involved in the production of the film. The best example of that right now is Eddie Muller, a k a The Hardest-Working Man in Noir. Muller, who’s also the author of the novels THE DISTANCE and SHADOW BOXER, is one of the principal commentators on the Fox Film Noir series (he also co-authored the recent autobiography, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” and runs the annual “Noir City” film festival in San Francisco.). Muller’s scene-specific commentary on films such as NO WAY OUT (pictured), ANGEL FACE and I WAKE UP SCREAMING are both entertaining and packed with information. Muller not only does his homework, but his enthusiasm for the films comes across as well. Often, as the final credits are rolling, you feel he still has more to say.

Over the next few days, and periodically after that, I’ll be listing (in rough alphabetical order) what I feel are some of the best – or at least most entertaining – DVD commentaries out there today. Comments and recommendations welcome.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Genius at work

Let us now praise YouTube, which allows us access to something like this, which is probably funnier than anything on Saturday Night Live in the last 20 years. The same folks are responsible for this and this.

Some other links for the week:

^ She's the high priestess of punk and a recent inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Jersey girl Patti Smith is still a kid at heart. Check out this appearance on the ABC Saturday morning show "Kids Are People Too" from 1979. And she knew all the words ... or most of them at least.

^ In keeping with his practice of occasionally previewing new music on his web site, Richard Thompson has recently posted an Mp3 of his song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," from his forthcoming album "Sweet Warrior." The "Dad" is Baghdad and the song is one of his best in years.

^ And on the same topic, if you want to get really depressed about the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq, check out this clip from a 2003 "Frontline" special.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

An eclectic musical weekend ...

... and it was. First up, on Friday night, was the great Dave Alvin and his band The Guilty Men at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Alvin, formerly of the Blasters, is one of America's great unheralded songwriters. Whether you've heard of him or not, chances are you've heard one of his songs - "Fourth of July" (recorded by X and featured on a SOPRANOS episode last season), "Marie Marie," "So Long Baby Goodbye," "Long White Cadillac," "Bus Station," "Dry River" ... the list goes on. Alvin, sharing a bill with James McMurtry and The Heartless Bastards, opened the show with an 80-minute set that included only one song (Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend") from his latest album "West of the West," but leaned heavily on material from previous albums, including 2004's "Ashgrove." Foremost among these was his noir epic "Out of Control" ("Baby's gotta make a living/ And I don't mind waiting out in the car/ I've got some nine-millimeter muscle/ In case things go too far"), which he introduced as a "new economic blues."

I was listening to Alvin a lot while writing THE HEARTBREAK LOUNGE, and a handful of his songs - especially "Interstate City," "Abilene" and "Out in California" sort of made their way into that novel by osmosis. As a nod to Alvin, when Johnny Harrow goes to ground in a seedy Asbury Park motel in HEARTBREAK, I put him in room 503, which figures prominently in "Interstate City."

Saturday night was quite a different event: Legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone's first-ever U.S. performance, held at Radio City Music Hall. With a 100-piece orchestra and 100-member choir, Morricone conducted selections from his film scores over the years (he's done nearly 500), and the two-hour program featured excerpts from, among others, CINEMA PARADISO, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE MISSION and, of course, THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.

Having had much of that music as a personal soundtrack in my head for many years, it was slightly strange to hear it in a cavernous hall like Radio City, with audience members rapturously air-conducting with closed eyes and yelling "Bravo!" at the end of every movement. In addition, the Westerns that Morricone scored for director Sergio Leone (at right with Morricone in the photo above) are so irreverent and sardonic (lots of squinting and sweating and scratching), that hearing their music performed in such a formal concert setting was odd. To have the maestro (in tux and tails) walk off-stage and return with the soprano on his arm, preparatory to her singing the coyote howl of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, seemed a weird and not totally comfortable collision of worlds.

Still, it was a magic night (though a pre-concert announcement calling it "one of the greatest events in the history of New York" brought snickers from the waiting audience). Reviewer Bradley Bambarger summed the whole event up beautifully in his review for the Newark Star-Ledger, which can be found here. Morricone picks up a well-deserved honorary Oscar later this month, but why it took so long is an answer only the Academy knows.