Two for the Queue

We just got hammered by another big snowstorm and thoughts of hibernation are rising like a grizzly on its hind legs. If you share my desire to stay in for a time, here are two very underrated films to push to the top of your video queue: Following and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Christopher Nolan is a hot director now, having scored with intelligent

and enigmatic films such as Memento 2000), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and Inception (2010). Back in 1998, when he was an unknown with just a short under his belt, he made a small film called Following. It was made in London for chump change and is just 69 minutes long, but in it we see Nolan working out many of the techniques he’d later use in big budget movies: hand-held camera action, non-linear storytelling, id/superego battles, confused reality….

Following was shot in black and white and dressed and toned like an early 1950s film noir thriller. It follows an unnamed character (Jeremy Theobald) who stalks people--not to harass or threaten them, but because he’s a struggling writer who lives vicariously through second-hand experiences that provide fodder for his

not-so-active imagination. One of his marks, Cobb (Alex Haw), unmasks the writer and draws him into his world--Cobb is a psychotic burglar who robs for thrills more than gain. Like most Nolan films Following unfolds in non-chronological vignettes, but it does have an arc: the writer’s descent into danger and self-entrapment. This small film is as creepy as a horror film, has as many twists as Inception, and feels like a 50s cocktail party gone horribly wrong. No wonder the studios gave Nolan some cash with which to work; he did more with a few grand in Following than most directors do with 60 million.

If you want a film about real people that’s weirder than fiction, check out the 87-minute documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). It’s a horrible title that has only the thinnest connection to the film’s content, but its director is none other than Banksy, the world’s most famous and elusive guerilla street artist. His identity is unknown, but the film’s protagonist is very public indeed. He is Thierry Guetta, a French national living in Los Angeles; in part because La-La-Land is about the only place on earth that’s surreal enough to contain him. Guetta began filming street artists, including luminaries such as AndrĂ©, Space Invader, and Shepard Fairey (of the red, white, and blue Obama poster fame). Guetta gpt his footage by going on late night graffiti runs with the artists and risking life, limb, and arrest alongside them. He even got access to Banksy, something no one had ever done. So Guetta’s film told the truth about street artists, right? Actually, Guetta hadn’t a clue about how to make a film--he just liked to film things! When Bansky tells him to bugger off and go make his own art, he does--and becomes the overnight darling of the Los Angeles art world. Thierry is a world-class eccentric, but is he a genius or as crazy as a March hare? You watch and decide. Parts of the film are laugh-out-loud hysterical and others will make you wonder if Thierry is more sane than art critics, sensation-seeking hipsters, and the media that glorified all three.


Annie Gallup Weather Album a Portent of Intelligence



Waterbug 0093


If you can imagine what Beat poets might have sounded like if they were singers and preferred string quartets to bebop jazz, you get an inkling of Annie Gallup’s latest. It’s a literate and introspective collection of poems, spoken word presentation, and song. The music is arranged by Asia Mei, a classically trained pianist and composer with the soul of a jazz gypsy. If you never thought that a string quartet could have edge, listen to this recording and get back to me. The songs and poems are at once deeply personal and reflective of Gallup’s musings of living in a nation at war, an experience she approaches with equal parts disgust and sorrow. Along the way she also touches on the passing of cultural icons Janet Leigh and Suzanne Pleshette—sort of. Like everything on this intelligent album, the surfaces serve to tantalize you to scratch them and probe more deeply. And, yes, Weather is an ironic title. Think Bob Dylan’s dictum “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.”


Beatlemania Again a Competent Effort


Calvin Theater, Northampton, MA

January 22, 2011

So how do you feel about Elvis impersonators? Is there a difference between a tribute band and one that tries to inhabit the persona of a group? Is it better to cover or to copy? Do all cover bands suck? (Before you answer the last one let me remind you that Dark Star Orchestra is something The Grateful Dead never was: good every single night.)

How you feel about dressing up and make believe largely determines how much you’d enjoy or gag at a show such as Beatlemania Again. So let’s get it up front: I found the show a lot of fun. It was great to hear so much of the Beatles repertoire in one place at one time. The quartet performing it--Bob Fitch (Paul McCartney), Dave Pal (John Lennon), Tom Godsman (George Harrison), and founder Rich Morello (Ringo Starr)--is talented and charming. Do they sound “just like” The Beatles? No. Did their performance creep me out? On occasion, yes, though I was far more disturbed by the picture-taking and autograph-signing after the show. It’s one thing to play a stage role, but when the curtain falls, it’s time to take off the grease paint.

If you’ve not been following the story, Beatlemania was such a Broadway musical triumph from 1977 to 1979 that various touring groups put “The Beatles” back on the road again until the real group’s Apple Corps sued. That’s never a good idea; groups simply re-form with names that adhere to the letter of the law, but not its spirit. Beatlemania Again was not part of the legal wrangling; they’ve only been at it for 16 years. That’s long enough to become very good at casting a stage illusion of The Beatles. Key word: illusion.

Beatlemania Again is a show with three acts and costume changes (and one intermission). We first see the lads in the Meet the Beatles days of 1964, when they first hit New York and played the Ed Sullivan Show. This is actually the sharpest part of the show---dressed in mop tops wigs and Edwardian suits the quartet strikes all the right chords with a mix of sugary pop, rockabilly, skiffle, and watered-down blues. After the intermission we see the band in their Sgt. Pepper regalia and it doesn’t quite work. The costumes look like a mash-up between choir robes and Joann’s Fabrics and the music itself lacks the trippy and mystical dimensions of the original. The ship is righted when the band segues into the final Get Back days. The last part of the show has good energy and it features some blistering guitar work from Godsman channeling Harrison.

Godsman is the best of the lot, in part because Harrison never hogged the limelight so there’s more room to invent his character. Fitch and Pal are perfectly competent, but if you’ve seen the original McCartney and Lennon, neither would ever be confused with them. Pal doesn’t really capture Lennon’s mannerisms or his ego, and Fitch lacks McCartney’s dulcet high tones and his body type. As for Morello, his problem is different: he sings way better than Ringo ever did (or has). The four make very good music and it’s a solid approximation of The Beatles. But several things betray Beatlemania Again as Beatles in drag. First, they play a lot songs ever so slightly too fast. Many Beatles songs seem so innocent that it’s easy to neglect how tightly constructed they were, until we hear someone else do them. We also hear differences in both the harmonies and in the high ranges. Fitch’s attempt at “Hey Jude” was a low point--what McCartney made sweet and effortless came out as labored.

Would I recommend that you catch the show if it comes to your neck of the woods? Sure--why not? Just understand that though lots of tasty desserts can be made from carob, none will rival real chocolate.