A whole bunch of movies you’ve never heard of will be debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs for 10 days in Park City, Utah. A year from now, some of them may be among your favorites for 2007.
Here’s how a sampling of last year’s Sundance premieres fared:
Little Miss Sunshine. This was the rare Sundance comedy loved equally in and away from the mountain air. After its rousing premiere, Fox Searchlight paid a reported $10.5 million for it (a Sundance record), and it has gone on to gross close to $60 million in North America while racking up so many end-of-the-year kudos that it’s a probable Oscar best picture nominee. PopMatters review
An Inconvenient Truth. The Al Gore global warming movie, picked up by Paramount Vantage (nee Classics), became the year’s most popular documentary ($23.8 million gross)—as well as the most honored and talked-about. PopMatters review
The Illusionist. This Edward Norton-starring magician movie was pooh-poohed at its Sundance premiere, and its primary financier, Bob Yari, wound up releasing it under his own banner. Nice move: It became one of the year’s sleepers, grossing close to $40 million. PopMatters review
Wordplay. This crossword puzzle documentary was warmly received at the festival and beyond, drumming up a decent $3 million for IFC Films.
Half Nelson. Respected by festivalgoers though ignored by the awards jury, this drama about a crack-addicted schoolteacher grossed a modest $2.7 million for ThinkFilm. But Ryan Gosling’s performance has received much end-of-the-year recognition and could be Oscar nominated. PopMatters review
Quinceanera. The festival jury and audience gave top honors to this ensemble drama about the mostly Mexican-American and gay residents of a changing Los Angeles neighborhood. Back in the real world, reviewers liked it while art-house audiences nudged the box office up to $1.7 million.
God Grew Tired of Us. Winning the top jury and audience documentary awards was this emotionally potent depiction of Sudanese “lost boys” who wind up in the U.S. It opens, finally, Friday.
The Science of Sleep. Director Michel Gondry’s dreamlike follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind never broke out, grossing $4.7 million after Warner Independent paid a reported $6 million to $7 million for the rights to English-speaking territories. PopMatters review
Sherrybaby. This drama about a recovering drug addict mother made a measly $199,000 but did earn Maggie Gyllenhaal a Golden Globe best-actress nomination.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Despite mostly positive reviews, a couple of Sundance awards and a cast topped by Robert Downey Jr. and Rosario Dawson, this New York mean-streets drama barely cracked $500,000 at the box office.
Right at Your Door. This much-hyped, post-9/11, dirty-bombs-in-L.A. thriller didn’t kill ‘em at Sundance but nonetheless reportedly fetched almost $3 million from Lionsgate. The distributor has yet to give it a U.S. opening date despite releasing it in the UK last September.
When one looks back at the golden days of Hollywood, back before big business turned the industry into a cash machine hell-bent on making every opening weekend the most important aspect of filmmaking, there was one name that guaranteed spectacle and larger than life entertainment. With a canon, both as producer and director, that ranged in subject matter from the circus (1952’s The Greatest Show On Earth) to the high seas (1958’s The Buccaneer), the Wild West (1937’s The Plainsman) to the frozen tundra of Canada (1940’s North West Mounted Police), Cecil B DeMille made movies for and of the masses. Known for his casts of thousands, his attention to historic detail, and sets that usually dwarfed his performers, DeMille guaranteed that moviegoers got their money’s worth, understanding that people could see all the everyday world they wanted right outside their own back door. To DeMille, movies were invented to tell the really oversized stories, to create the myths and the mystery that kept seats filled and box office registers ringing—especially when having to compete with the variety of vaudeville and the growing popularity of the newest home-based novelty, radio.
And when it came to the sacred in scope, the holy in histrionics, perhaps no one excelled in the telling of the ultimate legends carved out of The Bible than DeMille. Over the course of his fifty years in show business, he made at least half a dozen films with religion as its overriding theme, including the classic The Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah, and, naturally, The King of Kings. Treating these tellings as testaments to his own personal faith, and formulated to follow the scripture as closely as dramatics would allow, DeMille fueled his fanciful preaching with opulent sets, incredible effects, and carefully crafted, flawless filmmaking. The results were regal in their resplendence, luxuriant without being decadent, and filled with as much meaning and message as possible. Certainly, some efforts were better than others, but there is no denying how direct, forthright, and inspiring his films could be. Indeed, DeMille was on of the few filmmakers who could fill his frame with the actual sense of God’s omnipresence, power, and grace.
The King of Kings is an example of such sensational storytelling. It is cinema at its most artistic. It is also moviemaking at its most basic and effective. There are no massive overriding themes or brave symbolism to overshadow the situations. This is a simple, straightforward saga (the last few days in Christ’s life) told with skill and obvious sentiment. Like seeing a series of prayer cards come to life, or witnessing a literal imagining of imagery from the Gospels, The King of Kings is a somber, sobering experience in overall mood and atmosphere. DeMille designs his film like a Bible reading, highlighting passages to propel his narrative, and quoting chapter and verse to solidify his sacrosanct purposes. All throughout he hints at standard iconography, creates his own new vibrant visuals, and manages to dig down deep into the very core of Christ’s time on earth. Naturally, this means miracles (the curing of the blind, the raising of the dead) but instead of turning this title into some sort of misguided magic act (The Ten Commandments can occasionally be faulted as being too effects-heavy), DeMille keeps this a very personal, very profound look at Jesus, the man.
Compared to other versions of the life of Christ, DeMille’s reinvention is marvelous and quite moving. He knows the command in the parable and prophecy contained in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and builds off their fundamental narrative strengths to compel his story. His compositions are carefully constructed, used to accent the spiritual nature of each scene while keeping us connected to the characters. The King of Kings is really remarkable in its tone and talent. DeMille barely makes a wrong move here, picking the parts of Christ’s life that synchronize seamlessly into the overall significance of His life and works. The plot points out problems to be overcome, moral issues to be addressed, and Jesus is presented as the emblematic response, a period on the end of all ethical statements that solidifies the soundness of his teachings. Jesus is never shown as being too strong or overly passive, only using his command when absolutely necessary. But he is also shown drawing on his more humble vulnerability to make God a personified, approachable person. Unlike other Christs who seem, pardon the pun, holier than thou, DeMille’s Messiah is a completely three-dimensional entity, a near perfect epitome of consecration in human form.
This is not to suggest that The King of Kings is faultless. While the imagery is among the best ever created, some of the liberties taken by story scribe Jeanie Macpherson may confuse even the most learned Christian. Those who know their Bible should not expect The King of Kings to be historically, or even contextually correct. For example, Judas Iscariot is portrayed as a king-making Jesus wannabe, living an impossible existence in his master’s substantial shadow. We constantly see actor Joseph Schildkraut (who is very, very effective, by the way) rubbing his hands together and flaunting his ego as he tries to sway some attention the Iscariot way. His retrofitted relationship with Mary Magdalene seems like a cheap meet-cute way of getting the famed religious figure in with Jesus at the beginning of the narrative. It’s almost as if DeMille needed to present Christ with a scoundrel more viable than a poorly described member of his disciples who would end up betraying his master for thirty pieces of silver. From a short sequence where Judas tries to “cure” an insane child, to the final confrontation with the Council where he practically begs for audience sympathy, the new and improved Judas Iscariot will be, perhaps, the sole sticking point for Biblical purists.
No one could argue with the acting, however. As stated before, Schildkraut is amazing, less mannered than you would expect in the vain, villainous Judas role. Indeed, the hyper-serious nature of the story seems to have inspired DeMille to pull back a great deal on the typical silent movie Method acting. Usually so arch and over the top that modern audiences balk at the horrible hamminess of it all, The King of Kings contains some of the most naturalistic, normal performances in any religious epic. The rest of the cast is very powerful indeed. H.B. Warner essays the lead role of Jesus Christ with a near ideal depiction. Never too pious to isolate the audience, but never resorting to the kind of intense humanism that hampers other portrayals of Christ (especially Jim Caviezel’s gut wrenching Christ in Mel Gibson’s Passion, or Willem Dafoe as the emotionally tortured Savior of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation).
Unlike other versions of this prophet and religious leader, DeMille is more interested in the deeds than the man, and it is left to Warner to center and suggest the inner sanctity of Christ’s unending love. And he does so brilliantly. From Ernest Torrence’s big bear of a disciple (Peter), to Rudolph Schildkraut’s (Joseph’s Dad) piercing portrayal as Caiaphas, we never once feel like we are watching one of those hoary old classics were people are playing it large and lumbering. There is more subtlety than show-off during this stirring drama, and it is one of the reasons why The King of Kings succeeds so well.
Still, some may seem put off by a silent film that takes a very picturesque, anglicized version of the Christ’s passion. DeMille is not trying to affect some kind of radical rethinking of the story of Christ. No matter what later genealogy or archeological findings would warrant, the director envisions his Jesus a Caucasian white male, traditional close-cropped blond hair framing a face full of noble virtue. Well-trimmed beard in place and eyes alive with deep inner warmth, there is never a moment when Warner doesn’t look 100% the part. But not everything DeMille does is mired in the mundane. In order to keep the cinematic aspects of the film fresh and forceful, DeMille does have some marvelous tricks up his sly sleeves. In a scene where Jesus drives the Seven Deadly Sins out of Mary Magdalene, the director uses a wonderful optical effect to have the horrible, harmful harpies surround their victim. By applying some splendid double exposure, we see several actresses made up to be grotesque decadent demons draping the figure of Mary. As expected, Jesus normally has a luminescence around him, a glorious glow that separates and sanctifies him for the audience. A bit with the Devil’s temptation is spectacle at its most amazing, and the ending is equally effective, filled with the kind of pre-CGI physical effects that used to be the studio system’s bread and butter. Once you’ve witnessed the quaking of the earth and the renting of the temple vestment in The King of Kings, you’ll immediately understand that DeMille was determined to make us believe in the truth of this tale.
DeMille also trusts the inherent narrative in the Bible (Judas jerry-rigging aside) to carry his story, and when he stays true to its tenets, The King of Kings is remarkably powerful. Naturally, there will be those who wonder if DeMille is as guilty as Mel Gibson for portraying the Jews as a bloodthirsty cult of stereotypes bent on feeding every negative image the world has ever had of Hebrews. The answer is no. DeMille takes a decidedly tame position on both the High Priest Caiaphas and the Romans (who ridicule Jesus, but don’t beat him with anywhere as near the insane fervor of Gibson’s gratuitous guards). Some could point to a few hackneyed actions or caricature-ish faces that fill out the crowd scenes, but one never gets the feeling that DeMille was out to condemn a people for the death of the Savior (this could also be the reason for the retrofitting of Judas). True, the crimes they pile on Christ seem stupid, and the decision to put him to death does derive out of a pathetic power struggle amongst a corrupt set of Council members, but the overriding idea is that Jesus’s untimely end is preordained, and that we are merely witnessing the motions that needed to be gone through to reach the resplendent Resurrection goal.
Since DeMille is a master storyteller, both from a production and a directorial standpoint, the end result is a movie that truly moves you with the spirit of its sincerity. Though Gibson’s modern marriage of mise-en-scène with emotion and message would present a far more potent set of cinematic pictures, The King of Kings is equally evocative for far less boastful reasons. DeMille believes the Bible is the greatest story ever told and he is willing to work within the parameters it provides to tell his tale. He then carefully casts his creation, manages the tone and the flow with expert efficiency, and finds just the right visual cues to bring it all back home in Heavenly respite. Inspiring and insightful, The King of Kings is classic old school theatricality at its most monumental. It truly lives up to the regal reputation of the individual it champions.
More of what precisely no one has been clamoring for: amateur analysis of 18th century moral philosophy. Prompted by the sudden popularity of Adam Smith’s brand of morals (and the argument that it provides an ethical foundation for self-interested capitalism), I read An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, by Smith’s friend and fellow Scot, David Hume. This volume, a reworking of a portion from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, appeared in 1751, a dozen years before Smith’s own work of moral philosophy, and Smith was almost certainly influenced by it. In the Enquiry, Hume is anxious to do two things: (1) refute the Hobbesan argument than men are motivated entirely by self-love and all behavior can be reduced to selfishness of some sort, and (2) rescue moral behavior from religiosity (which he regarded as a source of human strife and division) and metaphysical notions of the soul (i.e., we are good so we can avoid punishment in the afterlife), and found it in the inherent sociability of humankind. Though he is skeptical of the soul, Hume is no strict empiricist, as he is willing to posit an a priori moral sense akin to the one Hutcheson and Shaftesbury argued for. Hume was adamant that emotions and not reason guided our behavior, and that our untutored emotions were basically benevolent.
Though reason, when fully assisted and improved, be sufficient to instruct us in the pernicious or useful tendency of qualities and actions; it is not alone sufficient to produce any moral blame or approbation. Utility is only a tendency to a certain end; and were the end totally indifferent to us, we should feel the same indifference towards the means. It is requisite a sentiment should here display itself, in order to give a preference to the useful above the pernicious tendencies. This sentiment can be no other than a feeling for the happiness of mankind, and a resentment of their misery; since these are the different ends which virtue and vice have a tendency to promote. Here, therefore, reason instructs us in the several tendencies of actions, and humanity makes a distinction in favour of those which are useful and beneficial.
He then rejects separating reason from emotion, and proclaims emotion to be the source of all morality: “The hypothesis which we embrace is plain. It maintains, that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary. We then proceed to examine a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence: We consider all the circumstances, in which these actions agree: And thence endeavour to extract some general observations with regard to these sentiments.” Reason enters this picture later, to rationalize the judgments emotion has already delivered. This sentiment has the bonus of being unmotivated by self-interest and is thus free of the taint of calculation: “Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other.” He presupposes that virtue must be its own reward, and reasons backward from that to come up with a moral sense that transmits its findings to our consciousness without being distorted by our immediate interests; this allows our instinctual concern for a happy society to override our immediate selfish interests in personal pleasure.
For Hume, “sentiment” and “humanity” are basically synonyms, and both refer to that moral sense that makes us feel something about observed behavior, and our own behavior, as though we were observing it from without (which becomes the basis of Smith’s program). Because sentiment is so central to our humanity, those who can sharpen our sentiments—poets and the like—become crucial to social life. Here’s how Hume puts it:
Virtue, placed at such a distance, is like a fixed star, which, though to the eye of reason, it may appear as luminous as the sun in his meridian, is so infinitely removed, as to affect the senses, neither with light nor heat. Bring this virtue nearer, by our acquaintance or connexion with the persons, or even by an eloquent recital of the case; our hearts are immediately caught, our sympathy enlivened, and our cool approbation converted into the warmest sentiments of friendship and regard. These seem necessary and infallible consequences of the general principles of human nature, as discovered in common life and practice.
This is all well and good—a classic restatement of the humanist position that art is good for us and can illustrate morality. But I wonder whether this notion, were it widely distributed, would make us collectively susceptible to stimulation and excitation for its own sake, i.e. the blandishments that the contemporary entertainment industry provides (this was one pillar of reasoning behind my aborted dissertation). If anything that exercises our emotions and provokes a sentimental reaction makes our moral sense stronger, then the most sensationalistic materials are justified and should be preferred. Anti-intellectual culture is okay then as long as it moves us. Also, advertisements that manipulate our emotions are performing a good service for us as they persuade. Thus, we might accept that retail-friendly notion that it’s pleasant to be persuaded (the way P.T. Barnum assumed his customers enjoyed being tricked and duped) and antisocial to resist the emotional manipulation, vicarious indulgence, and fantasy mongering advertisements inspire. (Notably, Adam Smith seems to correct for this, conjuring the notion of an impartial observer whose judgments we should imagine when evaluating our own moral behavior. The vicariousness remains but is subtly shifted to something more panoptic and less pleasurable.) Anything with strong emotional content is good,for its own sake, regardless what other ends it may be trying to serve. Hume might have believed that nothing morally reprehensible could inspire positive feelings in us, but he wasn’t subjected to modern media’s power and reach, and the incentives that media provides to subverting our emotional reactions.
In his efforts to separate morals from self-interest, Hume rejects what he deems a false slander on the power of imagination, that it can mask from us the true selfishness that motivates our interests in others. (Hume would have no patience for Gary Becker-like arguments about human capital or the irreducible rational self-interest behind all behavior—for Hume, behavior is emotional and reactive first, then explained later.)
An EPICUREAN or a HOBBIST readily allows, that there is such a thing as friendship in the world, without hypocrisy or disguise; though he may attempt, by a philosophical chymistry, to resolve the elements of this passion, if I may so speak, into those of another, and explain every affection to be self-love, twisted and moulded, by a particular turn of imagination, into a variety of appearances. But as the same turn of imagination prevails not in every man, nor gives the same direction to the original passion; this is sufficient, even according to the selfish system, to make the widest difference in human characters, and denominate one man virtuous and humane, another vicious and meanly interested. I esteem the man, whose self-love, by whatever means, is so directed as to give him a concern for others, and render him serviceable to society: As I hate or despise him, who has no regard to any thing beyond his own gratifications and enjoyments. In vain would you suggest, that these characters, though seemingly opposite, are, at bottom, the same, and that a very inconsiderable turn of thought forms the whole difference between them.
Here Hume seems to suggest that character (“a turn of the imagination”) is inborn and immutable, which corresponds to the quasi-Calvinist notion, ironically enough, of some people simply being born with a maladjusted moral sense, of not being among elect. Hume refers to common sense to dismiss the sophistic idea that virtue is really selfish in deep disguise. But he relies on a fairly subtle argument of his own to ultimately reject self-interest as the source of all (the Archimedian point, the transcendental signifier, etc.):
there are mental passions, by which we are impelled immediately to seek particular objects, such as fame, or power, or vengeance, without any regard to interest; and when these objects are attained, a pleasing enjoyment ensues, as the consequence of our indulged affections. Nature must, by the internal frame and constitution of the mind, give an original propensity to fame, ere we can reap any pleasure from that acquisition, or pursue it from motives of self-love, and a desire of happiness. If I have no vanity, I take no delight in praise: If I be void of ambition, power gives me no enjoyment: If I be not angry, the punishment of an adversary is totally indifferent to me. In all these cases, there is a passion, which points immediately to the object, and constitutes it our good or happiness; as there are other secondary passions, which afterwards arise, and pursue it as a part of our happiness, when once it is constituted such by our original affections. Were there no appetite of any kind antecedent to self-love, that propensity could scarcely ever exert itself; because we should, in that case, have felt few and slender pains or pleasures, and have little misery or happiness to avoid or to pursue.
This is like proto-deconstruction: any self-interested motive needs to refer back to some previous source of enjoyment to have any meaning; there needs to be a self first to motivate self-interest, so self-interest can’t be at the root of things. There needs to be inborn motives toward fame, reputation, pleasure, etc., that precede self-interest and motivate us to construct the rest of the preferences that build up our character and our motivations. Then Hume suggests benevolence is one of these human inclinations that precede the formation of a self. We have to be able to love before we can be consumed with self-love, and if HUme is right, than we love others first and thereby learn how to love ourselves.
UPDATE: Brad DeLong links to this article by V.S. Ramachandran offering a neurological basis for our conceiving of others before developing a sense of self:
It is often tacitly assumed that the uniquely human ability to construct a “theory of other minds” or “TOM” (seeing the world from the others point of view; “mind reading”, figuring out what someone is up to, etc.) must come after an already pre-existing sense of self. I am arguing that the exact opposite is true; the TOM evolved first in response to social needs and then later, as an unexpected bonus, came the ability to introspect on your own thoughts and intentions.
Ramachandran’s explanation for this is, needless to say, complicated, involving analysis of different kinds of neurons and their functions, but it leads him to conclude “that two seemingly contradictory aspects of self — its the individuation and intense privacy vs. its social reciprocity — may complement each other and arise from the same neural mechanism, mirror neurons.” Pushing this further, reciprocity enables self-interest, and then selfishness. We need others to teach us how to love ourselves too much.
by Mario Tarradell and Mike Daniel [The Dallas Morning News]
Singular sensation: They popped onto the airwaves, then pooped out
by Mario Tarradell and Mike Daniel The Dallas Morning News
The popular music landscape is littered with one-hit wonders, artists who scored big with a single song and then—poof!—disappeared like the eight-track tape. Some radio staples are pure fluke, a product of stars serendipitously aligning just so for a brief, catchy blip. Others are the beginning of a supposedly promising career that never advanced beyond the first tune. Those are examples of the song being bigger than the singer.
In one-hit wonderland there are the obvious, such as Anita Ward’s disco signpost “Ring My Bell” and Iron Butterfly’s epic, psychedelic rocker “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Then you have the obscure blokes who got lucky, say, Switzerland’s Double with its jazzy-dreamy “The Captain of Her Heart” and England’s Haircut One Hundred with the buoyant “Love Plus One.”
There’s no way to examine every one-hit wonder; we could fill the entire newspaper. But let’s look at 10 national momentary splashes, five Texans who scored once and five acts most people think were one-hit wonders, but the truth might surprise you.
THE NATIONAL WONDERS
Taco, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1983)—Nobody would have suspected that Taco Ockerse from Indonesia could score a No. 4 smash with this synthesized, slightly dance version of the Irving Berlin classic. He did other period pieces (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Singin’ in the Rain”) in the same electronic pop vein on his only U.S. album, “After Eight.” But apparently he vanished once the clock struck midnight, because Taco was never heard from again.
Aldo Nova, “Fantasy” (1982)—Montreal’s Aldo Scarporuscio (no wonder he changed his last name) rode the synthesized classic rock train carrying an air-guitar nugget with a nocturnal vibe. The song pushed his 1982 self-titled album to double platinum. He could never follow it up, though. Two other discs failed to catch fire, and Nova is now more songwriter than performing artist. He penned “I Love You,” which Celine Dion sang on her 11-million-selling “Falling Into You.”
Dionne Farris, “I Know” (1995)—After a brief stint as a singer with hip-hop band Arrested Development, New Jersey’s Farris went solo and delivered “Wild Seed—Wild Flower.” The CD’s lone single sparkled in its rhythmic blend of pop, rock and R&B. It hit No. 4. And then ... nothing. We’re still waiting for her sophomore album. Maybe she knows something we don’t.
M, “Pop Muzik” (1979)—England’s Robin Scott adopted his one-letter moniker and sprinted to No. 1 armed with the bounciest, most effervescent piece of synth pop. Yet he was invisible. His album “New York-London-Paris-Munich” stalled at No. 79. Plus, although he released a handful more records, nothing else even charted. These days it doesn’t matter what he’s dubbed, he’s but a footnote.
The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1979)—A studio concoction of Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn (later of Yes and Asia), the Buggles’ totally machine-driven single holds the distinction of being the first video ever played on MTV. Stateside the song stopped at No. 40 and its accompanying album, “The Age of Plastic,” never charted. But once you hear that song you won’t forget it.
Right Said Fred, “I’m Too Sexy” (1992)—Talk about a pop-culture phenomenon. RSF was the trio of English bodybuilding brothers Richard and Fred Fairbrass and lean guitarist Rob Manzoli. The song was total novelty, adorned by a slinky dance beat and the monotone, baritone Fairbrass vocals. The mass fascination stopped there. RSF couldn’t produce a U.S. successor to the song or the debut album, “Up.”
Alan O’Day, “Undercover Angel” (1977)—For a spell in late ‘70s Hollywood, Calif.-born O’Day was all the rage. Well, at least his song was. His delicious slice of pure pop was inescapable. However, his album, “Appetizers,” had no staying power and he quickly evaporated into the Tinseltown ether. A bit of trivia: O’Day wrote Helen Reddy’s 1974 chart-topper “Angie Baby.”
Haddaway, “What Is Love” (1993)—Born in Trinidad but raised in Chicago, Nestor Haddaway had the dance floor packed every time his propulsive, swirling anthem played. In fact, you still hear the song during sporting events. Haddaway, on the other hand, is out of sight and out of mind. A self-titled debut album never led to a second disc in this country.
Eiffel 65, “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” (1999)—Baby talk or pop-hit genius? The male dance trio from Italy must have loved the United States right before the new millennium. The single darted to No. 6 and the accompanying album, “Europop,” peaked at No. 4 and sold 2 million copies. And where are they now? Hmm, perhaps shimmying by, well, the Eiffel Tower.
Ram Jam, “Black Betty” (1977)—A folk song, written by the legendary Leadbelly, transformed into a roaring, bottom-beat rocker. The New York City group enjoyed a No. 18 hit with “Black Betty” and a self-titled album that reached No. 34. A second album followed in 1978, but Ram Jam was already on its way to music industry extinction.
Deep Blue Something, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1995)—Dashing siblings Todd and Toby Pipes considered their Denton band a more haunting version of R.E.M. What proved truly scary was that this buoyant little ode would be reworked by Interscope Records and turn into a No. 4 pop hit (and reach No. 1 in the United Kingdom). But then, DBS pulled a Toadies and disappeared into the deep blue, well, something. Actually, the Pipes brothers began producing records and drummer John Kirtland morphed into an indie record mogul.
Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (1968)—Raised in Anson, which is about 25 miles north of Abilene, she moved to Nashville in the late 1950s with her hubby to become a star. Which she did with this cheeky, Grammy-winning country ditty that made her the first female to hit No. 1 on the pop and country charts simultaneously and spawned a variety special, a movie and a TV series. After that, nothing crossed over to the pop chart despite a sultry (for the late ‘60s) image and Hollywood’s infatuation. She later became a born-again Christian and has made gospel albums ever since.
B.W. Stevenson, “My Maria” (1973)—Dubbed “The Voice” by music biographer Jan Reid, this Dallas native hit No. 9 with this taste of harmony-thickened country pop. Despite a glowing songwriting reputation and his status as a staple of Austin’s music scene at the time, he never seriously crossed over as a recording artist again, though his songs frequently became hits for other artists. Brooks & Dunn redid “My Maria” in 1996. Stevenson died in 1988 at age 38.
Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “What I Am” (1989)—Darlings of Dallas’ Deep Ellum indie scene in the mid-1980s, the New Bo’s happened upon No. 7 pop gold with this jazzy, meandering song with Brickell’s pixie-ish, conversational vocals. However, no other song from its platinum-selling debut, “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars,” made the Top 40 (“Circle” came close at No. 48), and after the follow-up disc tanked, the band did what Bohemians do and wandered off, with Brickell marrying Paul Simon and doing the motherly thing. A recent reunion has yielded little national notice.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Tuff Enuff” (1986)—Dallas-bred blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan almost always existed in the shadow of his brother, Stevie Ray. The exception? MTV-era commercial success, epitomized by this macho No. 10 hit and the Austin-based band’s longtime status as Texas roadhouse rock ambassadors. Only thing is, “Tuff Enuff” is its only Top 40 score: “Wrap It Up,” its second-most iconic tune, only reached No. 50.
WONDERING? DON’T BOTHER
Vanilla Ice—“Ice Ice Baby” was a chilling-enough tune to have hit Billboard’s top spot in 1990. But its daft follow-up, “Play That Funky Music,” by the cred-crippled Ice was even worse—and it reached No. 4.
Lisa Loeb—Only one song defines this ultracute, camera-kind Dallasite: “Stay (I Missed You),” which captured the top spot in 1994. But Dweezil Zappa’s former squeeze has had two other top 40 hits: the “Stay” follow-up “Do You Sleep?” (No. 18) and “I Do,” which reached No. 19 two years later.
Selena—By our definition, the South Texas-raised Latina songstress is a one-hit wonder. But the circumstances that surrounded the No. 22 hit “Dreaming of You” in 1995—her death earlier that year, her handlers’ posthumous finishing of the song and the grief that may or may not have pushed it into crossover territory, not to mention her legacy as a Tejano pioneer—masks the fact. Simply put, no one thinks of her that way, and that’s absolutely proper.
Arc Angels—Call the Austin supergroup a one-album wonder. Despite critical acclaim, heavy MTV exposure and an intent to exist for many years, the Charlie Sexton- and Doyle Bramhall II-fronted Arc Angels never issued a formal single from its lone self-titled 1992 album. However, three songs (“Living in a Dream,” “Sent by Angels” and “Too Many Ways to Fall”) did appear on the airplay-based Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
Toadies—More than even Deep Blue Something’s smash (see above), 1995’s “Possum Kingdom” defined the propulsive North Texas indie-rock movement in the mid-1990s. But the Fort Worth outfit’s song never appeared on the pop chart, a fact that should prompt a few rubbernecks.
A really mediocre week. Save for the two Criterion releases, there is not much here of real cinematic substance. You could opt for a nice selection of cutting edge cartooning or one of the summer’s less successful efforts. Then, of course, there are two terrible titles representing the year’s absolute worst. Consider your coinage carefully this week. You may end up with a nasty case of DVD buyer’s remorse. For the second week of January, here is our SE&L Pick:
While it’s nice to see former wunderkind Phil Joanou back behind the lens, did it have to be for a standard issue sports film? You know the kind – hard ass coach with a well placed heart, juvenile delinquents needing leadership and indirect guardianship, an uncaring public, a set of odds to beat and pitfalls to overcome. Sadly, all those elements are here, amplified by the movie’s criminal justice setting. Still, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is good in the role of Sean Porter, real life California corrections officer who devised this ‘athletics as life lesson’ program for his underage offenders, and the film itself has a unique look and feel thanks to Joanou’s directorial flair. Yes, it’s derivative – but sometimes, the familiar can be just fine. It is here.
Other Titles of Interest
The Animation Show: Volumes 1 & 2
Recalling the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Beavis and Butthead‘s Mike Judge and fellow pen and ink expert Don Hertzfeldt created this post-modern version of the traveling animation festivals that once roamed the arthouse circuit. If you like your cartooning edgy, up front and exceptionally well done, this two volume collection is a terrific treasure trove.
Border Radio: The Criterion Collection
This odd little experimental film from directors Allison Anders, Dean Lent and Kurt Voss follows the adventures of three disaffected members of a local music scene who steal a bunch of money and head for Mexico. Mostly improvised, and filmed in stark black and white, this minor cinematic curio gets the full blown specialty treatment thanks to Criterion’s preservation experts.
Employee of the Month
Ugh and double ugh. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is “a slacker comedy starring Jessica Simpson and Dane Cook”. Still think this movie has some kind of humor potential? There is nothing interesting about this turgid tale of two warehouse workers who compete for the titular title in order to win Ms. Newlyweds one-note affections.
Mouchette: The Criterion Collection
French film master Robert Bresson delivers another of his spirituality through suffering epics, this time concentrating on an adolescent waif whose impoverished existence becomes a cause for scandal in her local village. Using a non-contextual narrative style requiring audiences to fill in the cinematic blanks along the way, Bresson avoids the safety of storytelling to get his theological themes across.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
Poor Thomas Hewitt. Not only was he born with a freakish facial disorder, rendering him a lamentable laughing stock, but a bad familial foundation lead him to a life as a power tool wielding maniac. What was supposed to be an exploration of this genre giant’s backstory actually became a platform for actor R. Lee Ermey to chew the scenery.
And Now for Something Completely Different
The Red Skulls
For the last six years, brothers Andy and Luke Campbell have been making some of the best, most inventive outsider efforts in the entire realm of self-distributed DVD. Finally hooking up with the Troma-like Tempe Entertainment, their films Midnight Skater and Demon Summer have become incredibly engaging cult endeavors. Now comes their most ambitious project ever – a rockabilly gang film twisted onto a good old fashioned zombie gorefest. When the title bunch of hooligans is purposefully poisoned with some weird pharmaceutical brew, they mutate into bloodthirsty butchers, turning on each other with ravenous intent. Bathed in blood, overloaded with atmosphere and ambiance, and marking a substantial improvement in cinematic technique, the boys continue to grow as filmmakers. Here’s hoping they make the leap into the mainstream sometime soon.