WEIRDLAND

Monday, May 06, 2019

Under the Silver Lake, Raymond Chandler

Under the Silver Lake (2018): It’s a movie that loves the art of decades past, and hates who perverts it. It reminded me of both David Foster Wallace and Raymond Chandler. David Robert Mitchell described the Cannes premiere as difficult. “I always knew the film would be divisive, but you never know quite to what degree,” he says. “But if I have a frustration, it’s that some people have perceived the film to be misogynistic, which is personally very painful. I just so strongly disagree. This character is disconnected from the world and is struggling with feelings of misogyny — that’s a core element of what this movie is about. I assume that most people will see him beating up children and staring at women’s bodies as offensive behavior, and I don’t think I need to constantly tell everyone that. For people to imagine that we’re celebrating it is just disappointing.” The names Sam and Sarah plus the Kurt Cobain poster in Sam’s bedroom are references to the Samsara and Nirvana of Buddhism, which could mean the whole movie is Sam’s dying fever dream. 

Is Sam a private dick, or just the common of garden variety? In a discussion about the pervasiveness of pop music, Sam glances up from a Fender Mustang guitar and says “I don’t believe you”– the same words Bob Dylan used in response to the heckler who branded him a Judas for going electric? In a daring and brilliant coup, the movie conspires finally to show Sam stranded outside his own life, staring in at it like the homeless people he admits to despising. The plush orchestral score maintains the connection to LA film noir, and Sam does his bit, too. He’s the big sleepwalker, stuck in a lonely place, about as much good as the corpse in the pool in Sunset Boulevard. And the film’s barrage of dream-logic surrealism should pay royalties to the Lost Highway-era David Lynch. Source: www.newstatesman.com

Film noir is often referred to in spatial terms, as a world or a universe. The classical canon is itself replete with enigmatic aphorisms about it, whether “a blue, sick world” (Dead Reckoning, John Cromwell, 1947), or “a bright, guilty world” (The Lady from Shanghai, Orson Welles, 1948). In The Big Sleep (1939), the novel in which private investigator Philip Marlowe makes his first appearance, Raymond Chandler gives us this condensed version: “The tyres sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.” As the novel reaches its climax, the wetness has gained momentum: “The tumbling rain was solid white spray in the headlights. The windshield wiper could hardly keep the glass clear enough to see through.” At some point, Marlowe reaches an outer limit where social space ends, yet something is evoked beyond it. The hallmark of Chandler’s prose, Fredric Jameson argues (in his essay 'The Synoptic Chandler'), coordinates this social environment against “the presence of some vaster, absent natural unity beyond this ephemeral set of episodes in punctual human time.” Jameson demonstrates how the novels move toward such fringe areas at the end of the road, or, in the Heideggarian sense, at the end of the world. The “cognitive map of Los Angeles,” charted through his investigations, “has no grounding or resonance unless it circulates slowly against the rotation of that other, deeper anti-system which is that of the Earth itself.” -'The Phenomenology of Film Noir' essay by Henrik Gustafsson, included in "A Companion to Film Noir" (2013) by Andrew Spicer & Helen Hanson

In The Long Goodbye Marlowe has changed: he has the total realisation that not only is he alone in the world, but that the connection he had thought he had found was a fallacy. What hope he had for true friendship is extinguished in the last pages of The Long Goodbye. In Marlowe’s eyes, Terry Lennox seemed to share his vision of the world. Part of Marlowe does want Lennox to turn back because he is so lonely but, in the end, his moral conscience wins out. He knows that he is on his own and he recognises that his own choices have brought him here, and he is content that he has done the right thing. Chandler wanted him to be betrayed and to understand why. Marlowe was a knight with a code of honour that was unshakable, even in the most testing times. Chandler recognised that he had put him in a situation that might be hard to understand for many of his readers. The honourable martyr was, of course, also the sort of man Raymond Chandler imagined himself to be. In a letter to Hamish Hamilton in 1951, Chandler expressed his admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Fitzgerald is a subject no one has a right to mess up. If the poor guy was already an alcoholic in his college days, it’s a marvel that he did as well as he did. He had one of the rarest qualities in all literature, a real distinction, the word is charm – charm as Keats would have used it. Who has it today? It’s not a matter of pretty writing or clear style. It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartets. Yes, where would you find it today?" -"A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler" (2013) by Tom Williams

Richard Slotkin emphasizes the Western provenance of the hardboiled detective as exemplified by Marlowe. He posits, intriguingly, for example, that Chandler's detective, like James Fenimore Cooper's Hawkeye, is first and foremost a "rescuer" of the innocent, that both heroes are "engaged in unmasking hidden truth." Chandler avoids the opposite extreme of nihilism as found in Hammett, whose Continental Op in Red Harvest, for Sinda Gregory, "is made to appear as guilty and morally reprehensible as the rest of the gangsters". One might then expect Chandler's class bias to have endeared him to a Marxist critic such as Ernest Mandel, who, however, feels that Marlowe is a sentimentalist who wastes his energy on pursuing criminals who wield only "limited clout". It is doubtless Chandler's reluctance to make any global condemnation of the capitalist system that bothers Mandel. Chandler consistently and symbolically sought redress for social ills within the democratic system as he knew it in the United States, within the liberal tradition. In "The Simple Art of Murder," for example, he insisted that no social or political hierarchy is truly divorced from the "rank and file" in a democracy, and thus cannot be completely blamed for its failures. Ross Macdonald misreads Chandler's call for "a quality of redemption" in "The Simple Art of Murder," overemphasizing Chandler's moralistic tone.

Unlike other hardboiled heroes, Marlowe is acutely critical of his own thoughts and actions; he questions his own role and the power he wields, and his actions reflect changes in attitude as he learns from others; In a world in which the police are as guilty of egregious violence as criminals, Marlowe roundly condemns both; his toughness is measured not by resorting to such extreme measures, but by his refusal to respond violently to the threats of gangsters (Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep, Laird Brunette in Farewell, My Lovely) or the police (Christy French in The Little Sister, Detective Dayton in The Long Goodbye). Chandler's deepest concerns - his interest in the community as well as the individual, his hatred of the abuse and the abusers of power, his conviction that ethical conduct cannot be reduced to simplistic formulae and must be continually scrutinized - are inevitably what Hollywood was most concerned to change. Cynthia S. Hamilton insists that, in keeping with the genre, "Chandler's misanthropy demands an absolute separation between Marlowe and the moral squalor of his society". In her view Marlowe is antisocial, an "alienated outsider who vindicates that stance by his demonstrable superiority in a society unworthy of his services." Chandler took on the daunting challenge of using the highly individualistic figure of the private eye to explain how and why American rugged individualism has failed. In transforming the figure of the hard-boiled detective, he created a new paradigm, not only for a new detective, but for a new individual as well. -"Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe: The Hard-Boiled Detective Transformed" by John Paul Athanasourelis (2011)

In The Big Sleep Bogart's Marlow accuses Mona's husband Eddie Mars of being "a blackmailer, a hot-car broker, a killer by remote control. He's anything that looks good to him, anything with money pinned to it, anything rotten". The novel's theme rises from what Dennis Porter in "The Pursuit of Crime" essay called "the ironic form of an unnecessary journey". Marlowe continues to search for a man everyone says looks like him, Sean 'Rusty' Regan, because "too many people told me to stop". Mona Mars (played by Peggy Knudsen), whom Marlowe calls "Silver-Wig", is insignificant in the movie, but she's possibly Marlowe's most romantic interest in the novel. She wears a silver wig (she cut off her hair) and shelters in Realito away from the police. The "hide nor hair" expression takes a sharp twist here by Chandler's genius. "On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again". -The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Producers, Raymond Chandler found, were generally ‘low-grade individuals with the morals of a goat and the artistic integrity of a slot machine’, though there were enough ‘able and humane’ ones to give hope. The same proportion of integrity applied, Chandler decided, to the world of agents, directors and publicists: there were abundant bad ones to make Hollywood stink, but always enough decent, friendly and amusing ones to make working there enjoyable. Had that not been the case, he insisted, the money alone would not have been enough to keep him there. "I used to like this town," I said, just to be saying something and not to be thinking too hard. "A long time ago. There were trees along Wilshire Boulevard. Beverly Hills was a country town. Westwood was bare hills and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars and no takers. Hollywood was a bunch of frame houses on the interurban line. Los Angeles was just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style, but goodhearted and peaceful. It had the climate they just yap about now. People used to sleep out on porches. Little groups who thought they were intellectual, used to call it the Athens of America. It wasn't that, but it wasn't a neon-lighted slum either."

"Now we get characters like this Steelgrave owning restaurants. We've got the big money, the sharp shooters, the percentage workers, the fast-dollar boys. We've got the flash restaurants and night clubs they run, and the hotels and apartment houses they own, and the grifters that live in them. The luxury trades, the pansy decorators, the lesbian dress designers, the riffraff of a big hard-boiled city. Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood-and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city."  -"The Little Sister" (1949). The transformation of the city and the feelings it engenders in Marlowe are made clear when he spies a club with a packed terrace and parking lot. It is so overcrowded, that the people are “like ants on a piece of overripe fruit.” The image immediately tells the reader what has changed Los Angeles: the population boom of the early twentieth century. Marlowe, too, is reminded of what Los Angeles has become, and begins to name its faults. Source: ue.ucdavis.edu

Dick Powell is often mentioned as Chandler's favorite incarnation of Marlowe, praise that was rightfully earned. Powell's Marlowe is both jaded and optimistic, world-weary yet open to life. He delivers certain lines with cutting self-deprecation, others with calculated softness. His Marlowe is always pushing buttons, probing people for weakness, wresting control of the situation. Though he isn't physically imposing (something about his face is too gentle to completely intimidate) his confident delivery and compromised sense of values sell his dangerous side. "Dick Powell is even dryer in the part than Bogart, erasing entirely the crooner's geniality that had made him a popular fixture in Warner musicals. The only echo of the earlier Powell is the actor physical's grace -he has a dancer flowing ease. Powell's voice is flat, his face taut and frozen in the masklike noir vein, and he plays Marlowe as a blunt, no-nonsense professional. His work is wonderfully tight and economical; he is guarded and sardonic, but he falls short of projecting Bogart's aura of absolute integrity." -"The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir" (2008) by Foster Hirsch

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

November Criminals: novel vs film

Why the Aeneid? It’s exciting but also difficult to understand. The stories in it are kind of incomprehensible. Aeneas returning from the underworld through the Gate of Ivory, the gate through which Virgil says false dreams arrive in the world. And the way it ends: in a single instant, just like a human life. It all appears at first to be nonsensical, but that’s because it belongs to a world that no longer exists. In the centuries between us and Virgil, we kind of lost interest in things that are hard to understand. I don’t know why this has happened. Everyone, though, seems sort of bricked into his own life. Not in “quiet desperation”—the phrase comes from a terrible author my teachers forced me to read, Henry David Thoreau—but just by the fact of living in the small, boring modern world. And this explains why all my teachers have been so terrible. I mean because they, like Thoreau, see their own selves not as prisons but as subjects of thunderous interest. I don’t want to sound harsh, but holy fuck! No one who admires Thoreau should be permitted anywhere near a school.

Stupidity can be a form of strong character. The pain was an affront to my honor! It was this testimony about the shameful and emotional side of our relations, which we tried to ignore. She was being consistent. Without sentiment, without remorse. She was following the terms. I spent my birthday with Digger. Before she gave me my present, we didn’t do anything. Just kind of wandered around smoking cigarettes. We drove past Kevin’s house. The heavy, glazed-looking green curtains shone out of the front windows, and swayed a little. I love her. I don’t love her in some stupid way. If it were stupid, trivial, the rest of this would be easy. It’s hard and frightening, so I must love her for real. How else would you know? I love Digger. You’re thinking: Love? He’s using the word love? What a fucking joke. He’s too young to understand. If you think that, fuck you. I don’t tell lies. Not about Digger. I may be guilty of a long list of petty and secret enormities. 

Not, however, lying about loving Digger. When Digger blew out my birthday candle, as she bent her head, a summer-colored moon of light rested on her face. I saw its pinpoints dance in her deep eyes. She was clenching her turquoise-beaded bag. Lips parted for speech. She’d put a crimson streak in her hair, above her brow. She had on a black T-shirt with a picture of this musician she admires, Lou Reed. And she was wearing makeup, which she never does. I know I told you she’s not hot. But I swear to fucking God: at that moment some beauty was in her or shone through her, a beauty that demands respect and even fear. I had never seen anyone or anything so infused with such beauty. Even in the dead light of my room you could see it.

Everything comes at a price. Sometimes you can put the price in signs or symbols, words, an amount of money. But I can’t even tell you what I owe. I know that it exceeds the value of my entire life, simply by geometrical principles. People cut you slack if you’re in the hospital. They get off on indulging you. Now everyone would just think I’m crazy, or trying to get attention. They’d think I was jealous of Alex getting in the paper. I’d never be able to convince anyone that this wasn’t the case, that I don’t give a shit about fame, that if I wanted fame I’d want Virgil’s fame, eternal fame. I love to help people, and that’s my best quality, but sometimes I have trouble thinking of my own needs, and that’s my worst quality.

The one person who might understand this is Digger. You can’t exert your will over life. If there’s one thing the study of Latin should teach you, it’s that human beings cannot direct reality. They can do a great many things, yes, even incredible things, going down to the realm of the dead. Or founding Rome. But with permission. They have to have the blessing and assistance of a god. This is gained through loyalty. I’m not even talking about suicide. Suicide would be too orderly and too self-respecting. I don’t even deserve that. That would make me seem too important, you know? I only have one triumph: my outburst at Alex Faustner’s lecture. Faustner and Vanderleun and Karlstadt and the whole disgusting system, the whole intolerable wreck and mockery of life, created and preserved as lip service to the highest progressive principles, and dedicated in actuality to the perpetuation of hatred. Hidden, covert hatred, yes. But hatred all the same.

You’d think that with how fragile everything is, it would be the same as a lie. It’s not. Not at all. I don’t believe that. I’m not a nihilist. Death is the consummate falsehood. Maybe that’s the real meaning of the Gate of Ivory. That perfection arrives through it, which is basically the same as death. Because life—where’s the perfection there? Lacrimae rerum, right? The sign of life. Perfection would kill it. Extinguish it. I’m going to leave the melted gun here while I’m out, to hold down the unruly pile of torn-out notebook paper I’ve been scrawling on. As proof. In case anyone finds my essay and thinks it’s all fiction. —November Criminals (2015) by Sam Munson

November Criminals (2017) follows the story of Addison (Ansel Elgort), a high school senior in Washington, D.C. who just recently lost his mother and is preparing for life after graduating. He has recently started going out with Phoebe (Chloe Grace Moretz) and they are beginning to build a good relationship together. Things change when Addison gets word that his friend Kevin was murdered just hours after having an interaction with him. The media and police claim that the murder happened because of gang involvement but Addison doesn’t believe it. With the help of Phoebe he starts his own investigation into the death of his friend to find the truth. November Criminals gives the viewer a unique look of life in the D.C. area and how one young man refuses to simply accept "the easy way out". 

Addison (Elgort) is an awkward teen with no friends. Phoebe (Moretz) is her only/best friend. As Addison and Phoebe become physically and emotionally closer, his single-mindedness to solve Kevin's murder alienates everyone around him. He learns things about Kevin that seem hard for Addison to reconcile with the jazz musician, the intellectual friend he knew. Addison spirals out of control but when a new lead appears he finds himself in a world of drugs and violence. Although, his true underlying motivation is to try and deal with the grief and helplessness he feels over his mother's death.

Elgort is certainly talented, so his portrayal of the distraught Addison is solid and very well done. He gives the character a certain naiveté that helps make his performance believable. He does a great job at making sense of the apparent leaps in logic his character was assigned. I felt like Addison might be a real person, if slightly insane, and Elgort's "human touches" made him a likable character when he could have just been annoying. Chloe Moretz is also a strong actor and the two of them have a chemistry that can't be faked. Overall it is certainly the performances and the pacing of the story that make November Criminals a worthwhile film. It’s hard to get past the fact that the filmmakers don’t want to focus their full attention to the main, more interesting part of the novel and that’s what makes this somewhat of a disappointment. This is definitely worth seeking out but it had the potential to be so much better. Source: www.flickeringmyth.com

Monday, April 29, 2019

List of Best Noir Films: #8 Nightmare Alley

 #8. Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Once described as the greatest noir movie not made by arch cynic Billy Wilder, Tyrone Power gives his finest performance as the fairground hustler who works his way into society by fair means and foul, including murder. But Power’s fall is every bit as precipitous as his rise as he ends up back in the fairground as the carnival geek in this unforgettable and disturbing movie. #1 of the list is Double Indemnity by Billy Wilder. Source: www.independent.co.uk

The film's ending is not an egregious betrayal of the novel. In Gresham's last scene, Stan is forced to sell himself with a childlike politeness we haven't seen before, and is offered the geek job at the carny. In the film Stan's face is distorted by alcoholism, his eyes ringed and droopy, the pupils swimming in soup. The film's coda, in which he goes on a rampage and discovers that Molly has been hired on to the same carnival and is going to save him, is happy only to the degree that we believe he can take a cure for drink and safely hide out from the industrialist he bamboozled. Gresham paints the opening scene in the novel: “The ‘marks’ surged in—It was like a kaleidoscope—the design always changing, the particles always the same.”

The script improves on the novel in one aspect, enhancing the role of shifty psychologist Lilith (played by an ominously still and half-smiling Helen Walker) as a skeptical member of Stan's nightclub audience, rather than the shrink he sees to cure his dreams of running down a nightmare alley. On the other hand, the filmmakers could not resist adding an up-to-date technological wrinkle - a home device for recording transcription discs, which Lilith uses to blackmail Stan. The fascination of "Nightmare Alley" does not reside in logic but in qualities beyond the powers of a novelist: the expressive chiaroscuro of the lighting - even Lilith's office is a model of German expressionism, with inexplicable bar-like shadows turning the walls into a cage - and Power's vanity-free dissection of Stan in the final scenes. This picture turns conventional Hollywood starlight upside down and inside out. If he hadn't died so young, Power might have had the chance to tell Zanuck, "I told you so."  Source: www.nysun.com

Daryl Zanuck instructed screenwriter Jules Furthman to create a new ending for Nightmare Alley, believing the original version would be too cynical for audiences to take. As a result, instead of having Stan end up alone and destined to work as a carnival geek for the rest of his life or even looking for an early death (as Gersham had originally written), Furthman concluded his screenplay on a redemptive note, with Molly holding Stan in her arms, reassuring him of her love and his future.

For the role of the unscrupulous society psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter, a character Gersham created while undergoing psychotherapy, Zanuck considered casting Luise Rainer or Constance Bennett, before ultimately deciding on the much younger Helen Walker. Nightmare Alley was also a big departure for the 27-year-old actress, who had earned a solid reputation as a commediene since making her film debut in Frank Tuttle's Lucky Jordan (1942), but she found Lilith to be just the kind of "grown-up" role that she had longed for earlier in her career. Lilith uses psychoanalytic tricks of the trade to manipulate Carlisle, preying on his lack of confidence and issues about his mother abandoning him as a child.

In Time magazine (November 24, 1947), film critic James Agee wrote: Nightmare Alley is a harsh, brutal story [based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham] told with the sharp clarity of an etching. Most vivid of these is Joan Blondell as the girl he works for the secrets of the mind-reading act. Coleen Gray is sympathetic and convincing as his steadfast partner in his act and Helen Walker comes through successfully as the calculating femme who topples Power from the heights of fortune back to degradation as the geek in the carney. The lady psychiatrist that Walker plays is as cold-blooded as Stanton, and has one advantage: No inner geek. No weakness. 

In a potent scene late in the film, the rug gets pulled out from under Stan, to the point that he begins questioning his own sanity, unsure of what's been real and what's been a con, not knowing if he's losing his mind or being brilliantly played. Goulding, ingeniously, allows the audience to wonder as well. Walker plays this scene with a hint of menace, an undercurrent of knowing manipulation, wrapped up in sincerity and bursts of seemingly genuine confusion. As the psychiatrist winds around her patient in the dark, the shadows making a cruel mask of her face, the audience is left to wonder what's truth and what's lies — to think back on what had already happened and wonder if there had been an elaborate long con running, and if so where the deceit had begun, how far back the web of lies stretched. The uncertainty places the viewer into Stan's position, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories, lost in the dark, feeling betrayed. Despite its initial box office flop, Nightmare Alley is now regarded as "one of the gems of film noir," according to Stephanie Zacharek in Turner Classic Movies (December 2, 2015.) Source: www.loa.org

Saturday, April 27, 2019

West Side Story (2020) by Spielberg starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler

West Side Story (2020) has found its leading man and created a brand new role for original cast member Rita Moreno, so count us as officially excited for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming adaptation of the Broadway classic musical of 1957. West Side Story (1961) directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, explored forbidden love, and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Ansel Elgort is the lucky actor who's been cast to portray Tony in the Manhattan-set musical. The 24-year-old actor previously received critical acclaim for his role in 2017's Baby Driver, but this will be his biggest role to date by far. As for Moreno, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for playing Anita in the original 1961 film, she'll appear as Valentina, who is a "reconceived and expanded version of the character of Doc, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works." Ned Glass played Doc opposite Moreno in the first film, so it will be interesting to see how she changes the character, especially since Moreno will also be listed as a producer on the film.

In the original West Side Story (that won 10 Academy Awards), Tony and Maria are the protagonists of the tragic love story modeled after Romeo and Juliet. Tony is a former member of the American gang the Jets, which rivals the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. Maria's older brother is the leader of the Sharks, and thus enters the story's central dilemma. Tony was first portrayed by Larry Kert in the original 1957 musical and later by Richard Beymer in the 1961 film.

Rachel Zegler, a Colombian-American actress, soon will prepare to play Maria in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of 'West Side Story'. Though Natalie Wood is famous for her impassioned portrayal of the star-crossed lover in the screen adaptation, the casting choice has since been met with criticism given that Wood was not Puerto Rican.  Source: www.popsugar.co.uk

In Billionaire Boys Club (2018), a slick Ansel Elgort plays Joe Hunt, the youthful L.A. investment firm honcho who racked up countless wealthy clients in a high-stakes Ponzi scheme before it all came crashing down; Taron Egerton is Hunt’s business partner, Dean Karny, who narrates the story. In the opening shot, Elgort sits smugly behind a pair of dark sunglasses as Egerton announces a credo in voiceover: “Fuck money. Being rich is about respect.” The fetishization of wealth yielding power has been a cinematic trope from “Wall Street” to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but “Billionaire Boys Club” turns it into a routine. 

Played with dopey naiveté by Ansel Elgort (who previously co-starred with Spacey in “Baby Driver”), Hunt is presented here as a well-meaning victim of class circumstances, seduced into betraying a bunch of born suckers by the glitzy allure of their Beverly Hills lifestyles. The movie goes far out of its way to suggest that Hunt wasn’t such a bad guy, joining “Gotti” in the category of loathsome apologias for convicted creeps. But the irony of the film’s inevitable failure is that Spacey — who delivers one of his great egomaniacal scenery-chewing performances — took the risk of playing a character dangerously close to his off-screen persona at roughly the same moment those similarities were revealed to the world, making it doubly uncomfortable to watch the actor leer at the ensemble of handsome Ken-doll dudes the movie parades in front of him.  “Because the perception of reality is more important than reality itself,” Spacey explains at one point, all but daring to overlook the hairpiece that transforms him into Hollywood player Ron Levin. Source: variety.com

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Nightmare Alley (1947), Remake by Guillermo del Toro with Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio and Guillermo del Toro are nearing a collaboration on “Nightmare Alley,” the director’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. Del Toro is developing “Nightmare Alley” at Fox Searchlight, the studio that handled the production and distribution of his Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water.” As first reported by Variety, DiCaprio has entered final negotiations to star in the lead role of mentalist and con artist Stanton “Stan” Carlisle. Tyrone Power played the character in the 1947 film adaptation, directed by Edmund Goulding and released by 20th Century Fox. Del Toro stepped back from filmmaking after “The Shape of Water” won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” is now his second feature directorial effort in development following his stop-motion passion project “Pinocchio,” which has taken up shop at Netflix. Source: www.indiewire.com

William Lindsay Gresham (author of Nightmare Alley) was born in Baltimore on August 20, 1909. His family moved briefly to Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1916, then to New York City, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1926. Gresham’s was a tortured mind and a tormented life, and he sought to banish his demons through a maze of dead-end ways, from Marxism to psychoanalysis to Christianity to Alcoholics Anonymous. He was also an early enthusiast of Scientology but later denounced the religion as another kind of spook racket. From these demons came his novel Nightmare Alley (1946), one of the underground classics of American literature. He wrote one more novel, Limbo Tower (1949), which went largely unnoticed. Three nonfiction books followed: Monster Midway (1953), Houdini (1959), and The Book of Strength (1961). Nightmare Alley brought Gresham fame and fortune, but he lost it all. The second of his three wives, the poet Joy Davidman, left him in 1953 for the British author C. S. Lewis. William L. Gresham killed himself in New York City on September 14, 1962.

“I’m a hustler, God damn it. Do you understand that, you frozen-faced witch? Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough. If you don’t have it you’re the end man on the daisy chain. I’m going to get it if I have to bust every bone in my head doing it. I’m going to milk it out of those chumps and take them for the gold in their teeth before I’m through. You don’t dare yell copper on me because if you spilled anything about me all your other Johns would get the wind up their necks. You’ve got enough stuff in that bastard tin file cabinet to blow ’em all up. I know what you’ve got in there—society dames with the clap, bankers who take it up the ass, actresses that live on hop, people with idiot kids. You’ve got it all down. If I had that stuff I’d give ’em cold readings that would have ’em crawling on their knees to me. And you sit there out of this world with that dead-pan face and listen to the chumps puking their guts out day after day for peanuts. If I knew that much I’d stop when I’d made a million bucks and not a minute sooner. You’re a chump too, blondie. They’re all Johns. They’re asking for it. Well, I’m here to give it out.”

“I’ve been shouted at before, Mr. Carlisle. But you don’t really know any gangsters. You’d be afraid of them. Just as you’re afraid of me. You’re full of rage, aren’t you? You feel you hate me, don’t you? You’d like to come off that couch and strike me, wouldn’t you?—but you can’t. You’re quite helpless with me. I’m one person you can’t outguess. You can’t fool me with cheesecloth ghosts; you can’t impress me with fake yoga. You’re just as helpless with me as you felt seeing your mother run away with another man when you wanted to go with her. I think you went with her. You ran away, didn’t you? You went into show business, didn’t you? And when you start your act you run your hands over your hair, just like Humphries. He was a big, strong, attractive man, Humphries. I think you have become Humphries —in your mind.” 

The brain held him; it dosed him with grains of wild joy, measured out in milligrams of words, the turn of her mouth corner, one single, lustful flash from the gray eyes before the scales of secrecy came over them again. The brain seemed always present, always hooked to his own by an invisible gold wire, thinner than spider’s silk. It sent its charges into his mind and punished him with a chilling wave of cold reproof. It would let him writhe in helpless misery and then, just before the breaking point, would send the warm current through to jerk him back to life and drag him, tumbling over and over through space, to the height of a snow mountain where he could see all the plains of the earth, spread out before him, and all the power of the cities and the ways of men. All were his, could be his, would be his, unless the golden thread broke and sent him roaring into the dark chasm of fear again. The wind had grown colder; they stood up. He lit cigarettes and gave her one and they passed on, circling the obelisk, walking slowly past the blank, unfinished wall of the Museum’s back, along the edge of the park where the busses trailed their lonely lights away uptown.

He took her hand in his and slid it into the pocket of his topcoat, and for a moment, as they walked, it was warm and a little moist, almost yielding, almost, to the mind’s tongue, sweet-salty, yielding, musky; then in an instant it changed, it chilled, it became the hand of a dead woman in his pocket, as cold as the hand he once molded of rubber and stretched on the end of his reaching rod, icy from a rubber sack of cracked ice in his pocket, straight into the face of a believer’s skeptical husband. Now the loneliness grew inside him, like a cancer, like a worm of a thousand branches, running down his nerves, creeping under his scalp, tying two arms together and squeezing his brain in a noose, pushing into his loins and twisting them until they ached with need and not-having, with wanting and not-daring, with thrust into air, with hand-gripping futility—orgasm and swift-flooding shame, hostile in its own right, ashamed of shame. 

“We come like a breath of wind over the fields of morning. We go like a lamp flame caught by a blast from a darkened window. In between we journey from table to table, from bottle to bottle, from bed to bed. We suck, we chew, we swallow, we lick, we try to mash life into us like an am-am-amoeba God damn it! Somebody lets us loose like a toad out of a matchbox and we jump and jump and jump and the guy always behind us, and when he gets tired he stomps us to death and our guts squirt out on each side of the boot of All Merciful Providence. The son-of-a-bitch! What sense does it all make? What sort of God would put us here in this goddamned, stinking slaughterhouse of a world? Some guy that likes to tear the wings off flies? What use is there in living and starving and fighting the next guy? It’s a nut house. And the biggest loonies are at the top.” 

Stan felt the wall of the alley jar against his shoulder, felt his feet leave the ground and the dark weight fall on him; but the only life in him now was pouring out through his hands and wrists. A bundle of astro-readings had fallen out and lay scattered on the stones, but he couldn’t pick them up. He walked, very straight and precise, toward the light at the other end of the alley. Everything was sharp and clear now and he didn’t even need a drink any more. The freights would be risky. He might try the baggage rack of a long-haul bus, under the tarpaulin. He had traveled there once before. He raced toward the light at the end of the alley, but there was nothing to be afraid of. He had always been here, running down the alley and it didn’t matter; this was all there was any time, anywhere, just an alley and a light... —"Nightmare Alley" (1946) by William Lindsay Gresham 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Collapse of the golden age of music recording

The golden age of recorded music: Going back to 1945, by the end of the war, there was a “golden age” of music, the big band era, the beginnings of bebop, the great songwriting partnerships, Broadway musicals, and even the early stirrings of rock n’ roll. It was also the populist height of the music borne of the Depression, the music that came out of the hobo camps, the dust bowl farmers, Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Act and so on. It was the music of Woody Guthrie, Jimmy Rodgers, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, and the Carter Family. Quickly told, the English built great speakers and listening consoles so they could hear what the Germans were saying. The Americans in turn created excellent platforms (tape recorders) to record what they heard. Though they developed this technology separately and quite secretly, the apex of these technologies would find themselves together in the recording studios around the world soon after the war. The British and Americans found out how good the German microphones were and how they could be used with British speakers and American tape decks. The Germans were quick to listen through British sound systems. Bebop, Jazz, and the everpopular Jitterbug (also known as the lindy hop) dance, were banned by the Nazi's as being American influences. Members of the French Underground would meet at basement dance clubs (normally underground) or Discotheques. Here they would dance to swing music.

It took the next ten years to tweak the technology, but by the mid 50s and the height of the bebop era, the engineers had become artists of this technology, and the results were some of the best recordings ever. With the addition of multi-track recording, invented by jazz guitarist Les Paul, another golden age of recording began. As a side note, it has been said that the best live recording of the bebop era was recorded at Massey Hall with Charlie Parker – on a plastic saxophone he borrowed for the gig – Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach and Bud Powell. The album Quintet marked the only time these giants of the era played live together. It was also the period when Deutsche Grammophon began its run as the premier recorder of classical music. Time moves on and into the 60s, a period you all know well, and you can run through your own favourites.


There were great recordings like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Beatles’ Revolver and Sergeant Pepper’s, Who’s Next – jazz recordings, particularly on the ECM label, emerged, and then in the 70s along with 48 track recorders, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century and Roxy Music’s Avalon. The producers and engineers were experts in the studio, and their names were almost as famous as the artists: George Martin, Phil Spector, Glyn Johns, and Phil Ramone to name a few. It is amusing now to see assistant engineers at Abbey Road in lab coats now, but that is how they saw themselves. The accommodation or payment for musicians, creators and works was also well-established in the post-war period through a series of royalties paid by the recording companies to the artists – as well as royalties paid to the artists for radio and television airplay that were monitored by BMI and ASCAP and in Canada by CAPAC and PROCAN, which later became SOCAN. The record companies were notorious for not paying these royalties, but there was a system, and there were lawyers who were there to both secure music contracts and ensure that royalties were paid to recording artists. There was also a formidable force in the musician’s union, which held tight control over negotiating gigs and contracts. 


By the 70s, the music industry was a huge force in our lives. It was the number one entertainment industry in North America, making far more money than movies or television. However there were chinks in the system and changes in technology that indicated further bigger changes to come. In 1969, The Whole Earth Catalogue was published, and the subtitle was “Access to Tools.” In the book, it revealed the first home four-track recording deck put out by Tascam. It was a revolution in the making. No longer did one have to go through the check and balance system of the record companies and their artists and repertoire staff. You didn’t need to secure a record contract. You didn’t need to incur huge costs at a recording studio that would be then set against future royalties. You could do the album yourself without arbiters from the record company. This independent release movement was no threat to the mainstream industry, but as this technology progressed, more would be attracted to the indie movement, and it would seriously threaten the mainstream industry by the 1990s.


Was punk rock the beginning of the end? By the late 70s, the industry was increasingly corrupt and complacent. It was also very expensive to make a recording in the beautiful studios. It was about to blow apart – It is dizzying what happened in a very short period of time. First the punks came along and called the bloat on the musicians and the industry. Groups like the Ramones, The Clash and The Cure ridiculed this sate of the business with rough, loud records reminiscent of the garage bands of early rock n’ roll. The local punk rockers opened and played at clubs that were not associated with the musician’s union; they said, “fuck the union” and basically broke the grip the union had on clubs. I would have to say they were misguided in their disregard for the musician’s union and undermined a support system that had worked to protect musicians. After the punk era, it would never be the same again. We were actually entering an age of missing information. What they told us was the CD was a compact unit with a clearer, cleaner sound. However, with a sampling rate of 44,000 samples per second, there were overtones of sound now missing. There were reverbs that collapsed as they tailed out because the sampling rate was not sufficient to hold them. The sound was cleaner because there was less of it. This new format also did not work with the microphones that had worked so well during the analog tape saturation age. The engineers were now scrambling to figure out how they could make this new cold sounding digital age warmer. 

This was a far cry from the “golden age” of the 1950’s. The analog sound was better. It was fuller and warmer, and it held all the sonic information. The technological changes of the 80s did not stop there. The home recording units in the early 70s developed and blossomed, as musicians and studios realized that a $200,000 Studer tape deck or $100,000 Neve console could be replaced by a much cheaper series of ADATS and less expensive boards. CDs made it costly for indies to stay in the mainstream. Record companies made fortunes during this period reissuing everything that had been on vinyl. Elvis was The King again. He had not left the building. Along with the new digital age came the introduction of video games and home entertainment systems. In 1982 MTV arrived, and in 1984 Much Music hit the airwaves, and another development took place that was to affect music and musicians to this day and beyond. AutoTune and Pro Tools were widely used in record production. Oddly, Pro Tools is missing the one tool The Beatles used on almost every song - Varispeed. That's because computer software is linked to a system clock, and is limited to running on even divisions of that clock. That highly processed sound that Millenials are accustomed to hear barely registers as sounding real.


MTV videos were seen as advertisements for the artists and record companies and, therefore, were non-royalty-bearing. In fact, the musicians had to pay for these videos, and these payments were set against the royalties owed to the artists by the record companies. It was an interesting dilemma because, while one could see the attraction of the music video, it set a precedent about the value of the music, how music might be perceived, and it potentially undermined royalty payments that radio and television had been paying to musicians. The most fateful chapter in this story arrived with the introduction of the home computer, followed by the Internet around 1995. During this dizzying time, cyberspace opened up, and the world truly became the global village that Marshall McLuhan envisaged. Music was now available universally at your fingertips. The age of downloading began, and with it, the notion that music was not only available, but most importantly, free. In quick succession came downloading networks like Napster, cementing this music-should-be-free notion for a generation. The royalty-collecting agencies were caught behind the times, and any litigation against illegal downloading would be years to come. Needless to say, the majority of musicians barely made a taxable income.


Now everybody can make a record – and maybe that’s not a good thing. Studio software like GarageBand was available, thus completing the story that anyone could make music at home. While this democratization of the process was laudable, it led to a glut of dubious releases on the market. While this was going on, big studios were going bankrupt, the musicians union was growing impotent, and in the background, baffling engineers trying to stay on top of their game. The top musicians continued to use analog studios, but they were getting harder to find. At the same time, home video games were improving and threatening to overtake the music industry. CDs continued to sell, though, and with the introduction of new microphones and warming buffers, digital recordings improved. Even this tumultuous period was short-lived as the MP3 format was introduced in 1997 and popularized by Apple’s iPod in 2001. The sample rate of an MP3 is 23,000 compressed samples per second, half the sample rate of a commercial CD and a quarter of the sample rate of a studio quality digital recording. When the audio quality reduced to that of an MP3, music’s value is also reduced. The introduction of the MP3 made record collections obsolete. You could store your entire CD collection on your iPod and later iPad. Free downloading became the way to obtain music as music stores began to disappear across North America. Though musicians continued to release CDs, it became clear that the notion of a recording that had existed for 100 years was in serious trouble.

This trend was symbolically addressed when it was ruled that companies like Napster should be shut down – but really, the horses had been let out of the barn. YouTube arrived and was, until recently, royalty free. In 2010, CD sales dropped 50 per cent and video games had replaced music in homes. In fact, music purchases had dropped to fifth place in the North American entertainment market. Record companies disappeared, and by 2012, Starbucks had become the leading distributor of CDs in North America. In 2010, before his world tour, Prince released his new album free. Radiohead did the same, stating they would make up the difference in t-shirt sales. Music, they said in effect, was free. But only the musical two per cent could afford to say that. Quoting Nikola Tesla: "I don't care that they stole my idea. I care that they don't have any of their own." Between 2010 and 2014, the sale of digital downloads doubled sales of CDs. CD sales peaked in 1999 in the US with $18.9 billion in revenue on an inflation adjusted basis and 938.9M units sold. By 2010 those numbers had fallen to $3.8 billion -- a revenue decline of nearly 80% -- and unit sales had fallen to 253M, down 73%. That's a titanic collapse, and it's a collapse which left little to replace it (as opposed what happened in prior cycles when one format replaced another): Overall inflation adjusted industry revenue in the period fell from from $21.9 billion to $7.9 billion, a 64% decline in the industry as a whole.  Yes, it's harder than ever to make a living off of selling a piece of recorded music. The times have changed, as Robert Harris spoke of on his CBC radio series Twilight of the Gods about the hundred-year rise and fall of recorded music.

If we look back on this conversation, this is exactly the reverse: where the technology was serving the art form. It would appear at this moment that the art form is being dictated by the technology. Young musicians no longer see music as a career choice. And so what of the future? There are signs that the royalty-collecting agencies are beginning to catch up to the myriad array of digital offspring ranging from the internet to satellite television and radio. Some would say that there is more music available now than ever before. And yet, when students in the music faculty at Carleton University were surveyed, not one of them thought they would make a living as a musician in the 21st century; the negative response was 100 per cent. The value of the work is the key phrase here. It is so easy now to create and distribute one’s music, people believe it can’t be worth much, so it must be free. What is lost in this equation is the years of craft it might take to get to a professional level of musicianship and songwriting craft: years in the field, a lifetime spent in the trenches. The future of music? It could happen the same as the theatre confronting the advent of film industry. Yet, since theatre’s re-emergence, it has become a sponsored and often threatened art form, supported by public funds, similar to classical music orchestras. There is considerable evidence that live music will continue to be supported. The future continues to look supportive for music in film, theatre and television. Indeed, many musicians have focused their work on getting their music on television shows, where the economy of scale is huge, and royalties can be bountiful. I think at some point many so-called “non-commercial” musicians will leave the public marketplace and, given their value, elect or hope to be sponsored artists. This has already happened in the jazz world. I think in the future, we must return to valuing the art form. If this conundrum cannot be addressed, I suspect music will be generated by computers programmed by robots in the future, and that will be a very dark future. Music is an art. Social media is not. Source: www.rootmusic.ca

Buddy Holly ‎– Memorial Collection (2009): Buddy Holly was one of the half dozen geniuses the '50s propelled out of the American boondocks--in his case, Lubbock, Texas. Delicate yet explosive, nerdy yet masculine, melodic yet skronky, Holly became the early rock'n'roll cynosure and wrote a phenomenal number of excellent songs in the 18 months of his career. The selling point of this 3 CD Collection is 11 "undubbed" early and late recordings. Stripped of bass and drums, his early songs sound more like old-time country music. Buddy Holly rebelled, yes, he really freed himself, but sometimes he was content to just sit there holdin' hands with his girl. Shortly before he died, Buddy Holly got himself a place in the Greenwich Village. Holly wed a Puerto Rican girl--Peggy Sue had gotten married too--and I imagine Holly there, holdin' hands with Maria Elena, while conjuring up rock 'n' strings and thinking ahead of the rest. Nerds loved Buddy Holly for a reason: he played by the rules without letting them stop him. Buddy Holly lives. Don't let anybody tell you different. Source: www.robertchristgau.com

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Favorite Music: Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney

Network Science and the Effects of Music Preference on Functional Brain Connectivity: Listening to music that is liked or a favorite song affects functional connectivity in regions involved in selfreferential thought and memory encoding, such as the default mode network and the hippocampus. While perhaps everyone intuitively understands the mental experience or feeling when listening to his or her preferred music, whether it is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or Les Miserables, or when listening to their favorite rock song, we show here that this similarity of experience manifests in the brain by engaging the DMN. As the first study to apply network science methods to ‘theory of the mind’, these results provide a glimpse into the neural patterns underlying the emotion-cognitive states associated with listening to preferred and favorite music. Source: www.nature.com

The British musicologist Howard Goodall said about Paul McCartney: "He had an intuitive melodic gift: in terms of tunes, he's one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived." This, Goodall says, set him apart from John Lennon; by way of comparison. Goodall puts McCartney alongside Schubert, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. "In Puccini's case, you're talking about maybe 20 great tunes. In Schubert's case, maybe 100. But Paul McCartney is up there in the 100+ category." Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, described McCartney's influence/gift this way: "A genius for melody is a strange, surprisingly isolated talent, and doesn’t have much to do with a broader musical gift for composition; Mozart certainly had it, Beethoven not so much. Irving Berlin could barely play the piano and when he did it was only in a single key (F-sharp major: all the black keys), and yet he wrote hundreds of haunting tunes; André Previn, who could do anything musically as a pianist and a conductor, wrote scarcely a single memorable melody, although he did write several shows and many songs. McCartney had the gift in absurd abundance. Someone could get a Ph.D. thesis out of studying the major-minor shifts in his Beatles songs: sometimes the change is from verse to chorus, to mark a change from affirmation to melancholy, as in “The Fool on the Hill”; sometimes it’s in the middle of a phrase, as in “Penny Lane,” to capture a mixed mood. These are things that trained composers do by rote; McCartney did them by feel—like Irving Berlin writing for Fred Astaire, he was a rare thing, a naturally sophisticated intuitive. In 1966, the critic Kenneth Tynan, a hard man to please, proposed doing a profile of Paul, in preference to John, because he was “by far the most interesting of the Beatles and certainly the musical genius of the group.” Source: www.newyorker.com

Philip Norman admits in his biography of Paul McCartney that in his earlier biography of the Beatles called “Shout!”, he accepted the cheap stereotype of Paul as a pop trivialist, in comparison with his edgy partner John Lennon. Paul was happy to push the envelope but didn’t support John when he wanted to pose nude on an album cover or insisted that an eight minute sound collage be inserted into a Beatles album. Paul certainly didn’t support John’s heroin addiction. Now Philip Norman sees that Paul McCartney was not only a man of genius but also someone who has handled the madness of fame exceptionally well. Paul is depicted as a caring father and grandfather, a man who made a bad rebound marriage after losing his much loved wife Linda, but who has otherwise spent the past decades entertaining new generations of fans. As Norman shows, McCartney has worked so hard at seeming dismayingly normal that it is easy to miss the least ordinary thing about him: the magnitude of his melodic gift. In 1970, McCartney and the Eastmans launched a lawsuit to break up the Beatles partnership. That became the trigger for John Lennon’s toxic onslaughts against his former partner, feeding all the hostile stereotypes that Norman is now trying, decades later, to remedy.


Seen from the 21st century, the great rupture of early rock and roll looks more ideological than musical, more a matter of attitude and emotion. Every Night by Paul MacCartney sounds like a continuation from Everyday by Buddy Holly and Kiss Me Baby by The Beach Boys. Elvis was The King and all that, but Buddy Holly is more beloved among people who actually know a substantial amount about the history of rock. Holly, along with Chuck Berry, was a real pioneer, playing a chord and hammering the sixth note of that chord on and off in a regular, rhythmic pattern. In the opening pages of Peter Guralnick’s “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll”, Sam Phillips is equated with Walt Whitman, William Faulkner and Mark Twain. Phillips was not a very good businessman. Other independent labels, like Atlantic, managed to keep their artists and to thrive well into the 1960s. But Phillips got out of the business just as the pop-music revolution that he helped make happen was starting to cash out in a big way. Which would have been the destiny of Buddy Holly if he had walked by Sun Records? Using The Beach Boys' memorable song (and Paul McCartney's favorite song ever): God Only Knows.


By 1950, most people listening to local radio stations. And ninety-six per cent of homes in the United States had a radio. Before the 1940s, radio was dominated by national broadcast networks like CBS, NBC, and Mutual. As a consequence of an F.C.C. policy designed to break up this oligopoly, the licensing of local stations increased from around eight hundred in 1940 to more than two thousand in 1949. By 1940, there were close to half a million jukeboxes in the United States. This is why jukebox plays were charted in Billboard: they were market indicators. In an unsympathetic biography of Elvis Presley, published in 1981, Albert Goldman has Phillips referring to “the nigger sound”; Guralnick makes it clear that Sam Phillips didn’t talk or think that way. And Guralnick is confident that Phillips didn’t talk about the music recording in terms of getting rich, either. 

Elvis Presley was a walk-in, showing up at the Memphis Recording Service in the summer of 1953, when he was eighteen, to make a record for his mother's birthday. He paid four dollars to record two songs, “My Happiness,” which had been a hit for several artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin,” an old Ink Spots song. Whether Sam Phillips was in the booth that day or not later became a matter of acrimonious dispute, but someone wrote next to Presley’s name, “Good ballad singer. Hold.” A year later, Phillips invited Presley back to try out a ballad he’d discovered. The song didn’t seem to work, and Phillips had Presley run through all the material he knew. After three hours, Phillips thought of putting Presley together with a couple of country-and-Western musicians—Scotty Moore, an electric guitarist, and Bill Black, who played standup bass. After many takes, they had a record: an up-tempo cover of a bluegrass song called “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and, in July 1954, Elvis Presley’s first single came on the market. In Sun’s promotional campaign, Phillips emphasized the record’s “three-way” appeal: to pop, hillbilly, and rhythm-and-blues listeners. Elvis was a crossover artist. He had “a white voice, a Negro rhythm, and borrows in mood and emphasis from country styles,” a Memphis local paper explained. He finally made it onto the national country-and-Western chart in July, 1955, with “Baby Let’s Play House.” Two months later, Sam Phillips sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor for thirty-five thousand dollars. Source: www.newyorker.com

Part of Buddy Holly's appeal was the impression he made of being an 'ordinary' fellow, not outlandish like Little Richard or Jerry Lee, or sexy like Elvis or Eddie Cochran. His big glasses and lankiness made him look sort of goofy, and yet he still managed to be cool! His music was deceptively simple (a lesson that Lennon & McCartney benefitted from). Indeed, his lyrics are heartfelt, honest and deep, with a twist of humor. He wrote about experiences and feelings that are common to us all, which is why his music has endured. With his black-framed glasses, sharp suits and tousled hair, Buddy Holly looked like any other earnest young man entering adulthood in the late 1950s. Yet Holly's approach to rock music was anything but conventional. An inspired, fluid, and nimble guitarist, Holly brought velocity to his rockabilly-inspired riffs. Holly's voice could also have a gritty edge (the ragers "Ready Teddy" and "Rave On"), although his gulping vocal delivery and rhythmic contortions made his songs unusual. Holly was a sympathetic and expressive singer: On Everyday a sparse song driven by clapping percussion and a twinkling celesta, he was wistful about the possibility of finding his perfect romantic match. Holly sang about important topics (love, lust and loss) and his tunes favored lyrics full of dramatic declarations. Modern Don Juan lamented miscommunication in romance; (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care celebrates how opposites attract; Ting-A-Ling didn't shy away from expressing sexual desire; In That'll Be The Day he swears that he'll die from heartbreak if the girl he loves ever leaves him. Buddy Holly opened for Elvis Presley on 15 October 1955 at The Cotton Club, Lubbock, TX.  

Holly's first label deal on 26 January 1956 with Decca Records was through his agent Eddie Crandall, who became his first agent after having heard him at the Haley concert. That contract fizzled out after a year and no chart hits. Still, Holly kept plugging away: On February 25, 1957, he recorded "That'll Be The Day," in Clovis, New Mexico, with producer and future manager Norman Petty. A veteran of the Nashville guitar scene, George Gruhn, said “There could be any number of reasons why Holly would have wanted to play a Stratocaster, including its visual aesthetic and chordal intonation.” The Stratocaster guitar featured Leo Fender’s revolutionary six-piece saddle, which allowed for precise intonation of each of the instrument’s strings. In 1958, while living in New York City, Holly did purchase a Magnatone amp for home use, but he typically gigged with Fender amplifiers that suited his Stratocaster and twangy music to a T. 

The Buddy Holly Story (1978), which won the Academy Award for adapted score, is an entertaining and dynamic film, but contains quite a few errors and distortions from Buddy Holly's life and career. Now that “Clear Lake” is being produced by Prix Productions with a $12 million budget in association with Maria Elena Holly, the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation and BMG, we hope this project will translate into a more accurate portrait of Holly's personality. As some Holly's friends from Lubbock objected to Gary Busey's performance, Buddy Holly didn't look so sullen and irate as he's shown in the Steve Rash's film. Part of Holly's appeal lay in his natural charm, friendly attitude towards his audience and a tinge of innocence that are often replaced by arrogance and temper tantrums by an abrasive Busey in the film. Jerry Allison called it "The Buddy Hollywood Story", complaining he wasn't a hotheaded racist like he was portrayed by Don Stroud. “I think the movie makes Buddy look like a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not. He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual.” In another scene, the two Crickets pay a visit to Maria Elena while Holly is embarked on his final tour, and the three talk about an imminent reunion when Buddy returns. But this scene was fabricated. John Goldrosen (author of The Buddy Holly Story book) said he was very unhappy with the movie: “The producers admitted they were making The Glenn Miller Story of the Seventies. They chose to reinforce a lot of rock & roll clichés but they could have told the truth and still be commercial. They wound up hurting people. The Holleys were portrayed wrongly. The church scene was wrong. Buddy was a member of the Tabernacle Baptist Church and was close to his pastor, the Reverend Ben Johnson. Buddy always gave ten percent of his earnings to the church.”

Apparently Sonny Curtis phoned Maria Elena looking for Buddy on the night of the plane crash. Jerry Allison said he tried calling the Surf Ballroom to reach Buddy, but he'd already left. As with La Bamba (with features an aggressive, oversexed Ritchie Valens), The Buddy Holly Story is rife with errors (you can see mountains on the horizon in plain Lubbock!). At the roller rink scene, Buddy plays a Fender "Bronco" guitar. The Bronco was not manufactured by Fender until the early 1970s!  Buddy and Maria Elena are shown at a 3D movie date in 1958. These type of movies were popular in 1953 and 1954. No mainstream 3D movies were produced in the '50s after 1954. Also, as the tour bus is towing past the auditorium before Buddy's final concert, the phone number on the side of the tow truck is made up entirely of digits. In 1959, the first two digits of all phone numbers consisted of letters. All-numeric phone numbers didn't begin until the mid-'60s!

For the purpose of story condensation, Cindy Lou (Buddy's blonde girlfriend played by Amy Johnston), seems an unlikely composite character of Buddy's conventional girlfriend Echo McGuire, Peggy Sue Gerron, plus the 'wild girl from Lubbock' who would be willing to have sex with Buddy in the car backseat. Despite a pretty crappy script, Gary Busey's spirited musical act sort of saves the film by communicating Holly's fierce eccentricity onstage. Norman Petty threatened legal action because he was afraid he would be shown as a shady crook, which would have been right. A film about Buddy Holly, and especially about an era fundamentally wrapped in jouissance and optimism, deserved a more poetic and careful approach. Robert Gittler who wrote the screenplay for The Buddy Holly Story—based loosely on The Buddy Holly Story biography by John Goldrosen—committed suicide two days before the theatrical release of the film (18 May 1978). Still, The Buddy Holly Story holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As a Buddy Holly fan from Melbourne (Vinyl Man) wrote: "Closing my eyes and imagining myself at a sock-hop dancing with a pretty girl in a poodle skirt was always good for what ailed me. Did anyone leave behind as many classic hits in so short a space of time as Buddy? His music is evergreen and singular. That very idealized image I had of those days was immensely comforting. That brings to mind another thing about Buddy Holly: I can’t remember a time when his story didn’t speak to me in a very powerful way. I’m pretty sure he’s the only of my musical heroes about which I can say that. I could always imagine myself in the happy ending of a fifties movie with his music as the soundtrack, while at the same time I could make the unfortunate but effective analogy of his death to the end of America’s innocence."

In The Theory of Everything (2014) Steven Noble dressed Eddie Redmayne in a classic white-tie, black-tail morning suit that felt “slightly shabby and slightly ill-fitting, which is what I wanted,” Noble said. In his head, the suit had been passed down from Stephen Hawking’s father and grandfather. Since Stephen Hawking came from a bohemian family, he aimed to make Hawking, in his Buddy Holly glasses and ill-fitting hand-me-down, look a little more eccentric than the other Cambridge undergrads of the time. The drama chronicles Stephen and Jane’s great love story, in spite of the unthinkable physical obstacles they faced, and there was one scene in particular that Noble used to telegraph that great romance with clothing—the Cambridge May Ball, which was one of the couple’s first dates.

In the Surf Ballroom lobby, walking through the front, directly to the left, there is a vintage pay phone booth. A placard reads that this is the telephone where Buddy Holly made his final telephone call to his wife, Maria Elena. This call has become embossed in the Holly legend and took on steam in 1978 with the biopic “The Buddy Holly Story.” In the film, Holly has a tender scene where he calls his wife prior to taking the stage of the Surf Ballroom. Maria Elena herself has always maintained that this telephone call happened. In Goldrosen and Beecher’s “Remembering Buddy,” she went into some detail about this final talk with her husband. “He told me what an awful tour it had been. The buses were dirty and cold, and things just weren’t as had been promised. He said everybody on the tour was really disgusted. Then he said that the tour was behind schedule and he had to go on ahead of the others to the next stop to make arrangements for the show. He didn’t tell me that he was going to fly. I said, ‘Why should you go?’ And he said, ‘There’s nobody else to do it.’” An article from the February 4, 1959 copy of the New York Journal American seems to dispute this memory that Holly’s widow maintains. The article featured a black and white photo of Maria Elena captioned “But he didn't call.”

Recalling her memories to Goldrosen many years later about her last call with Buddy Holly, had Maria Elena simply mixed up her dates, mistaking the phone call from Green Bay as being from Clear Lake? Holly had wanted to fly out of Green Bay after the Riverside Ballroom show, so perhaps the content of that call happened just as Maria Elena described it but, after twenty years, her dates were just off by a day. Holly had just been left word via cablegrams from Norman Petty that he was illegally using the group name of the Crickets on this tour. That certainly would have put a damper on his mood when Holly arrived at the Surf Ballroom. Allen Bloom, the GAC man who helped put the Winter Dance Party together had passed away by the time I had started my research, but his son Randy was crucial in helping me direct me to an unused recorded interview. Perhaps through listening to Bloom's recall of memories of GAC’s rock and roll days, I can figure out what exactly went wrong with that Winter Dance Party tour. So, I play the tape and listen to Allen Bloom lay out a diagram for disaster. Allen Bloom: “In the fall of 1958, Buddy Holly split up with the Crickets and was alienated from his family because he married a Hispanic girl, Maria Elena. He was also splitting up with his manager, Norman Petty. Buddy came to us and we were about to sign Buddy up to manage him. Buddy had no money and so in January we arranged for a small tour. We had produced our first Biggest Show of Stars in February of 1956. This show was with Bill Haley and the Comets, Roy Hamilton, Chuck Berry... And everybody in New York, all the agency people, thought that we were going to lose all the money we didn’t have.” All of Buddy Holly’s tours since signing with Coral and Brunswick had been put on by GAC, so it was no surprise that Holly would approach them for a new tour as he was struggling to keep afloat.

According to the new book Buddy Holly: Legacies (2019) by Roddy Jordan, 90% of Maria Elena's recollections are true. In New York Holly had formed a new publishing company called "Maria Music." A new-found surprise is to learn that Aunt Provi Garcia (who erroneusly in the 1978 film is named Mrs. Santiago) did not have any family ties with Maria Elena. Also, just the opposite to the old-fashioned portrait of Maria Elena's Aunt, the real Provi Garcia was a divorced independent woman who had left his family behind in Puerto Rico. The reason why Provi took Maria Elena in her life was due to the friendship shared between the modest Santiago family and the middle-class Garcia clan. Another tremendous finding is that Maria Elena (and most likely Buddy Holly) was being investigated in 1958 by the FBI agents who opened a file on her. Allegedly, Buddy Holly was about to testify in the Payola scandal in the hopes that his songs would play on the radio again. Maria Elena had reportedly dated Jack Negron, a music industry insider who knew the intricacies of the Payola activities. The F.B.I. report is redacted but you can just see part of Jack Negron's name. 


On the Apartment tapes, in the background chat, when Maria Elena brings up the name Jack Negron, Buddy seems uncomfortable. Buddy might have a double motive for this reaction, first the stress of giving testimony against the practices of Payola, and second he might be jealous of the past relationship of his wife with Negron. Maria Elena (whose real birth name was simply Elena Santiago), said she had ambitions to go to Broadway, but Buddy discouraged her. "You don't need to do that," she quoted him. When she was all dressed up and ready to go out, Elena Santiago was quite a stunning looking girl, and understandably Holly had motives for his jealousy. Although Buddy Holly was more progressive than most of his fellow rockers, his traditional side resurfaced sometimes. As Buddy's widow, Elena Holly has every right to proceed as she sees it fit. However, it is the way she has disconnected herself from both the Holley family and the Lubbock fans that some people do not like. One has to ask, why has she gone down this pathway? Some detractors have speculated Holly was thinking of filing for divorce. Due, perhaps to his neurotic jealousy? The fact is nobody has found any proof of a divorce petition or file, just hearsay. ―"In Flanders Field: Death and Rebirth of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson" (2017) by Ryan Vandergriff