Monday, July 20, 2009

Set Your DVR!

Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback is a documentary that puts a new spin on the concept of "world music." The Monks consisted of five American GIs who began playing together when they were all stationed in Germany in 1964. It was after they were discharged from the service that they fell in with Walther Niemann and Karl-H. Remy, a couple of artsy types who repackaged them as "the Monks", complete with Friar Tuck haircuts, black clothes, and nooses worn as neckties. The look made it a lot harder to confuse them with the Dave Clark 5, but the Monks already stood apart from the '60s pack for their lack of interest in lush and catchy melodies in favor of a focus on minimalist rhythmic experimentation. Heard today, it's easy to take them for a likely influence on the Velvet Underground and such post-punk giants as Wire and Gang of Four. Both well-informed and worshipful towards its subject, the doc achieves a tone somewhere between a 33 1/3 book and a raving fan who acts as if he's been up for three days, which is kind of appropriate. It makes its cable debut on The Sundance Channel on Friday, May 1, 11:00 PM central/midnight eastern, four days before its release on DVD, and four months after founding member Dave Day died of a heart attack.

This week's "TCM Underground" premiere on Turner Classic Movies is Sam Raimi's 1987 Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn [late Friday night, 1:00 AM central/2:00 AM eastern]. In addition to coming in handy for anyone who just can't wait until the June return of Burn Notice to get their Bruce Campbell fix, it may serve as a reminder to those working on the Farrelly brothers' Three Stooges revival that Raimi and Campbell already did it best, and with just the one actor. TCM Underground has been supplementing its cult beauties with vintage documentary shorts that are apparently chosen for their camp value, but they're following Evil Dead 2 with Changing [2:30 AM central/3:30 AM eastern], a 28-minute, 1971 film, sponsored by "the National Institute of Mental Health", that profiles a working-class family man who's been letting his beard grow out and developing what some around him clearly see as unsettling, radical attitudes; they include treating his wife as an equal partner in their marriage and refusing to work extra shifts because he needs the time to connect with his children. (He also wants to be able to pass a joint around when he's relaxing with his friends but also wants to reserve the right to worry about his kids learning to sniff glue.) The central figure, who today looks like three-quarters of the young male adult population of red state America, expresses disdain about being called a "hippie", and with good reason: he's just an average working stiff who's found that, by adopting some of the healthier changing social attitudes going on around him, he's been able to improve his life, though he's baffled and a little hurt that some people, such as his workplace "family", feel the need to react as if he'd betrayed them and the American Way of Life. If somebody today were to make a fiction film about someone in a similar situation in that place and time, it's hard to imagine it coming out as free of smugness and condescension.

In the mornings to come, TCM is running a few pictures worth seeing that don't happen to be (currently, legally, readily, whatever) available on DVD. The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) [Saturday, May 2: 5:00 AM central/6 AM eastern] is the prize jewel from Budd Boetticher's career that got left out of last year's box set containing all the director's Westerns with Randolph Scott. Compared to those highly functional, economical B-movies, Bullfighter is a lusher, visually colorful, melodramatic work starring Robert Stack as an American who persuades a celebrated matador (Gilbert Roland) to tutor him as a bullfighter. TCM 's version is a good half hour longer than the version released by the studio, and is an often stirring testimony to the photogenic star power of Gilbert Roland and Mexico itself. Then on Sunday, May 3: 7:00 AM central/8:00 AM eastern, TCM runs Bombshell (1933), with Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, and Franchot Tone, one of the earliest, and funniest, of Hollywood's self-satires.

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