I’m off to be the wizard

The movie starts with opening credits over scenes of sky and clouds, and a Debbie Harry voice-over. Then, a charming 19-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat is in the hospital; he is released, the swooning nurses wave and giggle. Basquiat walks downtown, past the Guggenheim, through Times Square (of 1981), past the Empire State Building, into the Lower East Side (of 1981). He gets kicked out of his apartment, falls in love with a model driving a convertible, he says “I’m off to BE the wizard”, he walks into an underground club where— mid-morning— a rapper and DJ are kicking out out the beats to ten or so dancing patrons, he buys and smokes a joint, jokes around with Fab 5 Freddie, he says “in this town you have to think big just to survive”, he walks past several instances of his own grafitti, he tries to sell a painting, he sees all his band’s gear stolen, he tags some buildings, he talks his way into a limo, into several clubs, he kisses Debbie Harry, finds a fortune, buys a car, and drives until dawn. Interspersed are performances from various post-punk bands of the day: Tuxedomoon, DNA, The Plastics, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks.

It’s Downtown 81, a movie originally called “New York Beat Movie”, shot in 1981, thought lost, but rediscovered and released in 2000. The soundtrack was sort of destroyed, so all vocals were re-dubbed (Basquiat’s lines spoken by someone else, naturally; when we were watching, props to Terri for noticing how weird the voice sync was, and wondering if it had all been overdubbed, Fellini-style— she turned out to be correct). I went to see it at the Brattle with Matt Shaw back in the day, and recently, with Terri’s new interest in Tuxedomoon (my God, is “Luther Blissett” a great song, ) ordered it from Netflix. The plot is super hokey (I’ve got to find the girl/sell my painting to pay my landlord/recover the gear stolen by a rival band!), and much of the dialogue is atrocious. But it’s such a great slice of NYC in 1981, Basquiat is so smooth, and New York looks so totally beat, it makes you want to cry for a time when every square centimeter of Manhattan wasn’t overrun by hedge fund managers and their ilk (though perhaps that may be changing in a hurry, if last week turns out to be a harbinger of a sudden change in the economics of NYC and consequently its real estate).

We originally had tix to see Tilly and the Wall at the Middle East tonight, but decided not to go. Instead, we followed up Downtown 81 with The Wizard of Oz on TCM. How interesting to watch it as an adult. It’s so iconic; there is hours of entertainment in just trying to separate the icon from what’s actually there, whatever being actually there menas.

The Brattle used to have a contest where the winner got to pick out a double feature. Terri and I have batted about the merits of various pairings, and one that we keep coming back to (and props to Terri for originally thinking of it originally, I think) is a pairing of The Great Ziegfeld and The Wizard of Oz. Several cast members of the Wizard of Oz are Ziegfeld Follies alumni, namely Ray Bolger and Billie Burke (a.k.a. Mrs. Florenz Ziegfeld). Frank Morgan (a.k.a. the man behind the curtain) is in both films. And both have ridiculously over the top production numbers, sets, and cinematography. The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t have any flying monkeys, but then again, The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Yet another perceptive note on Terri’s part (Terri, if I trusted you to blog every brilliant thing you said, I would just be letting you blog this yourself!): the black and white bit of the Wizard of Oz? If you look closely, it’s actually not really black and white. It’s sepia-toned. Some hardcore technically-oriented film geek probably knows the answer to this, but I wonder if it always this way, or if it has something to do with its conversion for color TV or if it was converted to all color film at some point after color was more common. Regardless of why, the effect is that the scenes in Kansas seem more bland than the sharp, classic look of true black and white; it seems more like nostalgia, like an idealized memory of farming America, or an idealized memory of home.

There has also been a WONDERFUL promo of John Waters running on TCM lately, talking about why Dorothy is insane for wanting to get back to Kansas. It’s not on YouTube, but there is a slightly longer version available on the TCM website that is well worth the minute or two of your life it takes to watch it! Go now! I don’t care if you’re at work! Money quote:

I’m the only child in the audience who wondered why she ever wanted to go back to Kansas. Why would she want to go back to Kansas in the this dreary black and white farm with this aunt who dressed badly and seemed mean to me, when she could live with magic shoes, winged monkeys, and gay lions?? I never understood it.

And for some bonus random connections, Waters talks much about Margaret Hamilton, whom Warhol did several portraits of in the 80′s, around the time he was collaborating with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Debbie Harry was in John Water’s Hairspray.

13 thoughts on “I’m off to be the wizard”

  1. Why? Because there’s no place like home. Or to put it another way, home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.

  2. I haven’t gotten around to watching Downtown 81 but the plot, as it were, sort of reminds me of Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street; “watch me jam with the band, oh and I’ve also got to find those stolen master tapes for my latest album before the label goes bankrupt, now I’m off to shoot a music video” sort of deals. Of course, I haven’t seen that in about two decades so who knows if I’m remembering it correctly.

    I have an uneasy relationship with WoO. That was my father’s favorite film when he was a child. Back before cable or home video it used to be a big deal every year when CBS would broadcast it and every year he would sit us down to watch it. It was fun, at first, but after about 10 years I kind of got burned out on it.

    I’ve since worked on two productions of WoO, one was a HUGE musical version, which was a total nightmare and the other was a small children’s version which was less so (Frank L. Baum tells the story with the help of a young urchin and his maid, all three of them playing all of the parts; the birdcage becomes the Scarecrow, the lion skin rug becomes the Lion, the Victrola horn becomes the witches hat, etc.) Needless to say, I’m kind of sick of it and compared to Kansas, Oz seems like an eye-straining, headache inducing nightmare. With songs and Munchkins.

    I’m not surprised that Waters (and Lynch) are so obsessed with Oz but coming from those two it doesn’t strike me as a healthy obsession. And you are correct, it was in sepia, not black and white. That wasn’t always noticeable in early TV broadcasts.

  3. I watched it every year when it was on CBS when I was a kid, too, and that’s why I wanted to watch it again, with fresh eyes. Why do you have to be such a damn grump about everything, Marco? I mean, seriously, can’t you just take a vacation for it for two hours and watch some flying monkeys? You are so impervious to magic that you would probably walk up to the scarecrow and say, “hey, aren’t you one of the farmhands?”

    One of the things I’ve always loved about it is that the b/w to color switch is supposed to indicate the switch from reality to fantasy. But in reality, that’s in reverse: reality is in color and black and white is just a pale imitation. In my world— and honest to goodness, I really try to live by this— it’s Oz that’s reality and Kansas that’s the dream.

  4. Who are you? Mr. Happypants? I’m not the one who makes broad proclamations like “Punk Rock sucks” or “I don’t like amplified music.” I’m at least specific about my likes and dislikes.

    I’m not impervious to magic, but repetition tends to dilute its effects. To be honest, I wanted to revisit Oz with fresh eyes, but my opportunity was tied to that miserable production. Trust me, when The Wizard of Oz is the soundtrack to two unhappy, stressful months, it tends to sour the experience somewhat. Maybe in another 20 years I’ll be ready again.

    And as rich as my fantasy life is (and it is) I still prefer to find beauty in the here and now – although it’s not always easy, I grant you. If anything, I think that’s the real message of Oz – she could go home anytime and everything that Dorothy loved about Oz always existed in her world, she just had to be woken up to that. Like the song says, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.”

  5. This is an interesting debate, even though I’ve never seen the whole Oz movie. I remember a couple of years when it was broadcast on TV, but my brother always got scared of the wicked witch and had to leave the living room, and I found the whole thing creepy enough that I never got much farther than Dorothy’s meetup with the scarecrow/lion/tin man. It’s one of those things that I never felt I had to see, though, since clips from and parodies of it are so prevalent.

  6. That’s Captain Happypants to you, thankyouverymuch. I earned those bars, and I expect to be saluted.

    Truth be told, I think my reaction to the Wizard of Oz is more about not really wanting to go home, or feeling like if home was Kansas, then give me Oz. Which I think why the Waters clip resonates.

    Trixie, I think it’s worth seeing the real deal. I sort of felt the same way about A Christmas Carol, but finally reading it a year or two ago was well worth it; there is just a lot that is lost in repetition over the years (e.g. it’s less about Scrooge being wealthy as it is about Scrooge being miserly, there are whole scenes that I didn’t know about (Christmas in a lonely lighthouse) that I’ve never seen in any film production)

    I am going to make a broad proclamation, and say that there are two true American fairy tales: the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Wizard of Oz.

    Terri also had some interesting thoughts about comparing the whole thing to Alice in Wonderland, but, geez, I gotta save some of her own thoughts to put in her own blog.

  7. Okay Capitano, now you’re talkin’ sense. For the record, I don’t *hate* Wizard of Oz, it’s just that the wonder has worn off for me through repeated exposure, either from direct viewing, direct involvement, or indirectly through constant parodies and pastiches.

    Furthermore, I think much of the modern day appeal of Oz comes from watching it through the lens of irony and frankly after a work has been reduced to a series of loaded signifiers, pop-cultural in-jokes, high camp and innuendo you get something so crass and insincere, so smug and familiar, that you might as well be watching Shrek the Third. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that’s how you are viewing it. Artiface need not be insincere.

    Additionally, while there are many comparably famous and distinctly American myths I concur that Star Wars and Oz definitely stand as the prime examples of American Fairy Tales. I too had a similar aversion to A Christmas Carol (and I’ve worked on at least 5 stage versions of that) but I’ve since grown to appreciate it. Your friend should definitely give Wizard of Oz a chance. It’s like Moby Dick or Sgt. Pepper’s – whether you ultimately enjoy it or not, everyone eventually should get around to it.

  8. I soooo prefer the books, where Oz is a real place like Kansas, not a dream of Dorothy’s. In fact, in the sixth book she eventually ends up moving to Oz for good and all, and Uncle Henry and Aunt Em too — they can’t pay the mortgage on the new farmhouse built after the tornado.

    So why does she go home the first time? “My greatest wish now is to get back to Kansas, for Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last, I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.” Quite a different motivation!

  9. Watching the film the other night, I got curious about the books, and ordered The Annotated Wizard of Oz

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