holy motors

beautiful, funny, Portland, sad, true No Comments »

Last night, my friend and I went to see a movie called Holy Motors.  We were intrigued by the preview, and thought it looked interesting and very stylish, but we had no way of knowing what a wild ride we were in for.  Here’s the trailer.

This is not a review.  This is a plea for you to watch the movie so that we can discuss it.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  It’s dark, and shocking, and lovely, and melancholy, and mysterious, and joyous, and occasionally hysterical, and it’s a myriad of surprises from beginning to end.  I don’t even want to say anything about the story, because I want you to have the same experience I (and everyone else in the theater) did.  I feel like I’ve already said too much.  Worth mentioning is the fact that I almost titled this entry, “Holy crap!  Holy Motors!”

More shocking than the movie, however, was what happened after.  It happened at the Living Room here in downtown Portland, at the early showing.  The film had just finished, but instead of getting up to leave, everyone stayed in their seats, talking quietly.  The guy sitting next to my friend and me said that he’d gotten up to take a five-minute bathroom break, and asked what he’d missed.  Another guy chimed in that he’d missed a bit on a bathroom break as well.  We did our best to remember, and we told him.  Then other people started to chime in and ask about what the group thought a scene meant, or how various elements tied together (or didn’t).  Before long, everyone was jumping into spontaneous conversation about the film, and comparing it to other films, and suddenly it became Movie Club.  The staff had to tell us first politely, and then a bit more pointedly, that they did have a lobby, and we were welcome to go out there, but that they had to clean the theater, and we had to vacate.  The group congregated in the hallway and continued the discussion for another fifteen minutes.  Everyone who was in that little theater stayed and participated in the discussion.  I’ve been going to movies for decades now, and that has never happened before.  It was fantastic, and it made me wonder why it doesn’t happen more often.

I want so badly to post pictures and scenes from the movie on here, but I’m not going to.  You can seek them out if you want, but I would encourage you not to, and to see it with no prior knowledge of the story.  Also, I recommend that you see it on the biggest screen available to you.  I imagine that it’s still playing in some arthouse theaters, but if it’s not, it’s out on DVD.

What are you waiting for?  Go!  See this film!

jindiggots

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When I was in high school, my brother and I were lucky enough to get to see Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in a very rare live performance.  It was 1986, and he appeared at the Masonic Temple (now the new wing of the Art Museum) here in Portland.  We begged our dad to let us go, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed.  I think he knew how obsessed we were with Monty Python, and that this was quite probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see even one of them in person.

I still have my ticket stub floating around here somewhere.  It always turns up when I’m not looking for it, but it disappears again on the rare occasions that I need it.  I realize that this entry would be slightly more compelling if I could provide photographic proof, but for now, you’ll just have to take my word that I still have it.

That night at the dinner table, Dad gave us his equivalent of a warning.  “Now, British comedy tends to be a bit. . .blue, so they may say things that you guys aren’t used to hearing, and make some crude jokes.”

“Yeah, Dad, we know what to expect.  We’ve watched Monty Python for years, and they’re definitely not ‘blue’ or whatever.”

“Is there an opening act?”

“Yes.”

The present-day version of me will now step in and tell you that there was indeed an opening act, but we’d never heard of them, either before or since.  They were quite terrible.  In fact, I can remember only one line of their boring sketch comedy routines:   someone yelling, in a mock-drunken stupor, “Start the fuckin’ car!”  Oh, the hilarity.

“Well,” Dad continued, “I’m sure you guys will be fine, but don’t be too surprised if blah blah blue blah blah—”  I don’t even remember the rest of what he said, actually.  I was much too excited to finish dinner and get downtown.

Dad drove us to the Masonic Temple and dropped us off by the door.  We waited in line, everyone buzzing with excitement, until the doors finally opened and the line of people was let in.  It was the first live comedy show we’d ever seen, and we expected to see Graham peeking out from behind a curtain or, if we were really lucky, sitting on one of the metal folding chairs in the audience somewhere.  We kept glancing around the room, hoping for a sighting.  The opening act came out and did their thing, and like I said, they were terrible.  The audience dutifully clapped, and some people even laughed a bit, but we thought it seemed like a mistake to have an opening act for a colossus like Graham Chapman.  Anyone coming between us and him was an unwelcome distraction.

After what seemed like forty-five minutes (because it probably was) of torturous comedy, Graham came out on stage.  He received a thunderous standing ovation before he settled into his part of the show.  It wasn’t a comedy performance, as such.  He mostly told stories, some of which were funny and some of which were not.  He talked about his new Dangerous Sports Club, which involved lots of skydiving and things, and warranted a longish slide show.  (I think Douglas Adams was in the DSC as well; I seem to recall him being in a picture or two in the slide show.)  Graham talked quite a bit about Monty Python, obviously, and told us a great story about how during the final season of Flying Circus, the censors started to suspect that one of the members was homosexual.  One of them was, of course, and it was Graham, although he was still publicly in the closet at the time.  But when the Pythons kept getting letters from the BBC saying You Guys Really Need To Do Something About This Homosexual Problem, it all came down at the exact same time that John Cleese decided to leave the group.  The remaining members took the funny opportunity to write to the BBC:  “Thank you for bringing this to our attention.  We have discovered the offending member, and he has since been sacked.”

My favorite moment of the show, however, was during the question-and-answer session near the end of the evening.  Most of the questions were the usual variety of softballs like, “Do you miss being in Monty Python?” or “How hard is it to get into comedy?”, but one guy stood up and asked, “What’s a jindiggot?

“A what?”

“A jindiggot.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to.”

“But you said it.”

“Er, I don’t. . .think I did.”  Graham was gamely trying to answer the guy, but by this time, everyone was looking at each other in a what-in-the-world-is-this-guy-talking-about way.  We all turned and looked at him as he started to really get nervous.

“Yeah, you did.  It was in The Holy Grail. . .the scene with the French guy yelling insults at King Arthur from the top of the castle.  You said, ‘You and all your silly English jindiggots.’ ”

At that point, everyone realized what he was talking about, and we all burst into peals of laughter.  The French knight couldn’t pronounce the word ‘knights’, so it sounded like ‘ken-NIG-ots.”  This guy had misheard the line and wondered for years what a ‘jindiggot’ was.  Now Graham was performing in HIS town, and answering HIS question, which must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in history.

“Um,” Graham said diplomatically, “there seems to be a slight misunderstanding.”  The audience was howling by now, as Graham had to good-naturedly explain the joke that everyone else in the world knew so well.  Furthermore, it was John Cleese who had spoken the line, not Graham.  Graham was King Arthur, standing at the base of the castle and the opposite end of the conversation, being taunted by Cleese’s French knight.  As the audience continued to laugh, the guy realized his mistakes and slunk low in his seat, presumably praying for a quick (and hopefully invisible) death.  That was definitely the highlight of the night, and no one had any further questions, so Graham took the opportunity to wrap up the show.  He thanked us and walked off to another thunderous standing ovation, after which he came bounding across the stage like a rabbit, with his fingers raised next to his head like rabbit ears.

I don’t think anyone knew yet that Graham had cancer.  When he died three years later, there were rumors of AIDS, but they proved to be unfounded.  The world was stunned; he wasn’t even fifty years old.  The other Pythons are all still alive and presumably well, but I’m pretty sure they’ve never been to Portland.  It was a huge honor to have been able to see him here, and I certainly won’t forget it.

R.I.P., Graham.  Happy Monty Python Day.

 

 

Monty Python Day

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It’s safe to say that I have been a Monty Python fanatic for most of my life, starting when I was about thirteen years old.  My brother and I, when we used to visit Dad, had a tiny black-and-white television in the bedroom we shared.  Dad would say goodnight to us and head upstairs to bed, and he expected us to do the same.  What he didn’t know, however, was that at eleven-thirty Monty Python’s Flying Circus came on, and so did other similar British ‘programmes’ like Doctor Who and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  We watched these shows at an almost but not entirely inaudible volume level, and parked ourselves on the floor, about a foot away from the tiny monochromatic screen.

When we were at Mom’s house in Yakima, which was the majority of the time, Flying Circus wasn’t available on TV there, so we went into a kind of withdrawal.  We rented the videos about a hundred million times, and I even made audio cassettes of the movies by laboriously holding a microphone up to the TV speaker so that I could constantly listen and memorize the dialogue between our viewings of the movies.  I was obsessed.

My obsession seemed only to get stronger and stronger, and it lasted well into my college years.  I would inject Monty Python quotations into pretty much every conversation, and since their range is so broad, it’s surprisingly easy to find quotes that are apropos to a myriad of subjects.  I used to pride myself on my knowledge of their trivia, and I was just enough of an a-hole that if someone dared make the egregious mistake of misquoting the Masters, I would actually correct the person.  The most commonly misquoted line I’ve encountered is one from the Black Knight scene in that movie about the search for a grail.  The Knight gets his arms and legs chopped off by King Arthur, but his fearlessly vigilant head and torso are still attempting to stop Arthur from crossing the bridge the Knight is guarding.

Despite massive blood loss and a complete lack of appendages, the indomitable Knight continues to hurl insults at King Arthur as Arthur and his servant walk across the hilariously puny bridge and go along their merry way.  “You yellow bastards,” the Knight yells over his shoulder.  “Come back and take what’s coming to you!  I’ll bite your legs off!”  The line, “I’ll bite your legs off” has somehow found its way into the public vernacular as, “I’ll cut your head off,” which A) doesn’t make sense, and B) isn’t funny.  That kind of thing used to drive me crazy, and I never hesitated to correct the offender.

All through high school and college, I had the reputation of being the Monty Python expert in my little social circle, but after a while, that kind of thing tends to get on peoples’ nerves.  I remember a couple of friends telling me in no uncertain terms that for once they would like to have a Python-free conversation.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Sliding Doors (and you should, it’s excellent), you may remember the fast-talking, witty Scottish guy Gwyneth Paltrow falls for.   He’s an obsessive MP quoter too, and there’s one scene in which he and she are at a dinner party, which he becomes the life of by quoting a huge chunk of the entire Spanish Inquisition scene, verbatim.  I couldn’t find the Sliding Doors clip, but I think a picture of the Inquisition will be enough to jog your memory.

So the guy is sitting there at the table quoting the entire scene.   Everyone is at rapt attention, hanging on his every word, laughing uproariously at the salient points.   I’ve been That Guy, and I’m here to tell you that real life doesn’t work that way.  People start to get annoyed if all you do is quote things, or if you don’t have anything of your own to add to a conversation.  They’ll quickly tire of talking with you and go talk with other people instead.  Funny how that works. . .and how long it took me to realize it.

There was a subsequent time in my life when I went through a rigorous training program I called (in my head, anyway) How To Be A Better Human.  Many people have had similar experiences; that sort of thing is one of the rites of passage toward being an adult.  I went through and found some of the areas of my life that weren’t working; there were quite a few at the time, I can assure you.  I’ll spare you the details for another time, but one of the habits I decided to break was the constant quoting of Monty Python.  I made a pact with myself that I would never do it again, since I had spent so many years doing it.  As a corollary, if I heard someone misquote a line or two, I was prepared to let that slide.  Life’s too short for that kind of pedantry.

Fast forward about fifteen years, and along comes Monty Python Day.  Everyone on Facebook is quoting and having a good time, and it IS fun.  But when I chime in (and I DO chime in!), I have to admit that I have slightly mixed feelings about doing it, because it means I’m breaking my pact.  I suppose after this many years of good behavior, I can ease up a little bit and just enjoy it.  Who among us doesn’t like levity?

As proof of my love of levity, I’m embedding one of my favorite episodes:  the one with the Lifeboat/Cannibalism/Undertaker sketches in it.  My all-time favorite Python animation sequence is the ‘Cannibalism’ section in this clip, starting around the 3:40 mark.

All this being said, there will always be a special place in my heart (and probably my DNA, too, quite frankly) for the Pythons. They unwittingly played a huge part in the formation of my personality, and I owe them a great debt of gratitude. I “always look on the bright side of life” because of them.

There I go, breaking my pact.  Oh well.  No use biting my legs off about it.

mellodrama

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A couple of friends and I went to see the documentary film Mellodrama last night, which was all about my favorite musical instruments, the Chamberlin and Mellotron.

When you press a key on one of these instruments, it plays a tape of a cello (or a flute, or an orchestra, or various other instruments) playing the note you want to play.  They were invented with the idea that organists could play the sounds of the orchestra in their homes, but they quickly found their way into recording studios and rock bands, who liked their haunting, ethereal sounds.

The most famous example of a Mellotron sound is the flute at the beginning of Strawberry Fields Forever. . .

. . .but there are countless other famous examples, like the flutes in “Stairway to Heaven” and the lush string parts in “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues.  It’s all over the Fiona Apple albums, as well as Aimee Mann, Micheal Penn, Led Zeppelin, Crowded House, and. . .well, maybe you should go ahead and check out this playlist on Rhapsody.  Listen to the music around the vocals, and the way the instruments interact.  If you hear things that sound like flutes, or lush orchestras, or solo cellos and violins, or vibraphones, it’s probably a keyboard instrument like this instead.

I wish I was lucky enough to own a real Chamberlin, but for now I’m content to have the sample CD from Mellotron Archives, which gives me a ‘best of’ collection of the most widely used sounds, without the expense and hassle of owning a famously unreliable and cantankerous instrument.  Those sounds continue to be my not-so-secret weapons on many of the songs I produce and play on.  This documentary is a fascinating look behind the scenes of a very interesting set of instruments, which was the first incarnation of the idea of sampling as we know it today.

Whether you’re a musician yourself, or simply a music fan who likes to know how music sounds the way it does, this will offer you some great insights into one of the most influential instruments out there.  Lots of well-known people are in the film, including Jon Brion, Brian Wilson, Michael Penn, Patrick Warren, Brian Kehew, Matthew Sweet, and many others.  I urge you to track the film down and watch it.

I’ll be buying it on DVD.

folk festival fun

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I just realized that in my blog hiatus I had forgotten to share some pictures and stories from a few weeks ago, when the Portland Folk Festival was happening here in town.  IrishBand played a sweat-drenched set that the reviewer from WeeklyAlternativeNewspaper favorably compared to a “grange hall punk show” that was “a fine balance of exactitude and slop,” which sounds about right.  That’s pretty much our modus operandi.   Our friend Dr. Something from Crappy Indie Music was there, and she sketched us, as well as the other two bands who played that night.  Totally amazing!  (I’m the one with the accordion, by the way.)  She seems to have a thing for our rhythm section, and who can blame her?  They’re strapping young lads, as you can see.  I love the way she made each of us look like our real selves, particularly Drummer and Violinist.

That was one of the most rockin’ and fun shows we’ve ever had, quite honestly, and certainly one of the sweatiest.  My tie was still damp the next morning.

Another cool thing about that night of the Folk Festival was that a couple of us got the opportunity to see a tremendous new documentary called Roll Out, Cowboy, which is about Chris Sand, a.k.a. Sandman the Rappin’ Cowboy.  It’s a very well done, sympathetic, and touching story about his interesting, bucolic, and somewhat disparate life.  I got to meet the filmmaker, Elizabeth, at the screening, who returned the favor by coming to our show later that evening.  Next time she’s in town, she said, she’d like to do a short interview film about us.  Naturally, we’re going to jump at that opportunity.

I don’t quite remember the chronology of everything, since in addition to all this, I had a ton of other things happening, including a huge birthday party for at least four friends and a gig/birthday party all in the same weekend, so it’s a bit of a blur.  Be that as it may, I’m gonna give it a shot.  My friend John and I got to see Sea of Bees downtown at Backspace, and we both kinda fell in love with them.  I particularly fell in love with the lead guitarist, who was a beautiful blonde girl, and a very cool and tasteful guitarist to boot, which is always nice.  Their show was great and very ‘low-fi’, but the CD is very polished and tight in a way that the show was not.  Both incarnations are excellent, and I highly recommend either or both.

John and I also made it a point to catch the inimitable Dan Bern on Misssissippi Street, doing a set of his childrens’ songs, after which we kidnapped him and took him to the food carts a bit farther on Mississippi to catch up and talk.  John got sushi, while Dan and I opted for some deliciousness from Native Bowl. I don’t know if you remember this or not (and due to the blogging hiatus, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t), I got the opportunity to play with Dan when he was in town about six months ago, thanks in a large part to John.  I played accordion and sang harmonies, until one of my accordion straps broke (which made it unplayable), so I set it down and turned around to jump behind the piano instead.  Here’s a blurry picture; the blob in front with the guitar is Dan, and the blob sitting at the piano is me.  I think this picture was taken during the song “God Said No”, which I thought was particularly beautiful that night.

Anyway.

Another huge highlight of the festival was Matt Keating, a guy with whom I was not previously familiar, although he had appeared on John’s old radio show (which has since found a new lease on life in podcast form, thanks to the up-and-coming KZME) once or twice a few years back, so the two of them were friends already.  John and I arrived at the Jade Lounge at the appointed time, to find that we and Matt’s family were the only ones in attendance.  The bartender told us that they had pushed back the performance by an hour, so the group of us decided to eat dinner and hang out together.  With lots of other families, this would have been awkward at best, but Matt’s family is so outgoing and fun that we felt completely welcome and at ease.  After a while, we somewhat hilariously split off by gender; Matt, John and I discussed music and things at our own table, and Matt’s female family members talked about whatever ‘girly’ stuff they talked about.   :)

Matt was scheduled to be on John’s newer radio show later that night, and since we’d all had such a great time at dinner, John proposed that I bring my accordion to the station and accompany Matt, despite having only heard the three songs I’d heard at his gig.  Matt was game to let me sit in, and showing up with an instrument and improvising is a hobby of mine, so I was excited too.  It turned out great, and Matt even invited me to play a show with him later that week, with a guitarist friend of his, John Vecchiarelli (who is an amazing and talented songwriter in his own right) on snare drum, and me on accordion.  Matt called our impromptu band Freedom Tickler, which is just plain brilliant.

See what happens when I don’t blog for a while?  It’s not that I haven’t had things to write about, I just haven’t felt like writing, and I haven’t had two spare seconds to rub together in order to process all the things that have been happening.

In other news, keep your eyes on this space for the short film in which my friend Danielle and I acted.  It should be edited and available for viewing (and hopefully for sharing) within the next week or so.  I’m really excited to see that.