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Behind the Caterwaul: A Mariah Carey Retrospective

I’ve gathered three of Slant’s music boys to dish the dirt on the multi-octave songbird’s first nine releases.

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Behind the Caterwaul: A Mariah Carey Retrospective

In honor of Mariah Carey’s 10th studio album (and fourth or fifth liberation), The Emancipation of Mimi, I’ve gathered three of Slant’s music boys to dish the dirt on the multi-octave songbird’s first nine releases (yes, we’re counting her Christmas album). At times the discussion wasn’t pretty: There were catfights about which is better, “Fantasy” the album version or “Fantasy” the remix, Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” or Mariah’s cover with Dru Hill, Mariah with or Mariah without breast implants. Okay, so I made that last one up. And they weren’t really catfights so much as casual, borderline mundane conversations. But the words “slut” and “orgasm” were used in one form or another at least three times each. And Rick James’s corpse and “Hero”-as-masturbation-anthem each received one mention apiece. That should count for something, though I’m not sure what. But don’t worry, I chimed in from time to time to keep the boys on point. Your ringmaster, Alexa Camp

MARIAH CAREY (1990)

Rich Juzwiak: I really thought Mariah’s debut single, “Vision of Love,” was a Whitney Houston song when I first heard it on the radio. I think it was a vision of the future world of American Idol, where we have these doe-eyed robots who think melisma is godliness. As on Whitney’s first album (and, actually, most that came after it), Mariah showed just how much of a diva she was by being a million times better than her cloying, forgettable songs.

Eric Henderson: That song was so ridiculously popular that it’s sort of compelling to return to it today and discover restraint where we remember abandon. Like the doo-wop ballads it emulates, it’s demure in how it doesn’t pretend that you can work foreplay, intercourse, and the climax into the space of three-and-a-half minutes. So it settles for foreplay. The end of the song has a lot less caterwauling and a lot more stage-whispered promises of things to come.

RJ: Who needs sex when you orgasm so massively and so often? Come on, Honey climaxes easily. The last half of “Vision Of Love” (starting with the belted bridge) is a series of crescendos that get so intense that another Mariah has to step in to keep up the momentum. And then there’s the whistle note. And then there’s the final vocal run that’s more like a roller-coaster track. If you think these aren’t climaxes, she proves you wrong with her denouement, the way the last word, “be,” sort of wanes into an “mm hmm hmm.” Unsurprising that there’s so much drama, even passion, in a vocal arrangement that’s constructed like a short story.

Sal Cinquemani: I think we should title this piece “Finding Subtext Where There Is None.” Do you really think the songs on Mariah’s debut were forgettable? In particular, “Vanishing” and “All In Your Mind,” which I think prefigured “Always Be My Baby” (but with a healthy dose of soul), are pretty memorable. And I used to really love that song “Prisoner” (I was 11, okay?). I think it’s funny that people got their panties all in a twitch over Mariah’s latter-day hip-hop excursions. I mean, the girl raps on this song. Badly. And no one seemed to mind.

RJ: I did.

SC: Of course you did.

EH: Mariah’s penchant for spinning the roulette wheel with her producers and songwriting collaborators admittedly didn’t announce itself with much kaleidoscopic diversity. “Someday,” with its pristine synth ascensions and rubbery bassline, sounded great the first time, mostly because it reminded you of one of those other 1990 dance singles that you could never be bothered to learn the name of. That is until the voice slipped (like an obdurate water balloon out of your hands) into the upper octaves.

SC: I didn’t really notice Mariah until “Someday” came out. Maybe that speaks to the fact that I was just much less interested in “singers” than good pop songs, but Mariah the balladeer just bored me to tears.

RJ: Ah, “Someday”: the rare Mariah swing track. She really came off as an AC-blooded new jack hack. Doesn’t she do the Roger Rabbit in the video? This song was sort of the pinnacle of the marriage of obsequiousness and genre resistance that made Sony so much money.

EMOTIONS (1991)

RJ: I like taking the first line of the title track’s chorus as a statement in itself: “You’ve got me feeling emotions.” I’ll send that insight right back atcha, Mariah: on this unremarkable album, you’ve got me hearing sounds.

SC: Emotions was considered a bit of a sophomore slump at the time (which, looking back, is funny considering only three of her albums have sold more), but I think it’s really classic-sounding.

EH: “Classic-sounding”? I like that you know it’s not classic in essence, but only in representation.

RJ: This album came out a little over a year after Mariah’s debut, and in many ways predicted her eventual identity better than her next few releases. Aside from her workhorsiness, her penchant for referencing is all over the album: “Emotions” sounds like the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” and Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real,” “Can’t Let Go” is a musical retread of Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee’s “Make It Last Forever” (which she’d oddly go on to cover again in the remix of “Thank God I Found You”), and “Make It Happen” repeats the chord progressions and the disco-kinda-disco of Alicia Myers’s “I Want to Thank You.” I think there were lawsuits filed over a few, if not all of the aforementioned tracks.

SC: Hmmm, maybe that explains the so-called “classic sound” I was talking about.

EH: Yeah, but, to be fair, the sample-happy production team of Clivillés and Cole were relatively convenient sitting ducks during the spate of anti-sampling litigations that characterized the early-’90s battle against hip-hop. I imagine that most of the charges leveled against sample-reliant songs in that era weren’t filed by people who understood the element of artistic license of musical quotation. Incidentally, I’d forgotten all about “Make It Last Forever,” though I’m talking about the Jocelyn Brown version with Inner Life. Mariah later ripped that one too, didn’t she? [EDITOR’S NOTE: After extensive (read: a few minutes’ worth of) research, we have found no tangible evidence of “a direct connection between the Inner Life track and any of Mariah’s shit,” as Rich put it so eloquently in one email exchange. Any congruity between the two is purely a product of Eric’s retrofitted imagination.]

SC: I never realized how much Mariah used to scream. And can you imagine her singing those first few notes of “So Cold” today? My favorite songs here are “The Wind” and “Make It Happen.”

RJ: I love “Make It Happen,” but even though I admire her vocal conviction (see, she is a good actress!), the song’s lyrics just ring so false to me. It just didn’t take that long for the girl with one shoe to acquire many.

AC: You’ve been watching too much of MTV’s Cribs, Rich.

SC: “Because I am a person who loves dolphins.” Of course you do, Mariah.

MUSIC BOX (1993)

SC: With each new album, Mariah claimed she was gaining more and more creative control, but Music Box is exactly what Tommy Mottola ordered: mild, unchallenging middle-of-the-road fluff. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine.

RJ: As wooden as its namesake. An inherent underdog, Mariah’s endearment is directly at odds with her success. This was the apex of her popularity, so it’s just hateable. “Hero” is total nonsense. I really just don’t understand it. It’s like “The Greatest Love of All” on mind-fuzzing painkillers. There’s a hero in me, but I need to find it. And then a hero comes along? Well that’s confusing. Too many heroes. Who do I pay attention to, the hero in myself or this external hero? Is this a kindred spirit, or is my inner hero manifesting itself as another being? Am I to have some sort of romance with this hero that comes along? I think this song’s about masturbation. Wait a minute, I think I love it.

EH: As someone who attended high school danceline competitions for six straight years (shut up Sal, my sisters were on the team) and heard the song play out at the end of competitions and video yearbooks almost as often as Celine Dion’s “The Power Of A Dream,” I can assure you that no one thinks “Hero” is about anything other than self-promoting, instant nostalgia-stoking…oh, I guess it is about masturbation.

RJ: The album version of “Anytime You Need a Friend” is miserable, but the Clivillés & Cole mixes are both theirs and Mariah’s finest moments in house. One hundred percent garage done by the best singer in the world. I bet it had princesses, queens, and guidos all over the tri-state area crying on the dance floor.

SC: Yes, weeping…

AC:…all over their Long Island prom dresses.

MERRY CHRISTMAS (1994)

RJ: “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is totally a classic. A lot of people think it’s a cover, which I think is a testament to its success.

SC: Or maybe it’s a testament to how derivative it is?

RJ: Exactly!!!

SC: Still, this is Mariah’s best album. And can we mention how she completely re-recorded “Joy to the World” as an eight-minute house mix with David Morales? She’s absolutely out of her mind.

RJ: Love that Jesus was a bullfrog.

EH: You queens are such completists.

AC: This is the only Mariah album I own…on vinyl.

DAYDREAM (1995)

RJ: I think the scene in Glitter where Dice cuts all the “superfluous shit” out of “Loverboy” must have been based on Sean Combs’s reaction to the album version of “Fantasy.” It’s amazing how just streamlining can turn something shrill and nagging into perfection. “Fantasy” is among her weakest tracks, and the Bad Boy Remix is one of her best. Go figure.

SC: It’s telling that you think the remix is one of her best tracks, seeing as how her original hook is completely replaced with the part she didn’t actually write. It might be cheesy, but I love the album version.

RJ: Well, what is she if not a fantastic appropriator? I don’t look to Mariah’s writing for innovation (though I may have picked up a 10-cent word here and there). I’m more interested in what her wacky, idiosyncratic filter lets through her pop-culture obsession and into her work. But then, she also hits on a much more visceral level with “I Am Free.” It’s faux-gospel, as manipulative as Sunday school and I’m just begging for her to take me to church.

SC: I like that song a lot, but I think Glitter has a serious S&M fetish. She’s constantly writing the same songs over and over again. I think she likes being a “prisoner,” and “wandering through the misery,” just so she can be saved. Technically, she’s not supposed to get free until Butterfly, right? Or is it The Emancipation of Mimi? How many times can one person be liberated?

EH: [wakes up] Wha?…Oh, sorry, reacquainting myself with this album laid me flat out cold. It’s interesting that you can almost pinpoint the moment that Mariah gave up the pop crown to the moment she lost the Grammy for Best Pop Album to Joni Mitchell in 1995. She’s been straight-up R&B ever since.

BUTTERFLY (1997)

SC: Butterfly is the album where Mariah’s housekeeper, Pilar, accidentally shrunk all of her clothes in the dryer and she’s been wearing them ever since.

RJ: I wish she would have gone all out and got antennae implanted in her scalp. Or at least one of those headbands with the glitter balls attached to those long springs.

EH: I must be a pervert, because Butterfly marks the exact moment when Mariah suddenly became truly interesting to me. For a moment (and this might be the result of the album coming out during my first few disillusioned weeks at a regressive, conformist, abnegatory Christian college), it seemed she had hit on that then-elusive formula of musical conservatism (all those “Hero” aphorisms about believing in yourself, not to mention your sense of entitlement) and risky “bad girl” sluttery. It had at least half of Mariah’s core audience, specifically post-teen girls ready to embark on the marriage hunt, absolutely incensed! Here, I remember thinking, is this talented-but-vapid pop artist finally attempting to use her image to combat, rather than encourage, the apathy toward issues of image and identity that is pop’s chief philosophical trade?

SC: No. I think any subversion or exploration of image is purely accidental.

EH: Anyway, my momentary respect for Mariah’s skanky introspection passed when Janet released the exponentially riskier and more sonically diverse The Velvet Rope a few weeks later. Mariah and Sisqo’s torpid, lurching, indolent cover of “The Beautiful Ones” is an embarrassment. And, though the jokes write themselves with “Breakdown,” the rip-off of the droning bassline and skittering high-hats of “Tha Crossroads” is seriously lazy.

SC: Funny, those are two of my favorite songs on the album. Then again, I think Purple Rain is a little overrated.

EH: Oh, hold me back, Alexa! In this case, Mariah can’t summon enough pain and regret to do justice to Prince’s practically baptismal shrieks.

AC: Play nice.

SC: Eric started it.

RJ: If the production on “Breakdown” is “lazy” (I actually think the song is a great sonic portrayal of bittersweetness, with those robotic, insistent skitters working against the sighing, broken-up piano riffage), that’s the only thing that is. Mariah hones an album’s worth of hustle into one track, at once breathy and breathless, stringing clichés together so specifically and naked. As far as I-want-you-back triteness goes, she hits the nail on the head with this one.

EH: With her head…repeatedly.

SC: I agree with Rich here. I have to admit that Mariah really matured as a songwriter on Butterfly, effectively weaving stories with a sharp eye for detail (some might call it gratuitous, but I disagree) and allowing her lyrics and lower voice register to drip and meld with the impeccable sound design of songs like “Fourth of July.” And I love how “The Roof” is followed by another impending rainstorm.

RJ: For someone who spent a career reveling in excess, it’s amazing that the exercise in restraint that is “The Roof” not only succeeds, but quietly reveals itself as the song of Mariah’s career (shame on you, Sony, for not promoting it better, and double shame on you, public, for not catching onto it anyway).

RAINBOW (1999)

SC: Plastic!

RJ: Enter the Hoochie!

EH: I like corn on the cob! No seriously, the “Heartbreaker” remix with Missy and Da Brat is one of the first times I remember thinking that Mariah wasn’t trying to be hip-hop but, rather, just simply was…at the very least in the Will Smith “Summertime” sense.

RJ: I think she’d take that as a really big compliment. Is it any coincidence that Mariah’s campiest moment up to this point came with such overtly gay imagery? I mean, it’s called Rainbow. Oh yeah, Mimi, lick that lollipop against the rainbow background. What a fag.

SC: I remember seeing that poster all over the city and thinking, “Oh, dear. Something must have happened.” She’s got her ass all up in the air like a cat in heat. POST NO BILLS.

RJ: I actually like a lot of Rainbow, perhaps more than I should considering how calculated, generic, and sometimes faceless it is. Sorry, but that run at the end of “Mariah’s Theme” kills me. And, like many of her “comeback” performances of “Through the Rain” on awards shows that would come a few years later, this was a plea for sympathy over a slight fade in popularity.

SC: Aw, poor Mariah. Butterfly only spawned two #1’s and sold only 5 million copies.

EH: But times were legitimately tough. Two albums ago she was splitting the marquee with Boyz II Men and setting Billboard records for marathoning the #1 slot. Now she was slumming with 98º and watching their duet sit on top of the pop chart for a single week when, only a few weeks earlier, fucking Santana managed a 12-week run.

SC: Oh, thanks for putting it into perspective, Eric. I betcha anything she would kill for it to be 1999 again and have just one short week at #1.

RJ: As plastically pop as she can be, she also has this practically unparalleled penchant for the bizarre. Take “Bliss” (because certainly no radio station on this planet would). I bet it’s an accurate portrayal of her bedroom. You know she does those dog whistles when she fucks. Did I mention that I love her?

GLITTER (2001)

RJ: The ’80s-loving Glitter hit before electroclash truly exploded. She was so ahead of the fold when it came to going back in time. And “Want You” has some pretty crazy production. That bassline is paradoxical—it sounds like a 303, but it squelches like it’s being used for the acid (not bass) sound. She beat all of today’s retroist tech-head producers to acid. She really was progressive!

SC: I think you’re giving her too much credit. She’s always been obsessed with junior high. I mean, she covered Journey for Chrissake.

RJ: I don’t really know why people hate “Loverboy” so much.

SC: I don’t hate it. The MJ Cole Remix was decent, though it came out just as it was becoming clear that U.K. garage was not going to be the Next Big Thing in America…so I guess it was serendipitous that the whole project failed.

RJ: I thought Cameo’s “Candy” was a really unobvious sample. Maybe it’s the “li-I-I-I-I-I-I-ke” thing she does? Whatever, the melody’s as appropriately lazy as a multi-orgasmic slut can be.

EH: Probably the best career move for a multi-orgasmic slut to make is to recruit the sultan of early-’80s skeez-sleaze Rick James. “All My Life” is a true marvel, a pastiche that more or less eclipses the genre it intends to pay tribute to. In my fantasy world, Teena Marie is to this day digging James out of the ground to slap his decaying face around for not giving the song to her.

RJ: Campiest moment of an incredibly campy project: “If I’m not quite good enough/Or somehow undeserving of/A mother’s love/You could have had the decency/To give me up/Before you gave me life” in “Reflections” a.k.a. “The Abortion Song.”

CHARMBRACELET (2002)

RJ: Charmbracelet is really Mariah at her most eager to please. You could hear the gears in her brain moving. They sound like songs of the past. So we get a pointless but fun remake of Cam’ron’s “Boy,” Mariah’s take on Force MD’s “Tender Love” (“Yours”), and tracks that misguidedly attempted to start a g-funk revival by sampling (or using the same samples as) Snoop’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” and Ice Cube’s “You Know How We Do It.” Nothing worked, but that’s the public’s fault. If you can’t appreciate Mariah’s moxie, her genuine talent, or her inherent humor and kitsch, you don’t deserve her.

EH: With this album, I am the public. I did like the basketball jersey one-piece she wore, though.

SC: “Bringing on the Heartbreak” is one of those songs I wished would have become a hit but just didn’t. For the record, I think The Emancipation of Mimi might be her first album since Emotions not to have a cover song. I wonder what that means.

RJ: It means she’s getting more devious with referencing in her old age. I bet half those songs, if not full-on covers, will be remakes in some capacity. Ah. Can’t wait to pick her brain all over again.

SC: Not so much devious as desperate. The hook of “It’s Like That” is from Kris Kross’s “The Way of Rhyme.” I mean, she’s diggin’ really deep into Jermaine Dupri’s catalogue…for a hook that barely exists. Now, if she sampled “I Missed the Bus,” that’d be a whole other story, but something tells me she isn’t going to miss it this time around.

AC: Whew! I feel like I just made it through the Underground Railroad. Fried chicken anyone?

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Pacino’s Way

This talented, hard-working thespian’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision.

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Pacino’s Way
Photo: Paramount Pictures

When he was a young man, Al Pacino, a dreadfully handsome troublemaker and high school dropout, was often homeless. He sometimes slept on the stage at HB Studio, where he was studying and performing. The aspiring actor had ambitions but not many means. He took work as a busboy, a switchboard operator, and a mailroom clerk for Commentary Magazine. He was cheerful and hard-working, with an unbridled energy and, despite his circumstances, a pertinacious optimism. “I didn’t walk to work,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I leapt to work.”

Born in East Harlem and raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in the south Bronx (his grandparents were, funny enough, from a Sicilian town called Corleone), he went by the nickname Sonny, and was called “The Actor” by friends and family due to his penchant for performing scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which he saw when he was five. “Borderline shy,” by his own admission, Pacino lived in his imagination, seeking solace in the darkness of the cinema. (Before he pursued a career in acting, he wanted to be a baseball player, a natural inclination when one grows up in the Bronx.) When Pacino was two, his father abandoned him and his mother, and one feels this absence lingering over his most famous performances like an unanswered question. He regularly plays solitary men, professionals dedicated to their work, men whose family lives are a shambles, or whose families are their life. Think of Frank Serpico, twitchy-eyed and bushy bearded, uttering, “If I could just work alone, if I could just work alone…”

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, maybe the great father-son film of the New Hollywood era, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the good son who turns into a vindictive gangster, to his father’s immense disappointment. When he takes over the family business, Michael exudes a ruthlessness that his old man disavowed. Freud talked of men wanting to kill their fathers to become them, but Michael breaks his father’s heart and becomes someone else, someone increasingly craven, a man slowly slipping into evil. He loses his soul in his search for power. Watch Pacino, hair shellacked and slick, as black as crude oil, as he grabs his brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), and notice the vehemence in his eyes as he says, “You broke my heart.” He looks as though he could tear Fredo’s face off right there.

Though Marlon Brando was the ostensible star of the first Godfather—it’s his sullen and sapiential face that adorns the poster, and he who took home an Oscar—the trilogy really belongs to Pacino’s Michael. It’s the story of a man whose potential for greatness transmogrified into evil, slowly and heartbreakingly—of the college boy, the war hero, following not in his father’s footsteps, but in a disfigured image of his shadow. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting throws upon Michael a visual dichotomy, half basked in golden light and half shrouded in shadows. As The Godfather progresses, he veers increasingly into darkness until he emerges, alone, into an autumn afternoon, left to ponder his iniquitous decisions.

Despite the composed, sometimes phlegmatic demeanor of Michael Corleone, that simmering indolence and careful elocution, something seethes behind his eyes: a sufferance for violence. All of Pacino’s great characters have the potential to hurt or maim or kill, usually out of necessity or a particular sense of pragmatism—a rarefied dangerousness. Pacino has a tragic air about him. One feels it in his stare: an overcompensation for some unuttered anxiety or self-doubt in all that shouting that typifies much of his raspy-voiced later work. There’s a protean quality to Pacino’s acting. Like his great characters, these unrelenting professionals, he isn’t unwilling to do what’s necessary: to explode when his instincts command him to, to recede into placidity when the scene calls for it. Bespoke or bedraggled, garbed in elegant suits or a leather vest, he emanates a peculiar masculinity, a kind of vulnerability.

From 1971 to 1976, Pacino had a run of performances that boggles the mind—in Jerry Schatzberg’s A Panic in Needle Park, the two Godfather films, and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Each performance has become enshrined in the American cinema canon. In these roles, one finds a man mining the depths of masculine fragility, finding ways to express pain, desperation, and egomania that didn’t adhere to the cinematic image of the drug addict, the criminal, and the gangster. In Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, from 1973, Pacino finds not only the juvenility in a former sailor, but a kind of heartbreak disguised as juvenility. The actor’s Francis is a man of tenuous mental and emotional stability, who suffers tragedy, has a mental breakdown, and lapses into catatonia. There’s nothing gimcrack or stereotypical about Pacino’s embodiment of mental illness; it’s empathetic and earnest.

In the ’80s, Pacino did more controversial fair, notably as a cop infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in William Friedkin’s salacious and invidious Cruising, and as the bombastic, cocaine-huffing megalomaniac Tony Montana, a sort of Michael Corleone type without the discipline, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. While Scarface has become embedded in the pop-culture lexicon for its riotous ending and the way Pacino holds that grenade launcher as if it were a lover, Cruising, chopped up by Friedkin in post-production to avoid an X rating, remains the more fascinating, epochal piece of lurid pulp. It’s with great empathy and curiosity that Pacino approaches the role of an undercover cop, slowly slipping into the faux-identity that’s been created for him.

In the ’90s, Pacio began to craft his own caricature, though he didn’t succumb to it. He extrapolated all that incendiary indignation, that despair and loneliness, into something resembling a stark-raving lunatic, men of profound desperation. This is the Pacino most often parodied, and most unfairly maligned. In Michael Mann’s almost-three-hour opus Heat, he married his contemplative sadness and his proclivity for erupting into voluble paroxysms. “Cause she’s got a great ass!” bellows his Vincent Hanna, an L.A.P.D. lieutenant, to a loose-lipped police officer who, after finding out he let slip sensitive information, wants to know how he got mixed up with a duplicitous phone sex worker. Hanna’s eyes go wide, his mouth like a great hungry O. His hands cup the hypothetical hindquarters. It brings to mind Whitman’s phrase “a barbaric yawp.” Then, he adds, “Ferocious, aren’t I?” as an aside, as if the other cops in the room are the audience to his Looney Tunes act.

That scene, in all its histrionics, is the apogee of Pacino’s shouting period, which began around the time of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which he played a corporeal cartoon character, Big Boy Caprice, and reached a fever pitch when he played John Milton, the head of a chthonic law firm in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate. But whereas those two outlandish roles presented Pacino with the opportunity to chew scenery with wanton relish, to go full-on hammy villain, his turn in Heat is, for all its ferocity, a deeply sad performance, an ongoing act of contrition. His eyes are wreathed by bags, sunken in from so many sleepless nights. There’s an ashen languor to his face. Vociferous and volatile, with that underlying hint of fragility, his Hanna is one of those cops who’s dedicated to his job, whose life revolves around his vocation. He carries his badge as Sisyphus does his boulder. (Pacino admitted, two decades later, that Hanna has a cocaine habit, which helps explain why he’s so labile, so clamorous. He needs the spark, the rousing scintilla, of each line setting his brain on fire, to keep him going.)

Later in Mann’s film, during a moment of tender resignation, Pacino’s character elucidates on why he harbors so much pain, why he keeps his work so close. “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp”—he snaps his fingers—“on the edge”—snap—“where I gotta be.” The timing and rhythm of this delivery is precise, as exact and measured as any stratagem crafted by the career criminals he’s chasing, yet Pacino exudes a certain fluidity, a certain malaise, as if the words are just seeping out of him.

Heat earned pre-release notoriety for featuring the first shared screen time between Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the ire of some fans who were disappointed by the reticent badinage that comprises their much-hyped meeting. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna confides to De Niro’s Neil McCauley, “because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” The scene represents the most low-key acting either performer had done in some time—just two professionals tersely chatting, making small talk that is, they know, infused with ominous warnings, like milk into coffee. “Brother,” Hanna says, calm and assured, “you are going down.”

For his second collaboration with Mann, 1999’s The Insider, Pacino dialed it back down and returned to a recurring theme of his work: struggling with the moral quandaries of professional men trying to do the job. There’s Frank Serpico and Vincent Hanna, Michael Corleone, Steve Burns in Cruising, the burned-out—but still, in his way, quite suave—detective Frank Keller in Harold Becker’s Sea of Love from 1989, and Will Dormer trying to navigate the sunlit brume in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia. Even Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, a despairing, broken-faced man driven to extremes, fits into this pattern, though his motivation is one of love, not professionalism.

What, then, to make of the last two decades of Pacino’s career—that period during which he made an appearance in Martin Brest’s legendarily bad Gigli, starred in a bevy of police procedural detritus, and gave a surreal performance as an ersatz version of himself in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill? As the pathetic, last-gasp salesman Shelley in a 2012 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, Pacino acted with what Ben Brantley called “the exaggerated pantomiming of a boozy player in a late-night charades game,” which is to say he wasn’t great. Yet, when he appeared in Mamet’s film version, in 1992, he earned an Oscar nod for his sleazy Ricky Roma, a chicanerous smooth-talker.

It’s not that he’s lost the ability to act: Despite potential “comeback” roles as the eloquently flustered Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and as an aging actor struggling with dementia in the Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, both directed by Barry Levinson, and as a lonely keymaker in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s been relegated to VOD titles like Misconduct and Hangman. No, Pacino still has the chops; he just doesn’t appear in films that deserve them. Pacino’s is one of the great, flummoxing careers of American actors. He’s a profoundly talented, hard-working thespian whose ungrudging sense of explosiveness sometimes deviates into empty grandstanding, and who’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision. In the final moments of Heat, as De Niro’s robber lays slain before Hanna, the thief manages, for his final words, “I told you I’m never going back.” Hanna, exhausted, victorious but not triumphant, intones, simply, “Yeah.”

Pacino’s Way runs at the Quad from March 14—29.

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The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered

Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema.

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The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered
Photo: Adopt Films

Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.

One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.

Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.

Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.

Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.

Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.

Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.

In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.

In an interview included with the Repo Man DVD, he’s asked, “Does the way you look at the world influence the way you act? In a film?” After a moment of silence, he says, “Obviously.” He was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926. His father was a tobacco farmer. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and was in the glee club, and served in the Navy during WWII, surviving the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, an experience that hardened him, left him thankful to be alive but with a detachment that seems to have manifest in emotional diffidence in interviews, his low-key deliveries in films. After his home was robbed in 1996 and he was tied up and had a gun pressed against his face, he mused to reporters, “I think I’m blessed with a pretty tough psyche.”

He was reluctant to disclose much of his personal life. In Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, he croons “Blue Moon” in response to the question, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” He turns Americana into a koan. His placidity earned him the nickname “Harry Zen Stanton.” His penchant for ontological musings and belief in predestiny, a word he said “scares people shitless,” didn’t extend to sincere supernatural beliefs. He wasn’t religious in a conventional sense. He could quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Book of Revelations at length but preferred the “more human” Jesus of The Gnostic Gospels. He also did a series of quotidian exercises called the Five Rites, a Tibetan practice to “stimulate your chakras” that predates yoga. He thought, he hoped, that after life there would be nothing. His turn as the mendacious, self-professed prophet with 14 wives on Big Love has a skeptical quality to it, the performance of a man who didn’t believe the bullshit his character posited. “I’m big into Eastern concepts,” he says in Partly Fiction. “The horror of life, the love of children, the whole phantasmagoria—it’s all meaningless.”

Reticent, even cryptic, he spoke with terse, exacting language, with an acerbic wit, but sometimes he just spoke his mind. While recording a podcast in 2013, Jen Kirkman asked Stanton what he thought about the guy Molly Ringwald ends up with in Pretty in Pink. He said, without missing a beat, “I don’t give a fuck.” When Kirkman pressed, irksomely asking how he would feel if he had a hypothetical daughter, she correctly predicted he would, again, not give a fuck.

Singing, Stanton’s first passion, seemed preferable to speaking, and he wasn’t shy to flaunt his chops. In 1962, on a forgotten show called Checkmate, Stanton first showed off his vocal prowess, tinged with a self-aware ennui. With a guitar slung over his leather jacket, he belts, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” His musical talents were used more prominently a few years later, in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke; he gazes off, a thousand-yard stare, a death-row stare, cooing a hymn of futile hope. The camera zooms in on that great, lissome face, toward those wispy lips, beads of sweat clinging to his stubble.

A suspicion of fatalism suffuses his performances. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, he plays Brett, the engineering technician on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. Stanton, who didn’t like horror or monster movies, plays the role the way he played all his others: with an authentic nonchalance, a middle-class denizen grinding away, waiting for his paycheck—which is to say, “right.” While looking for the cat, which he let escape, Brett becomes the first of the crew to meet the fully grown alien. Looking up at the creature, a hulking black something that looms over him like inevitable judgement, he has the same nonplussed face as the cat. How else should one react to the unfathomable?

Because Stanton was already middle-aged by the time he appeared in Alien, most moviegoers never knew him to be young; he seemed to have drifted into popular culture like a piece of space debris, or maybe a tumbleweed from one of his early, generic western films. The ’80s turned out to be Stanton’s decade. There was an acidic quality to many of his films, the corrosive remnants of halcyon memories and bad decisions lingering, scarring. He seeped into the mainstream while etching out his own niche in smaller, odder films.

On the cusp of 60, with nearly three decades of credits to his name, Stanton finally got the leading role he’d wanted, in Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas. Moviegoers remember the red baseball cap, vibrant against a beige expanse, an image that circulated social media after the news of Stanton’s death, but the devastating beauty of the film stems from the raggedy sapience of the performance. Travis, who remains mute for much of the film, is a cipher whose identity, whose anguish, is slowly revealed, in drips, culminating in a Sam Shepard-penned story about a dissolving relationship. After so much silence, the unflustered, epiphanic delivery is deafening. A peepshow, a two-way mirror, a phone call with the mother of his missing son. The camera goes back and forth between Travis and Jane, who doesn’t know with whom she’s talking. His voice doesn’t give him away; the story does. A man, in love, plunges into alcoholism, into mental degradation. His life falls apart, his family leaves, his house catches fire. He’s not performing a recital but recalling a moment lodged in time, in stasis. It’s a realization. “Now he got really crazy.” It’s a story of paranoia, of anger—and eventually, he finds penance. He’ll end up alone, of course, but he’ll find serenity.

Like Mitchum, Stanton often uses passivity, a kind of pensive ennui, to tell an internal story that defies words; unlike Mitchum, normally languid but capable of volatility and biblical violence (most notable in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter), a man who had a Sisyphean desperation to him, Stanton remains devastatingly unperturbed. His most famous role is one of self-realization, sacrifice, one that doesn’t erupt but, at the right time, fades into the horizon. The performance is daring in its subtlety. Given the chance to finally lead a film, Stanton lets the landscape out-act him.

That same year, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, he played the garrulous mentor to Emilio Estevez’s punk. “Look at those assholes,” he snaps. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Stanton, who had played working-class washouts for over 20 years, was ready to move on. His star had risen. David Letterman called him “the world’s greatest character actor.” Roger Ebert said that no film featuring Stanton could be altogether bad. He hosted Saturday Night Live. Then he went back to playing supporting roles. And American cinema was better for it.

Also Starring Harry Dean Stantaon runs at the Quad from September 23—30.

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Artists

The Doors: A Retro Perspective

As long as drugs, sex, rock n’ roll, and war continue to drive the human race, though, there will always be a place for the Doors.

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The Doors: A Retro Perspective

On March 27th, the Warner Bros. specialty label Rhino Entertainment, bastion of archival reissues galore, released enhanced 40th-anniversary versions of the Doors’s six studio albums, previously only available as part of last fall’s Perception box set. All of the CDs have been remixed by original engineer Bruce Botnick, which will present somewhat of a quandary for hardcore fans: The albums haven’t just been remastered—they’ve been tinkered with, to varying degrees. Original lyrics have been restored; vocal, guitar, and keyboard parts have been added; gratuitous studio chatter has been included at the beginning and end of songs. The Doors have experienced many resurgences of popularity over the years, particularly in the ’80s and again in the early ’90s (thanks, in part, to Oliver Stone’s The Doors), and these aren’t the versions multiple generations have grown up listening to.

The bonus material is a mixed bag: the debut includes early recordings of “Moonlight Drive” and “Indian Summer,” but the latter sounds almost identical to the version officially released several years later; you have to wade through over 45 drunken minutes of “Roadhouse Blues” at the end of Morrison Hotel to get to the cool jazz version of “Queen of the Highway”; and previously released B-sides like “Who Scared You,” “Whiskey, Mystics and Men,” and “Orange County Suite” are a treat for fans who haven’t picked up every single compilation or box set the band’s label has released over the years. One bit of info gleaned from the expanded versions is that the late Paul Rothchild was a really obnoxious producer. Granted, he had to deal with Morrison, whose unending search for pleasure in a fucked-up world led to his death at 27. As long as drugs, sex, rock n’ roll, and war continue to drive the human race, though, there will always be a place for The Doors—regardless of how they’re repackaged.

The Doors (1967)

Apparently we’ve been listening to the wrong album for decades. At least that’s what engineer Bruce Botnick says in the liner notes of the expanded 40th-anniversary release of the Doors’s self-titled debut. Aside from the fact that the original LP and all subsequent CD reissues were reproduced at a slower rate (and therefore at a barely discernable flat pitch), two songs now include their original lyrics. The new “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” finds Jim Morrison singing “She gets high” several times in a row, as was originally intended; being that the song was the band’s first single, Elektra Records censored it to meet radio airplay standards. But there’s a fine line between preserving what was intended and maintaining what, simply, was. Arguably, the “real” version is the one people have been listening to for the past 40 years. Anyway you slice, restore, or remix it (as it has been by Botnick himself), The Doors is still one of the best debuts in rock history.


Strange Days (1967)

Traditionally, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones duke it out for the tenuous title of Greatest. Band. Ever. Occasionally, the Beach Boys or Led Zeppelin are mentioned in the same discussion, but rarely, if ever, are the Doors seriously considered. The band’s ringleader, Jim Morrison, was too much of a pinup—and, eventually, too much of a drunk—for their music to be taken seriously. Had the Doors began a few years earlier (that is, had they not emerged from inside the drug revolution of the late ’60s), they may have had the chance to mature and hone their skills as a band before transposing their music to the world of psychedelic rock the way The Beatles had done so successfully around the same time. But if the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and the Beach Boys had Pet Sounds, then the Doors’ answer was Strange Days. The liner notes of the 40th-anniversary edition of the album details how, in a pre-online-leak world, engineer Bruce Botnick snagged an early copy of Sgt. Pepper’s and played it for The Doors, inspiring the band, along with producer Paul Rothchild, to invent new methods of studio recording. This experimentation can be heard in the very first notes of the title track, as Ray Manzarek’s spacey keyboards set the tone for Morrison’s eerie, distorted warning, “Strange days have found us.” It’s the perfect introduction to a perfectly strange album.


Waiting for the Sun (1968)

By the Doors’s third LP, the recording of which commenced less than a year after the release of their debut, the band had run out of songs and Jim Morrison was often drunk or absent from the studio. Three songs were composed solely by guitarist Robby Krieger (who had penned the Doors’s biggest hit, “Light My Fire”), and, like their sophomore effort, other tracks were leftovers from previous sessions. You can instantly recognize Krieger’s contributions due to their unabashed romanticism and the absence of Morrison’s cynicism (“Wintertime winds blow cold this season/Fallin’ in love I’m hopin’ to be!” goes the impossibly gushy first line of “Wintertime Love”), while “We Could Be So Good Together” is categorically pre-fame Morrison (“The time you wait subtracts from joy” is the kind of hippie idealism he’d long given up on). With the radio-friendly “Hello, I Love You” as its first single (another song mined from the band’s catalogue of unreleased songs), Waiting for the Sun appeared to many as the Doors’s attempt to regain the success they’d enjoyed prior to the remarkable but difficult Strange Days. Despite its trippy undertones and frenzied climax (heightened further by Morrison’s previously unheard screams on the newly expanded version of the CD), the song was innocuous enough to score the band its second—and last—#1 single, as well as their only chart-topping LP.


The Soft Parade (1969)

In a short period of 24 months, Jim Morrison went from shirtless sex symbol to pudgy, bearded public outlaw. Conscious or not, it was the kind of destructive, outward rejection of fame and success that wouldn’t be seen again from a rock star until Kurt Cobain a quarter of a century later. Morrison had also run out of material to draw from for the Doors’s fourth LP and the band was forced to start writing in the studio. The resulting album, 1969’s critically reviled The Soft Parade, was a rather disjointed collection of songs—half written by Morrison and the other half by guitarist Robby Krieger—that displayed a significant decline in quality from the band’s first three releases. If Strange Days was the spiritual cousin to the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s, Soft Parade tracks like “Tell All the People,” with its swells of strings and brass, were more literal sonic nods to the hugely influential Beatles record. The title track is a nine-minute “A Day in the Life”-style suite that begins with a spoken word intro (“You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” Morrison preaches like an evangelist) and a lovely, forlorn refrain accompanied by a stately harpsichord melody before settling into a familiar and comfortable Doors groove with spry guitar and bluesy organ work.


Morrison Hotel (1970)

Jim Morrison fancied himself a blues singer. “I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began,” he sings on “Maggie M’Gill,” the final song on the Doors’s 1970 LP Morrison Hotel. With a voice as ravaged as it is on songs like that one and “You Make Me Real,” he had no choice but to sing the blues, howling and crooning like never before. The album is divided into two separately titled sides, Hard Rock Cafe and Morrison Hotel (named after Morrison’s favorite bars, located on opposite sides of L.A.), but there’s another, less obvious schism: the record is split between old, previously unheard Doors songs and newly written ones, creating an inconsistency in tone. (“Indian Summer” and “Waiting for the Sun” were originally written—and presumably recorded—for the Doors’s first and third albums, respectively; Morrison’s vocals are cleaner and clearer and Robbie Krieger’s psychedelic guitar sounds like something he would have done a few years earlier.) Still, Morrison Hotel is an easier listen than 1969’s The Soft Parade, which, though nowhere near as bad as rock history would have us believe, truly divided critics and fans alike and didn’t particularly sound like the Doors. The politically charged “Peace Frog” is the album’s best track—and one of the Doors’s greatest. Lyrics referencing the violent 1968 Democratic Convention and partly inspired by Morrison’s poem “Abortion Stories” are set to a funky Stax-style sound, the band’s signature polyrhythms pausing briefly for the singer’s famous spoken verse: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding/Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” The story would eventually be heard in full on Morrison’s posthumous spoken-word album, An American Prayer, and, of course, immortalized on celluloid in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic. But nothing embodied the electric blues The Doors strived for here more than the album’s opening track “Roadhouse Blues,” which features harmonica by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and finds Morrison reveling in the prospect of a drunken orgy in the back of the bar—because, well, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Nearer than he knew.


L.A. Woman (1971)

My mixed feelings about the Doors’s final album are probably best summed up in my review of Marianne Faithfull’s Before the Poison: L.A. Woman might be one of the best swan songs ever, but Jim Morrison’s raspy, drug-, cigarette-, and alcohol-ravaged voice is a symbol of impending doom, promises unfulfilled, and death in a bathtub. While claims that Faithfull was among those who discovered Morrison’s body in that infamous Parisian tub might be the stuff of rock folklore, she had more than a few things in common with the self-proclaimed Lizard King. Had he survived, perhaps Morrison’s voice, like Faithfull’s, would have aged to achieve the kind of lived-in elegance and wisdom only time and atonement can provide. L.A. Woman, along with Morrison’s view of himself as a poet above all else (exemplified by 1978’s An American Prayer), was an indication that his work was indeed maturing; though not exactly refined, the album is a more thoughtful, sober (figuratively and literally—he reportedly wasn’t drunk this time around), and slightly less masturbatory work.


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