Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Passings: Freddie Francis, Cinematographer and Director

Freddie Francis, one of the twentieth century's finest lensmen and director of some of the most enjoyable efforts of the British horror film boom of the 1960's and '70's, passed away on St. Patrick's Day at age 89.

The man's incredible (and for this movie nerd, indispensible) body of work has merited volumes of scholarly study and more than a few tributes. Rather than wax too verbose myself, do yourself an enormous favor and check out this brief but excellent reflection by Tim Lucas. I can only point at Lucas's fine work and say, um, "What he said."

Directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch hired him to shoot their films, but if you'd like to see what all the hubbub is all about for yourself, here's an on-the-fly list of Freddie Francis's most essential efforts--both behind the camera lens and in the Director's Chair--from this cramped quadrant. That many of these films have already merited mention in this here Blog over the years is no accident.

The Innocents (1961): This got some major Petri Dish lip service back in October. Suffice it to say that Francis's contributions as cinematographer forged this movie's spooky magnificence more surely than Jack Clayton's solid direction or any of the fine performers in front of the camera.

The Skull (1965): Peter Cushing plays the latest owner of the ghoulish title trinket in this wild adaptation of Robert Bloch's short story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". The special effects will likely induce titters in modern audiences (said skull gets some, um, levitation help from some rather obtrusive wires), but remove the jaded 21st century goggles and this stands as one of the most jarringly creepy British horror movies of its day. The disorienting skull POV shots and fluid tracking work are pure Francis (despite the fact that he directed and left the DP duties to John Wilcox). Sadly, it's not yet on DVD here in the states.

Glory (1989): I've yet to see Wives and Lovers, Freddie Francis's first Oscar-winning cinematography gig, but his painterly touch on this great Civil War epic netted him his second Academy Award. Glory also represents earnest-but-erratic director Ed Zwick's most successful attempt to wed social conscience with real honest-to-God cinema artistry to date.

The Elephant Man (1980): Anyone who doubts David Lynch's smarts as a director need only view his first major-studio feature, shot with expressionistic beauty by Francis. Lynch would hire Francis twice more as cinematographer (for Dune and The Straight Story), but this remains their shining collaboration.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965): Again, I'll point backwards on this to an earlier Petri Dish entry. One of the finest omnibus horror films ever, with Francis's directorial knack for inciting suspense and his eye for vivid color combining famously. Amazingly enough, this one's not yet on stateside DVD, either.

Tales from the Crypt (1972): Another Francis-helmed omnibus chiller, based on the EC Comics of the '50's. All of the stories are terrific, but the highlights here are "All Through the House," in which Joan Collins is menaced by a Santa-suited psycho, and "Poetic Justice," which features one of the late Peter Cushing's most poignant service of a tale of gruesome zombie retribution. George Romero's and Stephen King's Creepshow owes its very existance to Francis's work here. Another great effort of the era yet to see the light of digital day in the US.

Trog (1970): Probably Freddie Francis's most ludicrous movie by conventional standards, this Herman Cohen-produced-unfrozen-caveman epic still entertains (and, yeah, this ain't the first time this Francis-directed saga merited mention in this Blog, either). Ironically, while many of Francis's best chillers remain MIA on the domestic DVD front, Warner Home Video will be releasing Trog domestically in June.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sting has Stung, the Hogs has Riz...

...I wonder where my patience is?
Excuse me while I rant in the corner like a really crabby old man for a bit about movies (and a concert) that I'll never see.

People of America, why for the love of God's white silk knickers have you made Wild Hogs an across-the-board hit? Are you so utterly starved for escapism, so bereft of functioning grey matter that you're willing to pack theaters--at 11 bucks a head, no less--and waste 90 minutes of your lives on high-concept product that'd be laughed out of a King of Queens script powwow? Can you not see straight from the trailers that the star chemistry is more forced than the grin on Katie Couric's face? Am I the only human being in the U.S. of A who wants with all my heart and soul for Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence to go the hell AWAY?! And while we're at it, is anyone taking a collection to pay the wonderful William H. Macy NOT to do numbingly-dumb crap like this? If so, count me in.

You'd think that serious 'message movies' would offer some respite, but the previews for Reign Over Me inspire just as much bile in my craw. The soaring 'inspirational' music; the oh-so-topical subject matter leavening this formula weeper like frosting on a grease-saturated hamburger bun; one more teeth-clenchingly forced Hollywood pairing (Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler look wincingly uncomfortable together on the screen); the aroma of comedian-lurching-cloddishly-for-dramatic-credibility wafting from every frame. At least the chuckleheads excreting Wild Hogs aren't hiding behind a veneer of emotional profundity and self-importance (a big swat to the backs of the heads of critics hurling hosannas at this underwear-clad message-movie emperor). And while we're at it, is anyone taking up a collection to pay the wonderful Don Cheadle NOT to do emotionally disingenuous crap like this? If so, count me in.

Disturbia, meanwhile, sounds like a made-up title of a made-up horror movie dreamt up by some long-in-the-tooth scriptwriting mole as a plot device in an episode of Diagnosis: Murder. And Perfect Stranger, sadly (for Mark-Lin Baker and Bronson Pinchot, at least) is not the umpteenth megabuck big-screen adaptation of a TV show; just looks like another wafer-thin diet shortbread cookie of a thriller from here, with Halle Berry playing Nancy Drew to Bruce Willis's smirking Snidely Whiplash. When this hits theaters it could cause Berry's Oscar to spontaneously combust.

And finally on a completely different tangent, eighties rock superstars The Police reunite to take the money and run in a series of live arena shows (they arrive in Seattle in June). Every bit of goodwill engendered by the relative niftiness of this band's first two albums has been utterly pummelled away by three decades' worth of the unchecked ego and grandpa's-polyester-shirt stodginess of the band's lead singer (like I said about Harry Connick, Jr. awhile back, I don't care how much photographic evidence you present me to the contrary: Sting is more of a gassy old man than Tony Bennett'll ever be). The only good that'll ever come from one of rock's greatest drummers and one of its most influential guitarists reuniting with this musty windbag is a significant fattening of their respective wallets. And don't tell me that this tour amounts to anything else.

I feel an essay on the utter fraudulence of Sting's work on the massively-overrated Police swansong Synchronicity coming on. After all, the album's biggest hit was so suitably wallysville as to merit sampling by Hip-Hop's Crown Prince of Vacuous Insincerity, and its second-biggest track name-dropped Greek mythology to a now-laughable Velveeta reggae backbeat. But what's coming on even stronger is the need to go to bed.

There. I feel better now. Good night.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mining for Overlooked Pop Music Jewels: Jigsaw

Venerable record chain Tower Records filed for bankruptcy late last year, and its demise bummed me out in a big way.

I hadn't shopped with frequency at Tower in ages--put bluntly, their steep prices of late alienated me big-time--but back in the eighties the chain's size and diversity did a lot to open my ears. I remember every purchase I made at Tower Records' Tacoma store from my first at age 14 (for the record, a cassette of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy and a vinyl copy of Sparks' Angst in My Pants), all the way to just before I moved to Seattle at age 21 (Invisible Lantern by the Screaming Trees--and yes, I AM a big ol' dork for remembering). Rampant sentimentality, however, did bupkis to keep me from picking at the chain's dying carcass late last year like any good bargain-hunter.

Right before the Tower Records on 5th Avenue in Seattle breathed its last in December, it bestowed one last parting gift in its final week: a 90%-off sale that drew nerds far and wide like locusts hungrily descending on a Midwest cornfield. The huge markdowns on Tower's stock of CDs gave Rita and I the opportunity to grab a heap of truly obscure stuff that we woulda never checked out otherwise. Audio gambles of this nature inevitably yield lumps of coal (I definitely won't be returning to the bland electro-pop of Astronaut Wife or Chalkie's generic diet punk anytime soon), but such musical Russian Roulette makes for fun (and economic) good times. It's all worth it when you stumble on something that utterly rocks your world straight outta nowhere. And that, friends, is what this rambling li'l intro is all about.

I knew British pop group Jigsaw only through their big 1975 hit, "Sky High," a sumptuous little spy-movie theme with a disco-ready wah-wah guitar chaser. Like most humans, yours truly had dismissed them as one-hit wonders whose body of work probably remained obscure for a reason. So when I pulled The Very Best of Jigsaw, a 24-track Greatest-Hits CD on Taragon Records, off of the Tower shelf and plunked down the princely sum of $1.39 for it, my expectations were snake-belly low. Two months and dozens of listens later, I'm ready to eat some crow--and loudly sing some praises.

Not that there are a lot of others doing so. The long tendrils of the World-Wide Web have turned even the most obscure musical acts of the 1960's and 1970's into causes celebre, so Jigsaw's continued abject anonymity comes as a real surprise. A search on Rolling Stone's website yields nothing but a measly link to a Rhapsody page containing one (inferior post-breakup synth pop) song, and even the exhaustive All Music Guide rolls snake eyes: no band bio, no album reviews, not even track listings on most of the band's discs (Ultra-unknowns like Sad Cafe and Yachts sport more detailed AMG bios than Jigsaw).

Wikipedia appears to be one of the few spots in the virtual world with something resembling a history of the band. The Cliffs Notes summary: Guitarist Tony Campbell formed Jigsaw in 1966 from the ashes of several lesser-known local English combos, with lead vocalist/drummer Des Dyer and keyboardist Clive Scott emerging as the group's creative core (they ultimately wrote nearly all of Jigsaw's songs as well as producing their albums). Jigsaw reputedly started out as a louder, wilder psychedelic band, putting out two out-of-print and impossible-to-find albums in this vein before veering off in the poppy direction that culminated financially with "Sky High." Decreasing financial returns led to the original group's flame-out around 1981.

With the exception of the majestically-orchestrated 1972 track, "What's My Name," The Very Best of Jigsaw largely ignores the band's paisley-inflected past and focuses on their recordings between 1974 and 1980. The 23 remaining songs collected here harbor no ostensible aspirations beyond radio airplay. They're bric a brac with plenty of unmistakeable 1970's touches--percolating disco rhythms, chugging wah-wah guitars, brash horn and string arrangements, etc.--buffed to a distinctively polished sheen.

So no, there's no reinvention of the wheel going on here, and sometimes things dip into the realm of cheesiness. But the fondue pot is sumptuously gilded--this was back when bands used real horn and string players regularly, kids--and it's all done stunningly well. Jigsaw's closest peers of the time--ABBA and the Bee Gees--shared a similar aesthetic, creating a special brand of uber-pop that elevated traditional Top 40 formats of the day (American rock and roll, disco, piano ballads, etc.) into the proverbial teenage symphonies to God. And Jigsaw shares those two bands' aptitude with a melody to boot. No wonder I'm hooked.

This collection runs an impressive gamut of styles, from Beatles-inspired homage ("You're My Magic") to some effective blue-eyed soul ("Only When I'm Lonely,") to sweeping Phil Spector-style epic balladry ("Lonely Lonely Love") to a fun 1980 electro-pop bon bon ("I", which sounds like Styx's Kilroy was Here, only, you know, good). The opulent sound impresses all the more when you realize that Dyer and Scott produced every single one of these tracks themselves (they utilize Richard Hewson's ace orchestral arrangements with the touch of artisans).

Even the tackiest cuts on this Best-Of disc entertain, and a good half of the songs here rank as some of the most abidingly great pop efforts of their era--I swear to God. Searching for a lost power-pop classic? Look no further than "Stop the Show," a jaw-droppingly brilliant song with keening harmonies, toothy guitars, stormy drums, drama-drenched strings, and unexpectedly downbeat lyrics ("Maybe I loved you/but if I did that was long ago"): It ably trumps anything that The Raspberries or Todd Rundgren put out at the time. "Tell Me Why" sounds like Squeeze with enough money for a real orchestra, and those prog-dweebs Europe ripped off the horn-punctuated hook of "Cry ('Til The Tears Run Dry)" to excruciating top 10 success.

Some of these songs sound positively prescient: "Who Do You Think You Are"--a US Top 15 Hit when those "Billy Don't Be a Hero" guys, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, recorded an inferior version of it--marries hummable piano pop with minor chords and misanthropic lyrics that'd make Elvis Costello proud, and the genuinely funny "Letters to Myself" details the travails of a poor sap who's so lonely he's taken to writing mash notes to, yep, himself. The latter tune wouldn't sound out of place on a Jonathan Richman or Ben Folds CD.

Taragon's Compilation disc is a real labor of love, as evidenced by the attentive remastering (which sounds pretty damn spiffy to these ears). The liner notes likewise overcome occasional patches of gushiness to provide a fascinating window into what a different world it was for prospective pop songwriters during the Era of the Bell-Bottom. In a modern music landscape where even American Idol contestants ape some delusional notion of street cred, it's downright refreshing to read Des Dyer's open admission that Jigsaw significantly altered their songwriting style when a New York music publisher told them their lyrics were too philosophical. And Clive Scott relates a Spinal Tap-worthy story about how the band's late-seventies press photos included two African American guys (male models, it turns out) in an attempt to net Jigsaw some airplay on urban radio ("If anything would've happened with that album, we would have added two black members to the band," Scott confesses pragmatically).

Dyer and Scott did just fine for themselves as a songwriting and production team in the decades since Jigsaw's disintegration, but part of the allure here is pondering why so many of these insidiously catchy, glitteringly well-produced pop songs failed to find a huge audience at the time. Theories abound among a tiny but enthusiastic fanbase: Some blame record label mishandling, or the logistic awkwardness of Jigsaw's lead singer being buried behind a drumkit. Ultimately, one of the band's greatest virtues--their magpie tendency to zip back and forth between genres, never settling on one specific sound--might've sunk them.

Whatever the case, at least "Sky High" continues to be pretty ubiquitous and can be found on several Seventies pop compilations (you can even check out an entertainingly cheesy vintage 'Sky High' promo clip on YouTube). Getting a greater dose of Jigsaw's back catalog, meanwhile, will prove tougher--and a lot more expensive. The Very Best of Jigsaw dropped out of print (a used copy surfaced on at a staggering price of 141 pounds!), and Japanese import CD reissues of the group's seventies LPs hover around the $30 mark. It's the height of irony, and a bit of a shame, that so many accessible, eager-to-please tunes should be so difficult and costly to obtain. Here's hoping some enterprising stateside reissue label takes steps to change that soon.