Friday, September 27, 2019

HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE HOGAN'S HEROES



You know, I liked Hogan's Heroes when I was a kid, but then I learned about the Nazis in school and came to believe that the very idea of it was tasteless. "A comedy? Set in a German POW camp? That's beyond the pale."

Plus, like, Bob Crane's life (and subsequent murder) was super fucked-up. Seeing Paul Schrader's Auto Focus didn't help to improve my opinion of HH.

I pretty much held onto this opinion for long time, until I saw Billy Wilder's brilliant Stalag 17, of which HH is just a watered-down version.

I still didn't reexamine HH until recently, when they started running it on@MeTV. Now I tend it find it mostly delightful (?). Werner Klemperer and John Banner are both really great. All four of the main "Nazi" roles were actually played by Jewish actors, who had fled Germany during World War II and (I guess) really enjoyed portraying bumbling Nazis.

In fact, several of the cast (Klink, Schultz, Burkhalter and Robert Clary's LeBeau) were, in their earlier lives, actual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Clary's arm bears an identifying tattoo. Leon Askin's (Burkhalter) parents were killed at Treblinka.

Klemperer won two Emmys playing Klink. It's important to remember that HH was not set in a concentration camp, but rather a Luftwaffe POW camp, and that its (and Stalag 17) setting were based on actual camp, Oflag XIII-B, which was located approximately where Stalag 13 is.

And, as to the questionable taste of the subject matter: Why have I rarely heard similar complaints about the British TV show, 'Allo, 'Allo, (a broad comedy set in a German occupied French town which used Nazis as the butt of the jokes) which ran for ten years to HH's six?

This all comes as I'm watching @MeTV's nightly hour block of Hogan's Heroes and am reading about a planned reboot of the series which would follow the descendants of the original characters on some kind of global treasure hunt.

For further discussion, see "Heil, Honey. I'm Home" a British attempt at a Hitler/Eva Braun sitcom.



^^^This is astounding^^^ I would love to do a live theater version of it.

Apparently, although only one episode of HHIH was aired in 1990, 8 full episodes were recorded. They must still exist somewhere. Word is that Arthur Matthews (Father Ted) has copies of them.

Fuck. Now I see that Arthur Matthews did a fucking weird sitcom with Simon Pegg in 1999 called Hippies. It is dour.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Unpublished 2019 April Fools Column



Man-Thing (2005) and the MECU that could have been


We live in glorious times and we don’t even recognize it.

We live in the age of Comic Book movies. All our dreams are manifest. An extended, immersive universe exists up there on the screen and, for the first time in human history, a medium that was once reviled, and (to some extent) nearly legislated out of existence, has captured the imagination of the public in ways that its supporters could have never dared to dream.

Yes, this is the era of the DCEU. That’s DC Extended Universe, for those not completely in the know. An interlinking series of films by a diverse set of directors and writers, yet firmly controlled (editorially) by the governing heads of DC comics, these films have opened new avenues of storytelling previously unseen beyond the printed page. The sheer breadth of films released since this project began in 2005 (a dozen movies and counting) would have blown the collective minds of the scores of the unwashed who skulked through the aisles of your local comics shops.

Yes, those insular misanthropic masses have been vindicated. And the stories and sagas that they jealously held so close to their (literal) vests have, now, become the respected and anticipated imagined property of the public at large. Superheroes are, at long last, big business.

Mega business.

How did this happen? How did the ordinary film-goer finally clue into the amazingly rewarding benefits of longform fantasy storytelling? How did they come to embrace a yearly pilgrimage to the multiplex to consume the next installment in a highly diverse, over-arching, multi-character, multidimensional, increasingly complex series of stories in an interconnected universe that only existed (previously) in monthly, graphic, serialized form?

We have to go all the way back to 2005 to look at the germination of this thing that we have grown to take for granted.

In 2005, DC comics and Warner Brothers studios embarked on an unheard of mission. To build a universe from a single movie. A building block that would signal to the vast movie-going public that there was a story to tell. A big story. And this story couldn’t be contained in just one franchise or one hero. This was the story of us. Of who we were as a people. Of what we could do in the face of adversity. Of how we could stand up to the evil or the morally ambiguous and come out the other side proud of what we had accomplished and what we did to get there.

That 2005 movie was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and, though no one knew it at the time, a beginning is exactly what it was. In that film, Nolan gave us a Batman for the ages, pitted against not some colorful costumed miscreant like The Joker or The Penguin or The Riddler, but rather, the all-too-relatable character of Ra’s al Ghul, the man who taught him how to be the Batman. Al Ghul is motivated not by greed, but by principle. His plans to end all corruption in Gotham City would, usually, align completely with Batman’s philosophy. But Batman sees beyond what al Ghul proclaims as irredeemable, and their ensuing battle of moderation versus extremism is the blueprint of everything that DC and Warner Brothers would continue to build upon in all subsequent installments of what they, eventually, would come to call the DCEU.

Batman Begins was followed, in 2006, by Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a film whose title would come to embody another aspect of DC’s continuing insistence that the modern world was now ready for this kind of extreme storytelling. In Singer’s film, Lois Lane publishes a Pulitzer Prize-winning article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”, only to be proven, at film’s end, that she was wrong; the World (and by extension, us) desperately needs Superman.

Nolan would continue to explore Batman’s amorphous paradigm shift in two subsequent films, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which would pit Batman against some more colorful and expected villains, but with new realistic twists on their personalities, making their motivations more morally ambiguous and Batman’s responses to them more philosophical in nature and less “bang, bang, shoot ‘em up”.

The DCEU expanded beyond their traditionally recognized screen characters to include Jonah Hex and (James Bond director) Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern, released, respectively, in 2010 and 2011 (right in the middle of Nolan’s Batman trilogy), signaling that the DCEU would be exploring properties heretofore never seen on the big screen.

Two years later, Nolan, fresh from the phenomenal success of his Batman trilogy, would take over the producing reigns of the next Superman film. 2013’s Man of Steel would re-explore and re-contextualize Superman’s origin and his battle with the Kryptonian, Zod, originally portrayed in Dick Donner’s Superman films of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Nolan chose Watchman wunderkind Zach Snyder to helm this re-interpretation of the beloved Superman mythos. Snyder continued to build upon the darker themes of the Twenty-first century DC films, making Superman’s fight with Zod brutal in its intensity and examining the collateral damage caused tangentially during these battles between gods. Snyder followed Man of Steel in 2016 with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice which further explored the collateral damage theme, placing Batman against Superman in an annihilation-sized event that was, again, more philosophical on its surface than anything we’d ever before seen in a comic book movie.

BvS slyly introduced Wonder Woman into the mix and, in the same year, Patty Jenkins directed the Amazon’s solo film to near universal acclaim, followed by a full on Justice League film, which added The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg versus the minions of ultimate DC baddie Darkseid (created by Jack Kirby). 2016 also saw an exploration of Batman’s more ridiculous rogue’s gallery in Suicide Squad, featuring The Joker and Harley Quinn (a fan favorite). 2018 brought us an Aquaman solo movie directed by genre darling James Wan (the Saw, Insidious and Conjuring universes, Furious 7). Response was overwhelming, making Aquaman the highest grossing film to date in the DCEU and the first to gross over a billion dollars.

Imagine. An Aquaman movie grossing over a billion dollars. Such a fact would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, when simply the thought of an Aquaman film was used as the butt of a joke in the HBO series Entourage.

Now, this week, DC and Warner Brothers are about to release Shazam!, a film featuring DC’s true, original Captain Marvel (no longer called Captain Marvel because of rights issues). Advance word is over the moon and the DCEU seems set on continuing (or even improving upon) their decade plus winning streak.

But what ever happened to their rival comics publisher, Marvel? Why hasn’t there been a spate of Marvel Extended Cinematic Universe films to rival DC’s supremacy? Why is there no MECU to give us the connected adventures of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men? It would seem to be a no-brainer, even given the enormous amount of catch-up they would have to do to get to DCEU levels.

The fact is that Marvel, despite having the most popular comic properties on the planet, doesn’t own the rights to the majority of their prestigious characters. Here’s the story:

In the late 1990’s when the comic boom went bust, independent company Marvel (unlike DC, which has been owned by the industrial conglomerate Warner Brothers [a subsidiary of AT&T’s WarnerMedia] since 1967) found itself hemorrhaging money. In order to stay afloat, Marvel sold off the film rights to their core characters. In addition to the ones mentioned above, Marvel lost cinematic control of the Hulk, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, The Punisher and just about anyone else that you could ever care about.

With Marvel’s properties in the hands of others, there is no way that they could make anything resembling an interconnected series of films. Fox has the X-Men and The Fantastic Four. Sony has Spider-Man. It’s not in their interests to work together. But Marvel did try once.

In the mid 2000’s, Marvel was supervising their licensed film properties out of an office located above a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Beverly Hills. Artisan Entertainment had the rights to a few smaller Marvel characters like The Punisher, Black Widow and Iron Fist. Marvel had regained control of a few of their properties including the Avengers, Iron Man, Cloak & Dagger, and Power Pack. And they wanted to make their own movies. So, Marvel asked Lionsgate (nee Artisan) if they could collaborate on a film. You know, just to test the waters.

Marvel chose to focus on a relatively obscure character, a sort of Swamp Thing-ish copy of a rambling, shambling, muck monster called Man-Thing. “Let’s throw it out there,” they thought. “And we’ll make it a horror picture because you can’t lose money with horror. Let’s just see what it does. Man-Thing.”

Well, Lionsgate took the ball and ran with it, cutting Marvel completely out of the loop. They moved the entire production to Australia. No one from Marvel wanted to go to there, so they just sat back and let it all happen. Avi Arad (then CEO of Marvel Studios) has been quoted as saying “The one hiccup we had was the one project we didn't micromanage. We were not going to the Outback, there was so much going on. We will never do that again. We should never have trusted anybody that far away without our supervision. Thankfully it was a small movie and not a disaster. If we were there and on top of it, it would have been a[n] amazing movie. I look at the {horror} genre, and I think 'Shit, I can't believe this'. We've learned our lesson.”

Man-Thing was a financial disaster, essentially putting the kibosh on Marvel’s hopes to exert some kind of editorial control over their properties. Now all of Marvel’s plans are scattered to the winds. They can just sit back, watch what’s happening in the DCEU and dream of what could have been.

But, we say, Man-Thing (2005) is a pretty great little movie that has all of the core elements that should be present in a world-building exercise. Directed by The Lawnmower Man’s Brett Leonard, this film blends bits of horror and romance, Native American legend and environmental concerns into a nicely cohesive mélange that never fails to entertain and is always, always, on point with the original book’s intentions.

There are characters named for the comic’s most prominent creators, Steve Gerber and Mike Ploog. Jack Thompson (Cleeg Lars from Attack of the Clones) shows up as the despicable polluting villain Fred Schist. Alex O’Loughlin (Hawaii Five-O) shines in an early role as a mentally-challenged deputy. Australian Rachel Taylor (who I’ve got to say, would make a great Patsy Walker) is the environmentally conscious school teacher whose best friend is a Seminole shaman.

The creature himself (a combination of practical and CGI effects) is frightening and sufficiently intimidating. The film translates the essential conceits of the original page better than most other comic book films (DECU included). And Australia as a stand-in for the Louisiana swamp works brilliantly at times.

But Marvel was nonplussed. The movie was dumped, rather unceremoniously onto the SyFy channel in 2005 and has lived a buried existence ever since. It’s true that Marvel slept on this one, but that doesn’t mean that you have to.

Oh, Marvel, why couldn’t you be like DC? Somehow, they managed to find the right formula to bring their extensive comic book universe to life on the big screen. Their “bench” of characters is so deep, they can churn out film after quality film for the next 50 years. Sadly, all we can do now is imagine a Marvel equivalent. No longer do we dare dream of seeing something like Guardians of the Galaxy or Luke Cage on the big screen. Marvel can only look back and think about what could have been.





Man-Thing is available to rent on Amazon Prime.











Sunday, July 2, 2017

Is Big Star The Greatest Band Ever?


New Release Goes a Long Way Toward Answering the Question




“It's like an alternate history hugest Pop band in the world.”




            You’ve probably never heard of the band, Big Star, unless you’re:

                        a. a musicologist

                        b. a record store clerk

                        c. a musician

                        d. a person who is really into music

                        or

                        e. someone who knows one of the above





            My point being that the average person has never heard of Big Star (and probably wouldn’t care about them if they did). A band who only (officially) existed for three years, from 1972-1975, had zero hit singles, only two proper albums and played live probably less than a hundred times, Big Star (on paper) is the definition of a never-has-been group of four guys who should have rightfully deserved to be consigned to the bargain bin of time.


            But something remarkable happened.
Left to Right: Hummel, Stephens, Bell, Chilton


            Long after the group had broken up and its members either went their separate ways or died, small groups of young musicians began to rediscover their albums that had never, really, been discovered in the first place. As these young music groups began to gain popularity (R.E.M., The Bangles, The Replacements, et. al.), they started to spread the gospel of Big Star. That gospel continues to spread incrementally, through the categories of people mentioned above, to this day.

      

Now, I’m not here to discuss the history of this ill-fated band, or their resurgence and partial reunion in the 1990’s. For that information, you can look to either Rob Jancovic’s incredibly detailed journal, Big Star: The Short Life, Painful Death, and Unexpected Resurrection of the Kings of Power Pop or take a look at Drew DiNicola’s exhaustive and beautiful documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, both available through Amazon and other retailers.

 

New Incarnation: Auer, Chilton, Stephens, Stringfellow

            In this blog entry, I’m going to talk about what happened after. After all of that. After the deaths of founding members Chris Bell (in 1978) and Alex Chilton & Andy Hummel (both in 2010). When the only surviving members of the band were the original drummer, Jody Stephens, and the two members of The Posies (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow) that helped to reconstitute the band, substituting for Chris and Andy from 1993-2010.

 

            The death of Alex Chilton (whose own story can be read in A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man by Holly George-Warren) in 2010 of heart issues, only days before the band were slated to play at Austin’s SXSW Conference, sent the festival’s musical community into a crisis of conscience. Should they continue to play, even without Alex? That seemed irreverent and almost blasphemous. Alex Chilton was Big Star. Without him, it was just two guys from The Posies and Big Star’s drummer. That wasn’t Big Star. Their first inclination was “no”.

 

            But then other musicians attending the fest began to contact the three remaining members. They had all been touched by Big Star’s music and they wanted to turn the show into a memorial. They would step in and sing in Alex’s place. Evan Dando, Mike Mills, Sondre Lerche, John Doe, Chris Stamey and others ended up joining the frontman-less trio onstage for an elegiac consummation of Alex Chilton’s talent and Big Star itself. Jon Auer later stated, “After Alex died, there was no way that we could see to continue to do this music legitimately.” And that was the end of Big Star.

 

Or was it?

 

Chris Stamey (of the dB’s) who had played with Chilton way back in the late 70’s during Alex’s “punk” phase, had the idea to get ahold of the original string scores for Big Star’s ill-fated Third record and see if he could get a group together to perform it. All of the old creative gang were amenable. Original composer Carl Marsh said that he would recreate whatever was lost. Jody Stephens said he’d be willing to play drums. Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) wanted in. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, too. Ken and Jon wanted to continue to play Big Star music, so they were on board. Some other musicians got involved and everyone learned Third, and every other Big Star or related song they could, going back to the master tapes and carefully going over each individual track. If the song had four guitar overdubs, they all agreed on having four guitars onstage. Each part was meticulously duplicated.

 

But they daren’t call themselves Big Star. Because they weren’t. Big Star was Alex and Chris and Andy and Jody. The 90’s incarnation weren’t really Big Star either, as much as we all wanted them to be. They were a second rate simulation. I know. I saw them once. It was emotionally thrilling. I was seeing Big Star! But, in reality it was a paint-by-numbers performance. Alex put zero passion into what he, clearly, saw as just another money making operation. Hell, during this time period he did reunion shows with the Box Tops as often as he would with Big Star.

 

            The new group decided to call itself Big Star’s Third Live, a rather unwieldy name; hard to fit on a marquee, but it told the audience what to expect. They weren’t a tribute band. This wasn’t “The Pink Floyd Experience”. Nor was it “Cheap Trick performs In Color in its entirely plus other hits”. Neither was it some kind of one-off “Tribute to Big Star” featuring Bruce Springsteen and others. This was a collective of, mostly minor, underground or unknown musicians who had, now, dedicated themselves to preserving the music of Big Star in a way that had never been done before. “This is a band giving tribute to themselves,” guest artist Robyn Hitchcock said. It wasn’t an “oldies” show. It was a show that was insisting that this music was as vital and as important as it had ever been. Maybe more so.

 

            So, for the past six or seven years, Big Star’s Third Live have been gathering around four times a year, in various locations, incorporating various guest artists (a list of whom would take up too much space) from the environs and putting on a concert that celebrates the beauty and importance of the music of Big Star. I’ve got bootlegs of about half a dozen of these shows. The performance at the Barbican Hall in London in 2012, guest starring locals Norman Blake and Ray Davies, is a thing of beauty. The sound quality is good. Not great, but listenable. Some of the other BS3L boots are taken from radio broadcasts and sound very clear.

The Barbican Show, London 2012

       This April, Concord Records released a proper 5.1 surround sound recording of a BS3L show with the double CD/DVD, Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live...And More. Recorded almost exactly a year prior at the appropriately named Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA., the line-up consists of core band members Stephens, Stamey, Easter, Mills, Auer, Stringfellow, Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris, Pat Sansone (Wilco) and Django Haskins. Special guests include Robyn Hitchcock, Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Benmont Tench, Dan Wilson (Semisonic) and Jeff Tweedy. The Kronos Quartet provides the string accompaniment.

              For those who know the music of Big Star, the release (especially the DVD) is a revelation. The music is treated with respect. This is a recital, not a concert. This is something that you sit back and listen to with respect and (new) understanding as the complexity of the music is revealed through the players onstage. Director Benno Nelson focuses on not only the whole picture, but the little things that are happening. A little tap on a cymbal. An operatic soprano that you never knew was present in the original recording. Six guitars onstage, layering chords, one on top of the other, duplicating the painstaking process that it took to get the ringing sound of "September Gurls”. Four singers simulating the overdubbed harmonies on a song like “Give Me Another Chance”.


            The performance is divided into two parts. The first section consists of songs from the first two Big Star albums, #1 Record and Radio City, with the emphasis heavily on the former. Then the collective heads full bore into Third, playing the entire album, minus the cover songs that were included on the original vinyl. Original tracking order is ditched (Third never really had an official tracking order anyway) in favor of what, at first, feels capricious, but then reveals itself to have maximum emotional impact.

Gudasz, Harris & Haskins perform "Thirteen"


            Less famous core band members Brett Harris, Django Haskins and Skylar Gudasz really stand out. Maybe because we don’t expect them to be great. But they are. Tweedy puts aside his Tweediness and really gives “Kizza Me” and “Night Time” his all. Mike Mills shows his playful side with “September Gurls”, “Jesus Christ” and “You Can’t Have Me”. Everyone puts their egos aside for what is, obviously, a labor of love.

  Tweedy rocks "Kizza Me"


            I’ve viewed the DVD a number of times, and been close to tears each time. Like the quote that I started this piece with, this release makes you feel as if Big Star were the biggest Pop band ever. They’ve created (along with Elvis Costello) the most important music in my life.


            I hope that this CD/DVD release will inspire more people to invest some time in their music. It just might reveal itself to you and you might have an opinion on the question that I posed in the title of this piece.


            Is Big Star the best band ever?


            Of course not, you say (even if you’re a fan of Big Star). The Beatles, The Stones, The Who. There’s no way that Big Star (however good they may be) can compare to the likes of those bands. And I agree. There’s no way that they can compete.


            But let’s level the playing field a bit, huh?


            Big Star put out three records. Two really, since Third didn’t get a proper release until years after the band broke up. Now, let’s pretend that The Beatles, The Stones, The Who (or any other band that you’d like to insert here) were only judged by the first three records that they put out. Would The Stones be considered great if all we had to judge them on were The Rolling Stones, The Rolling Stones No. 2 and Out of Our Heads? I think not. They were still evolving. They’d just be a footnote in the history of Rock. What if The Beatles career had ended with A Hard Day’s Night? Or The Who had broken up after The Who Sell Out?


            Now that we’ve altered the musical landscape, who’s the greatest band ever?


            I think that Big Star’s in the running.


Trailer




If you’re new to Big Star and would like to explore their music, I suggest these recordings along with the books and recording that I mentioned above:


#1 Record/Radio City – Fantasy Records


Keep an Eye on the Sky – Rhino


Complete Third – Omnivore Recordings