elaine stritch (1925-2014) by Greg Bills

Elaine Stritch died today, July 17, 2014, at the age of 89.  A life-force and supreme show business pro, she sang "I'm Still Here" for so many years, and now, shockingly, she suddenly isn't.  She was one of those rare artists who have given the world performances that are indelible.  Once you have heard Stritch dig her way into a Sondheim song, say, you will never get it out of your head ever. For me, getting Elaine Stritch to sing "The Ladies Who Lunch" was all Stephen Sondheim needed to do to ensure his immortality as a songwriter.  There is an amazing DA Pennebaker documentary about the recording of the original 1970 Broadway cast album to Company that is well worth viewing in its entirety.  Here is a watchable YouTube copy of the film focussing on the struggle to record Stritch's version of "Ladies."  The sequence begins about 1:50 minutes into the first clip and carries through to the end of the second.  This is one of the great examples showing how hard it can be to make great art, and how rewarding it can be to finally succeed.

I had the chance to see one of her very late live performances at Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2012, and while her voice was sometimes uncertain and she kept forgetting the lyrics, she was very much a presence onstage.  I felt much the same as I did when I finally got to see Nina Simone sing in person: for anyone who believes in art as a force in the world, these were visits to the shrine.

Everybody Rise!

the great five minutes by Greg Bills

With some movies, it is more about the individual pieces, than the puzzle as a whole.


Les Miserables

I was putting together a mix of showtunes, listening to the Anne Hathaway version of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the film version of Les Miserables, and I found myself wondering, How the hell did this performance end up in that movie?:

It is not simply that this number is show-stopping in the expected way that a musical’s big songs are supposed to be; instead, Hathaway’s performance tears free of this big, lumbering, dinosaur tar pit of a movie, cauterizes its wounds, and flies off.  In fact the ten or fifteen minutes surrounding this song form a wrenching mini-musical about betrayal and degradation that serves to make the rest of the production seem like an act of bad faith.  Elsewhere, there are also about ten minutes with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (singing “Man About the House” etc.) that seem to have wandered in from a much livelier, funnier movie that Tim Burton might have made with more verve.  Otherwise, it is the kind of movie you let mindlessly bludgeon you between moments when your critical brain switches on for an instant: the crassness of the absurdly lavish cgi spectacle of the opening, or the way that the narrative concludes with a religious conversion (reversion?) and an existential aria followed by a suicide—a climax that it is impossible to imagine originating from a musical born in America instead of France.

Nonetheless, Anne Hathaway owns this film, and her great five minutes make the other three hours (almost) worthwhile. 

Enter the Void

Short sequences that stand out from the larger narrative may be most common and familiar from musicals because the songs and dances are often produced and designed with a conscious distinction from the material that surrounds them—even, in earlier times, with entirely different crews and directors at work.  French filmmaker Gaspar Noe’s works are not musicals exactly, but they have a similar rhythm, with showstoppers and the lulls between them. The most striking five minutes of Enter the Void from 2009 may be the opening titles.  It is as if an intelligent species of fonts from another dimension are ready to invade and conquer the earth, making their first landing inside our movie credits. (Warning: flashing colors.)

After that, there is a nifty drug-induced hallucination as follow up, and in fact, the movie motors along with patches of pretty dazzling cinema.  The story tracks the meandering of a druggie expatriate in Japan and his brush with death, but plot and characters are not what is in focus here.  The movie is the Idiot’s Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  And I mean that literally, not as a joke.  Some very stupid people spend more than two hours experiencing the most profound mysteries of existence.  With that warning in place, I can say that I quite like this one. For me it is a huge step forward in Mr. Noe’s filmography from Irreversible, which was more or less a feature-length music video about (celebrating?) homophobia and misogyny.  That film features an ultraviolent rape so tedious that I actually fast-forwarded (and I never fast-forward—glad I watched it at home!); it is the antimatter version of a Great Five Minutes: the Twenty Minute Black Hole.

Still, Noe was setting himself up for a big challenge to follow credits like these.  It’s like the James Bond or Pink Panther openings; you suspect they’ve put all their best stuff in the store window.


It’s Always Fair Weather

There is always some star of stage and screen that you have never heard of before: in this case, Dolores Grey, belting through "Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks" in some sort of Muppet-pelt gown.  This film is a Jeff favorite.

The film actually has ten or fifteen marvelous minutes.  It is directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly with some good stuff for Kelly to do, has songs from Comden and Green with Andre Previn, and is interesting sociologically as study of how a Hollywood musical could address the struggles of GI’s after their homecoming from World War II.  However, the whole thing is really a flimsy pretext for moments like this one, with Cyd Charisse.


Suddenly, Last Summer

This 1959 cinematic expansion by Gore Vidal of Tennessee William’s one-act play remains under-appreciated.  It is as well-shot and as well-acted as the much more celebrated A Streetcar Named Desire, and it has enough lurid material—nuns, mental hospital snake pits, predatory poets, graspy Southern relatives, cannibalism, deus ex machina—to stock an entire season of an HBO show. It also has Katherine Hepburn as the villain, so that, for once, we don’t have to admire her plucky, indomitable spirit and can instead enjoy her venom.  In the film's key moment, Violet Venable describes a transformative vacation with her son to a world-renowned lobotomist played by Montgomery Clift.  Hepburn pushes quickly and effortlessly past the absurd to that place that might be described as camp lyricism—a style that Williams perfected and of which he remains the master. Terrifying? Ridiculous? Yes!

welcome by Greg Bills

As with the first draft of anything, I don't really know what this blog will turn out to be.  I have finally put up a website (check it out; there's some interesting stuff), and I have added this blog to the mix.  How Early-00s of me!  I plan to write here about anything that interests me--in books, film, the arts, the world--and as well make announcements, pronouncements, denouncements, and the like.


[side note: I've been listening to this track lately and thought I would add it to my first post because it seems…um…welcoming.  When legendary DJ/Producer Frankie Knuckles died in March 2014, Dmitri from Paris posted this remix of all his favorite bits from this remix by Knuckles and David Morales.]