#Writing #MusicMonday: Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse by The Chain Tape Collective

coverSo, yeah, I stumbled for several days. Tomorrow, we’ll return to playing Music Monday Catch-Up.

Today, we celebrate Halloween.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a key work in the history of film. It invented German Expressionism, started its own genre, and eventually influenced the American genre of film noir. The film is silent, and has no canonical soundtrack. It’s also public domain, which doesn’t hurt anything either.

So The Chain Tape Collective decided to set eleven composers loose on the film, and they produced not one, but two Creative Commons-licensed soundtracks. Each composer was given a part of the film and got to hear a bit of what the composer who worked on an earlier part had done, in true surrealist exquisite corpse fashion.

The results are very odd, as you might expect, and a lot of it sounds like a closet project from the ’80s done by a hermit devoted to modern music and antique films. It makes for disturbing, sinister background sonic wallpaper.

Which means it should be great for that horror novel you’re writing, or your late-night Halloween party tonight!

Download Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse free from the Free Music Archive.

You can also watch or download the resulting film free from the Internet Archive.

Caligari: An Exquisite Corpse
by Various Artists [Chain Tape Collective]
is licensed under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

#Writing #MusicMonday: The Beautiful Machine by Josh Woodward

CoverI feel like kind of a schmuck.

See, I’ve known about Josh Woodward for pretty much the entire time I’ve listened to Creative Commons music, close to ten years now.

And I kept trying to listen to his music, now and then.

And… I just didn’t care for it. He clearly had musical chops, but something rubbed me wrong about his songs for a long time.

And so, I’ve never really promoted his work. Like, ever. Despite the fact that he’s like the flagship musician for Free Culture (along with Incompetech).

Well, after the Great Laptop Disaster earlier this year, I went and started rebuilding my CC music library, and I revisited a song of Woodward’s that I definitely liked from recently, “Airplane Mode”.

And yeah, it’s fun. And even if it retains a bit of the attitude I disliked in a number of his other songs, it’s well-camouflaged.

Then I listened to the whole album it came from, The Beautiful Machine. And this album, more than any of the previous ones, worked for me. The elements that rubbed me wrong previously do remain, but as with “Airplane Mode”, the songs are fun enough, and bury those elements deep enough, that I can easily ignore them.

And the songs are very fun.

So, finally, I am pushing some of his work. Without reservation. Hie the over and acquire it!

Download The Beautiful Machine by Josh Woodward free from the artist’s own site.

Creative Commons License
The Beautiful Machine by Josh Woodward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

#Writing #MusicMonday: Life by Gregoire Lourme

CoverAfter making ten long albums of Free Culture soundtrack music in a very short period of time — only a couple of years — Gregoire Lourme released this, currently his latest, an extended meditation on Life.

And it feels like it might be a masterpiece.

It’s fifty-seven minutes, and by gum I wish it was longer. It’s a symphony, a celebration, an exuberant cry of joy to the universe. The Vangelis influence is quite clear, but so is, at times, that of Hans Zimmer. And yet, taking those influences, and likely others with whom I am unfamiliar, he creates something wholly new, and wondrous.

It is inspiration, in audio form.

Heck, I’m tempted to joke that I’m giving up Writing Music Mondays, because this can’t be topped.

Or maybe not to joke.

It is Just So Damned Good!

Download Life by Grégoire Lourme from the Internet Archive.

Creative Commons License
Life by Gregroire Lourme is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film by Jimmy McDonough

[Four stars out of five]

Russ Meyer was an American original. A bombastic, maniacally focused man, he tore through the culture making movies that gave censorship boards, and then the MPAA, screaming fits. Because they also keyed into the male psyche of the era, and because he was an entrepreneur who not only worked hard but, for a time at least, understood deeply the business he was in, he made money. A lot of it.

The studios came calling, checkbook in hand, and Meyer signed on happily. Two movies later, one hit and one flop, he quit and went back to making movies his way: cheap, lurid, and paced like a wildcat rollercoaster.

Then the market for what he wanted to make dried up and, unwilling or unable to make anything else, he lived on the profits his self-owned films made on the home video market, while he tinkered away endlessly on his “autobiography”, and succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

This is an important book. Jimmy McDonough has done a shitload* of original research, and he did it at just about the last possible moment. Published in 2006, I was struck, reading it in 2013, how every major figure interviewed in it is now dead. From Richard Zanuck to David Friedman, from Tura Satana to Roger Ebert, almost everybody who was there and who talked is now gone. For that reason alone, this book will forever be a resource to anyone interested in the exploitation film business, and the film business generally, in the 1960s and ’70s.

So before I go off on the book’s flaws and problems, understand that they largely don’t matter. You want to read this book. Perhaps you need to read it. And you should, despite any of the quibbles and nitpicks that follow.

First, McDonough is a fan of Russ Meyer. In itself, this is not a problem. With a personality like Meyer’s, the biographer almost has to be sympathetic if he hopes to understand his subject with no condescension or dismissiveness. But it distracts the reader at times. For example, McDonough summarizes each of Meyer’s movies’ plots, but it’s ridiculously obvious which ones he likes and which he doesn’t. Expressing this directly — which he does — is fine. But his summary of the plot of Cherry, Harry, and Raquel only tells the reader about Harry, without even explaining why it doesn’t mention the other two title characters, and that’s not fine.

Second, McDonough is an over-educated Ivy League hipster coastal snobbish asshole. Or, at the very least, he writes like one. “The Eighties,” he writes, “a crap decade.” And he specifies: “Ronald Reagan, Huey Lewis and the News, Top Gun — need I say more? If you were unfortunate enough to be around, it seemed like ten years that didn’t happen at all.”

Glib, flippant, and wholly devoid of substance. What if you disagree with him? Well, then you’re just not cool, and therefore don’t matter. Certainly not enough for him to bother constructing an actual argument to support his poseurhood.

This sort of posturing, all fallacy and attitude, never fails to irritate me. So, just for the hell of it, I pause the review to deal with it.

Ronald Reagan? A President who, for all his faults, knew how the hell to end a recession, took no crap from unionized bullies, deliberately worded speeches to give hope to imprisoned political dissidents and offend our enemies — who was clear about who our enemies were fer crissake! — and (with help) drove communism into the ground face first. Need you say more? No, no, it’s very clear that your education was so bereft of substance that you got your knowledge of Reagan from aged issues of Mother Jones and the occasional Saturday Night Live sketch, and you think you’re soooooooooooo much smarter than those stupid rubes in flyover country because of it.

Huey Lewis and the News? Seriously? I’ve never met anyone who hates them. They’re fun, bright, upbeat, clever, and never took themselves so seriously that they felt they had to lecture the rest of the planet on the proper opinions to have and feelings to feel. Were they the deepest, most musically complex band ever? Nope. But so what?

Top Gun, admittedly, is not the greatest film ever made. But that’s not why he loathes it and feels it represents all he hates about the Eighties. It was popular. It was patriotic. And it dared to show the US military as something better than a pack of mouth-breathing baby-killing rednecks. Unforgivable, in McDonough’s puerile worldview.

As for ten years that didn’t happen at all, this is curious. Consider:

The crap economy of the ’70s, after a brief recession, came roaring back, put America on top again, and set the stage for the internet revolution in the ’90s.

Soulless disco died, and synthesized music became something truly artistic. Vangelis became a recognized name, Brad Fidel came on the scene, and New Wave hit the overculture.

Movies stopped looking grainy, dirty, and bleak, and were allowed to have hopeful, happy endings again. Nihilism stopped getting a free pass.

And oh yeah, one more teeny, tiny little detail. COMMUNISM FELL! A totalitarian ideology that held more than half the world’s population in bondage collapsed, freeing many who had been under it’s Big Brother surveillance, bringing them to freedom, letting them, for the first time in decades, speak their minds and get rich if they could.

Yeah. What a fucking horrible decade. No wonder McDonough hates it.

(End rant. Mostly.)

Russ Meyer’s last movie was released in 1979, even though he lived another 25 years. He could, in other circumstances, have kept making flick for at least another ten. So, in his personal case, you could argue that the ’80s sucked.

But that’s only partly the fault of the times he lived in. The times changed, what people were looking for in films (and home movies) changed, and Meyer did not change with them. Indeed, going by the evidence McDonough himself provides, Meyer did not want to change, perhaps even could not change. “Adaptable” is not a word that any part of this biography brings to mind. McDonough barely acknowledges this, choosing instead to indulge in his own enmity for a decade that was far better than he will ever admit.

A third problem with McDonough’s work is extremely trivial, but might be seen as evidence of sloppiness on the author’s part. Perhaps it is confined only to trivialities like the one I’m about to explain, or perhaps it is indicative of more. I can’t say, as this was the only one that stood out for me.

There is a moment in the story where Meyer feels that one of his old (and dearly trusted) friends has betrayed him, and worse, in a cowardly way. His way of breaking the friendship off was to send the former friend a yellow feather.

Reading that, I immediately got the reference and laughed, seeing that Meyer had (typically) gotten the idea right, but the details wrong. There is a book (and at least two films based on it) called The Four Feathers (it’s public domain, you can download it from Gutenberg or Feedbooks or Munseys). It’s a great story about a Brit who, just before his regiment is to ship out for duty, resigns. This is taken by his friends and his fiance for an act of cowardice, and they each send him a white feather. The rest of the story concerns what he does to earn the right to return each feather to its sender, four acts of spectacular courage and daring.

But then McDonough “explains” it. He refers to an “obscure” British movie called “The Three Feathers”, has the protagonist run away during battle, and his friends give him yellow feathers.

Relaying what actually happened, and Meyer’s and his friends’ recollections of the film and story, that’s good. Not checking to make sure that you are getting the facts straight? Not so good.

Could it be just this one trivial detail? It could. (It comes up one more time in the book, just as wrong there as the first time.)

Am I willing to trust that McDonough was not this sloppy elsewhere? Alas, since he has convinced me that he’s a preening hipster, and therefore insufferable, I am afraid not.

Be that as it may, and apart from his personal quirks (and Meyer’s), the book is a good read, informative, and full of original research that, now, cannot be replicated. It should be on any film lover’s to-read list, as long as there are a few grains of salt to go along with it.


* (If I did not use appropriate vulgarity in this review, the ghost of Russ Meyer might curse me with ugly women for the rest of my life! 😉 ) [back]

The Screenwriters’ Plight

Imagine for a moment that you want to be a screenwriter. Screenwriting is just about the cushiest gig you can get as a writer, short of being a renowned best-selling author like Dan Brown.

By any writing standards, you get very well paid. A single television script can net you $40,000 (the current Writer’s Guild minimum for a 60 minute story and teleplay is $35,568), and if you’re on the writing staff of a show, you’re on salary and can expect to have a minimum of two scripts produced in a given season, plus rewrite work on other scripts, which also does not pay poorly.

If you sell a film script, your situation is less stable, but potentially even more lucrative. Six figures for a script is very common (in fact, if the movie’s budget is over $5 million — and that’s practically every studio film — then your minimum compensation will be $124,190), and if you build a reputation for dependability, you can pick up a lot of money doing last-minute or even on-set rewrites, because even if the script is “perfect” (nobody ever, ever believes a script is perfect), production is not, and locations change, circumstances change, and rewrites and additions are almost always required.

But there’s more than just money. How many people have read Gone With The Wind? I can’t find solid sources, but many say that it has sold more than 30 million copies in all. Even with an average of two people reading per copy, more people are likely to have seen an episode of Friends or Seinfeld than to have read one of the most-read books of the twentieth century.

So there’s the money. And exposure for your work. And if you’re lucky, and the WGA rules and arbitration break your way, you even get your name in the credits (probably).

What you do not have, at any point, is any right or ownership in what you have created (with some extremely limited exceptions).

Hollywood is built upon a very twisted interpretation of an oft-abused legal theory.

Pretend you’ve spent several years honing your craft as a screenwriter. Then you take these skills and you write the greatest movie script of all time. The story is universal. The characters are both original and widely relatable. The pacing is perfect. The dialogue all but sings off the page. There is slam-bang action, spectacle, and small human moments that will bring even a grizzled Marine drill instructor to tears. It can even be shot on a modest budget and a short schedule without any artistic compromise.

It’s perfect. And it’s original. And it’s yours.

Until you sell it.

In the act of selling your original work to a producer — any producer, even the most honest, ethical, upstanding producer in the town’s history — you agree, in writing, in a legally binding way, that you did not create your original script. In order to sell it and have any chance of seeing it made into a film, you are required to lie, and “agree” that you did not create it yourself. You “agree” that you wrote it as work-for-hire.

That is to say, you are engaging with the producer in a legal fiction (I would say “fraud”, but this has long legal precedent, unfortunately) that the story was the producer’s original idea, and that you were merely hired to write it out for him. More or less a hired typist.

In theory, you, the creator of the original work, hold all the intellectual property rights to it. But in Hollywood the only thing you can do, if you want to live by your creativity, is to surrender those rights so completely that, legally, you did not create the work. You will (probably, although not definitely) get credit for the script, or at least the story, depending on how extensive rewrites are, and how WGA arbitration goes.

In another legal fiction, you are also entitled to royalties, a percentage, on any profits the resulting film makes. It’s a fiction because no Hollywood movie ever makes a profit, once Hollywood’s esoteric accounting practices and the legalese in your writer’s contract both come into play.

(That’s not a joke. The late Jeffrey Boam got screenplay credit on Lethal Weapon 2. It was the number three movie of 1989, making $227,853,986 world wide just in its theatrical release (i.e., not counting home video releases and sales to TV and cable). It made nearly ten times its production budget of $25 million. And yet in an interview, Boam laughed that, according to Warner Brothers, the movie had never made a profit, so he never got any residuals from it.)

You do retain two rights and a few options under something called “separation of rights“, a “de-bundling” of copyright in the script. You retain the right to publish it. And you retain the right to “dramatic stage rights”, to put on a play based on the script, after a specified period of time. That, and getting some money and a “creator” credit on any sequels, and that’s about it.

There are many, many rationalizations for this state of things. The most common is that producers, or studios, take a huge financial risk in making the film, and thus they need to legally lie so that they hold all possible rights to the work you created.

Never mind that stage plays are large financial risks, yet somehow playwrights retain ownership of the intellectual property they created. Never mind that books are also financial risks, and yet novelists (nominally — I’ll deal with the actually another time) retain ownership of their intellectual property.

Never mind all of that, bud. You wrote a screenplay, you got paid, so you have no right to your own work.

That’s how it is.

And if you are a defender of intellectual property law as it currently stands, then you own this grotesque distortion of what copyright is supposed to protect.

Just don’t tell me that you’re defending creators’ rights, because you’re not.

Inarticulate unclear things

Not that I expect producers to be literate and articulate, but man, Warner Brothers should not let Man of Steel producer Deborah Snyder do interviews.

A lot of the messaging in this film is about family, and who makes you who you are.

Yeah, that’s what I watch movies for, messaging.

Clark is on this journey of self discovery, trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in, and in the end he comes to see what Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, has sacrificed and given for him. And he also realises how his Earth parents made him who he is. All those themes and notions follow him throughout the whole film.

You can almost hear her chomping on her gum, and wonder if the editor cut out all the “fershure” s and “y’know?” s.

It’s also a caped society, so when you go to Krypton he wanted to see variations of this costume. And knowing that it was a caped society he wanted that to be evident when we were on Krypton, so when Clark finally finds the costume and puts it on you’ve established where it’s come from.

“A caped society”. Was that really the best way to phrase that?

The rest of it reads like the “I’m literate because I’ve read every press release on a Hollywood movie from the last ten years” empty arrangements of buzzwords and positive-signifiers that you’d expect, but for some reason, she seems especially inept in her choice of words and attempts to sound like she knows what she’s talking about (and it’s, like, y’know, deep and stuff).

1979: A Snapshot of Hell

You lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan creaking round and round. You get up, go to the window.

1979, you think. Shit. I’m still only in 1979.

Wait, you’re not there. You’re here in 2013, reading my blog and wondering why I began with a cheesy reference to a classic film.

“Jason,” you say, “what is your beef with the 1970s?”

Well, my friend, let’s look at the aforementioned 1979 a bit, shall we? Through the magic of cinema.

Great, you say? 1979 gave us so many world classics, you say? Like the already-referenced Apocalypse Now, as well as Alien, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and several more to boot?

Yeah, sure. There were several classics that year. But the classics are not the temperature of the culture at any given time. Sometimes, they are. Other times, it’s far more helpful to look at the non-classics. The mid-range movies that were just trying to make a buck by fitting into the culture, to serve some profitable segment of it.

So, to begin your descent into the hell of the end of the ’70s, I give you C.H.O.M.P.S..

I mean, Hanna-Barbera — 1970s Hanna-Barbera! — in partnership with American International Pictures? Right at the tail end of AIP’s death rattle? Even if you knew nothing else about it, there is just no formula by which a good movie results from that partnership, right? Then you watch the trailer, and it’s even more joyless and inane than you imagined.

Next up, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh:

Dr. J, Meadowlark Lemon (you’re old if that name has any meaning for you, I’m afraid), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jonathan Winters, and Stockard Channing all in the same film? About a disco-dancing basketball team saved by … astrology!?

Yes. Yes, indeed. Welcome to Hell, ladies and gentleman. The Hell named 1979. If you didn’t believe me with C.H.O.M.P.S., you now begin to understand true horror.

Oh, but there’s more!

How about Patrick Swayze and Marcia Brady and Scott Baio and Horschack in a disco rollerskating movie? I’ve got just the flick for you — Skatetown U.S.A.:

In an early sign of hope for the world at large, that one died at the box office, coming out two months after Disco Demolition Night. Even so, gaze into that abyss and try not to be unsettled.

What about a serious science fictionish film about genetic engineering with an all-star cast? Those never turn out badly! Then try out Goldengirl, featuring enough people you know to make you wonder why in hell you never heard of it:

Yeah, watching the trailer, you now know why you never heard of it. Seriously, what dark secrets did the producers have on Robert Culp and James Coburn?

Satire, you say? A fun, wacky, goofy comedy? They can’t possibly mess that up, right? I mean, this is right in that sweet spot between Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane!, so it was almost a golden age! Mel Brooks was still funny in 1979, at least intermittently. So, the trailer for Americathon should be fun and amusing, and not soul-sucking at all, yes?


The French! you think. The French are always to be relied on for wacky hijinks! And babes! Sure, their comedies may be juvenile, but still funny, like the Three Stooges… and… Jerry Lewis… maybe?

Well, at least the French babes were all babe-ish. Le gendarme et les extra-terrestres does appear to have a few things going for it — babes, scenery — but man, did you laugh even once? (You have some consolation, however, if you’re a real francophile: right around ’79, nearly everybody in the French film industry was making at least some hard core porn. I’ll wait while you go searching for your favorites, to make a list of their dirty films.)

Still, there must be something redeeming about non-classic 1979 cinema…

Kung-fu! There were still chopsocky flicks in ’79 (outside of Hong Kong, you mean), and it’s very, very hard to mess up a kung-fu actioner, right? Especially with an all-star cast including Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasance, John Huston(!!!), and Barbara Bach!

OK, I admit, that one makes me actually want to see Jaguar Lives!, but I’m not fooled into thinking that it’s “good”, even by Kung Fu Theater standards.

And so, we turn, at last, to Nocturna:

John Carradine as a bedentured Dracula. Megahot Eurasian actress as his granddaughter. (No, seriously, she’s mega-hot — does she look almost 40 to you in the trailer? Because she was.) Lots and lots and lots of disco.

But I admit it: this one looks like fun. Bad, with awful music, but fun.

Oh, 1979, we hardly knew ye.

And for that, we are eternally thankful.