Thursday, December 19, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Boxing Movies

by F.T. Rea
Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in "Fat City"
Following up on Todd Starkweather’s piece about his five favorite sports movies, I‘m going to narrow the focus onto the sport some folks used to call the “sweet science.” And, right from the start, I’m going to say boxing was a sport at one time in history. In 2013, I’m not so sure what to call the spectacle of a boxing match.

If you go back 100 years boxing and horse racing were probably America’s most important spectator sports. People had been watching versions of both for hundreds of years. Then came newsreels and radio in the 1920s, which facilitated America’s love affairs with team sports, primarily pro baseball and college football.

Boxing was important in television’s early days. Over the last 50 years America’s best athletes have found better ways to earn a living with other sports, so the pugilism hasn’t had nearly the talented practitioners it once did. Besides, over the last decade cage fighting has become more popular than boxing with young fans of blood sports.

Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society -- what’s the upside to it? -- to me, it’s a wonder prizefighting is still legal. But there are probably more good movies that revolve around boxing than any other so-called "sport."

My five favorite boxing movies are:
  • “Fat City” (1972): Color. 100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark. Note: In his teens Huston was an amateur boxer. This gritty tale presents two boxers in Stockton, CA. Down on his luck, Keach is past his prime. Of course, he decides to make a comeback. Bridges is the young boxer he meets who has much to learn. Tyrrell is a friend who drinks a lot of sherry. The film plods along, developing its offbeat characters without sentimentality. In a few words it’s hard to say why this film is so good, but it is.
  • “The Hurricane” (1999): Color. 146 minutes. Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber. Note: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a highly regarded middleweight contender in 1966 when he was convicted for murder and went to prison. Eventually, the battle for his release made him into a celebrity. Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” helped to focus attention on Carter’s plight to be exonerated. Although this compelling biopic bends the truth on some peripheral details, Washington’s spot-on performance is so strong it matters little.
  • “Raging Bull” (1980): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. Note: Jack La Motta, was a middleweight champion in the laste-40/early-50s. He wasn’t known as a stylish fighter or smooth athlete. He was seen as a fearless brawler who always charged his opponents. He was also seen by those who knew him personally as a cruel, self-absorbed jerk. After his boxing career ended La Motta turned to acting. He appeared in several bit movie roles and on television. This is the movie that De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role convincingly. 
  •  “Requiem for Heavyweight” (1962): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Cast: Anthony Quinn (pictured right), Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris. Note: Rod Serling wrote the award-winning teleplay for a live Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1956. When it was adapted to the big screen Jack Palance, who played the boxer, was replaced by Quinn. In the opening scene, in which the viewer is looking through the protagonist’s tortured eyes, his opponent in the ring is Cassius Clay (before he became champ and changed his name to Muhammad Ali). Several other real boxers also appear in the film.
  • “The Set-Up” (1949): B&W. 73 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Note: The plot isn’t so unusual. The boxer, Stoker Thompson, is past him prime. His wife wants him to quit. His manager has lost faith in him. The gangsters bet on him to lose and try to fix the fight. Made by RKO in film noir’s heyday, this feature is lean and stylish. Ryan, who was a boxer in college (Dartmouth), is convincing as a prize fighter and as the very kind of guy who might defy gangsters. 
Yes, I liked "The Boxer" (1997), "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "The Great White Hope" (1970) a whole lot. But this time they didn’t make the cut. When “Rocky” (1976) came out, before all the sequels, I liked it, too. Now I can’t separate the original from all those awful follow-ups.

Why professional boxing remains legal in Virginia isn’t clear. It shouldn’t be. Other forms of dueling have been outlawed for a long time. Still, if somebody makes another decent boxing flick, I’ll watch it.

Ed. Note: If you’d like to submit a Five Film Favorites piece to the Bijou Backlight, please do. Take a look at a few of the previous posts in the series and then get in touch with James or me.

Monday, December 16, 2013

High Plains Drifting

Pub. Note: One day several weeks ago when I was noodlin' on some ideas for the Bijou Backlight, I ran into Rob Bullington (Hackensaw Boys, Flight of Salt) at the Richmond Waldorf School, where our kids go to school, and I off-handedly asked him if he had any songs about movies. As it turns it out he did -- or does -- and so, today, we present to you a new type of feature on Bijou Backlight: a fresh take on film from an art form other than the traditional written film reviews, essays and criticism. Let us know what you think of this idea and if you -- or any of your artist friends -- have poems, songs, paintings, photographs, sculptures, etc. that are inspired by the movies. Now, without further ado, enjoy Rob's song, "High Plains Drifting," and the story behind it. -- JP 


“High Plains Drifting”
by Rob Bullington
Performed by Flight of Salt

I’ve been trying to write songs since I was 14 years old and master of three chords on the guitar. Since then, I’ve been in several bands, written lots of songs, learned how to play an assortment of instruments, toured all over the place, met and played with a bunch of rock stars, recorded albums for major labels and participated (somewhat reluctantly) in making videos. Along the way, I’ve learned that sitting down with the goal of writing a song usually guarantees that nothing worthwhile will be written; much better to let songs come along on their own accord.

If this seems like a lazy approach to the craft of songwriting, so be it. I’m not saying it’s the best approach, but it works for me.

Even more importantly, I’ve found that it’s usually best to avoid trying to impose a specific message to a song-in-progress at the outset. Instead, I try to let the words fall into the melody naturally and then later arrange and edit them for meaning.

For instance, I would never set out to write a song about a movie. While songs written for (and used in) movies can be rich and vital (even more so than the movie itself), songs about movies are somewhat more suspect.

Before I go further, however, I should clarify what I mean by “songs about movies.”

I don’t mean simply name-checking a movie in a song (which can be effective if used sparingly) or writing a song about a particular actor or actress (one of the few things that Don Henley and Kurt Cobain have in common) or even writing a song about the movie industry generally (The Kinks and Cracker, among others, have gotten away with this very well).

What I mean is to say to oneself: “Today I will write a song about Gone with the Wind and I will start by describing the outward appearance of Tara.” The results can be so bad as to be cool (look no farther than “Die Hard” by Guyz Nite) or so cool as to be badass (check out Tom Waits’ cover of Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong”). But whether cool, bad, or badass, rarely do these types of songs bear repeat listening.

But then there are those songs inspired by a movie that remain true to the spirit of the movie without being true to the movie itself. These songwriters brandish the same artistic license that permits movie makers to translate novels into film. Or, to put it another way: the license to create something that can stand on its own. Examples of this type of song include “The Union Forever” by the White Stripes (inspired by Citizen Kane) and “Debaser” by the Pixies (inspired by Un chien andalou).

Depending on one’s musical tastes, other songs in this genre include Neil Diamond’s “Heartlight” (inspired by ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) and Iron Maiden’s “Man on the Edge” (inspired by Falling Down). All of which is to say: I never intended to write a song inspired by High Plains Drifter. As soon as I realized, however, that I was writing a song inspired by High Plains Drifter, I did a bit of quick research and learned the following things:

    • It was filmed in a complete town (the buildings had interiors) built on location specifically for the movie.
    • Though inspired by Eastwood’s time in Spain acting in Leone’s Westerns, HPD was filmed in California and the production was ruthlessly more efficient than Leone’s lacksidasical approach to filmmaking: HPD was filmed in sequence, completed 2 days ahead of schedule and under budget.
    •  It was a financial success, but some critics called it “derivative” and “shallow” even though they appreciated the cinematography.
    • It was denounced by John Wayne as a betrayal of the Western genre.

    So, my song wound up being inspired by the movie as well as the circumstances surrounding its creation and release. Soon after the song was finished, I was invited to submit it for the Bijou Backlight blog. After rehearsing it with my band – Flight of Salt - recording a demo version and putting together a video, I am finally able to oblige.

    A word about the video: I am not a videographer, but since this is a movie blog I felt it was important for you have the option to look at something while you listen to the song. Please look elsewhere while you listen if you prefer.

    If you like “High Plains Drifting,” you may download it for free here – and please visit Flight of Salt’s Facebook Page to hear more of our songs and find out where we’re playing around town.

    "High Plains Drifting"

    From a high and windswept plain
    Drifts a man we never know his name
    He takes his guns into that town
    That’s what he does
    He’s the one

    See there’s no need to rehearse
    Just act the best at doing worse
    Until the whole damn town goes down
    Then we cut
    And it’s done

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red.

    Now there’s drugs all over the set
    Cause time is not infinite
    Too much gold and not enough rest
    This ain’t Spain
    It’s the West
    Now the reviews are mixed at best
    They say the lead seems too depressed
    But they love the final shot
    Out of the sun
    It’s the one

    I’ll take you away and we’ll start a family
    In the middle of nowhere we can build a city
    And when it goes bad
    We’ll do what I said
    We’ll paint the town red. 

    Pub. Note: Flight of Salt is playing at the Camel this Thurs., Dec. 19, at 9 p.m., on a bill with The Northerners and Starlighter.