Leave John Wayne Alone

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

More than 30 years after his death, John Wayne still can’t get a little respect. The latest sideways attack, in the pages of The New York Times, seems as unnecessary as it is unfounded. It came in the form of a formless and unfocused article by Michael Cieply (published Dec. 3), headlined “Coen Brothers Saddle Up a Revenge Story (or Two). Maybe Cieply needed to denigrate Wayne in order to fawn over Joel and Ethan. Who knows?

The topic arises, of course, because the Coen brothers have made a new version of “True Grit”, the film that, in the words of Cieply, starred a John Wayne “well past his prime, (who) won his only Academy Award for portraying Rooster Cogburn.” The use of the word “only” I suppose is there to indicate that one’s career is somehow deficient if you only won one Oscar. Okay. I’ll agree. John Wayne is certainly no Kevin Spacey.
Cieply says that Wayne’s “selection fiercely split those who felt justice was thus served from those who viewed this original ‘True Grit’, released in June 1969, as the last gasp of a Hollywood stuck in its own past.” Hollywood wasn’t stuck in its own past; it was conflicted, as always, about its future. Cieply notes, but does not seem to grasp the importance of the fact that the year Wayne won, the Best Picture Oscar went to the X-rated (at the time), “Midnight Cowboy.” So it wasn’t “stuck”, it was falteringly moving from the past into the future. But for Hollywood, unfortunately, the future never seems to arrive. It’s always today in Hollywood and it’s almost always late about everything.

Cieply then quotes Robert Evans, the legendary producer, who says of the Wayne win: “It was a token Oscar.” At another point, Cieply notes that by the time the Oscars came around, in 1970, “Wayne was being described as a sentimental favorite.”
I wonder, for the record, how all of this makes Jeff Bridges feel. Bridges is inhabiting the role of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen’s new film. Let’s see, Bridges won his “only” Oscar (so far) last year for a movie called … hmmm. What was the name of that movie again? Thank God Bridges wasn’t viewed as a sentimental favorite at all last year.
If you want to go down that road, then take away half the Oscars Hollywood has ever given out. James Cagney and James Stewart only have one little Oscar, and no one would say they won for their greatest or iconic roles. Cagney won for “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, a wartime fave that captured the country’s patriotism. Stewart won for “The Philadelphia Story”, which people say was largely an apology for not awarding Stewart for “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” from the year before.
Humphrey Bogart, Hollywood’s number one movie star of all time, won for “The African Queen”, having been passed over for “The Maltese Falcon”, “Key Largo”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, or “Casablanca.” Thank God he wasn’t a sentimental choice.
Al Pacino was repeatedly passed over for his truly groundbreaking performances throughout the 1970s, only to win his “only” Oscar for “Scent of a Woman”, which no one would put at the top of any Pacino list. Hollywood also seems to treat the Best Supporting Actor category as a kiss in the mail for a lot of performers who have been around forever (see Jack Palance or Don Ameche or Alan Arkin). 
Okay. Point made. I just happen to disagree that Wayne’s Oscar was simply a nod to his stature. It may not have been his greatest performance, but he was an active and robust and exciting presence in “True Grit.” People remembered him in this role – and isn’t that the point?
Perhaps it was his conservatism that rankles critics – both his contemporaneous ones and the modern ones. I wouldn’t ever want to be called a conservative myself, but I couldn’t care less about Wayne’s politics, or James Cagney’s or Jimmy Stewart’s, for that matter. 
Cieply takes the time to denigrate the novel and to take a swipe at director Henry Hathaway and even manages to drag in Richard Nixon. This all seems a bit moldy and useless. Oddly, Cieply manages to keep out perhaps the most egregious and unforgivable aspect of Wayne’s personality, which was his horrible racism. I can’t abide by that, and no one should. 
Wayne has, over the years, been reassessed. I’ve agreed with those who felt that he was a better actor than often thought. I’m particularly fond of his work in Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way”, in which he gives a quiet, very beautiful performance. His last performance in “The Shootist” is similarly heartfelt. But I can also watch Wayne in almost anything. I don’t watch him for social or political commentary and I don’t think that is his purpose in our lives.
I’m old enough to remember when “True Grit” came out, and I remember, which Cieply seems to either not have known or forgotten, that Wayne may well have been past his prime, but he was one of the few, if not the only actor remaining from the 1930s who was still connecting to modern movie audiences. Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cagney, Stewart, Grant, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Edward G. Robinson – they all retired, dead or irrelevant. Wayne’s only active contemporary may have been Katharine Hepburn.
And Wayne was largely credited, in taking the role of Rooster Cogburn, of having the confidence to mock his own image as a tough guy. Wayne is drunk and fat and old  throughout the film, and he was reliable.
There are a lot of people who have Oscars on their mantles for roles or projects they should feel fairly embarrassed about. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is not one of them so, you know, get over it.

The Rhythm Man: Drummer Colin Bailey Has Played Jazz With (Fill In Just About Anybody Famous Here)

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Colin Bailey

By Lars Trodson

The first track on the album “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus” begins simply enough: a bass line and the rythmic beat of drums. The tune, “Samba de Orfeu”, was written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luis Bonfa for the film “Black Orpheus” and on this record was being interpreted by pianist Vince Guaraldi, bassist Monty Budiwg and drummer Colin Bailey. The drum-bass combo lasts about a minute, and then the piano kicks in. The music hits a beautiful, easy stride. It’s got that bossa nova beat.
“Jazz Impressions” was a big hit, and it spawned a monster single called “Cast Your Fate To The Wind”, which won a Grammy for composer Guaraldi in 1963. This isn’t music that gets a lot of airplay today, unfortunately. Guaraldi’s stature as the creator of the iconic music for the Charlie Brown TV specials has overshadowed, to a very powerful degree, the fact that he was a hugely respected jazzman. And he had a rhythm section, Budwig and Bailey, that was peerless.
Drummer Colin Bailey is the only member of that trio still living. Budwig died almost ten years ago and Guaraldi passed away in the 1970’s. Bailey is still active, playing drums in jazz bands and teaching. He’s written two hugely influential books on drumming, and he’s adapted his teachings to DVD.
And he’s played with just about every major jazz figure in the 20th century – and then some. This is the only guy who may have played with Miles Davis and George Shearing and nightclub comic Woody Woodbury and Roy Clark. Bailey’s done it all.

Drummers occupy a unique place in the panorama of music history. They can be outsized and outrageous (think Buddy Rich or Keith Moon). They can be underestimated (think Ringo Starr). Bailey seems to defy these stereotypes. He’s made a career by staying true to his sterling artistry – a craft that he’s been able to adapt to the unique demands of big band swing to jazz to movie soundtracks to the crazy versatility that’s required for in-house TV studio bands. He’s also never stopped learning.
Bailey sounds as easy-going on the phone as he does on his recordings. He has an even, gentle tone to his voice, and perhaps his English accent isn’t as strong as it was when he was growing up near a little town called Swindon just before World War II.
Bailey has been around long enough to have met his wife when she was working in a record store where they were still spinning 78’s for the customers to being able to see an old video clip of him sitting in with Ben Webster that’s posted on YouTube.

But we have to go back to where Bailey started learning his art: Swindon, in the UK. After all, he knew he was going to be a drummer from the start. 

“My parents were with me all the way with the drums, you know. We had a good-sized house and I had my own room with my drums to practice. It was very pleasant,” Bailey said. His grandfather and his father were butchers, they had their own shop, and Bailey’s mother used to help out in the store doing the books. He was not yet 10 when World War II started blazing across Europe, but he remembers that time in the more fractured, compartmentalized way a child sees huge events – a war is not seen as sweeping and gigantic to a child, but is experienced in small personal ways.
“I met some GI’s, which was great. I met one who gave me a bass drum pedal and they gave me some V-discs,” said Bailey. V-disc was short for “victory discs.” These recordings were made specifically for military people, and they were meant to boost morale by bringing to the soldiers the sounds of home.
“These discs had some great stuff on them. All I listened to was jazz, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, those bands and some of the smaller groups, although it’s hard to remember who those were,” said Bailey.
Bailey had his first lesson on the drums when he was seven. “It was with a guy that worked in a local vaudeville show. My dad said this guy had a ‘nice, crisp roll’, and I went to this guy and he had the worst left-hand grip,” said Bailey. “He had a terrible grip, but he taught me about arrangements so he was very good for me at the time. Then when I was 10, there was a man named Peter Coleman who was with a band called Johnny Styles, which was one of the better semi-pro bands in England. They won contests and things like that. Peter was the drummer for them and he used to come over to my house and he taught me how to read drum parts.”
As for the quality of the music that the band played, Bailey says now that he’d “love to hear that on a recording. It must have sounded like hell. There were two accordions, a banjo and drums,” he said. “The band was called The Nibs and we all wore blue velvet vests. My uncle was in the band. Then later I played with a band called The Firecrackers that had the most ridiculous lineup – two trumpets, a violin – I mean it was just ridiculous. We played dances all the time. I played pretty much all through my childhood. I was playing with these terrible groups but it was wonderful. I was learning.”
While his schoolmates were doing their homework, Bailey was down at the Savoy Theatre in Swindon playing with the big bands that travelled through the area. “I was like a boy wonder, that kind of crap,” said Bailey, not arrogantly, but rather confidently, because he was sitting in with the big boys.
“The only thing I ever wanted to be besides a drummer was a footballer, a soccer player. It was the only thing apart from the drums that I was ever any good at. When I was fifteen, there was talk of the local name team and me going to their farm team, but my parents said that by my mid-thirties I’d be through,” Bailey said. But he caught a lucky break. Instead of having parents that discouraged his artistic leaning, they supported his decision.
“They knew what I was going to do, or hoped to do. I left school at 15. In those days, if you weren’t going to college, you could leave school at 15. It was the happiest day of my life when I walked out of those gates, I’ll tell you. The headmaster said, You’re making a big mistake,” said Bailey. “Well, I’ve done okay.”
Okay, indeed. When asked if his parents saw him achieve success, he said, “My father came to the London Palladium in 1974 when I was playing with (pianist) Victor Feldman.”
Winifred Atwell

About the time Bailey turned 18 he received an invitation to audition for a pianist named Winifred Atwell – a name that may not be familiar today, but who was a rising star at the time. Bailey joined her band and she would go on to become quite famous. There’s a lovely clip of Atwell being hosted on the Australian version of “This Is Your Life”, during which the host tells Bailey to sit on the couch with Atwell because “you’re her family.”

“She was like a boogie woogie, ragtime player. There were two drummers (auditioning) and the other guy was probably better but they liked my sense of humor,” said Bailey. “That was the start of everything for me. From that, we went to Australia on a tour in 1955 and we were on tour for 15 months in Australia and New Zealand.”
Bailey said he and his wife Jan decided not to live in England and they emigrated to Australia. “That’s when I started playing more jazz,” he said. Atwell’s manager arranged for Bailey to start playing with the house band on Australia’s Channel 9 in Sydney, and as a side gig he would sit in with the big jazz names that came through the continent
“I also played with some of the bigger names in concerts, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Al Hibler. We hung out with Sarah and Dizz. Sarah was great. Dizz was nuts. He was out there,” said Bailey. “When they went back to the States it was like they deserted me.” 
Bailey also got a gig playing with the Australian Jazz Quintent, which opened for, of all groups, The Kingston Trio when that popular folk group toured Australia in 1961.
“That was bizarre,” said Bailey. “(The members of the Kingston Trio) were great guys, despite the corny, crappy music. Oh, God, cornball stuff. But they were jazz guys and they loved our music and we got along so well. So they said to us, we have a tour in the States and we’ll pay your expenses and good wages. My wife and I got a Green Card, and we had to sell everything in 10 days, our car and all the other stuff” to go on tour.
Joe Morello

A turning point in Bailey’s evolution as a drummer came in 1956 when he heard drummer Joe Morello play on a Dave Brubeck record. There is always someone, in the career of any artist, who plays the important role of mentor – the person who makes the artist want to be better all the time. For Colin Bailey, that person is Joe Morello. Morello is known for his unique time signatures like the ones that can be heard on such legendary recordings as “Take Five.” 

“He played this stuff with the left hand and I couldn’t see how anybody could play this stuff with the left hand. I thought it was some kind of trick recording but of course back then they didn’t have trick recording. I was amazed by it,” said Bailey. “So Brubeck came to Australia, and I was in another group that opened for Brubeck and the promoter asked if I could help Joe with his drums because Joe was almost blind. He showed me this finger control technique which is a really difficult thing. There aren’t too many guys that do it because it requires so much practice. I’m still trying to get it right.”
Bailey explains the technique like this: “Most people use the wrists for their stroke, and that’s fine but with the finger, the index finger, the forefinger, you control the rebound – you’re utilizing the rebound – you’ve got the stick and you keep it going with your fingers. It’s such an intricate technique that requires so much practice,” said Bailey. “I’ve been practicing my ass off on this for a long time. When Joe came to San Francisco I always got a lesson from him then. He’s an important part of my life. He’s a dear friend of mine.” 
What we tend to forget now is that there were music scenes throughout the country that had their own distinct styles and culture. There was music coming out of New Orleans and Chicago and New York and San Francisco that was identified by its place of origin – Chicago jazz or West Coast jazz. And the scene in California, in L.A. and up in San Francisco, was hot – and in the early 1960s Vince Guaraldi was as hot as anybody.
Guaraldi was not yet nationally known, but he was highly respected by his peers. He had his own signature style. 
“Vince heard me play at a concert in San Francisco with the Kingston Trio and the Australian Jazz Quintet. Afterwards he said, I like the way you play. He said, would you like to come in and sit with us at the Jazz Workshop on Monday night,” said Bailey. “Of course I did and afterwards we’re in the men’s room and Vince said, You sure do have a lot of talent, man. I remember these words vividly, you know? So three days later I was in the drum shop hanging out and the guy said, Vince is on the phone and he wants to talk to you. So he offered me the gig and fired his drummer and got me. Talk about heaven, to play with him and Monty (bassist Monty Budwig) on a regular basis, it was unbelievable.”

Guaraldi was not a prolific writer, but he made his mark. “Vince wrote great – what I call ‘catchy tunes’ that people could get into. They weren’t complicated. “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” and all these things, we were playing every night,” said Bailey. Guaraldi had a contract with Fantasy Records (which was based out of San Francisco) and we went into the studio at midnight and did the whole thing in four hours. I absolutely love that record.”

“The whole thing” was “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”, which was produced, in part, to cash in on the Latin craze that was sweeping the country. The record caught on, as did the single, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind.”
“The people who were doing the Charlie Brown specials heard that record and a couple of other tunes and approached him to do that,” said Bailey. “I had never even heard of Charlie Brown. I was from England! All the Charlie Brown stuff, the Christmas special, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, “The Great Pumpkin – that was all way back in 1965, 1966.”
Of the West Coast music scene, Bailey said “Oh, it was beautiful. There’s absolutely nothing now. Nothing. I never even play there now. I was playing at the Trident with Vince, and there was the Jazz Workshop, The Black Hawk, Sugar Hill. There was a club in Berkeley we played – I forget what that was called. The Black Hawk is where I first saw Jimmy Cobb, who’s my favorite drummer. God, there used to be so many jazz clubs. When I was playing with Victor Feldman there must have been ten jazz clubs off Sunset Boulevard.”
Bailey played with the legendary Ben Webster during this time.
Ben Webster

“It was an honor – what an honor – to play with Ben Webster. Ben was an original. No one sounded like Ben. He had come to the Jazz Workshop with Jimmy Witherspoon and we played a three week gig, six nights a week, and Sunday afternoons,” said Bailey. “I got to hang out with him a little bit. He was playful. It would be like 3 o’clock in the morning and he would eat this big bowl of chili. He had an cast iron stomach. He was a beautiful person.”

Bailey said there were two incidents in 1967 that signalled to him that jazz as the prevailing national music was coming to an end. “Ray Brown had to learn how to play electric bass. When that happened, I thought, shit, Ray Brown is the greatest bass player that ever lived,” said Bailey. “The other was when Joe Pass’s band was playing for a popular country singer and Joe Pass was asked to play some cheesy pop phrases. He didn’t know how to do it. He didn’t want to know how to do it. I said: It’s all over when the great Joe Pass has to play this crap. That’s the end of jazz.”
Not quite the end, but the heyday was over. The defining jazz records from the 1940s through the 1960s had been recorded, and rock and roll, such as it was, had completely taken over the airwaves and the great jazz clubs started to close down. Gone were the days when a single like “Take Five” or “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” – jazz instrumentals – could top the charts. The bossa nova craze – epitomized by “The Girl From Ipanema” – had also come and gone by the late 1960s. 
Bailey also believes that “jazz has turned a lot of people off. It’s turned me off. When John Coltrane played with Miles, that was great. He was a fantastic player. The last great record he made with Miles, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” – he cut a solo on that that was fantastic. It was harmonic. But now all these guys want to play outside the changes and its not harmonic,” said Bailey. “Then (Coltrane) went into” – and here Bailey breaks info a late-Coltrane sounding atonal jazz riff – “well, he lost me. And then everybody tried to play like that. I think that’s what killed jazz.”

But Bailey played on the Francis Albert Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim album that was released in 1967. It may be the last great album Sinatra ever made – not that he didn’t record some beautiful singles, but the great Sinatra concept albums were all behind him by the late 1960s. While Sinatra’s later records as a whole tended to try too hard to be current, the beauty and clarity of the Jobim record is undeniable, and Sinatra may not have ever sounded better.

“I was on four tracks. (The Brazilian guitarist and songwriter) Joao Gilberto recommended me to Jobim. Jobim had asked Joao if he knew anybody who could play on some good Brazilian tracks. So that’s how I got the call,” said Bailey. “They let me do the Monday night recording – we had Monday night’s off. The tracks I was on were ‘Baubles, Bangles and Beads’, ‘Change Partners’, ‘I Concentrate On You’ and ‘Dindi.'”
These four tracks may be among the most beautiful Sinatra ever recorded. 
During that time, Bailey also played for such diverse people as Chet Baker, Victor Feldman and George Shearing. 
“One of my favorite players was Chet Baker. He was one of the most beautiful players who ever played. I played with him in 1966, and part of 1967. In 1967 I went back to George Shearing. It was a shock playing with George Shearing after playing with Chet. George was a great player but he was very organized,” said Bailey. “In fact, I’m playing now with a group called ‘The Sounds of Shearing.’ The sound of the quintet was piano, vibraphone and guitar playing the tunes in unison. That’s why he got a nice sound, beautiful sound when the three instruments play in unison.”
Bailey called Feldman “a genius. One of the most underrated – but not amongst the guys. Everybody knows what a great musician he was. The hottest piano player I ever heard.”
There was one last bastion of jazz left on American television, and that was with the Tonight Show band headed up by Doc Severinson. So it may come as no surprise that Bailey subbed for the band’s regular drummer, Ed Shaughessy, for about six years.
“I used to do a lot of traveling with Doc on the weekends, too, we used to do a lot of symphony jazz pop concerts,” Bailey said. “That was a great band, a great band. The horn section was amazing.”
When Bailey looks back now, over a long and fruitful career, the one that started out in the dance halls of post-war Swindon, and the one that took him from Sydney, Australia to the NBC studio where The Tonight Show was filmed to the famous jazz clubs in San Francisco, he remembers the people that helped and influenced him along the way.
“I was influenced by all kinds of people. I mean, for instance, I was influenced by a drummer named Joe Daniels in England when I was about seven years old. He had a Dixieland band. There was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Shelley Manne. Shelley was one of the great drummers. He was wonderful to me. He gave me so much work. I used to sub for him at the club (Shelley’s Manne Hole) with his group. Max Roach – he just blew me away, that was in 1950, 1951,” said Bailey. 
But Bailey doesn’t always play jazz. All you need to do is check out his sessions with guitarists Joe Pass and Roy Clark from 1993 to see how diverse Bailey is as a player.
There has been sorrow over this long career, of course, over a long career. Friends and colleagues pass away, the scene changes, but Bailey said he suffered a blow in February that he is still reeling from.
“My wife passed away in February after 56 years. It’s hard to get over that. I’m trying to keep as busy and occupied as I can, to take my mind off it. Her name was Jan, Janet, and we met when we were 16 in Swindon. Her sister used to work at the local record shop playing these 78 records. I had a crush on the sister, she was a couple of years older than me. But on Saturdays Jan started to go in there to help, they were busy on Saturdays, and that’s where we met,” said Bailey. “She used to go hear me play when I was playing with a dance band in Swindon. We just knew we were meant for each other, you know? We were just so damn close. I miss her terribly.”
Bailey’s two books on drumming, “Bass Drum Control” and “Drum Solos and the Art of Phrasing” have both been influential and are still available, and a new DVD based on “Bass Drum Control” is now out. Bailey also stays busy playing with jazz bands and on pleasure cruises. 
He has a lot to show for the kid of 15 who first stepped outside those school gates knowing he was going to be a drummer.
“I’ve had a great life,” Bailey said. “A really great life.”

Todd Hunter’s "Summer Blink": A Review

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

Tana Sirois

The factors that make truly independent cinema so thrilling are wholly on display in Todd Hunter’s recently released feature film, “Summer Blink.”

“Summer Blink” is thrilling because you’re able to watch new talent emerge, and to see how smart filmmakers ingeniously overcome the obstacles of a budget that doesn’t allow for extravagant locations or huge extra-filled scenes. Thrilling also because its a high-wire act during which the audience can sometimes see the artists wobble — only to have them recover and walk triumphantly over to the other side.

Hunter, who wrote and directed “Summer Blink”, has created a mature work. He’s a theater director making his first venture into film, and he has assembled a great cast that he handles with astonishing dexterity. I say mature because Hunter not only shows a remarkable affinity for the unique demands of film, but also because his film treats issues such as sex and wanderlust without the fawning romanticism you see in most American movies. 

There are many moments in this film, big and small and sometimes seemingly inconsequential, that are exactly right. When they accumulate you feel, as you should in any film, that you’re watching something private. Rarely are films (of any kind) so well observed.

Todd Hunter directing “Summer Blink” at Cafe On The Corner in Dover, NH.

“Summer Blink” tells the story of Mina (played by Tana Sirois) and her moment of discontent. All her friends are graduating from high school – the exact city is never named – and everyone is headed off to college and making plans for the future. Mina, however, is directionless and penniless and she’s sour. She’s taking her frustrations out on her boyfriend Jake (Jeff Bernhardt), who is anything, thank goodness, but a cliche. He seems like a good person and a great boyfriend, and the dynamics between Jake and Mina are wonderfully played out.

Jake and Mina break off, and Mina finds herself drifting towards Alison (played by Ashley Love). Their budding relationship forms the heart of the film, and Hunter does a great job in filling in the arc of their story. Sirois and Love are superb together; they are beautifully unmannered performers.

Sirois is in every scene in the film — the camera almost never strays from her, in fact – and she may be the real deal. She has old-school Hollywood beauty, and, in the truest tradition of screen acting, you can’t see her wheels turning. She doesn’t wait in a scene to speak her line; she’s listening to what others have to say, and she reacts to that. The way she reads a line reminds me of Myrna Loy, who could give sound and color to a grocery list. This is a fully realized performance by an actor one suspects will go very far. Let’s hope Hollywood gives her parts as well-written as this.

Ashley Love is also great. She never seems forced and there is an emotional honesty and intensity between her and Sirois. She’s got less to work with than Sirois — Alison is enigmatic; her motivations are more obscure — and that’s very tough to pull off, but she does an exquisite job.

Sirois and Ashley Love

Some quibbles: There are a few attenuated scenes that can be shortened. A couple of scenes establishing the mood of the lead character, Mina, could easily be shaved without disrupting the film’s rhythm or costing the audience any much-needed information about the characters. There are three very long scenes (the first lasts more than 10 minutes) between lead actors Sirois and Ashley Love that tend to go on even after the audience has learned enough about what is happening to the characters.

There is one sound issue that Hunter and his crew have tried to gamely overcome but needs to be addressed because it blunts our reaction to what should be the emotional climax of the film. It’s an important moment late in the film, but two-thirds of the way into this terrific scene the dialogue is suddenly drowned out by music, even though Sirois and Love keep talking. If this was an aesthetic choice, it was a mistake, but I doubt it was. The sound may simply not have been recorded well enough to use (the perils of independent film). I feel Hunter left it in because it showcases a big moment for leading actress Sirois, and he tries to salvage it, but perhaps there is a way to get the two actors to loop the dialogue and complete the scene as shot.
But these are only distractions because the rest of the film is so good.

All the actors all display a pleasing naturalness — even the minor characters that drift in and out. There are some catty girls at a party and at graduation that are nice flourishes that Hunter stages wonderfully. Dylan Schwartz-Wallach, as Mina’s brother Evan, has a brotherly goofiness that’s just exactly right. The lovely score is by Seiken Nakama.

You need to seek out “Summer Blink.” You’ll form your own ideas about what works and what doesn’t. Todd Hunter has made a fully realized, beautifully crafted feature film — and if you think this is easy to do ask anyone who has ever tried it. It’s independent film in all of its independent glory, and a real accomplishment for Hunter, Sirois and team. We need more stuff like this.

“Summer Blink” is a Rolling Die Production. Produced by Jasmin Hunter. Cinematography by Kristian Bernier. Music by Seiken Nakama. Edited by Paul Buhl. 124 minutes. Cast: Mina – Tana Sirois; Alison – Ashley Love; Jake – Jeff Bernhardt; Evan – Dylan Schwartz-Wallach; Chris – Matthew Cost; Elise – Erin Adams; Wendy – Joi Smith.

Haven’t Seen ‘Bighorn’? Check It Out Right Here

November 29, 2010 § Leave a comment


Our friend Freddie Catalfo’s short film “Bighorn” continues to make the rounds at festivals and generate buzz. Wondering what it’s all about? See it right here. Catalfo describes “Bighorn” as “a 15-minute, supernatural historical fantasy based on a true fact: that General Custer’s bandmaster, Felix Vinatieri — an Italian immigrant and the great-great-grandfather of Super Bowl-winning kicker Adam Vinatieri — was ordered to stay behind at the 7th Cavalry’s Powder River camp and missed the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The story takes place in 2002 and 1876. BIGHORN is the latest from award-winning filmmakers Alfred Thomas Catalfo (writer/director of the internet hit “The Norman Rockwell Code” and winner of 21 major screenwriting competitions) and Glenn Gardner (producer of Cannes Film Festival Palm d’Or winner “Sniffer”). The renowned Steve Alexander, recognized by the U.S. Congress as the world’s foremost Custer living historian, portrays Custer. Native American and adopted Lakota Bill Watkinson portrays the Lakota Medicine Man. The NFL graciously granted the filmmakers permission to use footage from the 2002 Super Bowl.”

Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson and James Franco Should Team Up To Make Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”

November 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

“I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.”

It sounds like an Irish blessing, something that has come down to us over the years, something that is said when people get married, have a drink, consecrate a death, or begin a journey. “I hope you get where your going and be happy when you do.” How much more simple and beautiful can you get?

But it isn’t an ancient blessing. It’s a throwaway line in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” — appearing on page 134 of the scroll version, and it’s said by an old hobo called Mississippi Gene that’s hitching a ride on the back of a truck out in the midwest. (The spelling used in the phrase is Kerouac’s.) It’s good, practical advice, something that sounds right coming out of the American mid-west at night, and I suppose this is what made me think of Clint Eastwood, and made me think that if there was anyone on the planet that could turn “On The Road” into an honest movie it would be him.

Eastwood may be the last living, working American filmmaker who was around at the time the book takes place. He must have heard that language spoken in the book as it was actually spoken and travelled the open roads the story takes place on. “On The Road” was written between 1947 and 1949. This is a story of Wild West Week in Montana and old Indians hanging out at bus stations at night, and of off-road diners where you can buy beer at midnight.

Eastwood can remember that. He was born in San Francisco in 1930 and he would have breathed the same air and heard the same sounds Kerouac describes, like those parts when he’s stuck in Marin County and driving into San Francisco at night trying to pick up girls. Eastwood has that California cool in his bones. He’d be the perfect director for an “On The Road” film.

Neal Cassady

The heartbeat of the story is not just Kerouac, of course, who seems sadder and more disaffected in the scroll version than I remember in the heavily revised Viking version. There is also the famous madman Neal Cassady, who had a patois and joy of life that others around him (Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, etc.) found not only infectious but inspiring. Ginsberg wrote Cassady into “Howl” and of course Kerouac begins “On The Road” like this: “I first met Neal not long after my father died…I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and my awful feeling that everything was dead.”

Neal Cassady would reawaken Kerouac’s zeal for life, and you get a feel for Cassady when Kerouac writes down the way he speaks: “‘Now darling here we are in N(ew) y(ork) and although I haven’t quite told you everything that I was thinking about when we crossed the Missouri and especially at the point when we passed the Bonneville reformatory which reminded me of my jail problem it is absolutely necessary now to postpone all those leftover things concerning our personal lovethings and begin thinking of specific lifework plans…’” This is how Kerouac recorded Neal Cassady.

And this made me think of Jack Nicholson. Nicholson (born 1937) undoubtedly knew the beat scene of the late 50s and he certainly was familiar with Ken Kesey, of course, because he had played Randall Patrick MacMurphy and Cassady had been an integral part of Kesey’s Merry Prankster’s, having driven the bus. But that isn’t why I thought of Nicholson.

When you hear or read an interview with Nicholson he has that kind of speech that you hear Neal speak above: Nicholson has a very unique, very specific way of speaking — something that rarely if ever comes through in his acting. It’s Nicholson jazz geometry. It’s concrete and oblique at the same time; and beautifully filligreed. And you never misunderstand what he’s saying. Nicholson has a fascinating personal language all his own. But since he’s also a writer, he would be the perfect writer to turn “On The Road” into a script.

Nicholson would get the hipster angle, and he would empathize (and probably sympathize) with the driving heartfelt artistry that is inside these characters, and their desire not to do what they are supposed to do but what they want to do. “This is the story of America,” Kerouac writes at one point. “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” Nicholson understands the burning need to not do what you’re supposed to do, but to do what feels right, and to have that turn out right.

“I have finally taught Neal that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud,” Allen Ginsberg says at one point about Neal Cassady. “But he keeps rushing out to the midget auto races.”

This conflict — the outsider trying to play the insider’s game — is one that Nicholson has spent a lifetime delineating on film.

I was thinking then, as I read again through this beautiful book — one that has eluded filmmakers for more than 50 years — that Eastwood and Nicholson may be a great combination to give us this story on film.

We are also now blessed with an actor, James Franco, who would be perfect as Neal. Franco has that American handsomeness, and the keenness of mind and talent to play Neal Cassady.

This is my version of having a fantasy football league but only for movies. Eastwood at the helm, Nicholson as screenwriter (and playing Mississippi Gene so he can deliver that line), and James Franco as Neal Cassady.

One more thing: “On The Road”, unlike “The Great Gatsby”, still has relevance beyond the beauty of its language. The book still speaks to people on a visceral level. I realized this the other day when I went into Baldface Books, a used bookstore in Dover, NH, to get the standard paperback edition of “On The Road.”

“I don’t think I have any,” said the owner who, in fact, didn’t. “Anytime I get some copies, the kids come in and take them right off the shelves.”

The Great Gatsby: Is It Filmable?

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

Turning “The Great Gatsby” into a movie comes down to a central question: how well can you dramatize a single line of prose?

That single line is: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Gatsby is a great novel without much a plot. It’s a long lament. It’s a memory drifting away in the hot summer sun. But that line is a real thumper — it knocks everybody out when they first come across it — and it may be the one line everybody remembers aside of the very last beautiful line of the book.

In the 1974 film version, Sam Waterston plays Nick Carraway, and he delivers it in that halting, sideways style of his that dissolves all the power from it. And if you don’t get that line of the book right you don’t have the movie. Jack Clayton directed that version, and it starred Robert Redford as Jake Gatsby. We know it it all turned out.

“Gatsby” is uniquely American. The only culture in it is the culture of money.  And that American-ness – that Jazz Age vernacular – is awfully difficult to synthesize. Harder still now that there isn’t anybody left that actually spoke it and lived it.

Baz Lurhmann has chosen an English actress, Carey Mulligan, to play Daisy Buchanan. Who could really play that role anyway — maybe Joan Crawford in the 1920s, when she was sexy and free? Before she became a bit mummified?

I have no doubts about Mulligan as an actress, I guess, but I’ve only seen her in one film. She seems extremely refined. Her beauty is refined. Daisy is beautiful but is it that kind of refined beauty? I don’t think so. Daisy is rich but she’s vulgar.

Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine, fine actor — but he doesn’t have a lot of mystery about him, and what is Gatsby if not mysterious? Who is he — what is he? When DiCaprio strays too far outside his acting range his face gets all crimpy and confused, and I don’t see Gatsby ever breaking a sweat.

Well. This new version may be dazzling. But the thing about “Gatsby” is that it was never about the story – it was about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s voice, and if that isn’t front and center of the film – and how can it be? – then what have you got?

Fitzgerald was a guy who caught the vibe of his age, but nothing from the 1920s, almost nothing at all, has lived into the 21st century, including its books, its magazines, its music and its movies. It’s a shockingly irrelevant time, from this vantage point.

I suspect, then, that the urge to make this story again as a film is based more on its myths than its merits. We have these bad film versions (including a Hollywood version from 1946, and a silent adaptation that seems to be lost), and maybe there is some kind of ego-driven desire to undo that, as though old Gatsby hasn’t gotten his due. Maybe DiCaprio feels that Gatsby is also a great role that hasn’t been done well, either. But that doesn’t hold up. Gatsby doesn’t leave his house. He broods. He’s a void. What do you do with that? You have to shift the power center of the book away from Nick to Gatsby to make it a starring role, and I doubt that will work.

For me, when I want to get a feel for the 1920s, I take out my old New Yorker cartoon anthology and look at the drawings made during that decade. They’re decadent, drunken vampires that saunter through those pages. Everybody’s drenched in jewels and regret.  That’s what Gatsby feels like to me.

The 1920s were so wasteful and exhausting it didn’t even have enough stamina to finish on time. On Oct. 24, 1929 it all came to a screeching halt, burnt out to the core. Good luck with that.

Roundtable Pictures at NHFF

October 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Photo by Ralph Morang

Roundtable Pictures’ short film “Tuesday Morning” was well received at the New Hampshire Film Festival. In the photo above, Lars Trodson, far right, of Roundtable Pictures answers a question about the film during a question and answer session at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.