Saturday, January 19, 2013

MOVING PICTURES

Yes, since I rarely leave the house in the evenings anymore, besides listening to music, reading books and wasting an inordinate amount of time of the interwebz, I also enjoy a good talkie in the comfort of my own home. The cinema experience? Pfft. Haven't been "to the movies" in about 5 years. The "cinema experience" involves ridiculous ticket prices, arranging a babysitter, finding a park and putting up w/ morons talking all the way through the feature. I prefer the experience on my own terms, on my own couch. Let's discuss a couple of recent ones I have perused.

Searching For Sugar Man is the story of Sixto Rodriguez - or simply Rodriguez - but you may be aware of that. After all, it seems like every second person I know has seen this movie. Then again, I live in one of the few countries on earth where Rodriguez has sold a lot of records, the man still being somewhat of an underground non-sensation in his home country. I'll be honest: prior to 2001, I had never heard of Rodriguez. Absolutely never heard a single song, had no idea who he was. The only reason I even came to know who he was at the time was because I happened to be employed as a grunt at the suburban outlet of a well-known chain store (its logo in black and yellow: take a guess). His Cold Fact CD trucked out the door, week in, week out. All manner of people would purchase it: hipsters, hip-hoppers, old folkies, suburban squares. And yet, for the life of me, I had no idea who the guy was. The cult of Rodriguez simply escaped me. The album cover made it look like some sort of sub-Jose Feliciano dorkfest, so I finally popped the question to my manager: WHO THE FUCK IS RODRIGUEZ?

 I got the answer you probably know already: a Detroit-based American singer-songwriter who released two albums at the dawn of the '70s which made zero impact in his home country, yet strangely found a massive audience in two surprising locales: Australia and South Africa. In the latter, he was bigger than Elvis and a potent symbol of rebellion against the Apartheid regime; in Australia, I guess we just liked our Hispanic-American Bob Dylanesque singer-songwriters more than Americans did. His records were licensed here in the mid '70s and found a groundswell of interest for unknown reasons - one may be that they also happen to be really good - and he even toured here in 1979 and 1981, the latter tour supporting Midnight Oil. In South Africa, despite the strict media controls from the government, his records found a place in most white, liberal homes and were revered as if they were a sacred text. Due to the fact that he signed what must have been a terrible contract w/ the Sussex label - an imprint owned and operated by the detestable Clarence Avant (who appears in the film and seems to take wild offence at the mere suggestion that he might've ripped Rodriguez off) - Rodriguez worked in construction to make a living and remained completely unaware of his massive popularity in South Africa, as the royalty cheques all went into Avant's pocket and never a word was said. It really is a remarkable story: you almost couldn't make it up. It's the grounds for a fascinating documentary, and Searching For Sugar Man almost gets it right.

The main problem I have w/ the film is that it leaves so many questions unanswered. There are countless, often pointless montage sequences showing Rodriguez walking the streets of his hometown Detroit whilst a track from one of his two albums (1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality) plays over the top, with many interesting points and questions left untouched. The focus of the film is on his popularity and rediscovery in South Africa c/o two die-hard fans, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew (he later married one of Rodriguez's daughters), who brought him out for a tour of the country in 1998, after many people in the SA thought he'd died back in the '70s by killing himself on stage (that was the bizarre rumour at the time), but not once is it even mentioned that he also happened to be wildly popular in Australia, surely a point which should have at least been said as an aside. And what of his contract w/ Sussex? Why hasn't Clarence Avant been sued? What sort of contract was it? Why did he never contact Rodriguez in the 1970s when the cheques started rolling in for hundreds of thousands of sales? Why does Sussex still hold the rights to his two albums - both now licensed to Light In The Attic (an excellent label which did make sure that Rodriguez is getting his fair share) - when surely Rodriguez would have the legal right to sole ownership of his catalogue? Does Rodriguez not care? He appears not to; money means nothing to him, he still lives in the same rundown house he's inhabited in Detroit for the past 40 years and gives most of his concert and record-sales money away to his friends and family.

 At the risk of being accused of chronic anal retention (I have been already, so don't bother), surely these are questions which should be raised in a documentary such as this, as they form the crux of the narrative itself: the first half centres on the mystery of Rodriguez as felt by his South African fans in the 1970s all the way up to the 1990s (their sense of cultural isolation is palpable); the second half sees Rodriguez revealed and eventually revived as he successfully tours the country nearly three decades after the release of his famed records. The keys to this bizarre story remain the heavy media censorship in South Africa at the time (TV was banned for decades as a "communist influence" and it appears that little information crept either in or out of the country during Apartheid's reign), and the fact that Sussex never paid Rodriguez a cent, thus never alerting him to the fact that he happened to enjoy a massive fan base on the other side of the globe. Oh, I'll stop beating this drum...

Regardless, Searching For Sugar Man is a film I can recommend, simply because the story of Rodriguez is too interesting to be boring, even when it's not handled as well as it should have been. The man himself is a model of unshakeable cool and integrity, a real-life blue-collar beatnik who refused to bend for anyone, and his daughters are equally as likeable. Frankly, I nearly choked up at the footage of his rapturous greeting and applause in post-Apartheid South Africa. And yet the question remains, a question posed in the film by the producers of his original albums, Detroit legend Dennis Coffey and Steve Rowland (another cool cat who also produced the Pretty Things), and one which seems impossible to answer: why did Rodriguez never take off in his homeland? He had the songs, the look and captured the zeitgeist of the day w/ his personal/political lyrics, and yet he sunk like a stone. The marketplace failures of the Stooges and New York Dolls are easy to figure and quantify: the public simply wasn't ready for such flagrantly uncommercial purveyors of compressed energy, yet Rodriguez is something different altogether. The hillbillies of Australia and cultural bumpkins of South Africa held him close to their collective bosom, and yet he sunk like a stone in his own country and everywhere else. This point is raised but not probed, and probably can't be answered anyway. I'm giving Searching For Sugar Man a B+.


William Friedkin's Sorcerer, from 1977, is something to behold. I beheld it just last week, a special treat since it is currently unavailable on any format bar Youtube (try here, though I was fortunate enough to get a high-quality DVD-R from a friend). For myself, the film's noteriety springs mainly from the rough treatment it receives in Peter Biskind's legendary (well, it's "legendary" to me, since I rate it as one of the great film books, and is a tome I've read cover to cover at least half a dozen times) Easy Riders, Raging Bulls from 1998. It's not that Biskind considers the film a dog; the point is simply that Sorcerer was the beginning of the end for Friedkin as a major director in New Hollywood, and if anyone deserved a career nosedive, mostly because of his repellant personality rather than for aesthetic reasons, it was William Friedkin.

The point was made abundantly clear in Biskind's book: after the wild critical and commercial success of The French Connection and The Exorcist (certainly two of the better films of the 1970s), Friedkin had become an intolerable pain in the ass to anyone unfortunate enough to be in his immediate vicinity, an inexcusable egomaniac and a complete tyrant and bully on a film set. Like any Greek tragedy, his hubris would catch up w/ him soon and Sorcerer was that moment. The reasons for the film's failure in the marketplace are manifold: its hokey title didn't help ("Sorcerer" is the name of one of the trucks, although Friedkin has also claimed he named it so because he was listening to the Miles Davis LP of the same name at the time), but it also suffered the unfortunate circumstance of opening in the US the month after Star Wars was released, a film which eclipsed everything in its wake (so much so that Sorcerer was quickly yanked from screens so Star Wars could be aired again), but more importantly, and this is something I only came to realise fully after having viewed it: it's a 1977 film which belongs in 1971. Audience tastes had changed drastically between the years of The French Connection and Star Wars, and the latter's unprecedented success is indicative of the general public's increasing distaste for movies which were seen as one big bummer (I remember an interview w/ John Lydon who said something similar in punk's inability to take off in the US the way it had in the UK at the time: coming out of the long, crippling Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Amerika was not in the mood for more "bad news"), and Sorcerer is indeed one big, highly watchable bummer.

Sorcerer is a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's masterful 1953 suspense-thriller, The Wages Of Fear. Seen it? I would recommend you watch that first. It's as good as every annoying film student claims it to be. It's even as good as a guy as annoying as William Friedkin claims it to be. So the story goes, Friedkin approached Clouzot at some schmoozefest in the mid '70s and told him he was going to better his original w/ a remake. His lack of humility knew no bounds. In my never-so-humble opinion, it is equally as good, although I'm not here to announce a winner. Starring Roy Scheider in the lead role as a small-time hood who robs the mob in New Jersey and has to leave the country to stay alive, the first half-hour sets up the main characters and their background story far more than the original Wages Of Fear does. The plot is thus: four criminals from different corners of the globe (a French businessman, an Arab terrorist, the fourth man who remains somewhat of a mystery), all on the run, wind up in a rough mining town in Nicaragua - it was actually filmed in the Dominican Republic - and need to find a way to get out, finances being their main problem. The American mining company is willing to pay four men a large sum of cash if they transport two truckloads of volatile dynamite 200 miles away, throughout rugged terrain and mountains, to blow up a fiery oil well.

The first half-hour of the movie reminds me a lot of The French Connection, given the locales and griminess of the proceedings, although if an audience is won or lost within the first 20 minutes of a film, I can see why some less-patient movie-goers may have been put off. I, too, found myself wondering where the film was going for at least 25 minutes before all the questions were answered by the 40-minute mark. A friend informed me that the original 1977 Australian print of Sorcerer was butchered by the local distributor, excising approx. the first 30 minutes so they could fit in more sessions per day. I can only assume this made the film slightly incomprehensible to some, as it's the setting up of the four rogues' character in the crucual first stage of the film which demonstrates the motivation for what they subsequently do. Anyway!

You probably know the score: once everything is in place, you're left with a solid hour+ of nail-biting action and suspense as the four men, two per truck, make their way throughout the mountains and rivers and storms of Nicaragua with enough highly sensitive dynamite to blow them to dust. Freidkin was always an excellent action/suspense director - think of the car-chase scenes in The French Connection and To Live And Die In LA, or the hamfisted suspense and terrors of The Exorcist - and Sorcerer delivers on that level. Why didn't audiences take to Sorcerer? Well, there's little to no humour throughout the entire film, nary a sympathetic character in sight and no happy ending to be had. Why would you, as a film-goer, want to put yourself through that? That's rhetorical; you should watch Sorcerer, as it remains one of the last, great gasps of New Hollywood before it either sold out, disappeared or hibernated up its own backside.

The years have weathered Sorcerer well; for myself its apolitical nihilism is far more palatable than the pretentious, juvenile antics of a film like Five Easy Pieces, an alleged New Hollywood classic I attempted to re-watch just recently (and a film I used to like a lot in my younger days) and found to be an insufferable, unviewable piece of male fantasy made by a bunch of rich schmucks (in this case, Bob Rafelson). Friedkin had a real style in the 1970s, and if The French Connection blew you away, then Sorcerer is equally worth your time. Fredkin never really found his feet again, certainly in regards to commercial success. Cruising has its defenders, although for me the film's only point of real interest is its Germs soundtrack; and To Live And Die In LA, great as it is (I wrote about it here), never faired well w/ the public. The last Friedkin film I saw was 1990's The Guardian, a woeful piece of horror schlock which I can't remember anything about except for the fact that when I saw it in the cinema in 1990 - I skipped uni classes to see it - I sat in a near-empty movie house w/ none other than Nick Cave three seats to my right. The movie itself? I don't recall.

That's Sorcerer. You need to see it. And I didn't even mention the Tangerine Dream score.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great review, I adore Sorcerer a lot, I've been mesmerized with it ever since I saw it for the first time last March...