Thursday, March 23, 2017

This Is Spinal Tap

The National Film Registry goes up past 11. Obvious gag is obvious.

So, This Is Spinal Tap. One of the seminal documentaries of our time, though Marty DiBergi suffers from the usual problem of terrible sound editing. Do documentarians go to some sort of class to make sure that the interview sections of their films come out as hard to hear as possible? This being a "rockumentary", most would be grateful that the sound on the songs is pretty decent, but that is to be expected. Down to this day, Spinal Tap maintains their reputation as one of the loudest bands in England. But the story isn't particularly about the music - though that's clearly an important factor. After all, Spinal Tap have long served as a sort of cementing force in music: whatever new genre has become firmly popular, they will probably try it out, at least until their first complete break-up in 1992. Their 2009 album featured forays in reggae, funk, jazz, and Broadway musical, none of which is too much of a departure for the band.

The real story is on the interaction of the band's founding members, David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnell, as well as longterm bassist Derek Smalls. Sadly, Viv Savage only has a small part in the interviews, He's definitely got some talent as a keyboardist, but never seems to think of much to say without the medium of music. There's more interview time with Mick Shrimpton, who tragically died during filming. Derek Smalls may feel overlooked, as the "lukewarm water" of the group, but it's clear throughout the rockumentary that despite his loud, and often lewd, stage presence, the real Derek Smalls is a kind, thoughtful, and truly talented individual. Nigel Tufnell's music also gets many moments to shine, such as his playing of the first part of "Lick My Love Pump", which clearly draws influences from Mozart's immortal "Leck Mich Im Arsch". However, as of his last interview, Nigel Tufnell is still struggling to complete this piece. Which... well, Nigel Tufnell has never been considered one of the big thinkers of our age, despite the fact that he has a high level of musical talent, and a strong interest in experimentation (which may not turn out well, such as some of his more discordant solos, but the idea is there). Meanwhile, David St. Hubbins comes across as rather tactless and thoughtless. While Nigel may be a bit spoiled in the matter of backstage delicacies, David St. Hubbins, as the frontman, never seems to think a set sometimes calls for a change (memorably playing "Sex Farm" for a USAF mixer), or notices the problems members of the group are having personally. This was definitely exacerbated by the presence of his now-ex-wife, Jeannine Pettibone. Neither of them seem to be bad people, but they can be kind of oblivious people.

Varying bands, such as Nirvana, Dokken, The Misfits, and Metallica have all discussed the influence Spinal Tap, especially through the lens of the film, influenced their careers, while Aerosmith and U2 seemed to have members very personally affected by the travails of the band. If it weren't for the disastrous US release of Smell the Glove, Metallica may never have had the idea for the now iconic Black Album. While Spinal Tap can be derivative, they were sometimes ahead of their own time.

This is definitely a documentary to check out, and one that clearly deserves its preservation. While it has many of the problems that plague documentaries (grainy film, bad sound editing), it portrays a fundamentally honest and rather tragic picture of rock music from the 1960's through the 1980's, often recognized as a heyday of the genre. While Spinal Tap hasn't released any new material in 8 years, their dedicated fans can only hope that they still stand as mighty as Stonehenge, and have not broken like the wind.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The African Queen

It can be hard on the nature to review so many films, but Nature is what we were put here to rise above.

And rise above we do with movies like The African Queen (though the film has a rather astonishing lack of Africans – even for the time period). Ostensibly, this is one of those romance/adventures where the totally unlikely couple find acceptance and love in their differences. Though watching tends to form a different reaction than most of the sappy thrown-together plotlines, where you could never for a moment believe they will last a week out of danger. My roommate commented that this was the first movie he saw where Humphrey Bogart wasn't in charge, and I pointed out that Katherine Hepburn is always in charge. You can believe Mr. Allnut would happily bend his will to Miss Rose for the rest of his life, seeing as how he's a useful, but not a particularly determined man without her. You don't usually get the narrative of the woman being the courage and the driving force in the “danger romance” genre, and even though the movie came out in 1951, it's still refreshing. Rose Sayer may be a bit naive on technical matters, but the only thing that makes her shriek in the entire film is a choking swarm of mosquitoes. In most other “danger romances” you spend half the time wondering if the man's turn-ons include helpless whimpering, blood-choking arm holds, and screaming like an infant. Like I said, it's refreshing that Rose Sayer does none of those things, but is instead, always flawlessly polite and level-headed, even as she actually becomes filthy enough for you to believe she's on a river (as opposed to most heroines, who manage to do perfect winged eyeliner and keep their eyebrows on point during the zombie apocalypse).

Really what the story is about is two people learning to deal with each other, and the understanding leading to love. It isn't too different in basic outlines as the basic “Beauty and the Beast” story, although it's subverted by having “Beauty” cast as an unattractive old maid (which must have been tough work for the makeup department, considering they had Katherine Hepburn to work with), and having the castle setting replaced by a dangerous river surrounded by hostile Germans. It seems like it should be absurd, but maybe because the mains are really so likable, you can't help but get invested in what happens to them. Also, a World War One movie? Stop the presses. There's also the admirable decision to not try to force poor Bogie into doing a Cockney accent (how Charlie Allnut was characterized in the novel). Rewriting him as Canadian helped prevent the kind of dignity loss inflicted on Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Now if only we would allow actors who can't do accents to retain their original style of speaking and maybe rewrite a little to explain things.

Overall, I really enjoyed this film. It is definitely one I would watch again, and it's a movie I would suggest aspiring filmmakers watch. Your heroine in difficult circumstances does not need to be either brain-rendingly annoying or be unbelievably tough and competent. She doesn't have to know everything to be courageous or admirable, and she doesn't need to shriek and grab the hero to have vulnerability or build up the romantic tension. This is one of the perfect examples of a heroine in danger acting like a capable adult human being, and as such, really deserves the watch.