Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Sum Of Its Parts

This Rabbit has never quite gotten Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero to equate. We read the book when it came out in 1985. We liked it for its take on the disillusioned youth of wealthy Los Angeles. We’d been around enough to know that rich kids always have the best drugs. While these spoiled brats weren’t part of any scene we knew, we knew they existed. And we couldn’t help identify with all the name dropping of locations and situations. After all, we lived in L.A., too.

Most of our confusion came a couple years later when the movie was released. We couldn’t keep the two straight. In the movie, drugs were a plague, in the book a symptom. Julian, an unlikable character in the book, gains a bit of sympathy as played by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie  (“a talented, sad-faced clown” according to Imperial Bedrooms). In the movie he dies. In the book, he only wishes he would.

So 25 years later, with the sequel Imperial Bedrooms, our confusion is complete. It’s 20 some years past and Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero, tells us they had made a movie about the book about his life. “In the book, everything about me had happened. The book was something I couldn’t disavow. The book was blunt and had an honesty about it, whereas the movie was just a beautiful lie.”

Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero, but not the blond screenwriter who went on to marry Blair, the girl in the book that Clay did and didn’t love, returns from New York in the sequel and is immediately plunged into a middle-aged version of his disaffected youth. Some of the old friends are there — Blair, Julian, Rip Millar, the once and future drug dealer, Trent, who has married Blair but who is still probably getting some on the side (both sides, like Blair’s father–remember? — who has since died of AIDS) — and much of the old evil. It was hard to like any of the characters in the original book, what with the snuff films and gang rape of 12-year-olds.  In the movie, Clay is a crusader of sorts and shows a bit of moral compass. In the book, he’s cold and distant. In the sequel, he is as self-serving, evil and corrupt as anyone else.

Ellis takes his two-sided characters and plunges them into intrigue, paranoia and an overall promise of no-good. Though it’s not about struggling lower class types who’ll do anything to get ahead (excluding, of course, the aspiring actresses), the book still carries the scent of noir. It’s a mystery with lots of paranoia, much easy sex and a sense of impending doom. Existential questions come in the form of , “Why am I being followed?”  or “Am I losing my mind?” or “Has someone been in my refrigerator?” In this way, Imperial Bedrooms is a much more entertaining book than its predecessor. There’s a murky plot to try and second-guess, there are femme fatales and some not so fatale as well as the feeling that no one can be trusted.  And yes, there’s plenty of drugs and alcohol and late night rendezvous. Murder raises its head right from the beginning.

Imperial Bedrooms does have something in common with the original and that’s its take on women. Women weren’t just desirable  second-class citizens in the first book. They were meat. The same is true here but with one hitch. Why does Clay lust after the mysterious Rain, what makes her become an object of hope and desire? There’s no explanation. Even her uncommonly good looks aren’t so uncommon among the uncommonly good looking. What Clay sees in her is something of a last chance even though he’s a guy who likes to take chances. Despite his attachment, she’s still an object. He never leads her to the bedroom. He “pushes” her there.

Like its predecessor, Imperial Bedrooms is one-sided in its take on class. The Hollywood rich may be evil but they’re visible, unlike everyone else. The few doormen and limousine drivers here have sold their souls to someone who can afford to pay them. The only Mexicans are drug thugs. The broad mass of Los Angeles’ population doesn’t exist.  Any truly great Los Angeles novel will be focused on everyone. The rich will be the ones who move through the city invisibly, even if they are pulling the strings. The shock of Ellis’ first book was just how young these debauched privileged children were — some of middle-school age —  and how little their parents cared. It’s not so surprising that their paid-for self-absorption is still there at 40.  There’s little in the way of moral lesson to be learned in these bedrooms (yes, we’re still quoting Elvis Costello). We already know that they’re all no good. “History repeats the old conceits….”  The song Ellis’ title are pulled from — “Less Than Zero”– was inspired, Costello says, by a British fascist who “was unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s.” Sounds like Ellis’ characters at any point in either book (but not the movie). At end, we read it for the name-dropping and to see who’s left standing. Oh, and who was in the refrigerator.–Cabbage Rabbit

Flicker Of Change

Mark Harris’ account of the making of the five “Best Picture” nominees from 1967 is an epic tale of art, business and character. The films represent old Hollywood’s formulaic approach and devotion to past success (Doctor Dolittle), it’s frustrations in attempts at relevance (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), the obstacles it faced in coming up with something truly innovative (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate) and its successes it spite of itself (In the Heat of the Night). Slow to respond to the desires of its audiences and resistant to new ideas and faces, Hollywood of the 1960s is portrayed as a giant dragged screaming into the future (has anything changed?). Richard Fleischer, Stanley Kramer and other established, mainstream directors give ground to progressives Arthur Penn and Norman Jewison and others weaned on the French New Wave while upstart theater director Mike Nichols challenges them all. Harris’ narrative is masterfully woven from subject and theme as well as the colorful threads of the various principals. The book can be enjoyed simply for it personalities: a persistent yet insecure Warren Beatty, the fearful, self-conscious and beautiful Faye Dunaway, Rex Harrison’s drunken self-obsession, the perseverance of Dustin Hoffman, Sidney Poitier’s dilemma as the only major black film star, Katherine Hepburn’s mothering of Spencer Tracy, Tracy’s alcoholism and physical decline. Its backdrop is the uneasy alliance between creativity and commerce, America’s racial struggles and a society ready to change and not sure how to go about it. Part cultural study, part juicy gossip, Pictures is a must for those interested in the past and future of cinema. And aren’t we all?—Cabbage Rabbit