Sunday, September 27, 2009

Under Western Skies

A. Mann and Budd B., Randy Scott and Jimmy Stewart... four names to conjure with if you love Western movies.

Actually, folks do still, everywhere in the world. Westerns seem to represent a still-welcome manifestation of the rugged-individualist, last-frontier attitude that once drew immigrants and much admiration to America's shores, but which in the later 20th century sadly deteriorated into sneers at the "cowboy" mentality of certain Presidents. But the recent success of films like Appaloosa and 3:10 to Yuma suggests that those rode-hard horses can be rid some miles fu'ther--there's life in the old nags yet.

Lately I've been on a Westerns binge, working my way through the great "A" and "B" pictures of ex-bullfighter Budd Boetticher (no bum steer there) and master of cine noir Anthony Mann--in particular the core five or six by each director, which means lots of square-jawed, rock-of-Gibralter-straight Scott and lean, tough, and angry-intense Stewart, the films richly focussed (so to speak) as each actor works hard to expand and/or solidify his image.

The best ones by Budd and Scott creating in tandem--later-Fifties "Ranown" productions The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station, plus the earlier, separate BatJac production Seven Men from Now--have the slim and simple directives of the old second-on-the-bill B's: make the plot straightforward, minimize the number of locations and actors, and then shoot fast (in both senses). Except these are all in gorgeous color and two even in CinemaScope, filmed by genius cinematographers like Lucien Ballard, William Clothier, and Burnett Guffey, so they look like several million dollars on the hoof, with the ruggedly picturesque Old West lensed beautifully. And with tight and terse scripts by the likes of Borden Chase and Burt Kennedy (soon a director himself), the only things obviously cheap were the shots taken by snobbish critics back East. These bouyant, we-can-do-anything flicks were not to be denied.

The scenery is mostly rocky and expansive, and Randolph Scott moves confidently through it as a true "man of the West" (to borrow a title from Mann) whom you can count on to rally the troops, rescue the woman (Gail Russell, Maureen O'Sullivan, Karen Steele, or Nancy Gates), sort out the bad guys, and save the day, usually in less than 80 minutes. The fast guns and nasty schemes of amazin' Lee Marvin, mouthy Richard Boone and Claude Akins, plus Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn, just can't compete with Scott's reticent decency and steely resolve. (Craig Stevens and Pernell Roberts, before their television stardom, appear separately as other good-bad guys.)

With enthusiastic on-screen commentary from Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Taylor Hackford as an added treat, the five-DVD Boetticher set is a real bargain, and a revelation for any Westerns aficionado who's forgotten or never known the glory days of Scott and Budd. And the stand-alone reissue of Seven Men completes this fascinating flurry of under-the-radar independent filmmaking.

More famous and more troubled in comparison are the earlier-Fifties "A" Westerns shaped by Mann and Jimmy Stewart. At 40-plus, the actor decided he needed to expand his horizons and his longstanding good-guy image. The right Mann for the task seemed to be Anthony, solid action director of several tough noir flicks plus the recent Indian rights' feature, Devil's Doorway. And the five Westerns they made together proved him right, as Stewart became a haunted, sometimes hunted character, a man driven by anger or vengeance or his own guilty past.

Winchester 73, a brilliantly scripted "round" and the sole black and white film among the five, puts Jimmy hard on the trail of his own murdering brother. Bend of the River next presents him as a post-Civil War, Missouri-Kansas border raider trying to escape the residual scars (made real by noose marks around his neck). A charming, laughing villain (Robert Ryan) then works to elude bounty hunter Stewart, but triggers mounting nastiness, including the unexpected weapon of the title, The Naked Spur. In yet another, Jimmy as The Man from Laramie searches for whoever sold rifles to the Apache and thus contributed to the death of his brother; nothing can deter him, including the brutal maiming of his gun hand. And even in the rather more light-hearted film The Far Country, Jimmy is driven as much by gold-rush greed as friendship, involving himself in Yukon Territory problems only reluctantly.

You can easily conclude that a nice guy he isn't. Yet Stewart is less anti-social than the villainous characters who fill the frames of all these films--although the fierceness, even madness, gleaming occasionally in Stewart's eyes warns the viewer that there's more to this stranger, these multiple secretive Jimmy's, than first meets the audience's eyes. (Recall too that Alfred Hitchcock soon appropriated the grim-fellow Stewart of Mann's films for his own mid-Fifties trio of classics, with Jimmy becoming the wheelchair-bound voyeur peering out his Rear Window; a panicky driven father in The Man Who Knew Too Much; and the dizzy, manic detective--psychologically even a bit sordid--shadowed by dual Kim Novaks and a perfect case of Vertigo.)

Though production values and cast size for the Mann five reflect the bigger sums of money available to "A" pictures, they don't negate the budget-challenged heroics of Boetticher's cheaper films. Still, Mann's are ultimately meaner and more interesting, something new under the Western sun, their plots demonstrating that so-called "adult" Westerns in all their callousness and complexity were well-launched at last...

Sadly, Scott and Boetticher had run out their string. The tall actor chose to exit his career with a last gasp of glory titled Ride the High Country, but Budd lost out as director to crazy Sam Peckinpah. And Mann and Stewart quarreled so heatedly early in their next film (Night Passage) that the director bowed out--wisely, if one judges by what resulted without him. (The movie does answer the trivia question, "What became of young Brandon de Wilde after Alan Ladd/Shane rode away?")

By 1959-1960, the glorious decade of emotionally convoluted--but carefully budgeted--Hollywood Westerns was over, and the gunslingers and gamblers of television had become the replacement rage, no matter how diminished the grandeur of the West appeared on that electronic small-screen.

Like gunman Shane, the Four Horsemen of the adult flicks just rode away.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Watering Holes of the West

Been gone for almost a week, first to boring old new Las Vegas, the massively ridiculous entertainment mega-complex, surrounded to the horizons by water-gobbling mile-upon-mile housing developments and trailer parks. The sin-in-the-sun city is seriously not meant for walking, the tram system is a private-ownership joke, the 100-degree heat is oppressive, and the casinos all look and scream alike. But other than that, we had a fine time (nice dinner at a French restaurant called Alize), as we prepared for the real reason we were there--to take a late-season rafting trip down the Colorado River through the lower Grand Canyon.

For that happier event, we flew on by small plane for some hijinx at the Bar 10 working ranch, and then helicoptered down into the Canyon (a swooping, suitably exhilirating ride) to waiting pontoon craft, for two days plus on the river. As we drifted along, shooting a few rapids, I thought about ranching and cowboys, water rights and Native Americans, and the countless millennia of visible geology--the history of the West in other words--all of which tied in just fine with a blog post that's coming soon.

From that Comanche station near a bend of the river, the man from Laramie took out his Winchester 73 for a decision at sundown... Say what?

Yes, I'm talking Fifties Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart and Randolph Scott... next time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Indian Summer for Brubeck

There's always something to set the Jazz world a-buzzing. Right now, many commentators are praising the welcome announcement that Dave Brubeck, at age 88 and counting, will become a Kennedy Center honoree on December 6--the very day he turns 89, in fact. Others are tossing in some tart grapes: why has it taken so long for Dave to be recognized? why 13 years between Jazz inductees? and the colossal question, why no Sonny Rollins yet, for tenor's sake?!

By coincidence, I caught Brubeck with his current quartet performing at Seattle's Jazz Alley just last night. The first thing the elderly, somewhat frail-looking leader did was reminisce about his rhythm section as having been together many years longer than the classic foursome. And after 30-plus years, Bobby Militello, Randy Jones, and "new guy" Michael Moore (only eight years) are certainly aging in place, all of them looking 60 and up.

Fortunately, they also have the blessed, life-enhancing energy of working musicians, playing with the piss and pizzazz of guys just starting out. Moore had a couple of intense, far-ranging plucked solos; Jones drummed Joe Morello right out of town when he took charge of "Take Five" and produced the only drum solo I've stood and cheered for in decades; and Militello was a study in, well, heavyweight altosaxing. This guy moves in a note or two from Paul Desmond lyricism to Art Pepper's outside screams. I admire his stubborn, shifting style, but the ascerbic, even acidic, tone he favors so often made me think of this one-liner: "Who'd have guessed that Dave would replace Desmond's dry martini sound with Bobby's bicarbonate of soda"?

As for indomitable Dave, you can see that bouts of illness have taken their toll. He needs to be helped up and down the stage steps, and his playing, while still pounding angularly and countertempo when so inspired, lacks much of the old power that once could reduce keyboards to kindling. When he spoke, even the piano mike couldn't make that quaver come up loud enough to be easily understood. But his selections were a hoot: "Margie," "Show Me the Way to Go Home," a crowd-pleasing Ellington medley, and a beautiful Classical (or maybe movie) theme for which I just can't pull up the name, but would love to have on disc to hear again and again.

All said, the pianist and his pals were totally charming and winning, well worth the $65 club entry fee and the packed-to-the-rafters scene. So hat's off to Dave Brubeck; and here's hoping December 6th can come soon enough.

Aftermath: I see from Doug Ramsey's Rifftides review that the composition I couldn't name was Brubeck's own "Dziekuje," his Chopin-sounding thanks to Poland, written back in the early touring days. I plead diminished capacity! And I promise to play some version at least five times to revive my failing Memorex...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Barney's Blues

Leave it to the French... and the Belgians and Dutch, and the Germans, and the Italians and, well, most other mainland Europe nationals--all of whom revere not only American Jazz, but also the notion of comic books (another American creation, dating from the late Twenties). But these countries also publish comics for adults, full-length stories drawn in chunks and published serially in monthly magazines and hardback comics anthologies.

The French call them bandes dessinees, and in the Eighties U.S. publishers finally took notice of this huge phenomenon. (Hence the still ever-burgeoning spate of vapid, superhero-dominated graphic novels from American comics companies.) Yet around the world, and in the U.S. as well, there are a few worthy efforts published each year too; the problem is wading through the dreck to find the diamonds.

These not-so-comic thoughts came to me as I watched an embedded video created by Steve Cerra over at the JazzProfiles blog. He does these splendid historical tributes to various musicians, assembling photos and album jacket art to encapsulate entire careers; and a recent one was devoted to Barney Wilen.

"Who?"--I can hear many readers and even knowledgeable Jazz fans ask. Tenor saxist Barney Wilen (1937-1996) was essentially the Stan Getz of French jazz, a hardbopper and ballads man good enough to play regularly in clubs and on discs and movie soundtracks with distinguished visitors Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Kennys Clarke and Dorham, both Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk, John Lewis and the MJQ, and others, plus great European jazzmen and little-known locals alike, from the Fifties until his death in the Nineties.

And Wilen has the peculiar distinction of having been (I believe) the only living jazzman to "suffer" a graphic-novel, fictional retelling of his life. Now, many European artists (and a few American ones, from R. Crumb to William Stout) have drawn semi-documentary sequential stories about bluesmen and sax players and famous rock musicians; but matters of factual accuracy and lawsuit-avoidance usually dictate subject and tone and incidents depicted. The standard trick is to draw someone deceased. Yet Wilen somehow became the unwitting subject of a fictional strip published in 1985-86, 70 pages divided into six chapters running in consecutive issues of the excellent, now no-longer-extant, bandes dessinees magazine titled "(A Suivre)"--parentheses included--meaning approximately "to be continued."

Barney et la Note Bleue is a moody classic of modern comics--lots of Existential angst and ennui--written by Philippe Paringaux and drawn sketchily and unforgettably by Jacques Loustal. The fictional Barney is a first-rate tenor man but an aimless kid who'd rather shoot up or screw with no commitment; and when the sax-and-sex life catches up with him, he dies from an overdose (in 1962). The real Wilen, in contrast, was a half-French, half-American expatriate hipster who looked like a mix of Buddy Holly and the young Bill Evans--a somewhat forgotten musician who survived the vicissitudes of a career in Jazz by sometimes playing offshoots (jazz-rock, African pygmy music, even punk), before returning to bop for his last decade. (That brief punk connection helped generate the interest in Wilen among comics artists.)

But the unexpected attention accorded Barney led to some ironic developments. First, Wilen reacted a bit testily to the early chapters' apparent misrepresentation of his life in the late Fifties--until Loustal and Paringaux convinced him that this was a fictional "Barney" only vaguely related to him at all. Then the complete serialized story garnered such acclaim that Wilen was quickly booked into a recording studio to cut a Note Bleue album, a sort of soundtrack to accompany the comics novel (due to appear in book form some months later), and to capitalize on the welcome resurgence of interest in the living Barney. And the success of that record helped persuade the tenor to re-focus his playing on hard bop once more.

I happened to be travelling in Europe during the months the story segments were appearing. I was a bandes dessinees fan, routinely buying each issue of (A Suivre), and the quietly compelling story of some sad jazzman named Barney just seemed an unlikely bonus at the time. I knew of the real Wilen, his Fifties career that is, but I assumed he had died and then been chosen by the artists as some sort of representative figure of the era. My rudimentary French missed the story's subtleties, but I could follow along with the somewhat controversial behind-the-scenes stuff that developed in the comics press. Clearly Loustal and Paringaux had created a graphics meta-fiction that shook things up in the comics world and beyond.

I don't know if other real, still-living people have been depicted in graphic novels since then (that is, other than the typical brief parodies of politicians everywhere), but seeing a couple of samples of Loustal's art reprinted in the Wilen tribute video was a happy reminder of an interesting half-year in France and of a fine jazzman deserving wider recognition.

And by an excellent coincidence, I discovered that Barney is due to be reissued by Casterman (Paris) at the end of September, if anyone is curious to see more. (The related CD seems not to be available except perhaps as a download.)

Barney's blue notes are still resounding.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't Look Back...

A while back, I posted a comment on Doug Ramsey's jazz blog Rifftides in response to his brief rant against misuse of certain words (in particular, "sophomore" as vaguely indicating the second item in a series). I thought I was being alert and clever when I identified one sentence of his complaint--"You could look it up"--as a quote from Ring Lardner's comical baseball stories of the 20th century 'Teens and Twenties.

Doug emailed me that he didn't mean to be quoting Lardner (or anyone else, maybe), and so I Googled the words to get a precise source... and found that I was wrong; the line is the title of, and a repeated refrain in, a James Thurber story from 1941, though critics do agree that Thurber was consciously mimicking the slangy, colloquial style employed earlier by Lardner.

My curiosity was piqued by then, so I drank deeper in Google's Pierian Spring and learned the following...

Thurber's story involves a baseball trainer recounting a 30-year-old yarn about some manager unexpectedly sending a midget up to pinchhit in a crucial game, needing him to draw a walk. But the midget ignores orders and grounds out. As the narrator insists, it really happened: "You could look it up."

Well, it also turns out that a couple of decades later--in our own beyond-fiction world--a couple of possibly related things happened. First, in 1951 then-new St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (pronounced Veck as in "wreck"), a canny expert of sports promotion, did exactly that, sending a little person named Eddie Gaedel to the plate (with strict orders not to swing) and thus causing quite a well-publicized ruckus when, the opposing pitcher laughing so hard, Gaedel drew a walk on four straight balls. Supposedly, Veeck always denied he got the idea from Thurber, claiming instead to have been inspired by old New York Giants manager John J. McGraw, who had a diminutive team mascot named Eddie Morrow. (No, not Edward R.)

Then in a 1965 interview, Casey Stengel, manager of a certain other New York team and a well-known master at word-mangling, used Thurber's phrase in passing (probably without intending the source), in such a comical, quoteworthy way that the five-word sentence from then on was associated with Stengel, and eventually even became the title of a 1979 book about the manager and his malapropisms. (Asked about his future in baseball, evidently Casey had replied, "How the hell should I know? Most of the people my age are dead. You could look it up.")

Over the next decades the Thurber/Stengel phrase cropped up frequently, used by historically minded baseball fans, sabermetrics enthusiasts, English professors making a point about dictionaries, and diverse others. (The five words show up in a slew of Google entries.)

And finally, in 2004, on-line baseball commentator Steven Goldman began offering regular blog essays at taking that for his main title--"You Could Look It Up" indeed. Dozens of these commentaries are available because his column has been appearing weekly ever since.

Meanwhile of course, as the 21st century staggers on, thanks to the Internet in general and Google in particular anyone can now easily look up almost anything--Lardner or Thurber, Veeck or Stengel, fun sports quotations from a Negro Leagues pitcher or scurrilous political rumors about a beleaguered (American or National, take your pick) President.

And in a fine self-referential irony, as soon as I post this blog chapter, you can look it up too!

(Move over, Lardner, Barber, Angell, Boswell... by accident and over your well-founded objections, I've joined the ranks; it seems that stunted writers have a place in the line-up too.)