Sex and Sensibility: “The Girl-Getters” is the Lost Classic of British Beat Cinema

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The Girl-Getters (a.k.a. “The System”)
Directed by Michael Winner—1964—93 minutes
Starring Oliver Reed, David Hemmings, Jane Merrow, Barbara Ferris, Julia Foster & Harry Andrews

The under-recognized Michael Winner film “The System” represents a great lost missing link in the evolution of British cinema. Re-named “The Girl-Getters” for the American market and released just three months after “A Hard Day’s Night,” it rings out with the ascendant spirit of the youth films just coming into vogue. But it still owed a debt to the so-called “kitchen sink” dramas of the late 50s and early 60s, those gritty films like “A Taste of Honey,” “This Sporting Life” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” that featured characters hemmed in by class boundaries, societal expectations and (more often than not) unexpected pregnancies. A 26 year-old Oliver Reed stars as Tinker, a wily beach photographer and ladies’ man in a seaside holiday town on England’s south coast. He heads up a gaggle of young men who have developed “The System” to maximize their success rate in the time-honored British endeavor known as “pulling the birds.”

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The gang take inventory of the “finches.”

Right out of the gate, “The Girl-Getters” is a movie to savor. The shimmering B&W cinematography is by a talented up-and-comer named Nicolas Roeg. To the nifty uptempo strains of the Searcher’s theme song, we watch the guys speeding around in their roofless, backfiring jalopy. They drive to a neighboring train station to drop off a couple of their number so the incoming young ladies can be chatted up on the train before it even arrives in town. (“Get into the System” the Searchers sing, or at the end of the line “you’re alone”). Over the last two weeks of August, the gang and a rotating cast of the fairer sex will play out the summertime rituals on the bright-white promenade, in the shadows under the pleasure pier and inside the dancehalls and snack bars—as well up in Tinker’s attic loft. Although it’s not hard to guess that narrative complications will scratch up the film’s carefree surface, “The Girl-Getters” never gets as low as the often-embittered kitchen sinkers. Realistic rites of passage have replaced tragic pitfalls on the road to adulthood.

A lot of credit to the film’s success goes to Mr. Reed’s finely-tuned performance as the rakish but astute (even philosophical) Tinker. With none of the coarse mannerisms that sometimes dragged down future roles, Reed’s broad, handsome face and piercing bright eyes are at the center of most every scene. He meets his match in level-headed society girl Nicola (Jane Merrow), a stunning brunette fashion model who’s in town to check in with her aristocratic father and have some fun between assignments. Many movies would exxagerate the unlikely pairing: Nicola is all that: she’s got the looks, personality, money and use of her dad’s Buick Riviera. Tinker may be boss of the boardwalk but it’s a short season and the specter of a long, lean winter hangs over the locals whose credo is (according to him) “take what you can from the visitors, gather nuts against the hard winter.” But Winner’s naturalistic direction and Peter Draper’s clear-eyed script won’t allow for easy clichés. The pair’s bubble-blowing interlude and demure way of asking each other’s age hint at their relative innocence even as adult experiences beckon. They see in each other a possible way forward: for Tinker, Nicola may be a catalyst to get out of his provincial rut and better himself professionally in London; in Tinker, Nicola sees a native intelligence perhaps preferable to the entitled snobbery of her male friends back at the palm court.

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It was not all marketing hot air when posters for “The Girl-Getters” proclaimed it was “an adult film for teenagers and a teenage film for adults.” Maybe that’s because the cast, brimming with the youthful energy typified by the rise of the Beatles, fell neatly in between those two broad demographics. A fresh-faced David Hemmings, as the newest addition to the boy’s club, is introduced to the ways of the “grockles” (tourists) and the inner workings of The System, but by end is planning on ways of improving it. Barbara Ferris does a sympathetic turn as the local would-be girlfriend of Tinker and the wonderful Julia Foster makes a brief but winning appearance as a party girl all too ready to offer Tinker the dreaded domestic arrangement offer after a brief fling. (I was a little young for this film during its brief American theatrical run, but developed a mad crush on Julia three years later in 1967 when she was the female lead in the Tommy Steele musical “Half a Sixpence.”) Veteran British hard-guy actor Harry Andrews steps up as the “Establishment” figure, playing Tinker’s boss, the no-nonsense proprietor of the Sunny Snaps photo lab.

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A grockle’s eye view of Tinker

Michael Winner certainly deserves credit for organizing this excellent cast and script into a time-tested end product that totally avoids the silliness that infected slightly later swinging British Beat Cinema entries like “The Knack” and “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” But Winner (who died in 2013) was more of a journeyman director probably most remembered for the indefensible “Death Wish” series he would do with Charles Bronson. The real production star is Nicolas Roeg. His photography during Tinker and Nicola’s romantic idyll on a remote cliff-backed beach is one of my favorite things ever by him, comparable to Ingmar Bergman’s 1953 young-love classic “Summer with Monika.” It is on this same scenic beachfront (with its abandoned hamlet) where the film ends. One of Tinker’s men has gotten himself married (as usual in these films, a pregnancy is involved) and the young locals combine an end-of-the-season bonfire with a strange, primal ritual involving bridge-and-groom effigies and scarifying masks. Instead, of the hopeless undertow that pulls down supposedly “carefree” movies like “Georgy Girl,” this group looks like they are smoking out the demons and putting trust in their collective friendship. The morning after, as Tinker gives Nicola a “bye-for-now” wave and joins his pals (both male and female) for one last frolic on the sand, you are given hope in a sensible implied outcome. These young people may have shaken off the shackles of confining post-war British mores, but neither do they look like they are going to be bamboozled by the illusions of a totally-liberated Sixties mindset. You expect that they’ll be working a sensible middle path to a place where things will end up just fine.

My next book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” (1964-2014) will be released later this year.

This post is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. See the link below to see a list of the other 90 amazing entries spanning the eras from the beginning of cinema up to 1975…

http://aurorasginjoint.com/2015/06/27/the-classic-movie-history-project-presents-the-golden-age/

blogathon

A “Pale Beyond” Postscript: The Haunting and Humane Photography of Christopher Payne

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Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals
Photographs by Christopher Payne, Essay by Oliver Sacks (The MIT Press, 2009)

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Breezeway, Taunton State Hospital, Mass.

(All photos in this post are copyright to Christopher Payne, used under “fair use” provisions)

I felt very lucky to have had a chance last winter to see a nearby gallery show of the extraordinary work of New York-based Christopher Payne, maybe America’s foremost photographer of “disappearing histories” as the headline of a recent Payne interview called it. I was already familiar with his work via “Asylum”, since the coffee table book with its austere cover shot of a white straitjacket hanging on a pale blue wall caught my eye in Barnes & Noble a few years back. Payne shoots in traditional large-format film and makes digital C-prints from there. These sensitively-rendered images of eerily abandoned state hospitals are plenty impressive in the book but mind-blowing in a gallery, where some of the vertical prints were some four feet high.

Fascination with shuttered asylums, as well as the urban-explorer impulse with which it overlaps, has really taken off in the Internet Age, a phenomena I explored in my 3-part “The Pale Beyond” series (see it in the “Categories” section to the right or in “Related Posts” below). There are many different, and often excellent, websites featuring the work of people braver than myself who find their way into these abandoned buildings and come away with evocative photos that earn gushing praise from followers and lots of “oh-wow-that’s-creepy” reactions on the comments scroll.

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Danvers State Hospital in panorama

All that is fine. We’re a society in love with the macabre and the mysterious, and many of these buildings fit the bill. A lot of them were built in the Victorian era, with gothic spires that came to seem sinister once conditions there deteriorated. But Payne’s approach to this subject is different and refreshing. He was trained as an architect and had never visited a state hospital before 2002, when a friend who knew of his interest in industrial archaeology told him about Pilgrim State on Long Island, a 10,000-bed asylum on a 1,000-acre campus. By that date, Pilgrim was operating to a tiny fraction of its original capacity (while hundreds of others had fully closed). Payne in his foreword admits to being “dumbstruck” by the monumental scale and the landscaped setting; it was the start of a six-year project that would eventually lead him to dozens of these mammoth institutions.

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Weston State Hospital, West Virginia. If it weren’t for the bars on the window, you could almost mistake it for Downton Abbey. Payne’s methods did not generally include trespassing. Instead, he went through official channels and found that once he showed a sincere interest in the architecture and history of these properties, he was usually granted full access.

But Payne saw beyond “the superstitions and third-hand horror stories” that these places inspire and using his trained eye noted their “outward similarity to great resort hotels of the era.” A verdant setting and dignified atmosphere, along with occupational therapy and the arts, figured prominently in the planning of the early hospitals built in the latter part of the 1800s. Such institutions were often proudly self-sustaining and Payne has numerous views of on-site farms, greenhouses, vocational workshops, a fish hatchery, etc. There’s even a shot of a kitchen in Pennsylvania’s Danville State with five enormous vats that were solely used for making sauerkraut. This original idea of the therapeutic value of work and culture, and its palliative effect on mental illness, later when out of fashion.

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Noble Hall theater, Connecticut Valley State Hospital

Eventually psychotropic drugs came onto the scene, but as author/neurologist Oliver Sacks asserts in the book’s introduction, a well-intentioned notion of patient’s rights replaced the “normalizing” effect of the work that was now seen as exploitation and left them with little more to do than to watch television. The resulting warehouse effect left us with the “snakepit” image that most associate with state hospitals. Sacks’ essay, while certainly astute and filled with first-hand knowledge (he worked at Bronx State Hospital for 25 years), does seem a little rosy at time—for instance, there is no mention of the controversial (over)use of electroshock therapy. Still, the idea of these grand old asylums being a place where one could be both “mad and safe” is compelling considering the hasty deinstitutionalization that started in the 70s and 80s. The lack of sufficient transitional services—and medication that controlled the worst impulses of serious mental illness but left users unmotivated—burdened the U.S. with a large homeless population that later economic problems only exacerbated.

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The self-contained skyline of Danvers State at sundown: the day of wrecking ball was not far off.

The melancholy beauty of Payne’s photography, and his ability to sense the unlucky lives that played out there, are masterful from the first page to the poignant postscript of this amazing book. That closing section is a Payne-penned text and photographic record of the 2006 demolition of the iconic Danvers State Hospital, the model for H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium and later the Arkham Asylum of the Batman universe. (Only the façade of the main administration building was saved for the subsequent condo complex). Readers of the previous installments know of my focus on DSH—I grew up three miles away—and it turns out that Payne has a personal connection as well. He grew up in Boston and had relatives in Danvers. Whenever visiting them, he saw its hilltop profile as an “ancient, far-away castle” from the window of the family car driving down I-95. (The parallel and closer U.S. Route One passed directly below the slope of the hospital’s perimeter farmland). Payne writes of his reluctance to speak regretfully of the demolition to workers but they were not unsympathetic: they realize they are knocking down a historic and unique structure, one to be succeeded by “a place, just like any other.” As Payne puts it, “How ironic it was that so much care and effort was put into a structure intended solely for society’s outcasts.” Even keeping in mind the mistakes that followed, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a return to that kind of commitment to the more unfortunate among us anytime soon, if ever.

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Also recommended by Christopher Payne is North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Sitting amid strong East River cross-currents near Riker’s Island and Hell Gate, the island was long a site for hospitals and infirmaries (its most famous patient was Typhoid Mary)as well as the infamous 1904 General Slocum steamboat disaster, when a combination burning/sinking killed 1000 people. Payne’s vivid photographs of this long-uninhabited spit of land, depicts a sort of slow-motion battle between nature and the built environment.

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North Brother Island

“Archie’s Betty”: In search of the real Riverdale

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Archie’s Betty
Written and directed by Gerald Peary–2015–69 minutes

Love of popular culture runs deep and a great example is this fun and ultimately moving new documentary. Boston-area journalist, critic and film-studies professor Gerald Peary seeks out the possible and probable real-life inspirations for the characters of the ever-popular “Archie” comic books. In the process, he reveals a hidden human dimension behind the iconic faces of Archie Andrews, his dueling love interests Betty and Veronica, and others like Jughead, Reggie and Moose.

This is a project that actually dates back to 1988 when Peary, who had been a big Archie fan since his boyhood in West Virginia, wrote an article in the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that positioned Haverhill, MA as the inspiration for the comic’s fictional Riverdale. Archie’s original artist, Bob Montana, had attended Haverhill High School in the 1930s and Geary’s scrutinizing of early issues (the first Archie appeared in 1941) reveals named local landmarks were later fictionalized, like the gang’s beloved Chock’lit Shoppe. Geary tracked down several of Montana’s old classmates that could have been prototypes for the major characters and had himself a nice feature story.

But an urge to further explore this subject eventually led Peary to make this, his second film (the first was the 2009 doc about the art of film criticism called “For the Love of Movies”). He revisits many of the Haverhill classmates and locations while partnering with amateur comics historian Shaun Clancy, who became the film’s co-producer. It was Clancy who suggests that Betty—the blonde girl-next-door who’s always playing second fiddle to affluent Veronica for Archie’s affections—was not based on Montana’s Haverhill prom date but an actual woman named Betty that he dated in his twenties after he had moved to New York City and was already a working cartoonist. The film sweetly concludes with the two of them visiting the 90 year-old Betty at her assisted living facility in New Jersey where she proves to be every bit as plucky and personable as her illustrated namesake.

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The eyes have it: The world’s favorite love triangle

“Archie’s Betty” is an engaging blend of archival visuals, firsthand recollections, expert viewpoints and Peary’s own personal angle. His empathy for the inner connections people make with fictional characters and settings, and how they can develop from simple childhood escapism to something more profound with the passage of time, is the thread that will make his film appeal to viewers far beyond the ranks of Archie fanatics.

(“Archie’s Betty” had its premiere at a film festival in Buenos Aires, South America being a hotbed for all things Archie, according to Mr. Peary. For area readers, it will have two more showings at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art on June 14th. Other than that, I’m not sure though it was suggested that it may soon be available on DVD. More at the Archie’s Betty Facebook page and at bigsleepfilms.com)

We’ve All Gone Solo #8 (Keith and Donna Godchaux)

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We’ve all gone duo? Since Keith and Donna Godchaux, the husband-and-wife package deal who were members of the Grateful Dead for the better part of the Seventies, are almost always thought of as one, I figured they’d qualify. Certainly they fit the underdog ethos of this series. There is a lot of attention on the Dead this summer, with a high-profile series of 50th anniversary shows at Chicago’s Soldiers Field stadium on the July 4th weekend, and all the various magazine cover stories, video tributes, memorabilia etc. I have a feeling not a lot this will figure in the Godchauxes, even though I’m sure they are fondly remembered by many Deadheads. Their story is a bit unusual, even with the “long, strange trip” aura that surrounds the band. In the more accessible days of the early 70s, the couple basically talked their way into the group (see the Donna G. interview clip below) even if the two of them did not appear as naturals to join. The Alabama-born Donna was a former Muscle Shoals backup singer who moved to San Francisco but was unimpressed on first hearing the “druggie” records of Jerry Garcia and Co. but became a convert after seeing a particularly great show at the Winterland ballroom. Her new husband was also reluctant at first. Keith was a Bill Evans-inspired jazz pianist who didn’t go much for the rock epoch of the day. But he came around as well after agreeing to go to a Dead concert with his “old lady” and some friends.

The couple’s timing was fortuitous. Founding member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, who played organ as well as harmonica while singing the Dead’s blues numbers, was in poor health (he died in 1973) and unable to keep up with the band’s rigorous touring schedule.
In ’73, Keith and Donna first appeared on a Dead studio album. “Wake of the Flood” was one of their most musically rich outings and the fluid keyboards and feminine vocal backdrop provided by the couple were a key part. But it was clear that they were in a supporting role. Keith’s only songwriting credit and lead vocal in the band was on that album’s “Let Me Sing Your Blues Away” while Donna had to wait until 1977’s “Terrapin Station” LP for her turn in the spotlight, with the song “Sunrise.”

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So it was not unusual that the we-got-our-own-album-to-do bug hit them during one of the Dead’s sabbaticals. The group had their own label by then (Round Records) and the Godchauxes, who had a baby son named Zion, turned part of their Stinson Beach house into a temporary studio. Garcia, who lived around the way, played all the guitar parts and in return the couple helped him out on some subsequent dates with the Jerry Garcia Band. There are a lot of Dead-related solo records and side projects out there and unfortunately this one quickly got lost in the shuffle. It’s not exactly the second coming of “Beggars Banquet” but it’s a likable helping of Marin County Mellow, undermined by a lightweight production and a couple of programming lapses. It opens with Donna’s too-deferential version of “River Deep, Mountain High” but once she finds her comfort (like on the Muscle Shoals-style zinger “When You Start to Move”) things pick up in a hurry. Keith, who never had a great singing voice, generally sticks to the keyboards, otherwise they could have more closely approached the Delaney and Bonnie brand of soulful rock. The album wraps up nicely with the six-minute plus “The Song I Sing” which gives Jerry a little room to stretch out on lead guitar.

In the latter half of the Seventies, things started going south for the couple. Keith’s hard drug use and their domestic troubles were part of it, and stylistically they were not fitting in as well as before. Donna’s vocals, so strong in her FAME Studio’s framework, became, in the modern parlance, “a little pitchy” when trying to keep up with the Dead’s higher-flying excursions. They mutually parted ways in early 1979. Brent Mydland replaced Keith; Donna was destined to remain the only woman member in the band’s history.

Before the couple could fully re-group, Keith died in a car accident in July 1980 at age 32. Donna is still performing while Zion, whose adorably scowling infant self appears on the “Keith and Donna” LP, currently plays in the band BoomBox. This album has never appeared on CD and was uploaded to YouTube 8 months ago by Tony Sclafani, an author of a Grateful Dead book, and has received 1260 views as of this writing. I’d say it deserves better.

We’ve All Gone Solo #7 (Ronnie Wood)

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Is Ronnie Wood rock music’s ultimate wingman? Born in 1947 in an outlying district in London, he’s a guitar-playing guy who came into the world at just the right time. After knocking around a bit in the capitol’s hothouse music scene, he got a gig in 1967 playing bass for the Jeff Beck Group and never looked back.

When the restless Beck dissolved that version of JBG, Wood and vocalist Rod Stewart quickly joined forces with Ronnie Lane, Ian MacLagan and Kenny Jones from the beloved Small Faces whose own frontman, Steve Marriott, had left to form Humble Pie. With the Faces, Wood went back to shouldering a six-string and took up his stage right position, dishing out his buzzing riffs and slide guitar fills through several notable albums (and co-writing such great tunes as “Stay With Me” and “Ooh La La”) and high-spirited tours with that archetypal group of working-class blokes made good. Oh, and since the mid-70s he’s been a Rolling Stone.

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So life’s been good for this son of a long line of river barge operators—he’s been rock royalty for over four decades without ever seeming to hog the spotlight. Employing the time-tested tricks of the trade (rooster haircut, low-slung guitar, dangling cigarette) Wood’s been a reliable foil to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in rock history’s most durable top-line act. He’s also played with Bob Dylan at Live Aid, represented the Stones at the Last Waltz concert, had an affair with rock super-muse Patti Boyd Harrison, been in and out of rehab several times and was twice married to models—the second one divorced him several years back after he had a fling with a barely-legal Russian girl. I think that about takes care of the checklist.

And when it was time to do his first solo record in 1974, he came up with the perfect title. (I was going to name this blog series I’ve Got My Own Album to Do before choosing the more compact title I nicked from the chorus of “Solo,” the Sandy Denny song about the comings and goings of Fairport Convention alumni). Naturally, Wood had no trouble rounding up some mates to help him out. The credits are full of Faces and Stones (both Mick and Rod the Mod help out on vocals), not to mention the great rhythm section of bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Andy Newmark. This album is a real corker, as they say across the pond. You expect ol’ Ron to be chuffing away on the bluesy rockers that were the calling card of his various groups, but there is also some impressive variety in the songwriting. There’s the very nice “Far East Man” with George Harrison (who co-wrote it) on slide guitar and harmonies, plus a few songs (“Mystifies Me,” “Cancel Everything”) that channel that sweet melancholic vibe associated with his Faces songwriting partner Ronnie Lane. These slowies are especially well-suited to Wood’s slightly raspy, Everyman voice. But whether the mood of an individual song is sad or sassy, the overall ambience recalls a fun night out with the lads and it all ends with a loose, funky instrumental jam called “Crotch Music.”

This wouldn’t be Ronnie Wood’s only solo LP. His most successful one in the States would come in 1979 with Gimme Some Neck, which led to the short-lived semi-supergroup with Keith Richards called the New Barbarians. But mostly, life with the Stones has kept him pretty busy over the years, with occasional solo outings to fill the gaps and keep him (mostly) out of the tabloids. When you’re this high up in the court of the Royal Rock Stars, it is good to be The Wingman.


From the 2007 concert film “Shine A Light.”

My next book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released later in 2015.

Review: “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll”

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Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll
Directed by John Pirozzi—2015—105 minutes

The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.

The story starts soon after Cambodia peacefully gains its independence from France in 1953. A period of relative economic success follows under the restored monarchy, led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The prince was a patron of the arts and a bit of a singer himself, and music and traditional culture thrived. Pop songs soon became all the rage, with vocalists both male (Sinn Sisamouth) and female (Ros Serey Sothea) becoming idols across all age groups. At first, the tunes are reminiscent of French and Afro-Cuban styles; as we get into the Sixties, the British and American rock influences seep in. There is a certain lulling appeal to this first part of the film. The capital Phnom Penh is a vision of blossoming trees and bright boulevards, towering temples and lively clubs. Especially when the soundtrack features the keening, ethereal tones of the woman singers, the sights and sounds float by like an exotic dream.

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“When we were young, we loved to be modern,” one of the participants says right at the start. It is a simple as it is heartbreaking, knowing the nightmare that this dream will morph into. Still, it is fun to learn of the different musical artists and their evolution through the better part of twenty years. News that the war in neighboring Vietnam is spilling across their border comes at first in brief segments. Prince Sihanouk tries to remain neutral, even in the face of President Nixon’s bombing of his country to try and stymie the North Vietnamese communists. Still, the happy teens congregate and the music plays on into the late 60s and early 70s. Guitar bands like Baksey Cham Krong and mildly rebellious artists like troubadour Yol Aularong and sassy-girl singer Pen Ran are readily identifiable in the global pop canon.

It all starts coming apart in 1970 when the prince is deposed in a right-wing coup and naively allies himself with the Khmer Rogue. Far from being “modern,” the Khmer Rouge were pathological ideologues who, upon taking power in April of 1975, emptied Phnom Penh and other cities with the demented idea of creating a pre-industrial agrarian society—in effect turning the whole country into a big prison farm. A quarter of Cambodia’s population would not survive the regime’s four year rule, and as many as two million died from hunger, disease and summary execution in the world’s worst such event since the Holocaust. Pirozzi, as befits his subject, keys in on the Khmer Rouge’s particular contempt of artists, a group who are “close to the people” and thus deemed a dangerous challenge to their dogma. Singer Sieng Vanthy recalls how her life was saved because she convinced authorities that she had been a banana seller before the takeover.

At the end of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” Pirozzi shows the present-day (and once again sparkling) Phnom Penh, with its easeful citizens, pop talent shows and stores with racks of CDs, some of them re-issues of those old albums we almost feel we know by now. Things aren’t perfect. Much like Prince Sihanouk (who was good on the arts but stymied political dissent with his secret police), Cambodia is today ruled by Hun Sen, a long-reigning strongman (and Khmer Rouge defector) who can make life very uncomfortable for his opponents. On the plus side… well, he has managed not to kill two million people.

The grace and dignity of the film’s subjects will make an even greater impression when held up against the depravity of the perpetrators. The inspiration and uplift of culture is one of the great counterweights we have against the dark impulses that lead to the violence, greed and exploitation that seems to have half the globe in a stranglehold at any one time. Like in this film, we always seem outnumbered but never give up.

My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey will be released in late 2015.
Copyright 2015, Rick Ouellette. All rights reserved.

We’ve All Gone Solo #6 (Pete Sinfield)

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(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

Progressive rock as a genre had well and truly arrived in October of 1969 with the release of King Crimson’s formidable debut album In the Court of the Crimson King. This was obviously not sock hop music but instead an album to be reverently pondered in teenage dens of iniquity half-obscured in a cloud of hashish smoke. Their music, like many of their prog contemporaries, was undeniably adventurous, ranging from almost medieval-style balladry to speed-demon jazz-rock—in this case led by the guitar work (lilting and furious by turns) of KC kingpin Robert Fripp.

In a musical zeitgeist where subject matter was reaching way beyond the old boy-gets-girl-or-not variations, it was not unheard of for bands to have their own in-house wordsmith—Procol Harum’s Keith Reid, the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, etc. Enter Pete Sinfield, born in the Fulham section of London and raised by his bohemian-activist single mother, helped by Maria Wallenda from the famous high-wire family. An easygoing poet/songwriter type, he was briefly in a band with multi-instrumentalist Ian MacDonald before the latter joined King Crimson. Sinfield didn’t have a chance matching up with the highly-skilled players in this band, but his words were a perfect fit. Pete’s fanciful lyrics had an otherworldly flair, drawing on both ancient-sounding fantasy scenarios and science-fiction. The words were printed prominently on the inner-gatefold amid the album’s striking artwork.

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The keeper of the city keys
Put shutters on the dreams.
I wait outside the pilgrim’s door
With insufficient schemes.
The black queen chants
the funeral march,
The cracked brass bells will ring;
To summon back the fire witch
To the court of the crimson king.

Such writing reflects the era in its own way, the turbulence, the inner searching, the drugs. Though Sinfield’s type of lyricism, along with prog rock in general, came under a lot of criticism for its perceived pretensions, younger boomers embraced it as an alternative maybe to the naïve we-can-change-the-world stance of slightly earlier hippie times. In fact, a lot of his implied social criticism (see “21st Century Schizoid Man”) holds up much better nowadays.

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Sinfield in 1971.

Sinfield would pen the words for the first four King Crimson albums and near the end of that tenure, released the 1972 solo LP “Still” with Manticore Records. Although he was a decent enough singer, he did enlist ex-Crimsoner Greg Lake to help with some vocalizing. Still was a pleasing effort that wisely stayed away from trying to replicate the instrumental firepower of his band’s output (though several of them help out), leaving the songwriting front-and-center. There are some eclectic touches: a brass section on one song and a vegan-themed rocker called “Whole Food Boogie” stand out. But the best parts are on ethereal numbers like “Under the Sky” and “The Piper”, the folksy “Hanging Fire” and the untypically straightforward “Can You Forgive a Fool?”

On into the Seventies, he re-teamed with Greg Lake to write for supergroup Emerson, Lake and Palmer, as well as for Italian proggers PFM. In 1975, Sinfield and Lake collaborated on “I Believe in Father Christmas” which has become a holiday standard, although the steely core behind the seasonal frosting is a trademark touch. Sinfield has attempted in recent years to record another solo album, stymied in part by health issues, though he remains active as a poet and member of the British Academy of Songwriters.

Here he is featured in a 2008 clip from the excellent Prog Rock Britannia series, looking back at the heady early days of King Crimson.

Age Against the Machine: “Alphaville” at 50

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Alphaville
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard–1965–98 minutes

“Tarzan vs. IBM” was the cheeky working title Jean-Luc Godard gave to his dystopian tale of a technocratic dictatorship that was released in 1965 as “Alphaville.” The enfant terrible of French New Wave cinema was still at a phase in his career, five years after his breakout film “Breathless”, where his aesthetics were accessible enough to produce an entertaining movie that also caught you up in an intellectual brainstorm whose message—that mankind is apt to surrender his self-determination in the face of its own technological bedazzlement—was pertinent then and even more vital today. Of course, it may seem silly to anyone born after a certain period (1980?) to think we need rescuing from a vine-swinging hero in view of all the great advances the Information Age has afforded. But in a way, the domination of a digitally-based power structure has been achieved in the half-century since by the deployment of a different battle plan. Instead of banning emotions like the authorities do in Alphaville, it turned out to be easier to indulge people’s vanity instead. The omnipotent supercomputer at the center of Godard’s film (who calculates “so that failure is impossible”) endlessly spouts off the most numbing blandishments this side of Mark Zuckerberg.

Of course, technology, like a lot of things, is what you make of it. It’s not as if Godard is averse to keeping up with technical advances in his chosen medium. The director is now 84 and recently released a dazzling (if typically uncompromising) 3D film called “Goodbye to Language” shot on various devices including a GoPro and a smartphone. But it was a half-century ago this year, some two decades before personal computers, where Godard first divined the potential grave errors of relying too heavily on one’s own machines. He cast American expat actor Eddie Constantine as a secret agent who infiltrates this nocturnal city-state to capture Professor von Braun, a renegade atomic scientist who has defected from the rival “Outlands”. Constantine retained the delightful character name of Lemmy Caution, a role he had played in a series of French pulp films. But this was a whole other ball of wax. Godard concocted a heady brew of hard-boiled detective plot points and science fiction iconography, with an extra-added sprinkling of philosophy and romantic poetry. Using no special sets, he and his go-to cinematographer Raoul Coutard created a fantastic futuristic city-state by shooting in the modern high-rise districts of Paris, a luminous B&W world of bleak boulevards, stark hotel interiors, sterile government ministries and the labyrinth of giant mainframes that culminate in the inner sanctum of Alpha 60, whose “1.7 billion nerve centers” of remorseless logic has been put to use in creating an acquiescent and nearly robotic population.

Constantine, with his gruff mannerisms and deadpan humor, keeps the film light on its feet even during the passages of weighty intellectualizing. An unpredictable rugged individual going up against mechanized conformity; it’s a tailor-made mission for the trenchcoated Caution, whose surname is quite the misnomer. Posing as a journalist, he blows into town, brushing off the scripted niceities of the hotel staff and resisting the advances of his assigned “seductress third-class” (“I can find my own dames”) and scorning the directive to report his presence with the proper authorities. He does not find it so easy to resist when his official escort around Alphaville turns out to be Natasha von Braun (Anna Karina), a cat-like beauty who is the daughter of the turncoat professor. Like other Alphaville residents, she has a serial number branded on the back of her neck and an impulse to say things like “I’m very well, thanks for asking” when no one is asking. But Lemmy has a hunch that in view of her parentage, Natasha may yet hold memories of pre-brainwashed times in the Outlands. This means she could be turned into a useful ally in infiltrating Alphaville’s central command and will also give him ample time to fall in love with her.

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Ah yes, “love.” Just one of many words that the state’s leaders have banished, along with “conscience” and “tenderness” and many others in the expected Orwellian fashion. The film turns on Karina’s nuanced performance, as she slowly awakens to possibilities beyond Alphaville’s remorseless edicts. Her soulful sphinx gaze and delicate body language are of course rigorously recorded by Goddard (they were married at the time but soon to be separated) and makes for a curious contrast with the craggy-faced, trigger-happy Lemmy Caution. It’s all part of the film’s crazy-quilt sensibility, one minutes he’s blasting away at the secret police with his trusty firearm (which, along with his Instamatic camera, never seems to need re-loading) and the next he’s producing a book of romantic poetry to see how Natasha will respond.

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But unlike later Godard films, the literary and political points don’t overwhelm. The transgressions of the Alphaville power elite are revealed gradually, even humorously. (Lemmy’s observation that “Everything that’s weird is normal in this whore of a city” is one of my all-time gumshoe one-liners). After a meet-up with one of his fellow operatives (a serio-comic turn by Akim Tamiroff) goes awry, he’s invited by Natasha to a gala at the Institute of General Semantics. This is capped off by a memorable firing squad scene at an indoor pool where emotion-loving dissidents are led out onto diving boards to share some final thoughts before being gunned down. It’s after this grim ceremony that Caution makes his first (unsuccessful) grab at the Professor, after which he is interrogated by Alpha 60, whose croaking basso profundo voice is by now well known to the viewer.

In two absorbing scenes, Lemmy Caution goes mano a machino with Alpha 60 and if any proof was needed that venal authoritarianism does not require some raving Hitler-type, here it is. It’s not just that Alpha’s “face” bears a strange resemblance to a malfunctioning box fan. It calmly declares that the essence of both capitalism and communism “is not an evil volition to subject their peoples… but the natural ambition of any organization to plan all its actions.” Of course, how could anything be less evil? This logic continues to suggest that the proper course in all matters is simply the endless self-perpetuation of all that favors oneself regardless of anything as quaint as the “common good.” So nowadays we have untouchable “too big to fail” financial institutions that run themselves like criminal syndicates, spying agencies that can snoop in on everyone to prevent a tiny number of wrongdoers, political parties that are openly in the bag to corporate interests and glitzy social-media behemoths that distract and flatter us all the way to the end of privacy. I could go on and so could you. Or at least some of you could, as younger generations seem to see little problem with the supremacy of technology over any of its potential pitfalls. We have developed a dislike of complexity just as the world has become insanely complex, making modern-day acquiescence to a permanent status quo seem more of a slow-motion crawl than the result of heavy-handed 1984-type rulers as seen in Godard’s film.

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“I’m too old to argue, so I shoot”—Lemmy Caution

Here, there is more of an immediate concern, as the paranoiac supercomputer and its minions prepare for an atomic attack on the Outlands. “It is logical to condemn you to death” announces Alpha 60 to Monsieur Caution but it may have proved to be not quite powerful enough for our humble secret agent. With a big FU to those who would “play the world when technical power is the only act in their repertoire”, Lemmy grabs Natasha and blasts his way out of town, hopefully one step ahead of the expected counter-attack. It may not be too late for us either, but I think we all need a little of that derring-do—or at least more critical thinking—so our own “journey to the end of night” ends not with more night but as in “Alphaville” with a hint of a new dawn.

On the set of Alphaville, Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution
Definitive gaze: Godard and Anna Karina on the set of “Alphaville”

“Good bye to Language” may be nearing its arthouse run in 3D but remains recommended for adventurous filmgoers. You may come out of the film a little cross-eyed (his visual bag of tricks include parallax images, double exposure 3D and extreme color saturation) but you may also feel challenged or even inspired, a far different prerogative than most 3D Hollywood fare, where the CGI tail is often seen wagging the movie dog.

We’ve All Gone Solo #5 (Sylvain Sylvain)

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(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

Someone like Syl Sylvain is an ideal embodiment of this series. This plucky rock ‘n’ roll survivor was a founder and second guitarist of the New York Dolls, the seminal urban-rock band who, in the time-honored tradition of pop pioneers, went under-recognized in their own time only to become beloved cult icons later. It was in lower Manhattan in the pre-gentrified early Seventies, that Sylvain met his eventual bandmates. The Dolls did a lot of the groundwork for the punk and alt-rock paradigm that followed with their swaggering rhythms, streetwise lyrics and outrageous fashion sense. Sylvain, however, was destined to be overshadowed by junkie figurehead Johnny Thunders on lead guitar and by flamboyant singer David Johansen. This despite being the group’s reliable riffmeister and, with his earlier background in fashion, a likely influence on their famously glam, drag-influenced image.

Syl was born Sylvain Mizrahi in Egypt in 1951, but anti-Semitism led his family to emigrate when he was still a boy, eventually settling in Queens. He kept his shit together through the Doll’s tempestuous tenure, while the hard-drug scourge claimed original drummer Billy Murcia in 1972 and eventually Thunders, who died in sordid circumstances in 1991. When the original incarnation of the New York Dolls flamed out in 1977, Sylvain said he felt like “the Dolls left him” and that eventually there would be a more stable second act. He had enough cache to be able to record a solo album for RCA, released in 1979.

Like a lot of would-be breakout solo efforts in this series, his self-titled album was a likable work that deserved a better break. Non-frontmen have a steeper hill to climb, and even though Sylvain is very adept at mining the Dolls’ key influences (50s rock, tender Brill Bldg. balladry, street poetry), he still can’t overcome his core value as a role player. This three-song sampler does show what fans were missing and makes the case of Sylvain Sylvain as a cool party record for those hipsters in the know.

In the Eighties and beyond there were the expected various projects that never quite panned out (the Ciminal$, the Teardrops) until the long-awaited Dolls re-union came about in 2004 when Sylvain rejoined Johansen (and for a brief time before his death from leukemia, original bassist Arthur Kane) for a festival appearance and then as an ongoing concern. They have released three pretty good albums since 2006 and toured all around, delighting the old-timers and younger fans who didn’t have a chance to see them first time around.

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Dressed to impress and still rockin’

In the 2009 live clip below, Sylvain is back in his natural element as co-leader, wearing one of his trademark hats and kicking off the song with a Three Stooges catchphrase. This version of “Trash”, from their classic 1973 debut, incorporates a bit of the reggae remake of it they released that year on the Cause I Sez So album.

“The Case of the 3-Sided Dream” and a Musical Life Well-Lived

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The Case of the Three-Sided Dream
Directed by Adam Kahan–2014–88 minutes

I’m not exactly sure when jazz became such an object of penny-ante scorn. Most recently, there was the witless “satire” of Sonny Rollins that made news after appearing on the blog of New Yorker magazine. It was a fake first-person confession of a man once touted as the “Saxophone Colossus” who admits that “I hate music. I wasted my life” and concedes that the Library of Congress should be burned to the ground because it contains a few of his records. Written by Django Gold, it is so devoid of authorial effort that it could not possibly have taken more time to write than it does to read. More generally, the name itself has become a by-word for a passé genre best ignored, even to the point where Jay Leno’s “who buys jazz?” tagline was accentuated by his showing cutout-bin CD covers of his own band leader, Kevin Eubanks.

So it is at least a bit heartening to see “America’s native art form” (per Dizzy Gillespie) enjoying a bit of a renaissance on film. This includes the highly-touted 2014 documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On” where Clark Terry, the much-honored trumpet player whose career dates back to Count Basie, helps a blind 23 year-old piano protégé prepare for an international competition while he himself is pushing 90. (Terry died last month). Also, John Coltrane’s masterpiece ballad “Naima” played a key part in this year’s foreign-film Oscar winner, “Ida.” Now add to that “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream”, Adam Kahan’s dazzling documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk that I saw in its Massachusetts premier this week at the great all-doc Salem Film Fest.

Kirk, who died way back in 1977, was certainly one of his era’s wildest innovators. The blind saxophonist built on the great leap forward of bebop pioneers like Coltrane and Charlie Parker, referring to himself as a “journey agent” exploring any and all avenues of sound with no “self-imposed barriers.” Rahsaan, as he wanted to be known, would show up on stage with several saxophones (some of his own invention) strapped on, as well as flutes, piccolos, whistles and who knows what all. Blowing on several reed instruments at one time was his trademark (some said “gimmick”) a sign of restless creativity that could hardly be contained.

Especially in the 70s footage, by which time he was dressing in African clothes and incorporating everything from gongs to smashed furniture into his performance, Kirk was a natural as a musician that benefited from being seen as well as heard and Kahan includes much live (and largely uninterrupted) footage. The viewer is treated to him doing his signature “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on the BBC in 1964, a titanic rendition of “Volunteered Slavery” at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival and a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show that came about after he and some colleagues creatively protested the lack of “black classical music” on the airwaves. Kirk assembled an all-star ten-piece outfit (including Archie Shepp, Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes) and did a bang-up job on “Haitian Fight Song” even though the producers requested they do “My Cherie Amour.”

Kahan includes some playful pop-art animation sequences to play along with Kirk’s recorded spoken-word pieces, which show his advocacy of populist self-realization and his puckish sense of humor as well. The affecting interview segments are with family, friends and musical collaborators—academic talking heads and celebrities are absent. Since most everything Rahsaan did seemed geared towards “connection to community” this all seems to the good.

During the Q&A time with Kahan that followed, many older viewers (several of whom had seen Kirk in concert back in the day) seemed impressed that a young guy like himself would be drawn to a subject that died around the same time period he was born. The director’s answer was interesting and one I could relate to. He reached a certain age in young adulthood and decided he would buy some jazz records because he felt it was something he should know. That this curiosity and openness to join into the larger cultural heritage would lead to something special—a national treasure like Rahsaan Roland Kirk getting his documentary day in the sun—is not surprising. Some 15 years after being captivated by a Kirk album he found at a yard sale, Kahan has paid it forward with a great film but for so many others I’m afraid this won’t be the case. Perhaps at the root of this easy-way-out dismissal of music genres like jazz is the fear of commitment to work for (or even bothering to understand) an aesthetic greater good. If you’re into music today why bother to master an instrument when you may be able to take the short-cut to the top by over-vocalizing a boilerplate pop song on “The Voice.” That mindset has largely replaced virtuosic and collaborative musical forms with a quest for personal celebrity that is hollow at its core. Now we can start talking about “a wasted life.”