Aldo Ray: Brainy beefcake

“Aldo Ray” didn’t exist.  The actor born Aldo DeRe never became the star he deserved to be. Maybe agents confused him for a Tad Hunter blond beefcake type. Recognized by audiences now as the moniker Quentin Tarantino gave to Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, the force that played a character called Aldo Ray specialized in slow, decent, but by no means dim-witted American men — imagine Sterling Hayden without the threat of violence.

He made his film debut in 1952’s The Marrying Kind, a George Cukor picture that can’t shake its roots as a proto-Playhouse 90  “proletarian” drama released as a response to television but nevertheless generates fitful tension, especially in its last half hour, when the married couple played by Ray and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) predate Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage by twenty years. Holliday and Ray were uniquely suited to the roles: their voices tied for the most grating in American cinema. Ray does better. Pitted against Holliday’s toneless doorbell, Ray’s scratchy, whiskery pipes adduce lower middle-class American in the Eisenhower era.

He’s even better in Nightfall, a fifties noir with a smashing start that unfortunately goes conventional in the other two-thirds. Playing an Average Man pursued by two robbers who want him after failing to kill him the first time, Ray shows no traces of Glenn Ford or Gregory Peck’s granitic intensity. Best of all, Ray gets another exceptionally laryngeal  actress as a sparring partner: a young, kittenish, and unrecognizable Anne Bancroft, whose every line in that first third is scabrous and stinks of sex. Both are available on DVD in relatively good prints.


The news that Blockbuster Video is in serious trouble is no surprise. I last stepped foot in my neighborhood store in spring 2009 to rent “The Wire: Season Two” again; the store closed three months later.  Like most everyone else, the prospect of acquiring a foreign classic or just-released Otto Preminger film the next day made Netflix the only serious option (my habit for years has been to follow Dave Kehr’s recommendations in The New York Times‘ Tuesday DVD review page).

I started thinking about the early days of Blockbuster Video — before stores in the late nineties grew into bloated “superstores” in which Starbucks actually proffered its wares  (why anyone would want to sit at a table a few feet from a door sensor is lost to the ages). Their malnourished foreign film and classics selection had the unfortunate effect of fetishizing the other Renoir or Bunuel films not in stock; and since Blockbuster inexplicably never developed a kind of interstore loan whereby another store would send a requested title in your name, I developed more contempt for their business model. Unlike a library membership, I paid for these videos; why couldn’t the company have charged a nominal fee to transfer a video? What a depressing experience to browse the foreign section for the forty-seventh time since 1988 and avoid Gerard Depardieu’s Cyrano De Bergerac and Pelle the Conqueror trying to catch your eye; more depressing to remind yourself that you were the last person to check them out.

Let’s call this foreign film tokenism. Were you to visit a Blockbuster in Boise, you would likely spot the same titles (Barnes  & Noble is also fond of carrying the same Henry James novels in every store). Examples: The 400 Blows, La Dolce Vita, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Jean de Florette, The Double Life of Veronique, Shirley Valentine, Madame Bovary (the Chabrol version) My Mother’s Castle and My Father’s Glory (adaptations of Pagnol novels were hot shit in the late eighties/early nineties), Kolya, Before The Rain, and Like Water For Chocolate.

Any other examples?

Singles Jukebox 8/26

As promised last week, the lowdown on Nick Cave: effective for a coupla Birthday Party numbers, otherwise a pompous bore who never got past thinking Poe and Flannery O’Connor are essential literature (for many non-Americans, Southern Gothic seems like such a peculiarity that it must be “quintessentially” American). Also, he’s too old to be this corny. Grinderman is more of the same, but messier.

On the other hand, Brad Paisley can coast too often on charm and a guitar sound as killer as his grin, but he doesn’t burden articulated hooks with metaphorical baubles, can’t spell “despair,” and exploits nostalgia to delineate the good times he’s going to have rather than to bemoan what he’s lost. For Paisley, Daytona Beach and swingin’ on a tire comprise a litany of incomplete memories; the dimple in his voice and the souped-up raunch of his guitar suggest ways in which the present becomes material for good times.

Brad Paisley – Water (9)

Darius Rucker – Come Back Song (5)

Grinderman – Heathen Child (5)

Devlin – Brainwashed (4)

Interpol – Lights (2)

Linkin Park – The Catalyst (2)

Primary 1 – Princess (1)

Underworld: Kitsch a go go

If the credits had said Hecht-MacArthur instead of Joseph Von Sternberg, I’d have believed the hardboiled writing partnership, authors of The Front Page and His Girl Friday among countless other stage and film classics, directed Underworld, the 1927 silent that kicked off the gangster picture cycle. Beautifully restored by Criterion — if there was a way to save this clause as a macro I would, since it would spare me the trouble of typing yet another paean to its talents  — Underworld has little of the gauze on which Von Sternberg’s legend thrives. Other than a couple of pervy undertones, it’s rather routine. In other words, fans of Morocco or The Scarlett Empress are out of luck. The plot is bizarre in that late twenties manner: gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) dusts off an alcoholic lawyer he christens, erm, Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) for no good reason other than to simmer as Rolls halfheartedly courts Weed’s moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

As stated, the intimations of perversion give Underworld its kick. Rolls Royce is apparently homosexual. Not only does he own lots of books (“He actually likes to read!” Weed crows in one of the title cards), but he tells Feathers after a few minutes of badinage, “I don’t like women.” Primly crossing right left over left and pursing his lips, Brook is Christopher Isherwood played by T.S. Eliot. It doesn’t help Brook a bit that here, as in The Shanghai Express, he reminds me of Gary Cooper weaned on lime juice. Thus, the Feathers-Royce flirtation is implausible from the start (imagine Barbara Stanwyck batting her eyelashes at Franklin Pangborn). Brook’s inflexibility as an actor doesn’t help. To be fair, male secondary leads flummoxed Von Sternberg; more than for Hitchcock, actors with testicles were props. With the exception of Emil Jannings in The Last Command (also released in this Criterion set), they’re either colorless or directed so that the actors don’t play to their strengths. Gary Cooper glistens nobly as an unsmiling uniformed dildo for Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, while William Powell flashes only a handful of his patented smirks and eyebrow furrows in The Last Command. Peter Bogdanovich didn’t like it one bit when Orson Welles dismissed Von Sternberg with a quip that should have settled the matter for all time: “He had a perfect, really an immense visual command over what is finally kitsch.” Think about it though. Nothing is really at stake in a Von Sternberg picture besides smoke-wreathed profiles of Dietrich and her effete leads, getting the right balance of light and shade, and proportionality.

But back to Underworld. The first stirrings of Von Sternberg’s visual elan help. Cigarette smoke billows like exhaust from a jackhammer as Brook makes his non-heterosexual admission. Much later, behind bars, pleading for a kind of clemency from a bailiff, Von Sternberg shoots he and Bancroft in close-up so that at any moment we suspect Bancroft will flirt for his freedom. A transitional film at best, Underworld begs to be rewatched, especially since it’s never looked this good, and most in need of comparison with its superior successors.

Ken Mehlman: He’s gay (yawn)

From the No Surprise File: Ken Mehlman, former Bush campaign manager, comes out:

Mehlman told Ambinder that he had recently come to the conclusion that he is gay and was looking to become an advocate for gay marriage. He went public in part because he expected to be asked about his sexuality when it became known he was participating in a fundraiser next month for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which is supporting a legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 initiative banning gay marriage.

Mehlman said President Bush “is no homophobe” but acknowledged that the Bush administration used antigay initiatives for political gain. In private conversations with senior Republicans, he said, he fought back against attempts to demonize same-sex marriage.

But not fiercely enough.The earth is full of spineless bimbos like Mehlman.

Merle Haggard: A lot of pride in what he is

Since I’m not  schooled in Merle Haggard’s (vast)  catalog, I have to evaluate I Am What I Am against the six studio albums I own and the superb 2006 single-disc comp Hag: The Best of Merle Haggard, which is, naturally, incomplete but presents such a staggering number of great performances and songs that, like Chronicle and Changesbowie, you can still play it after owning a significant number of the artists’ studio recordings. Overall it’s sharper than 2000’s If I Could Only Fly, his last acclaimed old-man recording. Fly existed so that its pleasant tracks could offer unembarrassed support to “Wishing All These Old Things Were New,” as rueful and death-choked as late-period Yeats, boasting one of the great opening lines of recent years: “Watching as some old friends do a line” and digs deeper. By contrast I Am What I Am offers five or six really good songs and no great one; I’ll let you decide which album you prefer. Hag’s intonations are as precise as ever; other than Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, I haven’t heard an album this year so dependent on them. So too the guitar fills, whether by Tim Howard or Hag himself. The confidence of the performances belie the anxiety in Haggard’s songs, though. What makes “How Did You Find Me Here” so beguiling after a dozen plays is Haggard’s wonder that any woman could find him worth the trouble, let alone worth the commitment. “I’ve Seen It Go Away” updates “Things Ain’t Funny Anymore” for septuagenarian without self-regard but plenty of vitality. The title track doesn’t justify its manifesto-like qualities, but its brevity gets it off the hook. He’s too old for hortatory strokes.

My favorite number, nourished by a tradition encompassing decades of popular music, is “Bad Actor.” From the Platters’ “Great Pretender” to Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender,” from Hall & Oates’ “How Does It Feel To Be Back”  to Scritti Politti’s “The Word `Girl'” and Elvis Costello’s “I’ll Wear It Proudly” and Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise,” acting has served as one of the most febrile of pop metaphors. Hag’s trick here is to foreground the self-effacement. Quiet, modest enough to lull you into complacency until you’re humming one of its tunes days later, I Am What I Am is the best kind of autumnal triumph.

EDIT: Which seventies studio albums should I buy? I got Keep Movin’ On most recently and it’s just okay, even the title song.

Jace Everett: Swagga like him

If you watch “True Blood,” then you’ve heard “Bad Things” over the credits. Jace Everett sings it like he heard Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” minutes earlier and liked it, a suspicion that goes double for the show’s producers. I’m pleased to report that host album Red Revelations is a good to excellent country-rock album, with vital guitar anchoring arrangements of songs that on first listen emulate Freedy Johnston’s level of above-average roots-rockness but settle reliably on a post-John Hiatt level of craft. Crucial: Everett is a much more compelling singer than Hiatt and Johnston though. Inflecting his sarcasm with an erotic lilt on “More To Life (C’mon, C’mon)” and “Little Black Dress,”  he defines a guy whose imagination turns the bad things he’s done into worse ones and hopes the women he’s hitting on don’t catch on. Actually, Everett reminds me of distinctly non-Americans Jon Langford and  Shane MacGowan in the way he includes the audience in the joke so that we can applaud his audacity (“Little Black Dress” even evokes that drunk-mad swagger of classic Mekons, down to the call and response vocals and filthy, untutored guitar fills).  Pedigree aside, Red Revelations is simply a lot of fun to listen to. The only misfire is “Damned If I Do,” which sounds like Bono auditioning for inclusion on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind.

Singles 8/19

Finally, after a few weeks of rain, the clouds break. Some of the year’s best singles posted this week. Even the chorus hook of the Usher single hasn’t gotten on my nerves. Two surprises: the blandness of the Taylor Swift single, which is to say it’s “observant” in a predictable way; and Rivers Cuomo’s spectacular craptitude. A relief, I say. This guy’s the second biggest fraud of the last thirty years (I’ll get to Nick Cave next week).

Songs ranked from one to ten. Click on links for full reviews.

Rick Ross ft. Styles P – Blowing Money Fast (8)

Miranda Lambert – Only Prettier (8)

Usher – There Goes My Baby (7)

Janelle Monae – Cold War (6)

Taylor Swift – Mine (6)

Dinosaur Pile-Up – Birds and Planes (6)

Pulled Apart By Horses – High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive (4)

Jessica Jarrell – Up and Running (4)

B.O.B. ft. Rivers Cuomo – Magic (2)