Sunday, 24 February 2019

MAN, THEY WERE BLOWING LIKE A HURRICANE [152]


These days, if a harmonica is ever heard in a new pop song, it is mainly because Stevie Wonder is involved, but with the way he plays it, you always know it’s him. However, as synonymous with them as he is, no Wonder-branded harmonica has been offered for sale by Hohner, the leading maker of the instrument, which have produced harmonicas using the names of Bob Dylan, Toots Thielemans (who performed the title songs of both “Midnight Cowboy” and “Sesame Street”) and Larry Adler (who did the same for the film “Genevieve”). That covers the harmonica players most people can name, apart from one.

When I found out that Hohner make John Lennon harmonicas, I was surprised. Wasn’t this the same John Lennon who stopped using one in The Beatles because he said it became too much of a gimmick? The ability to add an extra layer to your band’s sound without employing an extra member, unlike with a keyboard or saxophone, must have been a significant benefit from the start - Lennon’s uncle had taught him to play the harmonica as a child, and producer George Martin was partial to the sound of the instrument. However, no Beatles song after 1964 featured one prominently, and only sixteen of their songs use one at all, but it didn’t stop Hohner licensing the band’s image to package their harmonicas at the time – no reference to the band was mentioned on the instrument themselves, just on what they came in.


The inclusion of a harmonica in “Love Me Do,” influenced by the pop charts while the song was being recorded in 1962 - particularly “Hey Baby” by Bruce Channel, and Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You” – led to a total of four songs on the “Please Please Me” album featuring one, the others being the title track, “Chains,” and “There’s a Place.” Harmonicas also featured on “Little Child” from the “With the Beatles” album, the single-only release “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and B-sides “I’ll Get You” and “Thank You Girl.” The Beatles will also use one when performing the songs “Clarabella” and “Got to Find My Baby” on BBC radio.

In all these cases, The Beatles are essentially recording their songs as if they were playing them live – this would have been especially true on the BBC performances, and on the “Please Please Me” album, most of which was famously recorded in a single day. With only twin-track tape recording available, enough to make a stereo version of your performance, any augmentation of the band’s sound will have to be made at the same time. However, from 1963’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and from “A Hard Day’s Night” onwards, four-track recording allowed the band to build their sound in different ways, overdubbing voices and guitars, instead of using other instruments.

Only two songs recorded in 1964 will use harmonica: “I Should Have Known Better,” from “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “I’m a Loser” from “Beatles for Sale,” the “gimmick” having run its course. It is interesting that Bob Dylan is cited as an influence in the writing of “I Should Have Known Better,” but this was for how Dylan’s lyrics inspired a more meaningful and thoughtful direction, but the increasing use of harmonica in what was still being termed as folk music probably also caused the band to drop it themselves – the fact that John Lennon broke into laughter while recording Take 2 of the song couldn’t have helped either.

The last four Beatles songs that use harmonica would not come until 1967, by which point the band had stopped touring, and their main instrument became the studio. With their palette of overdubbing sounds, eventually increasing from four to eight tracks at a time, led to the arrangements for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Rocky Raccoon, “All Together Now,” and the up-down-up-down bass of “Fool on the Hill” being supported by a very familiar hum amongst the sitars, piccolo trumpets and strings.

The Hohner signature harmonica collection also includes Steven Tyler and Ozzy Osbourne – I must have missed all their songs that used one.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

O FRIENDS, NO MORE OF THESE SOUNDS! [151]


At the time of writing the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on Friday 29th March, at 23:00 GMT – British Summer Time starts two days later. That night, a significant number of people will be in cinemas for the opening weekend of what I have been calling “Tim Burton’s Dumbo,” a remake twice as long as the original, in which no animals or trains will talk. The acrimony over Brexit means some may need to hear “Baby Mine” that night, a song that lost the 1941 Academy Award for Best Original Song to “Last Time I Saw Paris.”

I’ll be at home instead, watching the news – I’m not expecting anything to happen but, right now, I’m not sure anyone can tell me what will. I remember voting by post in the June 2016 referendum, meaning  I could tune out of the fighting between the Leave and Remain campaigns, but once 51.89% of 72.21% of the electorate, or 17.41 million people, voted to leave, the debate on how to interpret the result began, something that appears to be unresolved to this day: the Prime Minister is hoping to renegotiate the new working arrangement already made with the European Union, her hand forced by tribalism within her own party that dates back decades, and an inability for Parliament, with no sense of urgency until the last moment, to reach a consensus at a time when it truly mattered.

I am not happy about the state of anxiety I am forced to endure about Brexit, not least because making fun of politics in the United States is becoming increasingly hypocritical. I can speculate on what will eventually fill the shelves of the Donald Trump Presidential Library, and lament on how the divisive rhetoric is laid at the feet of man named Newt (Gingrich, that is), but this is hypocritical when British politics has fallen prey to the same partisan division. When an entire airline, FlyBMI, can collapse in your own country because of the economic effect of Brexit indecision, the same indecision that will add 10% to the cost of a new Porsche, and probably also to the cost of my next iPad – something that could also be released on Friday 29th March – seemingly the only option left is for me to sit back and take whatever economic hit will be passed through the economy to me by being submitted to International Monetary Fund rules.

Of course, something could be pulled out of the fire, and everything could work out for the best, but anything with as glacial a pace as changing the direction of a country means we should have indicated which way we were going to turn, and whether the country will still be making any cars afterwards. I may be able to bring myself to say more come the end of March, if any consensus in this country is reached about what we actually want – even I may want to see “Tim Burton’s Dumbo” by then.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

I WOULDN’T TELL YOU WHERE TO GO [150]

Last time, I vowed to enter Hollywood to sort out the film “Myra Breckinridge,” which I described as the worst film ever made.
I will admit I don’t take my cache as a film critic, of any description, that seriously – I am not Mark Kermode trying to rehabilitate “The Exorcist” here – but there are two ways to create something good from the wreckage of “Myra Breckinridge”: mount a new adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, or go back in time and change the original film.
As interesting as it could be, a new adaptation, in my opinion, will not work: the novel is a satire of a particular moment in Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, its Classical period now over, and the people in charge having been overturned. You could set a remake in its original time period, but you would have to drill the historical context into the audience before expecting them to laugh.
You could try to set it in the present day, with Myra exclaiming about “star quality” in an era where everyone is an open book, and how the franchise-driven Hollywood should return to when it made films like “Easy Rider” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”. Moreover, a plot that uses rape as a corrective will not fly these days, and a man becoming a woman so they can conquer the sexes won’t make it through the rewrites – you may as well write a different story altogether.
So yes, going back in time to correct the original “Myra Breckinridge” may be the more feasible option here, in an attempt to correct the decisions that made the film turn out the way it did. The simplest choice is to eliminate the two people that caused the most rancour on set: director and co-writer Michael Sarne, and star Mae West.
Sarne’s treatment of the story, constant rewrites during the shoot, and his encouragement of bickering between the cast, produced the film we have. The original director was to have been Bud Yorkin, best known as a producer of TV sitcoms like “All in the Family” and “Sanford and Son,” and later of the two “Blade Runner” films, and was replaced with Sarne, originally hired only to re-write the script, but after having directed the “swinging London” film “Joanna,” because it was thought Yorkin would have been too conservative in his direction – his later career would prove otherwise. Not having Sarne write the script would give previous drafts by David Giler, and Gore Vidal, another chance. Thinking about it, if Yorkin turned out not to be available anymore, George Cukor, another name once attached to the film, would have been the perfect director – rather than splice in pieces of Classical Hollywood films to enhance your own film, just get the director of “The Philadelphia Story,” the original “A Star is Born,” and “My Fair Lady” to direct the whole thing.
Why have no Mae West? Her contract to appear in the film was unnecessarily restrictive, requiring her to have two full-scale musical numbers in a film where she plays a talent agent, and having refusal on not only the costumes she wore, but also those of Raquel Welch, the actor playing the lead. One of Welch’s costumes was confiscated by Welch because it was black and white, reasoning only she could wear monochrome clothes. Welch, who later said she couldn’t work out if West herself was a man or not, was having none of it, and stole it back. One costume Welch wore appears as white on camera, but had to be died very light blue, in order to placate West – they both appear in the same scene, but Welch is speaking to a body double.
The most major change I would make would appear on screen. Both Raquel Welch and John Huston wanted to appear in “Myra Breckinridge,” and this shows in their performances, but Welch actively lobbied for her role, even before having read the script – there might have not even been a script to read at that point. She did so in the belief that she would be playing both Myra and Myron, her original male self. However, the male role was given to the film critic Rex Reed, who was promised his character was presented through the conceit of a dream, and would have approval over his sections of the script, therefore changing how the story will be told.
When “Myra Breckinridge” bombed both in reviews and at the box office, sales of the novel dwindled very quickly. Ironically, the film critic Parker Tyler, whose work was appropriated by Myra, including the memorable assertion that no insignificant film was made in Hollywood between 1935 and 1945, saw his work come back into print as a result. Gore Vidal restored to his own sequel, “Myron,” published in 1975, where Myra enters a film that Myron was watching on television, in a plot likened by the poet Thom Gunn, and used by Vidal in the collected edition of both books I have, as an “Alice Through the Looking Glass” to the original novel’s “Alice in Wonderland.” This time, Myra and Myron talk of themselves as different people, each one a parasite for the other. I’m not a fan of this, but I haven’t properly read it yet either.
I fear I may have Myra Breckinridge on my back for a while, continuing to make sense of her, but I need to write about something else. Both the novel and its sequel are set out in a diary format, using a three-hundred-page ledger, as Myra’s psychiatrist advises her to keep a journal of her thoughts - in the sequel, this becomes how one person knows what the other is doing. Meanwhile, I began 2019 with a ledger of similar size, and I must be expecting something sizeable to happen to me, as I have only reached page 18 so far.
Read the books if you can, and only watch the film for Raquel Welch and John Huston.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

COME OUTSIDE (SHOVE IT) [149]


Once upon a time, I thought this was a good idea.

This is the first of a two-part exploration of why the 1970 film “Myra Breckinridge” is the worst film ever made. This first part explains why I think this is the case, and what it has done to me, while the second part will explain what I am going to do about it.

It has taken me nearly ten days to even begin writing about why I think this film is so bad, and it is because I had absolutely no idea where to start, and I needed to have my own reason for thinking so. As someone with a degree in film studies, six years of writing about film online, and a film collection that would have rivalled a Blockbuster Video store, if I’m having trouble trying to write about how bad a film is, it must be pretty bad.

The simplest thing to do is describe the plot. Myra Breckinridge is a film buff who arrives in Hollywood to overturn the degeneracy and method acting that has replaced the production of the films she so loves. In fact, she states her purpose as “the destruction of the last vestigial traces of the traditional man, in order to realign the sexes, decrease the population, with the intent of increasing human happiness, and preparing humanity for its next stage” – I should also say this film is a satire. Myra’s plan is to destroy her late husband Myron’s uncle, the former Western actor Buck Loner, who runs a method acting school on land to which Myron had a claim. She also aims to emasculate one of the students, Rusty, whose idea of how a man should act is to exercise and “ball chicks,” and to launch fellow student Mary Ann into her own career, despite only attending the school to see Rusty, marry him and start a family...


Oh, and Myra is Myron, having had a sex change two years earlier. In carrying out her plan, she will have complete mastery over both sexes, because that’s how that works. Myron also appears in scenes with Myra, making Myra appear less as her own character, “whom no man will ever possess,” and more as a woman-shaped golem carrying out a male fantasy. Myron is played by real-life film critic Rex Reed, who writes to this day for “The New York Observer,” and Myron will eventually be masturbated by Myra, before eventually killing her when she outlives her use. I’m sure that some people took their impression of transgender people from this film, and it does not help that the director, on the DVD commentary, states he thinks transgender people are pathetic are deluded.  

Apart from the plot, “Myra Breckinridge” has a reputation for its incompetent production. The director and co-writer Michael Sarne, an actor and singer best known for the novelty song “Come Outside,” used stock footage of films from Classical Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe, Peter Lorre and Laurel & Hardy to act as a Greek chorus around the footage, commenting on the more modern action. However, in the hands of a director that spent days photographing a table of food, and who would leave the actors and crew waiting while he thought to himself, the stock footage would later be used to glue the plot together, leaving the unintended consequence of Laurel & Hardy being the funniest actors in the film, even when trying not to look at Rusty getting raped by Myra... yes, that happens too.


The only two redeeming features in “Myra Breckinridge” is the acting from Raquel Welch, playing Myra, and John Huston, the director of “The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo” and “The African Queen,” playing Buck Loner, who is referred to throughout as “Uncle Buck.” Both actors believe in their roles, and are making the most of their time. Many character and genre actors of the classical Hollywood period are also featured. However, Mae West, in her first role after twenty-seven years, playing the predatory talent agent and singer Leticia Van Allen, is camp as hell, when she needed to be louche – the tone of the whole film could be described that way.

Every film buff knows the drill: for every “Citizen Kane,” there is a “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” and for every “Vertigo,” there is a “Birdemic: Shock and Terror.” The canon of bad movie making has been explored deeply, especially online, a morbid fascination at the results of bad decision making, misplaced intentions, and pure incompetence. Every so often, a film will rise up that has the right mix of all the wrong things, and “Myra Breckinridge” has been celebrated as a disaster ever since a review in “Time” magazine began with: “’Myra Breckinridge’ is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to the intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye.”


The prevailing opinion about “Myra Breckinridge” has generally followed the “Time” review, even without seeing it. A DVD was released in 2005, but is now out of print – my copy was bought on eBay some time ago, and despite my owning it, I originally based my decision on the film being the worst ever made on what I already knew about it. To make sure I knew what I was talking about, I watched it in preparation for this article, and had a sleepless night.

Not many films will ever be made about a transgender film critic, and for someone like me, an actual transgender film critic, I am horrified by the portrayal of Myra Breckinridge in her own film as a front for a man with very vivid fantasies – the original book, by Gore Vidal, was not like that, although she reverts back to Myron by the end of the story. The “it was all a dream” ending only makes it worse.

This film turned from something that could be dismissed, into something I must address. Therefore, I must meet this film at its own game – I must meet Myra at her own game. Time to enter Hollywood, and sort this out myself.

(continued next time)