Friday, March 31, 2006

Two commentaries...

The following two commentaries ran in last Sunday's LA Times. They hit so close to home that I wanted to share them.

By Lynell George
Lynell George is a senior writer at The Times' West magazine.

March 26, 2006

LONG BEFORE AMOEBA MUSIC opened its landscape-altering Hollywood flagship, and nearly a decade before "High Fidelity" immortalized that singular breed of retail animal — the completist record store clerk — there was a holy strip of scuffed-up, indie new-and-used record shops lining Melrose Avenue. Vinyl Fetish, Bleeker Bob's, 2nd Time Around and my two favorites: Rene's All Ears and Aron's Records.

When vinyl still reigned (in various versions — 78, 45 and 33 1/3 ; import or domestic; picture discs and colored vinyl; sexy little EPs), these shops and a few others scattered across Los Angeles played host to all manner of yearnings, discovery and invention in my life. They felt as essential as the ampersand in R&B.

On any given weekend a couple of decades ago, I could be found lurking among the bins in my painter's overalls and my once-white, low-top Jack Purcell's, flipping one-handed through "Jazz," bending over this or that artist until my neck went numb, carrying a hefty stack of LPs, a load heavy enough to leave red creases on my arm. I wouldn't set them down for fear that someone would swipe that long-out-of-print Cannonball Adderley LP that I'd spent not hours but years hunting for. I couldn't take that risk.

I invested in these places — not just money, but time. And then, like the changer arm lifting and the stereo switching off, my habits changed. I somehow slipped out of my routine. I eased up on my record store fetish; I invested elsewhere.

And maybe that's why I didn't shed a tear or show up to mourn when Rhino Records and now Aron's (both long relocated from former addresses) began shutting their doors for good in the last few months. I'd already said my goodbyes — to old locations, to overpowering memories, to bins that had long since been picked over. I'd seen the shift coming, the back-stock thinning, all manner of new media — DVDs and DATs — taking up shelf space. I couldn't stomach the emptying bins, the death of an era.

It wasn't me that changed, it was the business model: a general slump in record sales (down 7% last year, according to SoundScan), a great big uptick in digital downloading, a rush to shop online. Statistics underscore what our eyes already tell us: The Amoebas stay in business, but there are only about half as many independent record stores as there were 10 years ago countrywide.

Last year, downloaded tracks from online retailers soared to 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 — an increase of 148%. And when former customers weren't downloading music, they were burning friends' CDs. The landscape for bricks-and-mortar storeowners has been nothing less than a disaster zone.

Yet I can't imagine what my life, my worldview, would have been like without record stores — particularly the independents with their idiosyncratic rooms plastered with posters, speakers booming, smelling alternately of patchouli or herb and always crammed with persnickety customers arguing with even more persnickety clerks.

Through junior high school and high school, I saved my lunch money and once a week made my way to the various neighborhood record stores not only to update my collection but to augment my sense of the world — its tongues, its rhythms, its stories, its very vastness. Not to sound too much like some old-school crank, but I can't imagine that watching a bar load on-screen equals the awe of opening a double-album set with both your hands.

When I first learned to drive, getting up the hill without rolling backward on La Cienega, just so I could get to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, became an important rite of passage. The clerks there steered me toward the essential Sonny Rollins; the "forget about all others, this is the best" Bill Evans. But I soon discovered that Rene's and Aron's were where the most unique treasures could be found.

Emblazoned with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, Rene's All Ears stood at the corner of Melrose and Spaulding, near what I was told was Rene's other passion: an auto/motorcycle repair shop. It was smallish, but size, I learned quickly, didn't matter.

I bought a lot of imports there — blues and early roots music, R&B, regional voices — the Honey Drippers and blues shouters Chicago Carl Davis and Big Joe Turner. But it was also where I dipped into the Washington go-go scene (Chuck Brown and EU) and wandered into my first King Crimson, New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker and Automatic Man's elastic blend of space rock and funk. For a buck a disc you could take a chance on anything. I bought my first Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Rene's, from a man with a huge smile and a mohawk the color of cotton candy.

Aron's, back then, carried me through eras and genres and styles — Brazilian samba and Cuban son and Portuguese fado. Before artists' out-of-print catalogs were mercifully reissued on CD, Aron's provided a way to fill in so many holes — used but pristine copies of Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners," Stan Getz's "Didn't We," Charles Mingus' "Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife." And for less than 10 bucks, I got my hands on a collector's pressing of Billie Holiday's "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," recorded at the old Fox Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles one June evening in 1949.

I shopped among the safety-pin-pierced, the men in fishnets, eccentrics in bathrobes and Buddy Holly glasses. That's what I liked most about the indies, particularly the tight spaces at Rene's. You were thrown together with people you might never have been shoulder-to-shoulder with in your other life. Motörhead fans up next to B-Boys, punkers in their oxblood Doc Martens, neo-mods in parkas all listening to a wash of ear-pricking sounds — Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Frank Zappa, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Big Daddy Kane, Nina Hagen, Charlie Christian, Machito — the hither-and-yon soundtrack dreamed up by whoever was on shift at the moment. It was like a dorm at a particularly tolerant college. But with a better stereo. And because of it, I took home things that would have never otherwise fallen into my hands.

I don't have an iPod, though many have tried to nudge me in that direction. "It's time," they say. They talk up the ease of downloading. Of acquiring songs just when you think about it, in the middle of the night. Of the portability; the idea that your collection is both "virtual" and "infinite." Most of all, they tell me, I'll never look back.

But I do. And always hope to. My record collection is a life mosaic so vivid, so touching, I can't chuck any of it — can't even thin it out. I remember the clerks — imperious or exultant — who passed the sleeves across the counter to me. I remember the time and the place. An iPod, yes, would be convenient, but the decades spent exploring music in real stores with real people are my bricks and mortar. These records built me. They are me.

By Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich directed "The Last Picture Show," "Paper Moon," and "Mask," among other movies. His most recent book, "Who the Hell's in It," is just out in paperback.

March 26, 2006

GOING TO THE MOVIES with my parents is one of the great memories of my childhood. I remember getting strong anticipatory butterflies in my stomach long before we'd even leave the apartment. In the late 1940s, early '50s, we lived on Manhattan's West 67th Street, three blocks from two huge "neighborhood" picture palaces: the RKO Colonial and the Loew's Lincoln. Both were spacious, elaborately decorated, very comfortable stand-alone theaters with huge screens and giant, red velvet curtains that parted before the show. Each seated more than 1,000 (with smoking in the balcony).

A typical evening or afternoon at the "nabes" meant a double feature — two recent films, usually an A-budget movie paired with a B-picture. We never checked for starting times (no one did); we went when we could or when we felt like it.

Normally, therefore, we would enter in the middle of one of the two features. Part of the fun was trying to figure out what was going on. After it ended, there would be a newsreel, a travelogue, a live-action comedy short, a cartoon and coming attractions. Then the next feature, followed by the first half of the other film until that once-proverbial moment: "This is where we came in." (All this, by the way, for 25 or 50 cents a head, often less for kids.) On Saturdays, there was the children's matinee, complete with a white-uniformed matron who chaperoned us and made sure kids didn't put their feet on the seats in front of them.

Both of my old neighborhood theaters have long since been demolished. But recently I've been thinking about them again as I've read about the decline in theater attendance — down from 90 million tickets sold per week in the late 1940s to about a quarter of that number today — as people rent movies and watch them at home on increasingly elaborate home entertainment systems. Now, some of the big studios are talking about closing the months-long window that has traditionally separated a movie's theatrical debut from its availability on video or DVD — a change that some say could lead to the end of the movie-theater experience altogether.

When I was a growing up, there were no ratings — all pictures being suitable for the whole family. Parents could, if they chose, take the family to serious films such as "How Green Was My Valley," "Citizen Kane" or "From Here to Eternity" without worrying that it might not be "appropriate" for the children. If a couple on screen were going to bed together, vintage movie shorthand took over and the camera panned to the fireplace or to the waterfall, or, during a passionate kiss, there'd be a discreet fade to black. I would turn to my mother and ask what was happening, and she'd say something ambiguous, such as "they like each other" or "they're talking now," which completely satisfied my curiosity.

Movies, when you used to see them on the big screen, had a mystery that they no longer have. For one thing, they were irretrievable: Once the first and second runs were past, most films were not easy to see again. They were much, much larger than life and therefore instantly mythic (screens and theaters were a lot bigger before the multiplex arrived). And they were inexorable; once a film had started, there was no pausing it or in any way stopping its relentless forward motion.

Also, the communal experience of seeing a picture with a large crowd of strangers was a great and irreplaceable happening — all of us, young or old (if the picture worked) palpably sharing the same emotions of sorrow or happiness. The bigger the crowd around us, the greater the impact.

On special occasions, my parents took me to the greatest movie theater in the country, Radio City Music Hall, which, for $2, would show a first-rate new film exclusively (such as "An American in Paris" or "North by Northwest") plus a live, 40-minute stage show featuring the Rockettes. That's why it meant so much to me in 1972 when my first comedy, "What's Up, Doc?" was booked to open in New York at the Music Hall.

I was so excited I called to tell Cary Grant (a friend of 10 years). "That's nice," he said casually. "I've had 28 pictures play the Hall.

"I tell you what you must do," he went on. "When it's playing, you go down there and stand in the back — and you listen and you watch while 6,500 people laugh at something you did. It will do your heart good!"

I went, of course, and it remains the single most memorable showing of any of my pictures: The sheer size of the reaction in that enormous theater was like a mainliner of joy. The fact is, it takes at least 100 people to get a decent laugh in a movie — smaller audiences are just not given to letting go.

On the other hand, a Michigan university student told me recently that one of the few classic Hollywood movies he'd seen was John Ford's version of John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath." He said he'd been looking at a "video of it" and couldn't get his "eyelids to stop drooping."

Well, of course. Not only was he alone in his living room, but he was seeing on a small screen a work that had not been created ever to be reduced so radically in size. The especially dark photography (by the legendary Gregg Toland, who the following year shot Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane") needs the large screen to convey its effect, not to mention that darkness and TV have never produced easy-to-watch results.

What's more, Ford was very much the master of the long shot. Twenty years before that famous fly-speck-on-the-desert entrance in "Lawrence of Arabia," Ford had introduced Henry Fonda in "Grapes" as a tiny figure on the horizon coming toward us. But tiny on a giant screen is not the same as tiny on a TV set. The first makes a poetic impression, the second leaves you wondering what you're looking at and causes yet more eye strain. No wonder the student's eyelids drooped.

One of my favorite movies is Howard Hawks' "Bringing Up Baby" with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn — probably the fastest and at the same time most darkly photographed comedy of all time. When I watch it on TV, I find myself getting tired and running out of steam before the film ends.

Most young people have never even seen older films (before 1962, let's say — the end of the movies' golden age, when the original studio system finally collapsed) on the large screen for which they were solely created. So it's easy to understand why they're not interested in them. That they don't know what they're missing is a sad fact, increasingly more common, therefore sadder.

What is there to say about seeing movies of quality on an iPod? Chilling.

I was first taken at age 5 or 6 by my father to see silent movies on the big screen at the Museum of Modern Art, and it inculcated in me a lifelong interest and reverence for older films. Starting my daughters at a young age looking at classics from the '20s, '30s and '40s did the same thing for them. Wouldn't it be a great thing if all the studios pooled their resources and opened large-scale revival theaters in every major city as a way of promoting DVDs of older films, which remain difficult to move in the kind of bulk everyone would like?

It's hard for me to imagine that the movie-theater experience will ever completely disappear, no matter how reduced it may become. After all, the legitimate theater still exists in the age of TV and film, though of course there is nowhere near as much of it as there was even as late as the 1950s. (Remember summer stock?) In some places you can even still see opera, a very popular medium a couple of hundred years ago.

But Larry McMurtry's novel, "The Last Picture Show," and the movie version of it which I directed were both at least partly about the loss to a small Texas town of its single movie theater, a great diminishment in community and sharing. We all now live in a more insular, distanced society. And though our communication capability has never been faster or more inclusive, it does not have the ability to let us experience the silent interrelating that happens in a live theater, at church or at a movie house.

Over the years I've noticed that audiences, just before the show starts, radiate a kind of innocence. Considered person by person, that may not be the case, but as a group they share the ability to be taken wherever the film chooses to take them, either to the stars or the gutter, and their communal experience will alter them for better or worse. Let's not let all that possibility fade away further than it already has.

Better movies would help.

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