Monday, August 30, 2010

Get there fast, take it slow

"Surrounded by tall, thick pine trees and cherry blossoms, with rose-covered rail fences and a cool mountain pool overgrown with flowers, it snuggled up against the hillside.”

That’s Candice Bergen describing her former home. She recalls stone fireplaces, beamed ceilings and a hayloft, but doesn't mention the path to the guest home, or how the pool (just outside the master bedroom) threw light onto the faces of the residents. Or an old picture of Lillian Gish sitting on the wishing well. Or a white Nash Rambler in the driveway. Or a rope that hung from one of the ceiling beams.

Susan Atkins described the sound: “It was so quiet, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.” That eerie stillness of the late hours of Friday, August 8, 1969, evoked by Joni Mitchell: “I heard it in the wind last night, it sounded like applause / chilly now, end of summer / no more shiny hot nights.”

The Mamas and the Papas sang, “Safe in my garden, an ancient flower blooms / And the scent from its nature slowly squares my room.” Linda Kasabian wore Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass perfume, a scent that might waft through an open door.

There was a sudden run on shotguns, guard dogs and alarm systems in Los Angeles that August. Roman Polanski, suspicious after finding a machete in John Phillips’ trunk, held a cleaver to Phillips’ neck one night on a Malibu Colony beachfront. Stephen Stills, heavily armed, and David Crosby knocked on doors, shouting, “They’re killing everyone with estates!”

In early 1974, Neil Young had to talk a nervous Crosby into playing rhythm guitar on “Revolution Blues,” a wild-eyed rant from Manson’s perspective. Across town, Terry Melcher was preparing his first album under his own name. The son of Doris Day, lover of Candice Bergen, pal of Dennis Wilson, and a staff producer at Columbia Records, Melcher had been the owner of 10050 Cielo Drive. He had needed a tranquilizer before testifying at the Manson trial. "Manson sat there smiling at me through the whole thing. The three girls too. One of them had her skirt up, doing a little leg thing under the table."

That night, he booked studio time and recorded "Halls of Justice."

It seemed like a simple audition
there were just a few songs getting sung
and i had no way of knowing then
it was me about to get hung
now it seemed like another audition
people singing songs of peace
and brotherly love
I just can't imagine what
they must have been thinking
I never dreamed what they were thinking of
now I'm walking round those halls of justice
I keep looking for some old place to hide
I'm going through those halls of justice
that whole trip's got me so high
I just know I got to get off of this ride

"Manson had been trying to get in touch with me to play me some more music," he told Rolling Stone in 1974. "He found out where I lived in Malibu. So he went to my house but I wasn't home. He took a telescope off the sun deck to show it to my friend Jakobsen so Gregg would give him my number. Manson knew where I lived. He knew I didn't live in Bel Air. Gregg didn't bother to tell me that until almost a year later. The police didn't bother to tell me that. For nine months they had me thinking those people got killed because I couldn't be found. My guilt was monumental. I felt, 'Why couldn't it have been me? How much easier it would have been.'

Terry Melcher was a changed man. He was constantly in therapy. He hired bodyguards. He slept with a double-barreled shotgun in his bed. He began recording songs, but a 1972 motorcycle crash broke two legs and sent him further into hiding. It was two more years before the album was finished.

On the front cover Melcher wears a white suit over a white turtleneck and sports a handlebar mustache. On the back cover he poses with his new bride. Set to carefully polished country-rock (the contrite hedonist’s music of choice), the songs satirize L.A.’s affairs with psychoanalysis, yoga and vegetarianism while celebrating Beverly Hills lassitude (“Dinner and some drinks at the Luau / Sunday brunch at Nate & Al’s / Roll on by the Daisy / Watch old Eddie take some bows”). It all seems like a joke, if you're not listening carefully.

The question that opens the album—“Where were you last Friday night?"—had been posed to Squeaky Fromme, four years earlier. (Her response? “There’s no such thing as time.”) Covering Bob Dylan's "4th Time Around," Melcher's emphasis on the words “Everybody must give back for something they get” is a regretful corrective to “Safe in My Garden"; the words he chooses to omit are “She screamed ‘til her face got so red / Then she fell on the floor.” His version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” hints at the struggles from which Melcher was emerging—his voice fighting to shake off years of enervating privilege and medicated torpor. The barking dogs and begging for mercy in “Stagger Lee” take on new meaning, and—can this be?—it sounds like he’s yelling “shoulda taken me” on the fadeout.

Terry Melcher sold disappointingly; sole follow-up Royal Flush even worse. He and his wife filed for divorce in 1975, reconciled, filed again in 1976, reconciled, and finally finalized their split in 1977. He gave up on a solo career, and focused on producing and collaborating. He tried to lure Brian Wilson back into the studio; when that failed, he recorded a single with Dean Paul Martin, Tony Martin Jr., and Desi Arnaz Jr., under the name "Beverly Hills Blues Band." Later, Melcher ran the Cypress Inn with his mother, quietly worked on advertising campaigns, and raised money for the Doris Day Animal Foundation. In 1988 he co-wrote (with, among others, John Phillips) the Beach Boys’ hit “Kokomo,” which battled the Manson connection for space in his obituary headlines. Of course, the cognoscenti were disgusted that “Kokomo”—sung by Mike Love, no less!—should stand as a capping achievement. But after all this, who can begrudge Terry Melcher his wish to “get away from it all”?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Secret Origin of The Crimebusters

Step 1: Sean Cook has a request. (1967)

Step 2: DC's Paul Levitz arranges the purchase of Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Nightshade, Thunderbolt, Blue Beetle, the Question, and Sarge Steel from Charlton, for $5000 each. It's a gift of sorts for Dick Giordano, the former Charlton editor who's recently been promoted to Vice President/Executive Editor at DC. (1983)

Step 3: Alan Moore pitches a dark 12-part story, "Who Killed the Peacemaker?", which incorporates the Charlton characters. DC rejects it on the ground that the story's outcome will render the properties useless. (1985)

Step 4: Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, the Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, Night Owl, and Rorschach replace Captain Atom, Peacemaker, Nightshade, Thunderbolt, Blue Beetle, and the Question in Moore's story, which is retitled Watchmen. (1986)

And in Watchmen #2, Sean Cook finally gets his wish:

A real stinger

"Often called the 'Wonderful Wasp,' her shapeliness was hardly obscured by her skin-tight costume. A red tunic and shoes, blue leotards, and black-sleeved blouse were blended in a tasteful design to emphasize her femininity. Sparkling brown eyes, a pert nose, and a saucy curve of the lips hinted at the warmth of her friendly personality."

The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker (1967), by Otto Binder

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Surfer's nuts to hang around

[Respect to the propmaster, who avoids anachronism by choosing a copy of Fantasy Masterpieces for the newsstand scene]

Monday, August 09, 2010

Original fixtures

Michele Morgan, 1942

Roman Polanski, 1969

Road closed

A 1 1/2-mile stretch of Benedict Canyon Road between Mulholland Drive and Hutton Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains will he closed to traffic from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. for two weeks starting today...

Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1969

February 1969: Cameras are shooting. Mark Frechette drives on Sunset past a sign announcing a closed road in Benedict Canyon.

February 1969: Roman Polanski and Tate move into Cielo Drive.

Shaking the world

The poster for Reds, Warren Beatty’s 1981 epic about American radicals in the early 20th century, has a single, striking image: a couple embracing at a train station. It’s not the summation one would expect of a 194-minute film that spans half a decade, globe-trots through more than a dozen countries, and wrangles an ensemble cast of household names. Still, despite its grand scope, Reds finds its truest meaning in that emotional clutch.

Mr. Beatty spent more than a decade trying to bring the story of John Reed (1887-1920) to the screen. Born and raised comfortably in Portland, Ore., and educated at Harvard, Reed was gradually radicalized while searching for thrills in Europe and Greenwich Village. He reported on the Paterson strike of 1913 for The Masses, a socialist monthly, and the more mainstream Metropolitan sent him to cover the Mexican Revolution (he wore a new yellow corduroy suit). None of this seemed to interest Mr. Beatty, who begins his story in 1915 with Reed’s first encounter—a frenzied discussion about U.S. involvement in World War I—with Louise Bryant, a married Portland dilettante with journalistic aspirations and burgeoning leftist ideals.

Mr. Beatty plays the part as if Reed was, well, a Warren Beatty character: a little dumbstruck yet determined, used to having things (and women) come his way but striving for the things (and women) that won’t. There’s some bumbling light slapstick as Reed prepares to move on Bryant, and his sociological dogma has the laughable sound of something Cary Grant would spout in Bringing Up Baby. Diane Keaton brings something more than vulnerable beauty and palpable intelligence to Louise Bryant—she brings the ghost of Annie Hall, another free spirit whose charm, insecurities and career ambition both seduced and flummoxed the man in her life.

Bryant follows Reed to New York City, determined to make her mark as an intellectual and a liberated woman. But she feels adrift and unappreciated amidst the Greenwich Village gang—and who wouldn’t when it’s Eugene O’Neill (a remarkably understated Jack Nicholson), Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, in an Oscar-winning role), Max Eastman, Isadora Duncan, Alfred Stieglitz and Sherwood Anderson at the dinner parties? So Reed takes her away to Provincetown, but it’s the same story there, with nicer beaches. This is where Ms. Keaton’s thwarted expressions break your heart: All the men want Bryant to be their muse, and she wants to be a New Woman, taken seriously as she chews over social theories and poses for nude portraits.

They marry, move to Croton-on-Hudson; he travels around the world, covering labor disputes, and wears out his one kidney. If the soothing score that accompanies their home life is any indication, monogamy comes naturally. But the two nonetheless pursue infidelities, seemingly out of some vestigial sense of duty toward progressivism. Along with Bryant’s journalistic struggles—and she’d just as soon write about the Armory Show of 1913 as about striking workers—their clumsy free-love experiments are an early sign that the conflicts between ideals and instincts are going to pile up. They go to Russia just in time for the October Revolution, where Reed will gather material for Ten Days That Shook the World, the book that will make his career. There’s a jolt of excitement in seeing the couple at the center of such a kairotic moment, bounding up the steps of the Winter Palace, sitting with Lenin. But even this is subordinate to their romance—Saint Petersburg burns bright with candles, the couple marches huddled together wrapped in coats and ushankas, and “The Internationale” takes on the feel of a Christmas carol. It’s as if the couple’s marriage will flourish as the masses ascend.

The second half of Reds dashes that idea, as Reed and Bryant challenge each other’s priorities and find increasingly scarce triumphs only in bedrooms and at typewriters—stolen moments on the smallest of scales. Reed returns alone to Russia and finds the country’s dream of a socialist utopia turned sour, but doesn’t know when to fold his cards. “If you walk out on it now, what’s your whole life meant?” he asks Emma Goldberg, who would go on to write My Disillusionment in Russia.

Soon the Russian bureaucracy is too much even for Reed. He’s jailed while trying to cross the border, and Bryant sets out to find him. When cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s camera finally opens up to outdoor vistas, it’s not to convey the breathless, widescreen majesties of Lawrence of Arabia but the damning plains of snow and ice that separate the lovers.

If Mr. Beatty’s reputedly leftist Reds is a voice of dissent, it is—surprisingly—dissent from the idea that personal travails are secondary to collective struggles. Reds chronicles personal lives being trampled not only by ideals, but by ideals that will be betrayed. This double tragedy is, by the end, drawn on the faces of Ms. Keaton and Mr. Beatty—most notably when Bryant, visiting the dying Reed in a Russian hospital, looks into the face of a young child and is reminded of the family they never got around to having.

The postscript—unmentioned by the film—is grimmer still. Bryant collapsed at Reed’s funeral (“I heard the first shovel of earth go rolling down and then something snapped in my brain”) and then was plagued by alcoholism and mental illness. She died alone in Paris in January 1936, eight months before Stalin instituted the Great Purge and took absolute control of Russia.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Pilgrim's progress

Cecil Beaton, on the filming of The Last Movie:

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Ladykiller

Taxi Driver (w. Paul Schrader, d. Martin Scorcese), 1976

American Gigolo (w. Paul Schrader, d. Paul Schrader), 1980

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

There were so many cars you would never have noticed me

(Hollywood Boulevard, looking east, 1946)

(Hollywood Boulevard, looking east, 1957)

(Hollywood Boulevard, looking east, 1959)


Lunch at the Brown Derby. Ah, great, there's Ann. But who's that with her? That's not you, that's...Jack Fisher, alive? He's just like you, only funnier-looking, more, well...Jack.

But unlike you, Jack is in the front row, singing. If that's what you'd call it.

He takes photos suitable for framing, every time. What are they doing here, together? Hey, where's Kathie Moffat?

This is the life you were meant to live, Jeff Bailey.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Looming in the distance.

"There must be more than one suspect in a town this size," syndicate boss Otto Kruger says to lineman-turned-racketeer Edmond O'Brien at a nighttime meeting in Los Angeles, in 711 Ocean Drive.

How true. On October 21, 1949, as the film was being shot, a short item appeared in the Los Angeles Times about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He wasn't yet in jail for refusing to name fellow travelers—his contempt-of-Congress charge was awaiting appeal. But, the Times reported, he'd failed to appear in court on another charge: public drunkenness. ("The charge is 'drunk in public place,' Trumbo wrote in a letter. "Some public. Some place.")

That afternoon, California State Senator Jack B. Tenney appeared at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood—the building seen behind Kruger, above—to give a speech to the Americanism Defense League. It had been a trying year for Tenney: He'd had an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in Los Angeles, and in June, shortly after sharing this list of entertainers "within the Stalinist orbit"—

—his anti-Communist stance was deemed so rabid that he was pressured to resign from the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities.

Carey McWilliams, one of the men named above, saw this as the turning of the tide. "California is now, somewhat ahead of the nation, entering upon the new phase of "controlled" red-baiting," he wrote in The Nation. "The more extreme forms of it have been repudiated, not because they are ugly or unfair, but because the powers that be have discovered that extreme red-baiting caters to a constantly shrinking political market; each succeeding dividend is lower than the one that preceded it."

But McWilliams was too optimistic. By the time the film of the scene above was developed, and edited, and projected on movie screens, Joseph McCarthy had waved around a list of his own. Trumbo had gone to jail. Knickerbocker architect John M. Cooper died in May. The Americanism Defense League kept holding meetings at the hotel.

(Dalton Trumbo heads to prison, 1950)

711 Ocean Drive producer Frank Seltzer made only two more films, 1956's The Boss, and 1958's Terror in a Texas Town; the screenplays of both were credited to Ben L. Perry. In 2000, however, the WGA officially went on record: Ben L. Perry was a front, for Dalton Trumbo.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Decay of Lying

"Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river?"
—Oscar Wilde

Roadblock, 1951

Los Angeles Times, 1955