Monthly Archives: February 2010

W.C. Fields and the Musical Laughtrack

I don’t like to have humor spoon fed to me. I think humor is best when it’s smart—even if it’s lowbrow. The laughtrack is the easiest example of a tool of comedy that insults my intelligence. I know there are a handful of reasons for them in a show, and not all of them are evil, but I’ve always been able to laugh without being cued by the creators that something funny just happened. Turns out I’m a minority. My wife says it’s uncommon, and I’ve heard that from others over the years. Many times, late at night, I’ve woken her up with my gales of laughter, watching a film while next to her in bed.

This could be hereditary. My Pop once told me of drawing stares on a Philly subway in the 60s, as he laughed uncontrollably while reading a Jules Feiffer book. Last year, history repeated itself: while reading a Philip Roth book on a NY subway, I was convulsing with laughter and I could feel the same stares. As I got off the train, a woman walked over and said, “OK, I have to know what made you laugh so hard?” She was being nice, but it still makes me wonder: is laughter exclusively a group experience? Is there something inside that warns us that to laugh alone is a sign of marching to the beat of your own drummer?

But I digress. I mean to talk about mickey mousing, which is when music in a film is put in synch with the action, as a way of reinforcing its point. Obviously, the term derives its use from animation, where one can easily see it’s necessity: since there is no sound recorded with an action something has to be added, so why not music?

Mickey mousing’s derogatory meaning comes when music is used to directly steer a viewer to a punch line or emotion. I can’t remember if it was Mel Brooks or Billy Wilder, but one of them said he stayed clear of using music cues to tell the audience that a joke just happened. Likewise, Sidney Lumet said this on his audio commentary for The Verdict: “I believe the [score] should not be doing what the movie’s doing. It shouldn’t be (what we call) ‘mickey mousing’ what’s going on. It should provide something else.”

The focus here, however, is a specific kind of mickey mousing which is when a soundtrack was added to silent films as they were “updated” for the audiences of sound era. That was how I first noticed this technique: as a kid, I would watch silent films on PBS, and they’d always be spiced up with silly, fast music and an abundance of sound effects created by musical instruments. There were timpani booms, kazoos and penny whistles. Lots of penny whistles. I was too young to think they were insulting my intelligence, but I was definitely like WTF? Pretty soon I was watching these with the volume down.

In the mid-80s, I taped an early talkie onto VHS, the W.C. Fields short film The Dentist (1932). This may be the funniest film I’ve ever seen. Here’s a sample, when Fields goes is golfing…

Then, as now, I laughed so incredibly loud watching this alone late one night, I think I woke my mother on the floor above.

When Criterion put out W.C. Fields 6 Short Films, I was thrilled to retire my fifteen-year old VHS tape.  In typical Criterion fashion, it looks great, obviously created from the best possible archival elements. But the sound? Well, here’s the same scene from that DVD…

Really? Really?! Whoever added the music blows the joke and, in the process, makes the gag less about a completely out-of-left field and malicious sight gag to just a silly bit of business. There are a few more instances of this short, but you get the idea.

The DVD doesn’t come with any explanation for this though I feel pretty damn certain the music-less version (my VHS) is the original. There are notes on the DVD about the transfers, which contain some clues: “The Dentist was created from a 35mm composite duplicate picture negative and a 35mm optical soundtrack negative; two scenes excised from the film in accordance with the provisions of the Hays Code have been restored from a 16mm composite duplicate negative, along with original opening and closing credits.” That last fact—about the credits—means a lot: there was a prior version of the film that Criterion did not use for their source material. (How weird is it to write anything negative about Criterion.) And though it’s not clear, the scenes that were excised had been in the initial release of the film but were removed after 1934, when the code was enforced.

You can watch the two and judge for yourself—but to me it’s crystal clear. The proof comes from the people I laughed awake.

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Michael Jackson ’81: Publicly Cutting the Apron Strings

Yesterday I talked about the once-removed cultural impact of The Jacksons Live!, their 1982 LP of their 1981 tour. Even though they were ostensibly promoting their critically-acclaimed 1980 LP Triumph, it could also be called Michael’s Off the Wall tour. They did five songs from that LP, which had been out for two years already but (I think) hadn’t been performed live. Definitely Michael Mania was in place and in ascent. He sounds better than ever (up to that point), and he knows he’s about to conquer the world.

But the whole album is a treat and all the brothers shine. And they are a band (I’m reminded of the Beach Boys’ early 70 LPs Sunflower and Surf’s Up), and that’s one of the nicest surprises: as good as “Rock with You” and “Working Day and Night” are on the original LP, these live versions benefit from the Jacksons harmony, a sound Michael was trying to put behind him. These versions, with all of those familiar voices behind Michael make these songs sound like a Jackson 5 tune with Michael on lead vocals. It’s really something.

The Jacksons as a touring unit in the late 70s stayed clear of their early hits, aside from the ubiquitous three-minute medley. I’ve heard a show from 1979 tour and that medley begins simply: Randy says, “Hey, Michael, should we do some old stuff,” and Michael says, “Sure. Let’s go.”

But two years later, Michael was in a different place than his brothers. They hoped they’d have a future in show business, but Michael knew he would—and he knew their audience was ready to go with him. Subsequently, the medley now had a long, scripted intro, tailor-made by Michael, making it clear where he’s heading.

It’s easy to put yourself in the audience, full of screaming teenagers who were raised on “I Want You Back,” but were ready for “Billie Jean.” And yet this playful intro preys on a sense of nostalgia the audience didn’t even know it had. It’s funny, it gets you cheering along (silly, but that’s how I felt the first time I heard it), and Michael sounds so strong and hellbent on the Now.

The Jacksons – Medley ’81 (5:22, right-click to download)

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The Jacksons Live!, Eddie Murphy & a Proustian Rush

I had mixed feelings when Michael Jackson died. Sure, I was bummed out—the world lost a great talent, all those amazing songs, blah, blah, blah—but I was also happy that People magazine was finally going to give these bozos a rest and put someone else on the cover. (I mean, really, they had, like four covers in a row. And yeah, I read People. My wife subscribes, and when it’s sitting around the house, it’s impossible to resist.)

The best thing to come of Michael’s passing—for me—was the rediscovery and discovery of so much great Jackson 5 and Jacksons material. (They were known as the Jacksons after their departure from Motown in 1975.) There are two LPs in particular, Destiny (1978) and Triumph (1980), that are electrifying late-era disco/hardcore R&B, and they’ll definitely be topics of later posts.

But right now I’d like to highlight the LP The Jacksons Live!, recorded in September, 1981, for the Triumph tour. This is one of those CDs that when I finally heard it—which was only last June—I wondered, “How come no one’s ever mentioned this to me?! How come I’ve never seen this on any ‘Great Live LPs’ lists?! If I had known about this, I would have been listening to it regularly for the last three decades!” Tomorrow I’ll write more about the LP itself, but today I want to draw attention to one song: “She’s Out of My Life.”

Many people my age reading this remember Eddie Murphy’s 1983 Delirious special on HBO. It was incredibly influential—for better or worse—on all of my peers (we’re still screaming, “The Ice Cream Man is coming!!!!”), and his bit on Michael Jackson helped formed the basis of our opinion of Michael in the 80s. Well, now after hearing this live LP from the Jacksons, I’m fairly certain this is what Eddie used as the basis of his impersonation. When I heard Michael sing this song, I had a major shock, one of those moments where something from you youth finally makes sense, when all the pieces fall into place.

I’ll let you decide. (BTW, keep in mind that in this video clip, whenever you hear Michael, it’s from the aforementioned live recording; the video, however, is from his 1979 video for the song, hence the sloppy synch.)

She’s Out of My Life (3:49, right-click to download)

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Me and the Colorful World of Oz

Time to tell you a little about myself. As a lifelong fan of Film and Music who was immersed in it professionally for a long time, I think I have some observations you might find interesting or entertaining.

For a half-dozen years, last century, I was a sound editor for independent films in NYC, and since then I’ve produced docs and non-fiction television TV. Briefly, I was generating bonus content for DVDs. In other words, I’ve had all kinds of experiences, some with celebrities old and new, and those escapades will figure into my posts (my Tales of Scorsese are bottomless). But mostly I’m going to dissect films and songs that I love, frequently griping about aspects and trends that annoy me. Also, I’m a big supporter of audio commentaries, and when I hear something especially cool on one, I’ll post portions.

To the Velvet Underground fans out there, my URL is a semi-obscure VU reference, but in this context, I’d like to think that I’m peeling away the layers of art, both high and low, and revealing the wonderful riches underneath. And hopefully prompting some nice discussion as well.

But, hey! Enough of my yakkin’. What do you say? Let’s boogie!

We all remember the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy leaves her home and enters Oz, especially because it takes us into the color portion of the film. And the geeks reading this probably already know that those first 22 minutes of the film were broadcast in B&W–instead of the original sepia—until 1989. And the observant folks know that the first shot in color has the door frame to the house painted in sepia so it appears to be in B&W until Dorothy opens the door…

But I just noticed this and think it’s really awesome: The woman who opens the door is not Judy Garland. It’s her stand-in wearing a sepia version of Dorothy’s blue-and-white dress:

Then when she steps back out of frame, Judy Garland walks through the door:

I love shit like that. Smart problem-solving. In-camera, on-location problem solving.

And please don’t take this as a rant against computers or CGI or the way they make films now. I’m just enamored with the fact that I’ve seen this film many, many times and never noticed that aspect to the shot. I was always too busy looking at the sepia-painted walls around the door!

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Jaws: Before and After

Screw any introduction of myself (that will come later). I’m just going to leap into this blog thing. My first post is both praise for my favorite film and an indictment of a drop in standards.  When Jaws came out on DVD in 2000, I was understandably thrilled. Pretty quickly, however, I was appalled to see—hear—that the sound was quite different than I had remembered…

How did this happen? How did the sound of a three-ton shark crashing through the side of a boat go from sounding like a ’73 Buick Riviera driving into your living room to Zelda Rubenstein dropping a champagne glass in your kitchen? I can only speculate.

Y’see, Jaws was originally mixed in (glorious) mono, and, naturally, that doesn’t sit right with the present-day sound-crazed home-theater owners. So when it was time to make the DVD, Universal did what was necessary to make a 5.1 mix for the film, which included re-recording several sound effects. And whoever was hired to do that phoned it in. (The whole film is missing chunks of great sound FX.) And someone (Universal? Spielberg?) gave it a stamp of approval. And this new mix was the only soundtrack available on the DVD!

And so here I was, a sound editor buying his All-Time Favorite Film, cringing at a desecration and daydreaming of the day when the word “blog” would be invented. I should be clear that I wasn’t the only one to think the sound FX work for Jaws was amazing: this film won only three Oscars, and one of those was for its Sound.

Gratefully, when Universal did its money-grubbing 30th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2005, the mono track was included—though it defaults to the 5.1 mix, which I think (as I’ve made perfectly clear) sounds like shit. And as I note in the clip, if you’re lucky enough to see a new print of Jaws (which looks gorgeous, BTW) in a movie theater, it will have this less-than-thrilling soundtrack.

One of these days I’ll post more examples of the tremendous inadequacy of the new soundtrack. Laughable and sad.

And yes, I welcome—encourage—anyone who was responsible for the sound FX on the remixed Jaws to drop me a line. I’d love to hear what you have to say to a fellow sound editor.

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