Thursday, February 12, 2015

Film Friday: Otis Redding Shakes Monterey

Ages ago, I was a grad assistant for the late documentary film maker and teacher George C. Stoney, a genial Irish-American who taught an introductory lecture course simply called "Documentary Traditions."  It was really two courses; every fall he'd show films organized thematically, but every spring, he'd bring in guests every week, his friends in the biz to talk about their experiences and to show their work.  There was a certain rotation of people, obviously, since scheduling is not always so easy, but one regular was D.A. Pennebaker, famous chronicler of Bob Dylan's 1965 U.K tour and the Monterey Pop Festival, among many other great documentaries.  Sometime in about February or March of 93 -- I wasn't assisting George yet --  Pennebaker brought with him a rough cut of a film he was still working on about the Bill Clinton campaign.  Yep: about sixty students got to see The War Room before it was released and went on to be hailed as a classic (and made media darlings of James Carville and George Stephanapoulos).  

The role of the grad assistant for the course was not too hard; it mainly consisted of grading journals and some papers at the end of the term, and if necessary, going to the filmmakers' places to pick up prints of film.  Sometimes that involved carrying the heavy, octagon-shaped metal cans holding reels of 35mm film. (Here's a pic:)

And so it often was for the assistant who went to Pennebaker-Hedgedus Films uptown.  He'd also bring stuff on video or 16mm, on occasion. 

He brought a bunch of things to share the time I carried them cans.  He showed a short profile film about the quirky singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, whom I totally developed a crush on afterward. (Williams is the founder of the Sweet Relief fund for ailing musicians; Williams herself was diagnosed with MS, and indeed Pennebaker showed a video he made for a Williams tribute album that had been released to promote and support the fund.)  At Stoney's request, he showed (from them 35mm cans I carried) his great film whose title tells you what he captured, Original Cast Album: Company, made in 1970.  I'd never been a fan of Sondheim, but whatever respect I have for his work today stems from watching this fine cast (featuring the great Elaine Stritch struggling to get "Ladies Who Lunch," only to just strike gold the next day). 

But the film I have carried with me since was the short that if memory serves was also on 35mm. Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hedgedus and his son Frazier had been for a many years going back over the footage shot for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.  (Eventually a lot of the stuff was released by Criterion Collection.)  In the late eighties, Pennebaker released two shorts that featured the entire sets of two of the most famous performances from the festival, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding.  The two had long been linked since the audio recordings had been compiled as a single LP back in the early seventies.   Pennebaker brought Shake! Otis at Monterey to class.  I told the students that they had to write in their journals that it was the greatest movie they saw all term.  There were more than a few great ones I saw in the class, but this was it

I am always amazed at how in the early days of these festivals the camera crews were able to get great footage of the night-time performances when lighting was not always film-friendly (nor consistent).  Pennebaker uses the lights from in front of the stage, shooting from behind Redding at times, or shooting him from the side, creating these momentary silhouettes before the audience gets hit by the light.  He also has a few quick cuts up his sleeve, notably during Otis's ferocious version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" (whose famous riff the Stones recorded as Keith's version of the Memphis horns).  He also plays up the psychedelia, showing off the "coool" designs being projected on the stage behind drummer Al Jackson. 

Pennebaker told a story that Redding's people didn't want him to play Monterey.  They saw it as a dumb hippie fest, and, well, they were right, but Otis apparently didn't care.  He just wanted to play and hang out and smoke a little weed and entertain what he called on stage "the Love Crowd."  He knew how to play to any audience, any size.  (He also used the Bay Area as the setting for his swan song, the contemplative "Dock of the Bay.")   And God, he played that crowd. 

Redding sang five songs in about 18 minutes.  He opened with his punishing cover  of his idol Sam Cooke's "Shake," and over the first chorus, Pennebaker brings out the title credit: SHAKE!! He's got the crowd screaming.  None of the California acts -- northern or southern -- generate that kind of energy.  (The best acts were the outsiders, really: Janis of course, the Who, and Jimi, and even Eric Burdon, with his wild version of the Stones' "Paint it, Black" -- they all played with great energy and passion. Of course Paul and Artie didn't exactly shake things up.)   He then tells the crowd that a "good friend" of his "took" this song he recorded, "she took it..." he says breathlessly.  Is he breathless from the song he just sang, or from thinking about what Aretha Franklin did with his modest hit "Respect"?  Whatever the case, he says, "I'm still gonna do it anyway" -- it's a great performance, though you can't say he takes it fully back from Aretha. 

He slows the tempo down for "I've Been Loving You Too Long," a pleading ballad that builds to a fabulous climax; here Otis stops several times, turning to Al Jackson and telling him, "play that part one more time" -- and the band does.  "one more time--  ONE MORE TIME -- and he moves with the short break, getting more and more outlandish, yes, heading into James Brown territory emotionally but remaining on Redding's turf.  and the camera is perfectly placed behind Redding but in front of Jackson, so you can't see Al's reaction, but you feel it -- thanks to the lights that keep coming and going out of your view by Redding's head-bobbing.  The bit with Jackson is the usual thing they do on this song, but it feels so damn fresh, as it surely was for the Monterey crowd. 

After "Satisfaction," he takes on the standard that Sam Cooke also recorded, that Otis had resisted recording for a long time, but when he did, he took it to the stratosphere: "Try a Little Tenderness."  It's the one disappointment, the cameras had run out of film early in the song and magazines were being changed during most of it, so Pennebaker gives us a montage of the many young women the crews photographed during the festival. (You'll see a cute shot of Mama Cass Elliott early on.)  It's an interesting if perhaps sexist time capsule of what the scene was like.  Fortunately the cameras are back on just as Otis turns up the heat and Jackson picks up the tempo -- "GOT-ta GOT-ta GOT-ta have! Try a little TEN-derness...!" as Duck Dunn thumps his bass guitar and the unseen horns blast away. (Guitarist Steve Cropper -- who co-wrote "Dock of the Bay" with Redding -- can also be seen a lot in the film  Missing from the screen is the keyboard player, Booker T. Jones.  Those four men -- Jones, Jackson, Cropper, and Dunn -- were of course Booker T. and the MGs, the world's greatest backup band.) 

We are quite fortunate to have a chronicler like Pennebaker, and I haven't spent enough time noting his ability to get such great close up shots and remain unobtrusive to the performers, or his interesting editing choices he's made in his films.  But if that's the case, it's because Otis has such charisma on the stage, that you are overwhelmed. 

This is a so-so copy of the whole thing, but you can easily find most of the individual songs in better quality.  Or, just go pay the big bucks down to get the Criterion "Complete" Monterey Pop Festival 3-Disc set.  Shake! is worth it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Film Friday: The Limitation Game

Having written recently about a film based on a true story (American Sniper), a story that I knew little of prior to the film, I find myself in a similar position this week.  Alan Turing’s name was a bit more familiar to me than Chris Kyle’s was, since he had made important contributions in the fields of mathematics and artificial intelligence. (“Turing machine” was the name given to describe, theoretically, machines that would eventually become known as computers, and the “Turing test” was an indirect inspiration for the “Voight-Kampff” test used by Philip K. Dick’s hero Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, filmed by Ridley Scott under the more familiar name Blade Runner.)   The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (the Norwegian’s first English-language film) is not the first film about the work done at Bletchley Park; Enigma (Michael Apted, 2001), is a dramatic account of those events, based on a novel by Robert Harris. (The screenplay was Tom Stoppard’s.)  And I knew something of these machines as a tourist, visiting places like the Spy Museum in DC.  I also knew that Turing was charged with the then-crime of homosexuality and that it led to his early death by suicide. But all this just means that I knew a wee bit more about Alan Turin than I did about Chris Kyle. 
While The Imitation Game is based on a biography of Turing, it very clearly utilizes the persona of Benedict Cumberbatch – apparently himself a distant relative of Turing – that he has cultivated with the enormous success of the BBC Sherlock.  That persona is a man of great intellectual gift but poor social skills.  There is more than a touch of Sherlock in the Turing we see in the first few scenes of the film; he heads to Bletchley Park with a good deal of confidence that he can be of help to the military, even though the entire efforts to break the Enigma code are top secret – so secret that there is an entire MI division that no one knows about that’s recruiting select brains to crack the code. Turing is initially part of a team, but he resolutely works on his own, and when his demands for funds for a machine to crack Enigma are turned down, he writes to Downing Street  -- and not only gets his money, but gets the authority to head the project, which allows him to fire some of the team. 
Unlike Sherlock, however, we see Turing’s social awkwardness in a much more painful light, courtesy of childhood flashbacks which show a young Turing having symptoms of OCD and getting bullied because of it.  He manages to gain the sympathy of one friend, Christopher, who will introduce him to the world of cryptography.   Christopher becomes the name of the machine Turing devises to try cracking Enigma; it’s easy enough to see that Alan was in love with Christopher, whose sexuality is never revealed, since he died not too long after the friendship with Alan was struck (due to a long fight with tuberculosis – this death is not revealed in the film until near its end). 
Christopher has a parallel character in Joan Clarke, the sole woman on the Enigma team, whose story has remained largely obscured in the efforts to honor Turing as a compensation for his mistreatment by a set of rules that no longer exist.  It is Clarke who helps Turing find some way of making at least civil connections with the other men on the team, and this pays dividends when they stand up to the Naval officer who threatens to pull the plug (yes, literally, really) on the machine.  Despite an engaging performance by Keira Knightley, the role is pretty clich├ęd – the Woman Behind the Great Man.   Turing’s marriage proposal – however complex it might have felt for Turing in real life – is presented here as a blatant pretext to keep Clarke on the project instead of going back to London to her parents (who disapprove of their unmarried daughter living far away from them). 
The film’s editing shifts among three distinct time frames:  Turing’s friendship with Christopher, the Enigma project, and a present-day (1951) investigation of a break-in at Turing’s home that leads to charges of indecency being brought against Turing, then a respected university professor.  This investigation provides the frame story, giving Turing a chance to explain to the lead detective what he really did during the war – effective if shopworn as a dramatic device.   Sometimes titles tell us where we are; sometimes not, though their placement seems haphazard.  For a film that has as its central drama the race against time, The Imitation Game certainly presents that race a bit sloppily. 
The theme of the film is secrecy – and perhaps the drawing of the line between secrecy and privacy.  Turing confesses to one of his co-workers, John Cairncross, that, despite his engagement to Joan, he’s gay.  But Cairncross himself is carrying his own secret, that he’s a Soviet spy.  (Perhaps that’s why he’s so calm when hearing Turing’s confession.)   Turing has to lie to Joan’s parents about the kind of work she’s being asked to do at Bletchley Park.  And the MI6 commander has a few secrets up his sleeve too (including the destruction of pretty much everything connected with the project after the war’s end).  Indeed, when the machine finally breaks the Enigma code – in one of the film’s most satisfying if obvious moments – Turing realizes that they will have to selectively use the information they gain by cracking the code in order to keep the Germans from realizing that it has been cracked.   I suppose it makes perfect sense that a closeted homosexual math genius would be the one to play such a central part in cracking one of the most complicated intellectual secrets of the 20th century.  Which is another way of stating the film’s feel-good message, repeated by Christopher, and echoed, through Turing, by Joan in the film’s final moments, as Turing has opted for “chemical castration” as an alternative to prison time. 
The film’s strengths lie with the cast; despite being given some pretty typical roles, the actors who are on the team give their characters a decent amount of depth.  We sense their frustration as the end of a 24 hour period means the wasting of a day’s work on Engima (which resets every 24 hours, which is why there were so many combinations possible), but we also feel their agony when they discover that knowing the code doesn’t mean immediate victory.  Cumberbatch is particularly good as Turing, showing the shifting moods and perceptions of the professor who doesn’t think much of war, but becomes a crucial strategist once the code is broken, and who dislikes the various double-cross games British military intelligence is playing.  Especially noticeable is Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Turing’s quasi-rival, and Rory Kinnear holds up well in the limited role of the detective trying to get at Turing’s military record and coming up against literal blanks.  The story it tells is compelling, though it must rely on closing titles to tell us what the Enigma code-cracking meant in terms of helping the allied forces win the war.   And because it is a British production, it has that classic sheen of the historical drama, that makes it rise above the sentiment of an After School Special, even though that’s at heart what it is.  Also, dramatizing the cracking of Enigma makes for much more compelling drama than debating the intelligence of machines.  (Save that for the next Transformers movie.  I’m kidding.)