Thursday, July 19, 2007
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
It belongs to that mysterious group of 1967 recordings known as "The Basement Tapes," and it was not included among the songs found in Columbia's legitimate release of the alleged cream of the crop. The trailer includes only a 1:58 snippet of the entire piece, which runs 5:08; it's been rerecorded by Sonic Youth for the movie but, as the trailer seems to insist, the original version must be heard.
It's been awhile since a song got its hooks so deeply into me. I heard "I'm Not There (1956)" for the first time in its entirety yesterday -- I was able to find an mp3 here (scroll down 13 short paragraphs) -- and must have listened to it at least twenty times throughout the day, amazed that a song could communicate its emotion so palpably even though the lyrics (mostly improvised on the spot) hovered between incompletion and incoherence, even taking the time to learn the comparatively simple piece on my bass to try to come to terms with it musically. Here is some of what I found written in various sources about this amazing piece...
From THE OLD, WEIRD AMERICA by Greil Marcus:
"There is nothing like 'I'm Not There' -- called 'I'm Not There, I'm Gone' when Garth Hudson wrote down basement titles, later retitled 'I'm Not There (1956)' -- in the basement recordings, or anywhere else in Bob Dylan's career. It was only recorded once; unlike others of the new basement songs, which Dylan rerecorded or continued to feature on stage thirty years later, it was never sung again.
She fell into conversation with the first fat man she saw.
"What do you do?," he said, fitting two potato chips into his mouth.
I go to parties and only talk to the fat guys, she thought.
Owen was home writing. She thought of it as an act of fidelity to talk only to the unattractive guys.
She started to tell him about her jobs. She was talking on automatic pilot, hardly listening to what she was saying -- instead, she was listening to Dylan. Going through the host's record collection, she'd found a bootleg album that included "I'm Not There," a legendary, never-released, never-completed song from the Basement Tapes sessions -- a song that she'd heard just once, the summer after high school, and that she'd been searching for ever since. It came on while she was talking; it was even more haunting than she remembered.
She touched the fat guy's wrist. "This," she said, "may be the greatest song ever written."
"The woman speaking is the heroine of a 1991 novel by Brian Morton called THE DYLANIST, and it's a wonderful thing she says -- because so many people have responded the same way, at the same time realizing that 'I'm Not There' is barely written at all.... The song is a trance, a waking dream, a whirlpool... Words are floated together in a dyslexia that is music itself -- a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do... In the last lines of the song, the most plainly sung, the most painful, so bereft that after the song's five minutes, five minutes that seem like no measurable time, you no longer believe that anything so strong can be said in words."
From composer Michael Pisaro:
"It's almost as though he has discovered a language or, better, has heard of a language: heard about some of its vocabulary, its grammar and its sounds, and before he can comprehend it, starts using this set of unformed tools to narrate the most important event of his life... [Rick] Danko plays [bass] as if he knows that all his life this song has been waiting for him to complete it, and that he will be given only one chance."
From BOB DYLAN: PERFORMING ARTIST 1960-1973 by Paul Williams:
"What's astonishing here is that we can feel with great intensity and specificity what the singer is talking about, even though 80% of the lyrics have not been written yet!... It's as though when Dylan writes, the finished song is not constructed piece by piece as we might imagine, but tuned in; there is an entirety from the first but still out of focus, like the photograph of a fetus, a blur whose identifying characteristics are implicit but not yet visible -- not because they're obscured but because they haven't yet taken shape. 'I'm Not There' is a performance complete in feeling -- 'Dylan's saddest song,' says [THE TELEGRAPH editor John] Bauldie -- achieved without benefit of context or detail. It's like listening to the inspiration before the song is wrapped around it."
With this kind of press, I'm surprised that this forty year old piece isn't better known to the public at large. People talk about the Basement Tapes at length, but this particular song is surely, on its own, to Bob Dylan what SMILE was, for decades, to Brian Wilson. As much as I love what Wilson did when he resurrected SMILE as a solo recording, its availability has taken away from the almost sacred mystery that enveloped the original Beach Boys recordings so painstakingly produced by Wilson, which fans loved to collect, share, and arrange into their own personal visions of what the unfinished album might have been. "I'm Not There (1956)" -- whose attached date is only one of many unexplained mysteries about it -- is of such similar appeal that I'm surprised that Dylan fans aren't out there writing and sharing their own lyrics to complete the jigsaw... but, who knows, maybe they do.
One of the many uncanny things about this piece is that Dylan must have known what he had, but he had the awareness of his own craft to know, despite the incompletion of the piece, that this singular recording had somehow miraculously achieved everything that any completed version possibly could and was wise enough to leave it alone. Its rough-hewn quality also invests it with something that no finished song ever has. In its own way, "I'm Not There" is perfect and there's no need for Dylan to touch it again. It might tempt him to finish it.
It's interesting that Todd Haynes chose this obscure song as the title piece for his film, but it does represent in some ways Dylan's own mercurial, artfully dodging persona, which I take to be one of the film's primary concerns, as it supposedly casts seven different actors as Bob Dylan at different phases of his career. My feeling about Haynes' previous work is that it's always very enticing but somehow always falls short of satisfying me completely. The idea to cast different actors as Dylan is an inspired one, one that qualifies this film as fantastic cinema sight unseen, but I'm looking forward to I'M NOT THERE with equal parts eagerness and trepidation. There is a preview scene from the film on YouTube featuring Cate Blanchett as Dylan, who strikes me in this snippet as playing Patti Smith in Dylan drag. Even so, the casting is inspired and it looks like a film that has winks to offer as well as wisdom. If it only brings this song within reach of more appreciative ears, the effort will have been worth it.
I'm hoping it turns out to be the superhero film of the year.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Shout Factory's YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES came out three years ago, almost to the day, but it was only recently that I obtained it. Thirty or so years have passed since I last saw Groucho Marx's classic game show, and it was wonderful to see it again: every single episode made me laugh myself sick. In answer to everyone's first question: No, the Tor Johnson episode isn't included, but you do get appearances by Harpo Marx, Chico Marx (not onstage, but visible applauding in the audience), Johnny Weissmuller, Phyllis Diller, Joe Louis, Edgar & Candice Bergen, Harry Ruby and VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS' own Joy Harmon. Not a bad bang for the buck.
Panelists Richard Halley, Stanley Ralph Ross, Jan Sterling, and the one, the only... Groucho.
The panel are shown a 10m mystery film ("Mystery in the Crystal Ball," featuring Joe Maross as a detective named Penfield) that involves a murder and four possible suspects, then those "suspects" are assembled in four empty seats onstage, where the celebrity detectives "grill" them before a live audience. Each of the suspects must tell the truth... except for the murderer, who is given permission to lie to conceal their identity. Any celebrity who correctly guesses the identity of the murderer wins $500... and if the real detective fails where the celebrity detectives succeed, their prize amount is doubled to $1000.
Two scenes from "Murder in the Crystal Ball," featuring James Callahan, Arthur Batanides, and Linda Bennett.
I grant that it's very odd to see celebrities vying for money they intend to win for themselves, but maybe there wasn't much of a salary involved. Then again -- and this is probably the real explanation, given the show's patrimony -- maybe it's all show business. The mystery film is practically indistinguishable from the first reel of a PERRY MASON episode, and directed by a veteran of 21 episodes of that series, William D. Russell. I personally found the mystery fairly easy to solve, but the pilot was a delight anyway for Groucho's interjections of humor, his flirtatiousness with the bailiff and suspect Linda Bennett (whose IMDb page credits her with this pilot, a movie called NAKED FLAME which I do believe features her, and a couple of Sixties grindhouse pictures in which another woman of her name appeared), and the "grilling" sequences, which required four actors to act in character but without a script -- a rarely witnessed dramatic exercise with actors of this vintage.
Suspects Jay Adler, Linda Bennett, James Callahan and Kathryn Giveney have a laugh when the real killer is unmasked.YOU BET YOUR LIFE - THE BEST EPISODES would be well worth having even without this pilot, but knowing that THE PLOT THICKENS was included, and its specifics, would have made the set absolutely irresistable to me -- and perhaps to you, too, which is why I thought I'd share the news. There remain two more pilots in this set that I haven't watched: WHAT DO YOU WANT? and TELL IT TO GROUCHO. For all I know, they might guest star Delphine Seyrig and Wild Man Fischer and be directed by Sergei Parajanov.
Apparently, with Groucho, anything is possible.
Monday, July 16, 2007
"Unfortunately," he writes, "the selling of my work is apparently illegal, which I did not realize after 12 years of doing so, so I will no longer sell my monster art... Is this an overreaction? Perhaps, but the answer is simple. I have two beautiful daughters. I will not endanger my children's financial future by testing the wrath of studio lawyers, who could 'send a message' by wiping out my life savings. It's that simple."
Frank's announcement does not confirm that he has been approached by a studio legal representative and served with threatening "cease and desist" paperwork, but it would seem a strong possibility. Frank's portraits and caricatures do indeed feature copyrighted characters, trademarked faces or studio makeups, and he sells this work to private collectors.
As someone who owns a couple of Dietz originals (a painting and a charcoal portrait), I find the possibility of such bullying both galling and reprehensible. I say this as someone with intellectual property of my own, toward which I feel a sense of vigilance and responsibility. Certainly, I would object if someone announced their intention to film my novel THROAT SPROCKETS without my permission or involvement; on the other hand, I believe that my rights as creator begin to lose some of their grip, or should, when it comes to my work inspiring other forms of art. The link no longer works, but I once found online a painting by an artist named Léandre Borgia that was labelled as an hommage to THROAT SPROCKETS and, a couple of years ago, a writer approached me seeking my permission to write a novel in which my novel would play an active part in the narrative. I found both of these responses to my novel immensely flattering; it wasn't the same thing as finding my original TABOO story (illustrated by Mike Hoffman) bootlegged in a foreign comic book with the TS movie's title changed to DEEP THROAT. To that, I did object.
When any artist lets their work out into the world, either by printing a book or selling a movie ticket, it is absurd (to use one of the kinder characterizations) for them to presume that their creative rights extend to cover anything and everything that work might inspire. It has to do with the free exchange of ideas. It used to be the same way with movies -- would there be a Batman without Roland West's THE BAT, or a Joker without Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS? -- but no more. Why? Because Hollywood has no new ideas, only new technologies and new video formats. This places a terrible burden on the precious reserves of ideas these studios already have: a burden to make these old ideas continually profitable. If studios had an ounce of faith in a future based on new commercial ideas, they wouldn't need to worry so much about the past.
What if Frank Dietz creates an original portrait of the Frankenstein Monster, or Vincent Price, or E. E. Clive, and sells it at a convention? How does this differ from, say, Basil Gogos doing a painting of the same, selling it to Warren Publications as a cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which is then sold coast-to-coast on newsstands? Is the latter more acceptable, even though it involves a much larger exchange of money all around (especially for Warren), because it is promotional in nature? But who is to say that the art of Frank Dietz isn't promotional? It's fan art like his that kept the appetite for classic monster movies alive all those years when Universal, Warners, Columbia and other studios couldn't be bothered to release those films on home video -- at conventions, in fanzines. But in today's paranoid and possessive climate, such loving action becomes litigable.
Who we must ultimately thank for ugly turns of event like this are, of course, the Studio Attorneys, who must account for their lavish annual salary and expense accounts by doing something/anything. And so Goliath turns viciously on David, bringing down his colossal foot on the banner David is carrying, which just happens to say "YAY, GOLIATH!"
While the expense would surely be dreadful, I would love to see a case like this honestly explored in a court of law. Frank's caricatures are certainly humorous and satire and parody are protected by the First Amendment. There is also the matter of precedent to be considered here. Universal's monster characters, to take a handy example, have not appeared exclusively in Universal films since their inception. You can also find them in shorts and cartoons made by other studios, in MAD magazine, in editorial cartoons, you name it. It comes with being part of the cultural landscape, and none of the artists who perpetuated these characters in these secondary media did so for free, nor were they required to tithe a portion of their salaries back to Universal. And, truth be told, Universal lost nothing by sharing these characters thusly with the world, while they gained a fabulous fortune in terms of fame and public goodwill. But in today's legal view, something like Bobby Pickett's "The Monster Mash" might be characterized as having siphoned unforgivable millions from the Universal till, even though everyone who bought that record loved Universal's horror movies all the more as a result of hearing it and hearing it again.
Sure, Frank profits from his drawings and paintings -- or did. But, as I said over at the CHFB, it's not really the subjects of Frank's work that sell it; it's what his eye and hand bring to those subjects. I have seen a dozen people crowded around his table at Wonderfest, looking at the artwork on display, and everyone zeroes in on something different, something that speaks to their own unique experience of that character, that actor, that scene. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that nothing tangibly existed of, say, Vincent Price and THE TINGLER that can be seen in Frank's caricature of same prior to his drawing it. Through his work, Frank was able to make some elusive quality of Price's performance in the film tangible, in a way that it isn't evident in stills or even necessarily in the movie itself (film viewing being such a subjective matter in itself) -- and that's what makes his art so special and so beloved by fans.
If a studio should want to harness such talent and put it to work for them, that's one thing. But to reach over and unceremoniously pull the plug on an artist's entire future of self-expression, because they are under the psychotic impression that they somehow own it, is something else entirely. Yet this is "studio thinking," wholly consistent with a system dedicated to making us pay over and over for the same movie-going experience, whether it's remakes or double- and triple-dipping DVDs, and obtaining ultimate control over all that we see and hear regarding its output. If such corporate characteristics were applied to an individual, they would qualify him or her as mentally ill.
If Frank Dietz's right to interpret the monsters we know and love in art can be intimidated out of existence, how long will it be before the interpretations of the written word -- film criticism, for example -- suffer the same fate? We must have freedom of the press, which is predicated on what I referenced earlier, the free exchange of ideas.
Mr. Studio Attorney might counter by asking, "What's so free about Frank Dietz charging for his artwork?" Actually, Frank's artwork is freely displayed -- he puts it in galleries and on convention tables to attract and amuse people. It's free to look all you want. When money does change hands, it's mostly to reimburse him for the time and materials that brought those works to life. The people that buy his art then display it on the walls of their homes, where it becomes a vehicle through which these actors, characters and scenes can be venerated and enjoyed on a daily basis -- because the original product, the film itself, has already been consumed. To create art for such a purpose is, in my view, a more honest and respectable living than making your product's biggest boosters feel like crooks.
Hang in there, Frank. Whatever the situation is, I hope it can be resolved.