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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Sunday
Aug092009

In Which We Get Inked

As Lightly As Possible

by GEORGIA HARDSTARK

Barbara was a bad influence, and conveniently I was bored of suburban life and craving a bad influence. We became friends quickly. Her favorite band was Stone Temple Pilots (this was in 1993, so I'd never heard of them), and we bonded over our all-encompassing, flannel clad obsession with Nirvana. Everywhere we went, we'd do so with our arms linked - mine looped through hers - and our heads tilted towards one another so our conspiratorial conversations wouldn't be overheard.

Do you remember what it felt like when you first discovered that there was a life away from your parents? When you first realized that you weren't a child anymore? For some of you that may have been later in life - in college or when you got your first car and had that taste of freedom — but for me, because I was a latchkey kid with a wild imagination, I experienced that when I was 13. I couldn't have picked a better (or worse, more likely) person to expose me to that life than Barbara.

photo by jonah ray I remember straddling her as she lay face-down on her couch one afternoon. We had ditched class like always, and her single mother was at work. She wanted the word "Love" carved into her back, she told me as she held a lighter to a razor blade to disinfect it, before handing it over to me. I pressed as lightly as possible, barely drew any blood, but I remember thinking how stupid she was for doing that. She was the dominant one in our relationship though, more of a boyfriend to me than a friend, so I didn't tell her this.

That's a whole part of my life that I'd like to forget. The girl I was back then is a stranger to me now, and when I see girls who are the age I was when I did those things I'd like to forget - the drugs, the sex, feeling invincible - I'm always shocked at how young they look. It doesn't jive with the image I had of myself back then.

Underneath the large tattoo on my leg, now covered by a Japanese flower, are her initials. With a safety pin and Indian ink, we carved each other's initials into our legs at the height of our friendship, which not long after came to a screeching halt over a guy.

Georgia Hardstark is the contributing editor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. Georgia also blogs here and tumbls here.

"Winter Games"  — Foreign Born (mp3) highly recommended

"Early Warnings" — Foreign Born (mp3)

"Vacationing People" — Foreign Born (mp3)

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Saturday
Aug082009

In Which Thieves Highway Never Ends

Up the Pacific Coast

by ELEANOR MORROW

The perfect movie is Ozu's Tokyo Story, but second and an unassailable classic is Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway. It takes one of the more boring premises — running apples up the coast to San Francisco in a rickety truck — and makes it into the highest art imaginable.

Nicky is home to visit his parents back from the war where he expanded American democracy, the loyal son of Greek immigrants. He finds out that a big stiff named Mike cheated his father out of a litter of tomatoes and left him paralyzed by the end of it. Nick's ma doesn't know what to believe, but Nicky knows better. He is determined to take revenge for what happened to his family.

As you might have guessed, with respect of the America of Thieves' Highway we might as well be de Tocqueville. It is us looking in on the confluence of these generations of immigrants. Nicky's parents are of the first generation; he's fully Americanized and yet the dilemmas he faces are as old as the Polish ghetto. He's ostensibly in love with a prim, blonde white girl, until he finds he isn't in love with her at all.

A revenge story is always the best cinematic medicine. Instead of doing a film of characters talking to each other, Dassin does a film in which they're all over each other. Once he hits San Francisco while almost getting crushed underneath his truck in the process, Nicky runs into the wrong end of the short con, meeting a foreign woman, about whom he only knows that she is cheating him somehow. She is the opposite of his plain Jane whitebread California valley girl, maybe the first real Valley Girl.

In one scene Nicky's fiancee Polly happens on what's become of him in one trip up to San Francisco. She appraises her bruised boyfriend, who has by virtue of his naivete been tossed around the city. She says, "I don't suppose you even have enough money to send me home, do you?" California girls are all the same. They have high standards, and they always expect disaster.

Nicky barely seems bothered by his development. Revenge owes no obligation to the vicious subtleties of romance. Nicky is given the illusion of choice...he is offered up to an enterprising young white woman, only to end in the arms of someone a little more his speed. She can barely pronounce his name, but to bang a con artist is a singular thrill. He allows her to take him into her arms, and while he does, her boss starts stealing Nicky's apples. You can't do that. He rises up at the man who is trying to defile him. In this loving gesture we feel the excess fury of his demand for what is right.

These broad strokes are perhaps touched on better in genre films than in so-called artistic films. Dassin fused them together, later making art out of a heist movie in Rififi. Dassin was a master filmmaker who got on the Hollywood blacklist. He had to relocate to France, a bizarre fate for a Jewish-American born in Middletown. (Our history with the Jews is more complex than even Abraham Foxman would have you believe.)

The emotional center of Thieves' Highway is actually an action scene. The major subplot of the film concerns Nicky's partner in the apple-toting enterprise, a crackfaced white guy trying to get along in a world of crooks. "You've got to be canny in this business," he tells Nicky, who obviously wasn't listening. The guy is driving down a road when his driveshaft conks out and his shaky truck explodes into a fiery ball.

The field he lies on is coated with burnt apples, some of them salvageable. He dies with no one to remember who was and how he had tried.

People crowd the road to get a better view of the dramatic accident. It is one of the most beautiful action sequences ever in film, and it happens to be one of the first. Before Duel this chase meant more. The act of witnessing is a profoundly American trait, of looking on, of taking notice of the small injustices and putting them right.

Thieves Highway is just as memorable because remarkably little of our cinema discusses what it took for America to become America. Books and even radio remember the past, the cinema forgets it. It's easier to simply construct a more modern set, with characters and people of the time who might seem more relatable. The past is a strange brew, and even Dassin might suggest, in the blood wake that ensues here, that we are better rid of it.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls here.

"Circus Song" — The Great Book of John (mp3)

"Echoing Laughter" — The Great Book of John (mp3) highly recommended

"Death of a Middle School Guidance Counselor" — The Great Book of John (mp3)

Friday
Aug072009

In Which John Hughes Invented PG-13

John Hughes On John Hughes

I so desperately hate to end these movies that the first thing I do when I'm done is write another one. Then I don't feel sad about having to leave and everybody going away. That's why I tend to work with the same people; I really befriend them. I couldn't speak after Sixteen Candles was over. I returned to the abandoned house, and they were tearing down [Samantha Baker's] room. And I was just horrified, because I wanted to stay there forever.

Most of my work has been about ordinary people. Just regular folks, the guys that live on the right and left of you, the people you grew up next to. They're people you see every day, but you may never stop and think about them. But if you do stop and look, you discover there are really great dramas taking place in every one of those lives.

Molly Ringwald: Would a woman like Kelly LeBrock have been your ideal when you were a teen?

John Hughes: No. Too scary.

Ferris has a line where he refers to his father's saying that high school was like a great party. Ferris knows what his father was like, and he knows that his father has just forgotten the bad parts. Adults ask me all sorts of baffling questions, like, "Your teenage dialogue - how do you do that?" and "Have you actually seen teens interact?" And I wonder if they think that people under twenty-one are a separate species. We shot Ferris at my old high school, and I talked with the students a lot. And I loved it, because it was easy to strike up a conversation with them. I can walk up to a seventeen-year-old and say, "How do you get along with your friends?" and he'll say, "Okay." You ask a thirty-five-year-old the same question, and he'll say, "Why do you want to know? What's wrong? Get away from me." All those walls built up.

I was kind of quiet. I grew up in a neighborhood that was mostly girls and old people. There weren't any boys my age, so I spent a lot of time by myself, imagining things. And every time we would get established somewhere, we would move. Life just started to get good in seventh grade, and then we moved to Chicago. I ended up in a really big high school, and I didn't know anybody. But then The Beatles came along.Changed my whole life. And then Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home came out and really changed me. Thursday I was one person, and Friday I was another. My heroes were Dylan, John Lennon and Picasso, because they each moved their particular medium forward, and when they got to the point where they were comfortable, they always moved on. I liked them at a time when I was in a pretty conventional high school, where the measure of your popularity was athletic ability. And I'm not athletic - I've always hated team sports.

The Beatles and The Clash are the greatest. I've listened to the Beatles' White Album for more than sixteen years, and when we were filming Ferris Bueller, I listened to the album every single day for fifty-six days.

I was very worried that some of the long dialogue scenes in The Breakfast Club would get booed off the screen, but I think they work because by the time you reach them, you've gotten to know the characters.

Mr. Mom was pretty badly butchered. I just got raped on the project. It is, in fact, the story of my and my two children. I did the first draft in a day and a half, one sitting.

I never start with the jokes. I look at an issue and try to find every story in it. The world can only take so many Airplane!s. To me, Animal House was a character movie. I'm a great fan of Capra, Hitchcock, and The Honeymooners. Stories and characters. You get a lot of bad comedy from people sitting around a bar and saying, "Wouldn't it be funny if?" The Lampoon taught me the value of being honest, to reach deep into myself and put out things that other people were also thinking.

I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club, those obnoxious, spoiled Mouseketeers you just wanted to beat the tar out of. They could do anything! Disneyland after hours? Whatever you want! They'd wear these horse things, and they'd give away giant Tootsie Rolls. My grandmother was diabetic; there was a fear of sugar in my house. I wanted one of those goddamn Tootsie Rolls, I wanted to dance with that horse for a while, I wanted to go to Disneyland. I never got there as a kid and knew I never would.

I stumbled into this business, I didn't train for it. I yelled 'Action!' on my first two movies before the camera was turned on. They're not perfect movies, they're flawed. They're not cappuccino pictures, they're sort of Maxwell House instant coffee out of the machine at the car wash.

America has this great reverence for New York. I look at it as this decaying horror pit. So let the people in Chicago enjoy Ferris Bueller.

People ask me, ‘Were you the geek?’ No, I wasn’t. ‘So which one were you?’ I don’t get it. Who was Alfred Hitchcock in his movies? Janet Leigh? Did anyone even ask him?

You know that assignment you always get in high school when you’re reading Walden, to keep a journal? Well, I just kept doing that.

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"Danke Schoen" — Wayne Newton (mp3)

"Love Missile F1-11 (Dance Mix)" — Sigue Sigue Sputnik (mp3)

"Taking the Day Off" — General Public (mp3)

"Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" — The Dream Academy (mp3)