Capelle on Composers: Day Three

Staff May 8, 2008

This marks the final installment of Marc Capelle’s SF International blog on composers, music and the movies of the 51st Fest. Capelle is a native San Franciscan composer and musician. He writes music for films, television, commercials, web spots, toys and billboards.He has most recently worked with Tommy Guerrero, American Music Club, Tipsy and Virgil Shaw. He also performs monthly as musical timekeeper at the Porch Light story telling series.

Back to music.

I have some friends that were in a Sub Pop band that pre-dated Nirvana. They were known as the Dwarves. Their music is and was a snotty suburban unholy mixture of the Sonics, the Orlons, the Stooges and a vat of amphetamines. Their record covers usually featured midgets and half-naked woman covered in either blood or some sort of Nestle syrup of some sort. Here is one of their lines.

"I fucked a girl in Pittsburgh, the Steelers won that night"
"I fucked them all."

I was thinking of them the other afternoon when I went to hear Robert Towne speak (re: his Kanbar Award for Excellence in Screenwriting) just prior to a screening of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo. They showed a great clip from Shampoo during a retrospective of Towne’s screenwriting work. The clip showed Warren Beatty’s comedic genius in a stammering mea culpa to Goldie Hawn’s character when she is trying to nail him down as to just who he has and has not been philandering with.

"I fucked them all."

This simple statement, admission, modus vivendi that hairdresser George Roundy busts out after a post-coital, post-dawn inquisition and after a lot of hemming and hawing. The story takes course over a dazzling November 1968 election day in Beverly Hills, California, and rambles into afternoon and into night and then to day again. In this period of about 40 hours where Nixon gets elected, couples split up, couple and then recouple, tennis lessons are interrupted, and young marines die in suburban car wrecks on their way back to Camp Pendleton. There is a lot going on and it is often frenetic and frantic, but also kind of set in a loopy determinism that has its own shaggy stoner pace.

Praise Jehu and Hal Ashby that through out the film our sonic guide is not just the spoken dialogue, but the bedside clock radio, the other end of the telephone receiver, the transistor radio, the hippie party stereo, the society band in the corner, the car radio. (All beautiful music handpicked, perhaps, with the some help by music consultant Phil Ramone). We hear "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys framing the beginning and end of the film, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Manic Depression" by Hendrix and pretty much the of the toppermost of the poppermostest rocking tunes of 1968.

There is also an original score by Paul Simon. (Later in 1975, the original theme ended getting restructured, lyricized and re-recorded as "Silent Eyes" on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years with a much more Muscle Shoals/ Rev. James Cleveland gospel feel).

They fit the script for Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop into a single Esquire article, and you could just as easily fit Simon’s beautiful single-themed score for Shampoo on to a 12-inch single. It is sparse, perfectly targeted, edited and placed throughout the film—and is as close as we get to real unfettered soul and love—in a film full of racket: hairdryers blowing, TV sets blasting election results, motorcycles revving, Lee Grant coming and wanting more, banker bullshit, Beatles, Buffaloes and Beach Boys and big love lies being passed around like joints.

Just when you feel things are losing a little traction, an angel-voiced, wordless Simon riffing slowly, languidly on a melody that owes a bit to the first three notes of "We Three Kings of Orient are," (as well as a small soupcon of Vince Guaraldi’s "Christmas Time is Here Again" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," 1965, thrown in for good measure) begins his plaintively wordlessly ooo’d theme over a Bert Jansch-ified 6/4 Joe Boyd-esque arrangment. The music happens just briefly, for a chorus or two, five times in the film. The last time being as we watch Beatty atop a small flat high above Beverly Hills and Benendict Canyon watching his closest truest love leave to elope to Acapulco. Cellos join the wordless vocal acoustic guitar and contrabass and woodwinds enter and we watch Beatty’s fluffy undone tux shirt blow in the breeze and Paul Simon wordlessly sing his ass off to the loveliest acoustic guitar, contrabass and cello trio you could ever wistfully imagine.

Just one genre note—-while not as straight from the Grand Hotel/Dinner at Eight mold as The Anniversary Party, Shampoo is still a pretty linear comic tragedy, or a roundelay as Pauline Kael might say, not unlike Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise—where you got a glorious and glamorous host of completely unreliable decadents on the make. All heading urgently off in different directions to the same final destination.

Pauline Kael once called Robert Towne a flaky classicist. Saturday at the Kanbar Award show, when Towne spoke, what made my brain really zing is when he talked about how all of his films are, in a way, based on Disney and Warner Bros. short cartoons. All those cartoons are about characters/animals/schlubs with perspectives and their perspectives come from their jobs. You know Mickey is a steamboat captain or Elmer is going hunting or what have you. Everybody has a job and Towne writes from the perspective of someone with a job looking out at the world that stuck him working it in the first place.

I am reminded of an interview with director Nick Ray in which talked about how much comic strips are the real birth of storyboards. And comic strips were a big part of the way he learned to develop and shape films. But that is a different job and a different story.

Which brings me to Bela Tarr and Mihaly Vig.

For The Man from London, Bela Tarr again works with composer, actor and writer Mihaly Vig, who has worked with Tarr for the past 20 years. The movie is all shadow, camera behind necks, at ankles, a slow-motion hypnosis of cinematographic re-invention. Sonically, there are beautiful spectral piano reels, and throughout there are slow accordion drones that are so subtle that there are times where it feels as if the music is emerging from the furniture and the walls and not from actual instruments or a score per se. Bela Tarr knows how to create cosmologies out of bar patrons and dead whales. I trust and believe everything I see in his films. His composer Vig should get a nice share of ambergris for leaving the sounds embodied in the cosmos instead of calling too much attention to his job or his orchestrations or our rather localized solar system. That the film was originally written by Georges Simenon did not seem to get in the way at all.

Okay. Maybe from now on when I bake from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, I should rethink the portions.

But I am not high. And even though I used to think that Abel Ferrara was, I now think he is the saviour of New York. Fiorella LaGuardia reborn to save Loisaida from itself.

But back to being high.

I did just see a movie with Pras from the Fugees playing a guy who makes organic pigs in a blanket at a strip club called The Paradise in some forever 1986 part of New York. You know what I am saying.

And while I am so high, when the hell did Abel Ferarra become a sweeter version of Alan Rudolph? I had really expected, going to an afternoon screening of the film, to come out in to the early evening sun feeling like I had done laps in the Gowanus Canal. Instead, I feel like Jack Lemmon wearing a straw boater.

But back to the film.

For the first five minutes of Go Go Tales, I found myself chanting, "Please don’t be like that other strip club movie, Dancing at the Blue Iguana, which had lots of breasts but even more acting and some horrible improv/acting, a deux twixt Sandra Oh and Darryl Hannah.

But Ferarra’s joint. Well. Hell, it is like the world greatest "I ain’t ‘fraid of no dope," Disney ride brought to Ludlow street. And it may just save those kids.

Throughout Sylvia Miles sits at the bar in leopard skin playing a landlady. Her part is essentially to bark again and again "bed, bath, and beyond" in a voice that is some weird mixture of Lawrence Tierney and Sally Kirkland.

Then Matthew Modine is in there with a weird blond Sassoon bangy shag cut. Oh yeah, and he does a dog act. The dog plays toy piano. And he is, er, um, a hairdresser.

And Asia Argento French kisses a Rottweiler. But it is the most wholesome bestiality since Disney’s Shaggy Dog series. It is really a sweet little kiss that probably happens hundreds of times a day in Dolores Park.

As for the soundtrack there is lots of Grace Jones. And the world needs Grace Jones as much as they need clean water and clean fuel. We just need to get Abel Ferrara to remind them. And Ferarra lets Willem Dafoe sing and it’s cool. But that’s his good luck and fortune that Grace Jones has already set the table. It is great to hear that Grace Jones will be featured in Ferrara’s next movie, in what promises to be yet another Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, this time set around and about the Chelsea Hotel.

Marc Capelle is a native San Franciscan composer and musician. He writes music for films, television, commercials, web spots, toys and billboards. He has most recently worked with Tommy Guerrero, American Music Club, Tipsy, and Virgil Shaw. He also performs monthly as musical timekeeper at the Porch Light story telling series.