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The Late Movies: Joni Mitchell, Then and Now

OK, I have a confession to make: I'm a big wuss and I love Joni Mitchell. It's almost all my mom listened to while I was growing up, so even before I started discovering music on my own, I was pretty familiar with most of her stuff from the late 60s through the 80s. A lot of people love the old classics -- her 1971 album Blue still makes a lot of critical "desert island" top ten lists -- and while I certainly do too, I think she's done interesting and innovative work since then as well, much of which gets overlooked.

So this is a special kind of list. It's one especially good song from every Joni Mitchell album in chronological order, which, if listened to from start to finish, should provide an interesting snapshot of the progression of her style (from the folky 60s to the jazzy 70s and poppy 80s and then back to her folk roots in the 90s and beyond) and her voice, which gets gravelly and deep as the years wear on (she's been a smoker for decades, and you can tell; though she can't hit the high notes like she used to, I think it gives her voice a cool, weathered quality).

Song for a Seagull: "Cactus Tree" (1969)

The big hit from her debut album, the one that launched her into stardom, back in her flowy-gowned, ethereal hippie days.

Clouds: "Songs to Aging Children Come" (1969)

Another sparsely arranged album, mostly just Joni's voice and guitar. This is an early example of her musical experimentation -- there are certainly more popular songs from this album ("Both Sides Now," for instance), but the Allmusic guide credits this song with having "perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music." I couldn't find her original on YouTube -- this is a cover version used in the film Alice's Restaurant.

Ladies of the Canyon: "For Free" (1970)

The album's title refers to the Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills of LA, where Mitchell and a lot of other music scenesters of the era lived, and the album deals with the complexities of celebrity and love and the Woodstock generation in a really lucid and honest way. This song -- among her best, I think -- captures the mixed feelings she must've had about her sudden fame and fortune.

OK, I'm breaking my rule and including a second song from this album -- "Rainy Night House," which is so snaky and jazzy and unlike much of what she'd done up to this point. I feel like this is the song that kind of points her way into the 70s, musically. She's definitely leaving behind the ethereal hippie girl vibe here. (This is a live version recorded a few years after the album was released.)

Blue: "A Case of You" (1971)

In January 2000, the New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented "turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music." I couldn't agree more -- every song on this album is like an intricate little gem. They're all worthy of posting here, but this song gets me every time. This performance looks like it's from the late 70s or early 80s -- but I think it still resonates loud and clear.

For the Roses: "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" (1972)

Her big hit on this album was "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" -- written semi-sarcastically after record company execs requested she turn out a radio-friendly song -- but I think it's one of her least interesting. There's way more soul in this track, about a heroin addict searching for "lady relief" --

Court and Spark: "Court and Spark"(1974)

Her best-selling album ever, recorded after a two-year hiatus from the music biz. It's clear she spent those years listening to a lot of jazz, because it's infused throughout what used to be a much more straightforwardly folky sound. I've always loved this one --

And speaking of jazz, Herbie Hancock and Norah Jones' cover of it ain't bad either:

The Hissing of Summer Lawns: "Edith and the Kingpin" (1975)

OK, this is where most people who like "early" Joni Mitchell check out and stop paying attention, but I think some of her most interesting work starts here. She completely reinvents her sound on this album -- again -- and the result are these complex, multilayered, snaky, jazzy numbers that paint these very cinematic portraits of little situations and moments in time. I can't think of anything else that sounds like this, before or since. (Also, this is when musical geniuses in their own right like Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny became part of her sound -- her "band," I guess you could call them.)

Hejira: "Amelia" (1976)

Sparse and thoughtful, these were songs written on a cross-country road trip. I think this homage to Amelia Earhart is the standout.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter: "Overture/Cotton Avenue" (1977)

Super experimental, improvisational, and loose, it's one of her least accessible but most intriguing albums (and definitely one of her least known). Lots of overdubbing and harmonies here create big, weird sonic landscapes -- and bassist Jaco Pastorius does some of his best work here, especially in this song (which kicks into high gear around 2:00 -- wait for it).

joni-mingus

Mingus: "The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines" (1979)

Recorded with jazz pioneer Charles Mingus in the months before his death, it would be Mingus' final recording effort, and the album is dedicated wholly to him. Joni also painted the above picture of Mingus -- included as an LP album insert (which I have framed and hung on the wall of my office, FYI). Also notable as the first album she released while I was, like, alive.

Try not to tap your feet to the funky-ass jive she and Jaco lay down on this track, I dare you.

Wild Things Run Fast: "Moon at the Window" (1982)

Another reinvention of her sound. There are several tracks on this album that are definitely of the 80s -- and I don't think they're among her best work -- but there are a number of gems, like this one. Interestingly, Joni said in an interview that the Police influenced the change in her sound: "their rhythmic hybrids, and the positioning of the drums, and the sound of the drums, was one of the main calls out to me to make a more rhythmic album."

Dog Eat Dog: "Ethiopia" (1985)

Warning: this album is HEAVILY 80s. Lots of fans were pissed about all the synths she used (Thomas Dolby produced some of the tracks), and it's fascinating how angry a lot of these songs are -- though it seems a heartfelt reaction to the materialism of the 80s. This song isn't my fave or anything, but it just seems so quintessentially of the time -- that awful famine in Ethiopia seemed like it was the only thing on the news when I was growing up -- that it captures the album for me.

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm: "The Beat of Black Wings" (1988)

The last of her super-synthy 80s albums, it has a few standouts, and is notable, I think, for how political it is. She rails against consumerism, commercialism and the destruction of Native American culture (and Native American musical tropes pop up throughout the songs). In case their are kids in the room: Joni talks about abortion and drops a big fat F-bomb in this one.

Night Ride Home: "Passion Play" (1991)

A return to form, in my opinion. She ditches most of the synths, gets out the guitar and the piano, and kicks ass. There are several great songs here. I'm including three. It's that good!

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem"

A brilliant musical rendition of Yeats' seminal poem. Truly powerful. (Please ignore the video's insanely annoying on-the-nose graphics, however. Maybe hide the window?)

Two Grey Rooms

A heartfelt piano ballad inspired by a story about German film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who, amid the repression of Germany's antigay Paragraph 175 laws, was left broken-hearted by a male lover in his youth. In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell says of the song:

It's a story of obsession ... about this German aristocrat who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He later finds this man working on a dock and notices the path that the man takes every day to and from work. So the aristocrat gives up his fancy digs and moves to these two shabby gray rooms overlooking this street, just to watch this man walk to and from work.

She's released several albums since then, my favorite being Turbulent Indigo, but videos of the songs are tough to find. Check out her rendition (songification?) of the Book of Job (no kidding), called "The Sire of Sorrow." Dang.

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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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entertainment
15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
Universal Home Video
Universal Home Video

Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


Universal Home Video

De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
Universal Home Video

In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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