Prince and Lenny Kravitz: “American Woman”

The white-hot pansexual-yet-ALPHA-MALE sex appeal on that stage is almost too much for me to handle.

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“Steve Winwood said, ‘Hey, Prince is over there.’ And I said, ‘I guess he’s playing with us?'”- Steve Ferrone, drummer for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

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There has been so much ink spilled on that epic Prince guitar solo during the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and I love it all. (I read a piece yesterday, I’ll track it down, that referred to Prince’s performance that night as “pure blood sport.”) I’ve seen a couple people say that Petty seems a bit miffed that Prince is “taking over”, but I have never agreed with that. Petty’s job was to play back-up to Prince, and keep that section of the song going over and over and over until Prince was done. Petty is the band-leader, the conductor. It’s up to him to sense when Prince is “coming down” from what he’s doing, and signal to the rest of the band it’s time to close it all up, and he does that by a casual wave of his arm, seen by everyone onstage, as well as by Prince. Petty keeps his eyes on Prince the entire time, because there’s an ESP connection that has to go on between a lead singer and his guitar-solo “side man”, so that they’re in sync. So no, I don’t think Petty was up there fuming, “Look at Prince showing off.” This ain’t middle-school, people. These are professional musicians and rock stars and if anyone understood that Prince was, say, “touched” and bigger than most of them, it was these guys. You think Tom Petty doesn’t know that Prince is “better” than him? You think Tom Petty was, in some ways, surprised that Prince “took over”? I think everyone on that stage was blown AWAY (imagine seeing that solo up close, as you play along and try to keep your shit together) – not pissed off that Prince was showing them up. Puh-leez. He’s Prince. Of course he’s showing them up.

All of this is to say: There’s a great piece in the New York Times about that guitar solo, with reminiscences from most of those guys onstage: The Day Prince’s Guitar Wept the Loudest. I’m sorry Harrison’s son wasn’t interviewed, but I suppose his huge grin during Prince’s guitar solo (that brings me to tears) needs no explanation. It’s great to hear Petty remember that crazy day, because it confirms my own feelings that of course, no, Tom Petty wasn’t fuming that Prince “stole” his moment.

There are a lot of great gems in the piece, and much that I didn’t know. The lack of rehearsal. The wondering whether or not Prince would even DO the solo, or if “the other guy” would do it.

This, though, from Steve Ferrone (Petty’s drummer) is the take-away for me.

I had no idea that Prince was going to be there. Steve Winwood said, “Hey, Prince is over there.” And I said, “I guess he’s playing with us?”

So I said to Winwood, “I’m going to go over and say hello to him.” I wandered across the stage and I went up to him and I said, “Hi, Prince, it’s nice to meet you — Steve Ferrone.” And he said, “Oh, I know who you are!” Maybe because I’d played on Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You,” which is a song that he wrote. I went back over and I sat down behind the drum kit, and Winwood was like: “What’s he like? What’d he say?”

Then I was sitting there, and I heard somebody playing a guitar riff from a song that I wrote with Average White Band. And I looked over and Prince was looking right at me and playing that song. And I thought, “Yeah, you actually do know who I am!”

God, that moves me to tears. But it’s worth it to read the whole thing!

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Happy Birthday, Willie Nelson

Legend. Still vital, still recording, still doing his thing. I love how his LOOK has changed, of course, from these early days (the video is from 1962) – but the voice: the voice is unmistakable. He’s still got it.

And this performance on September 21, 2001. I will never ever ever forget it.

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I Think We Need a Bigger Bed

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Elvis bought Ann-Margret a huge round bed. Why? You figure it out. The bed cost $780.00. Someone do the math. It was an exorbitant amount of money in 1963. The check for said bed is under glass at Graceland. Elvis wrote in the margin: “Personal gift for home of Miss Ann Margret.”

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Happy Birthday, Ann-Margret

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Ann-Margret entertaining US troops in Vietnam, 1966

Today is Ann-Margret’s birthday. Her autobiography, Ann-Margret: My Story is wonderful. What a career. And it’s still unfolding. There are so many classic scenes. Tommy. Carnal Knowledge.

Of course, too, there is the Elvis connection and that is what I will write about today, although there are so many other phases to her extraordinary career. These are edited re-posts on Viva Las Vegas, the one film she did with Elvis. One of his best, partially because of her presence, and their onscreen chemistry. In a perfect world, the two of them would have made 5 or 6 movies together, instead of just the one.

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It’s no secret that the two had a love affair. They remained friends to the end, and she was one of the only Hollywood people who made the trip to Memphis for Elvis’ funeral. The two of them were raised in similar old-fashioned conservative ways, and that was one of the ways in which they bonded, as she describes in her book: Respect for your elders, do the right thing, be kind and polite, grateful for what you have, etc. The entire time they were dating, Ann-Margret was living with her parents, and Elvis would come over, and have dinner, and hang out with her family, and do all the things a good old-fashioned boyfriend is supposed to do. He “got it”.

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And while we don’t know about the sex they had, and neither should we, we do know that Elvis bought her a gigantic round bed. You figure it out. Beautifully, the check for that damn bed ($780.00) is on display at Graceland, with a note in Elvis’ handwriting in the Memo section: “Personal gift for home of Miss Ann Margret.”

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The two of them were sometimes fish-out-of-water in the more brutal and selfish atmosphere of Hollywood show-biz, and they found much comfort and ease in one another’s company. They would drive around the Hollywood hills, and park the car, looking out over the skyline, and talk about everything under the sun. They were idealistic, hopeful, and total fans of one another. “You’re awesome,” “No, YOU’RE awesome,” was how they felt.

Ann-Margret wrote in her book, bluntly, “I will never recover from Elvis’ death.”

While she does devote a chapter to their relationship, she does not give away much, and never speaks of him in anything less than a totally complimentary way. She refuses to divulge “dirt”. (You will find that that is the case with all of his girlfriends. All of the women in his life. Including Priscilla. They are loyal to him, and protective. It says a lot about who he was in life.)

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Watch this extraordinary clip of Charlie Rose’s interview with Ann-Margret. Watch her quiet firmness, the sense of heartbreak still there, the feeling of Love you get from her. Rose is not being too pushy, and is clearly reacting to what is right in front of him, her sensitive refusal to “go there”. Other than her book, Ann-Margret does not speak of Elvis. At least not of their relationship. That was their private business. Elvis trusted her. To betray his trust would be unthinkable, even from beyond the grave.

The two were paired up together in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas, Elvis being the biggest star in the world at that point, and Ann-Margret on her white-hot rise to superstardom.

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From the first moment they met, each recognized a kindred soul in the other. They both said words to that effect. They drove the producers of the film crazy by risking their lives riding motorcycles like daredevils around late at night (there’s a motorbike sequence in Viva Las Vegas, too). Elvis’ nickname for her was “Ammo.”

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Presley, at the time he was dating Ann-Margret, became so overcome by his feelings that he actually approached his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and asked him to manage Ann-Margret’s career, too. Col. Parker only had one client: Elvis. It was a tense situation between the two men, the Colonel reminded him that if he took on Ann-Margret that would leave less time for Presley. It was a warning. The Colonel was not a fan of Viva Las Vegas anyway, because Ann-Margret had too much screen time. You know, as brilliant as the Colonel was, in his P.T. Barnum way, there were a lot of things he didn’t “get”.

It didn’t work out between Elvis and Ann-Margret, but for the rest of his life, any time Ann-Margret opened in Vegas, she’d find her dressing room filled with flowers (in the shape of a guitar) sent there by Elvis. She was always on his radar. She was in the inner circle of his heart.

To see Viva Las Vegas now is to see all of that happening in real-time. It translates onto the screen in unmistakable ways. I mean, watch this. (And look for Teri Garr! She was one of the dancers.)

Here’s a woman who not only can resist him, as well as hold her own onscreen beside him, but she also obviously openly adores him, who he is and what he does onstage. She looks up at him in “Come on Everybody”, dancing like the fangirl that she is, beaming a smile saying, “Give it to me! You’re so AWESOME! Give it to me!”

In that moment, she is US.

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Elvis Presley and Las Vegas went way back. At the height of his exploding popularity in 1956, he played Vegas, which, at that time, was made up of a middle-aged establishment crowd. Entertainers like Patti Page, the Rat Pack boys, performed in small clubs, and well-dressed people sat at tables, clapping. Presley, the grease-bomb from Memphis, was already known for wreaking havoc at his shows. There had been a riot in Florida, where girls poured backstage and ripped his clothes off (at Elvis’ instigation, by the way). Playing Vegas was risky but an important step at broadening his fan-base. Unfortunately, though, the 1956 Vegas shows did not go well. Everyone (including Elvis) considered the whole thing to be a disaster, and Elvis walked around Vegas late at night after his shows there, beside himself with anxiety. Why didn’t they love him? Dismissive reviews were written in national magazines, and Presley and the boys went back on the road to connect to the teenagers who seemed to “get it”. And so Las Vegas remained a fearful image in Presley’s mind, although he loved to go there on vacation. Vegas was a potent symbol to Elvis of the rare crowd he could NOT conquer. (Of course, in the late 1960s and on until the end of his life, Elvis came back and took Vegas by storm).

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But before all that, in 1964, Presley had taken another crack at the Vegas scene, with Viva Las Vegas, directed by George Sidney, and co-starring the young Ann-Margret, who had just made her first big splash in Bye Bye Birdie (a spin on the Elvis Presley story). Viva Las Vegas was the biggest and most traditional Hollywood musical that Presley ever did. The plot is the same as most of his other movies: Race car driver/singer, girl he wants, race he needs to win, exotic location, etc. Presley loved Vegas, as I mentioned, and even if he had never played Vegas so successfully in the 70s, he still might be associated with that town forever, due to the catchy anthem of the title song. It’s one of the few songs he ever sang that didn’t have to do with either a romantic relationship or his love for Jesus. It’s about his love for a town.

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Viva Las Vegas works primarily because Presley was partnered with someone who could go toe to toe with him, and was actually compelling enough in her own right that the audience felt some tension in the romantic relationship (and tension is where it’s at, when it comes to cinematic romance). Who wants to see a smooth guy who knows he will get the girl get the girl? Yawn.

But Presley is so strong a sexual presence that it’s difficult to imagine anyone turning him down, and many of the movies made that mistake … of not investing enough in the tense possibilities of a girl who would play hard to get with such a strapping sex symbol. Ann-Margret, as the swimming instructor in Viva Las Vegas, doesn’t play hard to get, not exactly, although the first number, where she puts him off, and he pursues, could be construed as in that realm. The beauty of it is that you know she wants him, but she certainly doesn’t want to make it too easy for him. And he enjoys the pursuit.

The two of them together are charm personified.

It’s fun seeing Elvis Presley have to work to get the girl (and every time the champagne cork explodes out of the bottle, surprising him, during the scene where he is waiting on Ann-Margert and his rival, the Italian racing star, I laugh out loud. I have been laughing out loud at that moment since I first saw the movie when I was a kid. What can I say, I’m easily pleased.)

Ann-Margret was almost as much of a powerhouse, in terms of a sexual persona onscreen, as Presley was. Presley needed resistance, as a star, someone who could stand on her own, give as good as she got. At the same time, what she gives him, especially in the number “Come on Everybody” (clip above), is the adoration and gleeful attention of his hordes of young female fans. There are shots of him up on the stage performing, and she’s down below, rocking out, and looking up at him with total joy, pushing him on. (Look for the expression on her face at around the 1:23-24 mark. It’s abandoned with joy and need. Very honest moment.) I would also like to point out that the final section of the number, when the two are onstage together, is filmed in one take. No cuts.

It’s fun to watch because it seems real. It IS real. The mutual appreciation society of two big stars.

They were so in sync they were like twins. Elvis said to a friend after the first recording session with Ann-Margret for the film that they moved the same, that their impulses were the same, they both felt the music in the same instinctive way. It was such a pleasure for him to “play” like that with someone who anticipated his moves, reflected them, and brought her own fire to the process.

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Presley, as a performer, offered sex, but it was a certain kind of sex. It was friendly sex. Not that he wasn’t overpowering, he was, but he still managed to seem friendly and fun about it, rather than off-puttingly confident and cool, and that was what his formula movies so often missed. He’s portrayed as a cool guy, surrounded by throngs of eager women, and while he is never less than entertaining … it’s that heat he brought to the table that was so watchable, erotic, undeniable.

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In Viva Las Vegas, even Elvis seems surprised at what’s going on for him. A guy who looks like he looks will have an easy time with women, and the role encompasses that obvious fact. To pretend Elvis isn’t a stunner would be ridiculous, denying reality. But the way she watches him in the movie, the way she glories in him (while not losing a bit of her own power), makes him come alive, makes him explode with even greater heat, the kind of heat and need that made him famous in the first place.

You can see the exchange of heat in evidence in all of their numbers together, but the most powerful representation of it is in a number where they don’t sing at all (clip at the bottom of the post). They’re on their first date at some Vegas club, a quartet is singing a song with the dance moves in the lyrics (‘do the squat’, etc.), and the two of them are pushed together on a crowded dance floor surrounded by other couples.

And it is as though they are the only two people on the planet.

After the dance number, Presley takes the stage and does a groovy manic version of the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, as Ann-Margret, once again, wiggles and jams out beside him, pushing him on by looking at him with the adoration of all of his fans. Yet still: being fabulous herself. It’s a fascinating combination, part of her very own brand of indelible movie magic. Elvis Presley could be overwhelming. Ann-Margret meets him, lovingly, enthusiastically, on his level.

That’s why people still love Viva Las Vegas. That’s why people still think it’s fun, and why it was one of Presley’s most successful pictures. Because you get the sense you are in the presence of – or at least in the vague vicinity of – something that is actually real, that is actually happening. Nobody was more powerful than Elvis Presley when he was allowed to be real.

Observe how they are together in that first dance number in the clip below. It’s shockingly intimate. We are being let into a private world of appreciation, heat, and mutual enjoyment. And for a second or two during that dumb dance number, it almost feels like we shouldn’t be watching.

Ann-Margret, of course, has had a stunning career, with many other roles beloved by her fans. She continues to work. I am always happy when she shows up in anything. A class act. A true dame.

Happy birthday.

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AFME: Talking with Wes Studi

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One of the highlights of the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience (besides the premiere of my own film, that is) was moderating a conversation with actor Wes Studi for an audience in one of the conference halls at the Hotel Embassy Suites. We all know his work, from Dances with Wolves to Last of the Mohicans to Avatar, and, of course, there’s been all kinds of other interesting stuff along the way: Geronimo: An American Legend (with Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jason Patric, Matt Damon), Being Flynn, New World, Heat … the list goes on and on. It’s the kind of career I most admire: hard-working, long-lasting, memorable, excellent support-staff for the “stars,” filled with integrity: the career of a true character actor. Of course, being a Native American (Cherokee, to be exact) brings all kinds of other challenges, just in terms of getting good parts, and all of this together makes his journey unique. He’s a wonderful actor.

Wes Studi starred in Ronnie BoDean, a short film in the festival, directed by Steven Paul Judd. (I found a good article discussing the background of the film.) It’s the kind of short film where you watch it and think, “Well. This clearly needs to be a feature.” Some short films are one-joke wonders, or a gimmick, or clearly just a sketch-comedy routine. But others – the rare ones – are so evocative, so tantalizing, that you can SEE the potential in the material. Ronnie BoDean is like that. It’s perfect as it is, in its short format, but it’s also so tantalizing an idea that you want more, you want to see it developed. Not all shorts could “take” being lengthened. This one could. So keep your fingers crossed.

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I went to see Ronnie BoDean the day before my talk with Wes Studi, so I got to meet him beforehand (always helpful – it was like two weeks ago flying down to Champaign from O’Hare with Guillermo del Toro, whom I was going to be interviewing onstage that night. Not only did we “break the ice,” but we chattered at each other about movies for an hour and a half so that when we did get onstage together later that night, it felt like we were just continuing the conversation.) I sat with Wes Studi and his lovely wife, and we watched the shorts program, including Ronnie BoDean.

Ronnie BoDean tells the story of a hungover tough-guy Native American, who basically lives in his car, surrounded by empty beer bottles, who ends up babysitting two kids for a crazy 24-hour period. It’s hilarious. Steven Paul Judd filmed it gorgeously, with an excellent “ear” for the comedic potential in the material. And Wes Studi rules in it. You know, it’s hard to do something “new” in cinema. Even very good stories are often re-treads of things we’ve seen a million times before. But as Wes Studi said in our conversation the following day: Ronnie BoDean is a Native American ANTI-hero, and THAT is something we have never seen, at least in cinema. What a thrilling concept!

The following morning, we sat onstage in front of an audience of about 30 people, all clearly thrilled to be there (sitting on their hands, basically, waiting for the QA period), and had a great conversation. I had my questions ready. He is such a lovely man: forthcoming, funny, thoughtful.

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He spoke about his childhood, only speaking Cherokee until he was 5 years old, when his aunt organized for him to be put in a boarding school/orphanage-type place, so that he could get an education. His first year there, not speaking a word of English, was a whirlwind, but by the end of the year, he spoke English and had forgotten Cherokee. He said he came home at the end of the year, said something in English, and his grandmother scolded him in Cherokee: We don’t speak English here! So he had to re-learn Cherokee!

I asked him if there were any performances or movies he saw as a kid that lit the spark in him, that made him think, “Wow, that’s good. I’d like to do that.” (I was especially interested in this because he had a whole life before he got into acting, doing all kinds of different jobs: what makes someone like that go, “Okay. Now I’m gonna try THIS.”) He said that the best acting he ever saw was when he watched wrestling programs on television when he was a kid. There were the “bad” guys, who oozed evil, in their capes and costumes, and the different characters were totally clear as they fought out their epic battles in the ring. (I love this story. Good acting, inspirational acting, is everywhere, not just present during Oscar season.)

But what was it, I asked … what was it that made him decide, eventually, to take that risk, and devote himself to acting?

He said that it was the risk itself that drew him to it. Because, he said, the risk is not just that you won’t make a living. (Besides, as he pointed out, he had done a lot of itinerant labor work, and he said acting is very similar in nature to that kind of life.) The risk is also in telling your family and friends, “Yeah, I’m going to go out to Hollywood and be an actor.” Because what if you don’t make it? Who wants to “fail” in a public way? But the risk drew him to it.

I asked him about the challenges facing Native Americans in Hollywood, especially since American cinema basically STARTED with Westerns. It’s how directors cut their teeth, Westerns were the first hits, the mythology of the American West was created mostly through cinema. He said that any Native American becoming an actor knows that he will be asked to do what Wes Studi called “Leathers and feathers” parts. It’s part of the gig. It’s a “way in.” He shared a story, though, about one of his first roles in a TV movie. He had to creep along a roof, ready to shoot someone below, and the director said, “Okay, so when you come along that roof, I want you to be low and sneaky like an Indian.” Wow. Studi said, “So what did I do? I snuck along that roof like a low and sneaky Indian.” Actors have to do what they have to do.

We talked about Dances with Wolves and what a phenom it was. It changed his life. For my money, his death scene is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s heartbreaking. He described how he worked in a Native American “curios” shop across the street from a movie theatre when Dances with Wolves opened. The shop was called The Teepee. (This is also a good reminder to those who think once you do a movie, you’re all set. Nope. Day jobs are sometimes still necessary, even if you’re in Dances with Wolves!) So Wes Studi is working in this shop called The Teepee, and watching across the street, lines started stretching down the block to see a movie he was in. And when the audience came staggering out after the film, many of them crossed the street to The Teepee to buy some Native American knick-knacks. Wes Studi could see the emotion on their faces, how devastated they were: “And I think they wanted to do something, you know? To somehow atone for what they just saw. So they bought dream-catchers.” Some people recognized him from Dances with Wolves (which must have been totally bizarre), but mostly it was just one of those moments where he realized that a movie he had been in was taking on a life of its own, becoming an important cultural event.

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I got to ask him what it was like to work with Terrence Malick, known for being more interested in waving tree-tops than human beings. I re-told that hilarious story from Ben Affleck on To the Wonder: Ben is acting, and the camera is off to the side, pointing at his face. He’s playing the scene. Out of his peripheral vision, while he’s acting, he is aware that the camera has swooped away from him and is now pointing up at the sky, to film birds, or trees, or whatever. Ben was like, “Terry, what the hell, I’m acting over here.” (This is just one story of many. Affleck didn’t tell this story in an annoyed way, it was more humorous than that.)

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With that as the launch-pad, Wes Studi described how Malick would film scenes simultaneously with 10, 11 cameras. So you never knew which one was “on,” what angle you were being shot from, what was being focused on. (I saw an interview with Studi where he said that it was like doing “theatre in the round.”) And his character has this big monologue, which he delivered beautifully. “And then I saw the final film, and my monologue starts, and suddenly there’s shots of waving grass, and treetops …” People were already laughing. His monologue had become a voiceover for all this nature photography. Oh, Malick! Don’t ever change!

I was also thrilled to ask him what it was like to work with Michael Mann, which he has done twice, in Last of the Mohicans and Heat.

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Michael Mann is one of my favorite film-makers. His films LOOK so gorgeous that I sometimes need to watch them multiple times in order to get past the visuals and absorb the story. Wes Studi told a couple of good stories.

One came from the shoot for Last of the Mohicans, where Wes Studi makes a huge impression as the vengeful Magua. He almost takes over the whole film.

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They shot much of it in North Carolina, and the cast and crew were staying in an historic inn. In the main room downstairs, there was an old oil painting over the mantelpiece of a horse-drawn carriage going over a bridge, with a river below. Michael Mann was so struck by the painting and he ended up re-creating that painting, perfectly, in a huge shot in Last of the Mohicans. I love this story because it shows that while Michael Mann obviously is an obsessive planner, and chooses extremely carefully what he wants to shoot before he even gets to location, he is also open to inspiration in the moment. And when he wants something, he will get that something. That painting spoke to him, it was probably painted during the period when the story took place, and he was like: “That. I want THAT to be in the movie.” Awesome.

Wes Studi said that Michael Mann’s obsession for detail means that he can be very hard on his crew. (Not the actors, but the crew.) A lot of people don’t last long. He’s a task-master, and he knows the look he wants. Studi told a story about getting a friend of his who was a makeup artist (maybe a tattoo artist, too?) come on the set of Last of the Mohicans to create a lightning-bolt on one of the character’s faces. It was painted on the side of the forehead, going back onto the shaved portion of the head. And Michael Mann would stand right there, as the makeup artist painted it onto the actor. Mann would watch, and give comments, say “No, make it a little lower/higher”: like, every point and angle of that lightning-bolt had to pass muster with Michael Mann. And finally, the artist couldn’t take it anymore! This was fascinating to me, and honestly I’m not surprised. Michael Mann’s films are so exquisite-looking – like, every single frame – that of course he would run his crew ragged to get the look he wanted.

“There are some shots in Heat,” said Wes Studi, “that look like an Armani ad or something.”

So true. I mentioned one of my favorite shots: Al Pacino, Wes Studi, and two of the other cops, are on a stakeout, waiting for the criminals to steal stuff from inside that gigantic warehouse. The four men are shot in profile, staring down at the loading dock from a nearby building. There are four faces in the frame, and each one is staggered a little bit in front of the other, so you get four profiles in one, with noir-ish Venetian blind shadows across the whole thing. Each of them are in dark suits. It’s a magnificent image. It lasts less than 5 seconds. Imagine the time and the thought that it took to create just that one image!

I was not prepared at all for Wes Studi to turn the conversation around and start asking ME questions. “Enough about me, what do you think about me,” Wes Studi cracked. But he started asking me about being a film critic as WELL as a screenwriter, and how did that work? (I have no idea.) He said, “Because actors, you know, we look at film critics almost like the enemy.” So I talked a little bit about how I started being a film critic, which was almost by accident. I talked about the French New Wave guys, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais – who all started out as film critics, in love with B-movies from America. Then they started making their own movies, revolutionizing and energizing world cinema. I mean, everyone imitated Breathless! We don’t really have a similar situation in America, the two worlds – critic and film-maker – are much more separated. I said, “But once you know the amount of collaboration that goes into making even just a short film – it’s amazing not only that anything GOOD is made, but that anything is made at ALL.”

I only mention this comment of mine because a woman came up to me afterwards who has worked in props departments and production design for 30 years. On enormous Hollywood movies. And she was like, “THANK YOU for saying that!” She told this hilarious story about working on Pearl Harbor and how Michael Bay said that he wanted the bullets flying around at Pearl Harbor to be “lavender.” So they had to bust their asses to get bullets that were … 1. lavender and 2. passed muster with Bay. Absurd! But yes: the sheer level of detail that goes into any single shot in any movie blows your mind … so when a 3-hour movie, say, WORKS? Frankly, it’s a miracle. Those who insist that the director is totally responsible for any given movie just don’t know how it works. Yes, he’s the Boss. But what about all of the departments who make his vision happen? Who make the bullets lavender?

It was a blast hearing him talk about Ronnie BoDean and wanting to create an “anti-hero” that hadn’t been seen before. In the conversations he and Judd had, when planning the project, they discussed how they wanted to “embrace” some of the stereotypes about Native Americans (they’re drunk, they’re criminals, whatever), and just show all of these things in a straightforward way that has never been done before. How many movies have we all seen where a criminal-type is then thrown into a situation (i.e. babysitting, as is the case with Ronnie BoDean) where you see another side of him? Or the Tough Guy thrown into a situation for which he is not prepared?

Ronnie BoDean is first seen rising up from the front seat of his car, hungover, cigarette in his mouth, with a dangling ash that looks longer than any cigarette. His hair is long and straight. (“Thank God I already had a long wig,” said Wes Studi.) He looks rough. Tough. He watches, in a drunken haze, as a woman is dragged out of her house by two cops, presumably for disturbing the peace. Her two little blonde-pipsqueak children are left behind. Ronnie BoDean realizes that their mama is probably drying out in jail for the day, so he rolls out of the car, scattering empty bottles, stalks forward in his motorcycle boots, determined to take care of the kids for the day. What then goes down is hilarious, “inappropriate,” endearing, but more than all of that: it’s COMPELLING and TANTALIZING: You want to see more, you want to know more about Ronnie BoDean’s background and character and life. Who is he? What’s his life been like?

Studi talked a lot about the struggles for Native American actors. He says he does not like to be called an “activist,” and that if you want to work in “the business” you have to accept Leathers and Feathers roles as part of the gig, a valid entry-way. But he’s at the point in his career now (Get ready for Penny Dreadful!) where people say “Let’s get Wes Studi” – or, “Let’s get a Wes Studi type.” Once you yourself are a “type,” you know you’re at another level. I asked him if he felt he needed to “combat” stereotypes and he said not necessarily, or at least that’s not the attitude he starts from. He wants to work as an actor. He works within the framework that exists. He came along at a time when a lot of stereotypes were being challenged, when film-makers were interested in looking at the myth of the American West in new and more nuanced ways. But why can’t a Native American actor just play a doctor, or a lawyer? He joked, “You know, you always get offered parts where your character says stuff like, ‘The eagle flies into the dawn and the rocks and the grass speak of our spirits …” ( laughter from the audience) and he mentioned The Mystery Men, where he played The Sphinx, a humorous “spin” or “spoof” on that kind of stereotypical “wise sage” role.

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The second I opened the whole thing up for questions, practically every hand went up in the air. The discussion following was in-depth, generous, thought-provoking.

Studi said, “Listen, we — ” (meaning Native Americans) “can’t sit around waiting for Hollywood to give us better roles. We have to create and tell our own stories.”

Ronnie BoDean is the future. Get ready for it.

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Posted in Actors | 16 Comments

July and Half of August: Some Screengrabs

Last February there was the madness of making a movie, with serious discussions about pool balls, how to film neon signs, how to hide Green Bay Packers memorabilia, Annika/Monica confusion, plus what kind of ice cubes go in a glass of whiskey. Everything matters, especially if you want to tell a whole story in only 12 minutes.

Of course I could see how beautiful it all looked on the monitor but that was a very different thing from seeing it all put together as I did last Saturday in Albuquerque. Director Brandeaux Tourville took on this project with passion: He knew what he wanted it to look like. He didn’t want to “conceptualize” it, he wanted the characters to be the focus. He worked with the cinematographer, the talented Peter Mosiman, to get it right. They were both very excited about filming in black and white. I loved the idea because black and white is a little bit more universal than color (for some reason), but it’s also romantic, maybe a little bit sad too. The film is two people sitting at a bar talking but Brandeaux and Peter thought hard about how to make it cinematic without taking away from the story.

I know how movies are made. But this is my first script and my first time watching something I wrote get filmed, as a bunch of people lugged boom mikes and lights around that small bar, and the two gorgeous actors – Annika Marks and Robert Baker – kept their focus to make the scene happen.

Here are some glimpses of what the film looks like.

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Posted in Movies, Personal | Tagged | 13 Comments

“I Thank God 4 U.”

My friend Liz Bartucci has a Calligraphy business (and she’s also an incredible writer and playwright). I just wanted to share her most recent piece of art.

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Me neither.

So two more things:

Wesley Morris (frankly, I am just glad that he exists, for his Magic Mike XXL review alone: The man GETS sex) wrote an essay for The New York Times and it nails the Prince “thing,” the essential something that Prince was all about, that Laura Hillenbrand (post below this one) also clocked. And you KNOW that I love Morris’ opening. THANK you for making that connection.

At work, propped against a wall, near piles of stuff, stands an Elvis Presley cutout. It’s made of cardboard, pretty beat up, taller than I am and not the greatest photo. (He looks drunk. So does his lamé suit.) But I pass that cutout almost every day, and every day I have the same thought. Elvis was hot. He was a musician, but he didn’t have to be playing music for you to feel this way. Cardboard would do.

That’s charisma. And the only star who had more than Elvis was Prince. His hotness differed, of course; it came from somewhere else. Cardboard won’t cut it for him. If Elvis was sex, Prince was a sexual orientation. His own. And it was oriented toward you. And you. And you.

Please read the whole thing. (I also love the URL. I mean, that’s it, right?)

And finally, I posted this on Twitter – and outlets left and right have been picking it up (not from me, but from her) but just in case you all haven’t seen it. Suzanne Vega posted on her Facebook page a note she got from Prince following the release of her song “Luka”, which dominated the airwaves after it came out. There are a couple of things I love about the note:

1. His show-stopping emotional dramatic handwriting.
1a. We are at the point in our culture now where we will never have examples of people’s handwriting again. But here we can see Prince revealed. This is how he wrote.
2. The fact that he took the time to write the note at all. He was an egomaniacal rock star, because of course, the man was Prince, and you don’t get to be Prince by being humble. That fact aside, he was also known for his support of and generosity towards other artists.
3. The fact that even though he admits that doesn’t know how to put his feelings into words, he wrote the note ANYWAY.
4. The Dr. Seuss flower.

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Posted in Music | Tagged | 4 Comments

Laura Hillenbrand on Prince’s “Kiss”

I have only found this on Laura Hillenbrand’s Facebook page, so I just cut and paste the text because I think it’s important and beautiful. Laura Hillenbrand, of course, is the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I had never thought about “Kiss,” really, at least not as specifically as she has, and now I feel silly for having missed the memo. I was a kid in the 80s, and now it seems to me extraordinary that the message in “Kiss” was being blasted out to young women by the biggest male rock star of our age. But I did sense, even though I couldn’t put words to it, that his music included me, celebrated me. (i.e. women/girls) Elvis, in his 1950s heyday, was sexually explosive but one of the things he brought to the table was a joyous inclusive feeling, he made sex look fun and friendly. (That may very well have been the REAL revolution, THE thing that was scary to the powers-that-be. Teenage girls admitting they wanted sex because it was FUN? The sky is falling.) Prince had the same thing going on. What he put out there in his songs, the vision of sex, was not scary at all. I was scared of some of the songs of, say, Aerosmith … also huge at the time … which definitely looked at women as pleasure-receptacles, interchangeable, and disposable. I loved the songs, don’t get me wrong, but at 15, 16, they intimidated me. I didn’t want to live in Aerosmith’s world. If grown-up sex looked like that, then why on earth would I ever want to sign up for it? But then comes happy pleasure-hound Prince. Creating pleasure WITH his ladies. Then a little bit later came “Cream” – which basically reads like an orgasm How-To – and I was a bit older and had some experience, and I thought, “Well. Of course. He gives a shit about what’s going on with whatever lady he is with. Like: that is the whole point of sex – making sure your partner has fun.” (It reminds me of that great macho Troggs song, “Come Now”, another hard-rocking song devoted to and encouraging woman’s pleasure. I mean, why else are you in bed with someone than to give them a good time? Right? Duh. But you don’t realize how rare it is until you try to think of other songs by men that have the same focus.)

But again, I had never quite analyzed the lyrics to “Kiss”, even though I loved the song. I think I got the message by osmosis. So I thank Hillenbrand for putting it into words.

My favorite Prince song is “Kiss.” He released it when I was eighteen and only beginning to learn myself and my place in the world. I had grown up listening to bands that denigrated women in the most revolting manner, bands like the coincidentally named KISS, which performed song after song celebrating the sexual using and cruelest disposal of women. “Love ’em, leave ’em, yeah!” trumpeted Gene Simmons into my nine-year-old ears. I had come to believe men were incapable of truly loving women; their interest began and ended with sex, physical beauty, and the sadistic pleasure of delivering rejection. Even if you succeeded in being beautiful enough to win a man’s interest, something I feared I never would, your fate would be to be used and tossed away like garbage.

Prince’s “Kiss” was a revelation. Here he beckons to a woman, and tells her explicitly she doesn’t have to be beautiful, rich, or cool to draw him. If she is insipidly childish, slavish to fashion, or seeking to win him only with her sexuality, he wants nothing to do with her. She doesn’t have to emulate anyone else. He wants her as she is, *who* she is. It’s her mind and maturity, he sings, that lights him up. “Women, not girls, rule my world, I say they rule my world. Act your age, mama, not your shoe size, maybe we could do the twirl.” He wants the woman he sings to to set herself free of everything she’s been told she has to be, and everything she thinks is expected of her. He desires nothing more than intelligent authenticity.

In my deeply self-doubting eighteen-year-old mind, that first phrase of “Kiss” resonated over and over, an antidote to the words and message of the band of the same name: “You don’t have to be beautiful…” What Prince wrote in that song thirty years ago he wrote into his career, surrounding himself with talented women and creating magnificent music with them. I am grateful to him for knowing that women, in all their complexity, intelligence, and individuality, made him better, and for the little thrill I still feel when I hear him sing that first line of that irresistibly rousing, joyful, sexy, affirming “Kiss.”

I don’t have to be beautiful, he tells me, and by the grace of his words, I feel beautiful.

Posted in Music, RIP | Tagged | 4 Comments

Two Beautiful Ones: Prince and Misty Copeland

This has been making the rounds but it’s so beautiful I wanted to share it, just in case people haven’t seen it.

Imagine what this means. Ballet is not a mainstream pursuit. People are gigantic stars in the ballet world and barely “cross over” into pop culture name-recognition. There are exceptions, and of course Misty Copeland is an exception.

But besides Misty Copeland’s high profile, this is on another level.

Here is Prince, one of the biggest stars in the world, saying: “Ladies and gentleman. Misty Copeland.” Here is Prince, SETTING HER UP so we can get a GOOD LOOK AT HER and revel in her. Of course the performance is also about him, because he’s Prince, but the POINT of the whole thing is HER.

And watch how he turns himself into a ballet barre for her. That’s his job. To keep still (Prince?? STILL?),and hold out his arms straight as a board so she can hold onto him and do her thing.

It’s an extraordinary pas de deux.

Posted in Music, RIP | Tagged , , | 1 Comment