Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Speaking of movies...

... I could be wrong, but I think my generation may have been the last one to have any deep appreciation of films that came before we were born. That's not meant as a disparaging remark about younger people; it's just that the options for discovery aren't there anymore. You can't really thumb through the channels and just stumble across some old black & white flick now. Yeah, there's TCM, and probably a couple of others, but that's it. And the thrill of "accidental discovery" is long gone. Quite literally hundreds of channels to choose from, and still so little in the way of old movies.

I grew up in the '70's, before the dawn of cable, and we had four or five channels to choose from. And I was a fairly obsessive television watcher. Cartoons, of course, and cop shows and syndicated sit-coms. But it was MOVIES that always gave me a thrill, movies usually made long before I was born, that gave me weird, tantalizing peeks into exotic and mysterious worlds.

In the Detroit area, the 4 O'CLOCK MOVE happened every weekday, coinciding perfectly between the time you finished your homework and the time dinner was ready. They would often have "theme weeks"-- "Elvis Week" was always something to look forward to, and "Godzilla Movie Week" was extra-special.

In the summer time, or on those days you stayed home from school, there was BILL KENNEDY AT THE MOVIES. Bill Kennedy was a bit player in Hollywood back in the day, and mostly showed classic flicks from the '40's and '50's. It was through his show I had my first glimpse of actors like Bogart, Mitchum, Jane Russell, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, etc, etc.

Black & white. Loved it.

Saturday afternoons: SIR GRAVES GHASTLY. A cheesy horror movie host in the grand tradition, Sir Graves showed me the old Hammer Horror-- Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-- as well as Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, all in glorious blood red color.

If you forced yourself to get up early on Sunday morning, your day would start at 8 with an Abbot & Costello movie. Then some shorts, like Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang. After that, Tarzan would usually swing in, although sometimes it would be Shirley Temple instead (always a massive disappointment to me at the time) or a Blondie & Dagwood movie with Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake. I liked those, but mostly because I had a crush on Penny Singleton. If you were really lucky, you'd catch a Thin Man movie, because Myrna Loy was even more alluring than Penny.

Sunday afternoon was CHILLER THEATER time. The credits started with that creepy interlude from the Led Zepplin song "Whole Lotta Love" (I wonder if they had permission to do that?) and showed a lot of horror/sci-fi from the '40's and '50's, movies about giant ants and flying saucers, as well as the Universal Studios monster movies.

And in the evenings, there would almost always be a movie showing at some point, usually a drama or period piece. Late nights, if you managed to stay up, would be poorly-preserved flickering black & white images of places and things that seemed so alien-- men with guns and fedoras and dangerous slinky females and big black cars and rain and street lamps and one-room apartments-- that they were like artifacts from ancient times. Film Noir, although at the time I had no way of knowing that.


In my teens and early 20s, I developed a special affection for horror films, old and new, and was more than a little obsessive; I'd even venture to say there isn't a horror film made before around 1987 I haven't seen. But eventually I outpaced that hang up, fell in love with the aforementioned film noir, transferred my obsession to that.

In my late 20s, I discovered Buster Keaton and fell in love. Buster is STILL my go-to when I'm feeling depressed. His films always cheer me up.

In my 30s, I discovered the joys of foreign films. The Japanese stuff, like Kurosawa, of course, but also the great Italian neo-realists like Fellini and Antonioni. The French as well, especially Jean Renoir. The great stuff from the Golden Age of British crime movies, in the late 60s and early 70s. Not long after that, I became obsessed with westerns and WWII movies.I would never have thought twice about any of that if I hadn't developed a deep love of film from an really early age.

The jist of all this is, because our young brains were exposed to all this great cinematic art, we developed a specific set of references that went far beyond our own experience and our own lifetimes. When I talk to someone now in their teens or twenties, and they have no idea who Buster Keaton is, or the Marx Brothers or William Powell or Vincent Price or Greta Garbo, it makes me a little sad. It's not their fault; they missed out. They missed it all. So many viewing choices now, and yet the options have never been fewer.

I know there are plenty of young people out there now who have a deep appreciation of old movies, and again I want to stress that I'm not being dismissive of newer generations. But they're sort of a specialized little group, removed from the mainstream. But when I was coming of age, this sort of thing was probably a bit more of a given. It was just always there.

I think I was really lucky to just catch them, those last few years before it got late and the station played the National Anthem and signed off.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Look up here, I'm in Heaven. Goodbye, David Bowie.

In the early 80s, MTV didn’t have a whole lot of videos in their catalogue, so if you had that station on for more than say six hours, you’d wind up seeing the same stuff over and over again. That’s really how I first came to be aware of David Bowie.

I mean, I knew who he was before that, sure. His early stuff was a staple of Detroit radio. You’d hear Ziggy Stardust all the time, and Rebel, Rebel, and Panic in Detroit. I liked all that stuff. But I wasn’t really… attached to it.

The David Bowie I saw on MTV, though… it was a different artist. One that really got right into my guts.

I still remember the first time I saw a Bowie video, and man, that’s saying something, considering the shit quality of my memory in general.  It was Fashion, from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), and I remember my brain going on the fritz for the duration of that song, my eyes glued to the TV, my stomach doing some weird fluttery shit I didn’t understand at the time.

The song, of course, was amazing, but it was more than that. It was this guy, this Bowie. He was so… odd. And so fascinating. He was beautiful. I’m as heterosexual as they come, honestly, but there was more than a little bit of a sexual response. In later years, it would become kind of a joke: would you have sex with a man? Naw, I don’t think so… unless it was David Bowie, har har har.

But he and his music came into my life at a sort of key juncture, a moment when I was changing into a young adult, on the verge of discovering who I really was. I was a weirdo and an outcast, a freak with a weird eye and zero confidence.

But here was this Bowie guy…he ALSO had a weird eye. But confidence? Damn. An IMMEASURABLE amount. He was clearly weird, and he clearly didn’t give a shit what you thought about that.

This was the same year I discovered punk rock, via my friend Lana, and all of this period of discovery that happened so fast and so intensely shaped who I would be for the rest of my life. I learned to embrace my outcast status and weirdness and it is no exaggeration to say it was because of David Bowie.

When a Bowie video would come on MTV, it didn’t matter what I was doing, everything came to a halt and I was completely committed to it. They played Fashion a lot, but also Ashes to Ashes, Look Back in Anger, I am a DJ, Heroes… he was one of only a few artists with an extensive video backlog, and so appeared frequently.

As I embraced the post-punk lifestyle with more and more enthusiasm, I bought my first Bowie album: Scary Monsters. It’s still probably my favorite. But eventually I possessed his entire discography, and realized that it was his late 70s stuff that really spoke to me. Beginning with Station to Station, then into his Berlin period, and ending with Scary Monsters. This was experimental, vital music from an artist at the top of his game, so moody and so smart, and so committed to a really singular artistic vision. Even at that young age, I recognized what David Bowie was—he was an artist with real integrity, a freak who didn’t care that he was a freak, and who had somehow made the world love him and embrace him for it.

I can’t even begin to tell you how inspirational that was to a young man like me, who wanted to hold on to who he was but who still desired love and acceptance.

And guess what? I followed Bowie’s example. And it worked. My late teen years, I was a different person. I embraced who I really was, I didn’t care anymore what anyone else thought, and because of it I gained friends…. And yes, girls. Mostly other weirdos, but you know… confident weirdos hold a great deal of appeal for the “normals” as well.

In that regard, David Bowie shaped who I would be for the rest of my life. More than any other artist.

In the late 80s, I spent a lot of time in Detroit’s various post-punk nightclubs and bars, doing my best to look and act like David Bowie. I experimented a bit with bi-sexuality, because I wanted to be open to new experiences… like Bowie.

Girls liked my weird eye. I heard many times: “Your eyes are beautiful…. Like David Bowie….”

And he would continue to be there, forever after.

When the album Let’s Dance came out, Bowie’s very deliberate (and highly successful!) attempt to reinvent himself as a pop star, I was on board. I knew what he was doing, as did most of his hardcore fans. He was playing yet another role. And even if we turned our noses up at radio friendly pop, we gave Bowie a pass, because it felt like an infiltration of the mainstream, an art spy in the ranks of our enemy. And besides, it was fucking GOOD pop music.

He masqueraded as a pop star for the bulk of the 80s, with varying results depending on the album, but by the 90s he had shrugged that persona off as being too artistically unfulfilling, and moved on to riskier sounds again. He probably outstayed the pop star thing, but I was all too willing to forgive him that.

In the years since, I’ve always been excited at the prospect of a new Bowie release. His personal re-inventions weren’t as extreme or easy to categorize in the 90s and 00s, but I’m sure that was deliberate. After playing so many roles in his lifetime, I’m sure he was happy to just express himself more directly, without couching it in a character.

I loaded up his last album, Blackstar, the day it came out. I didn’t listen to it that day, because I wanted to wait until I had the time to just sit and do nothing but listen, without distraction.

He died two days later.

I made the time.

Blackstar, if you haven’t heard it yet, is… it’s haunting. It’s beautiful and mournful and even a little playful. It’s the best work he’s done since Scary Monsters, in my opinion. Is that assessment colored by the melancholy of his death? It’s possible. But so what. 

I’ve listened to Blackstar four times now. In-between, I’ve been listening to older stuff, all my favorite Bowie tracks. I suspect I will be doing that for many days to come.

I cried when I heard the news that he had died. I have never in my entire life shed tears for the death of a famous person. But David Bowie was different. He was my role model, and my hero. I would not be the person I am today if Bowie had not come into my life.