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Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.

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The potentially existential problem at the University of Texas February 10, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Politics.
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UTcampus1On the surface, it seems there has never been a better time to be a part of a major university, particularly the state-funded type.  Education remains in high demand, after all, and those working as full-time academics (extra emphasis on “full-time”) make good money.  Individual states take pride in their flagship schools as being centers for world-class research, that some of the most cutting-edge, world-changing advances in technology, from electronics to engineering to chemistry to medicine, have come out of these sorts of universities.  Note that I said “some” research, for just as many cutting-edge discoveries have come out of R&D departments in General Electric, General Motors, DuPont, 3M, Magnum Research, Lockheed-Martin, and the like (note that they are all for-profit companies in the private sector!).

But that stipulation aside, these flagship schools are often viewed with some degree of prestige.  Pennsylvania, for example, rightly takes pride in the academic excellence at Penn State, as it is regarded as a “public Ivy.”  Ditto for the University of Michigan in the Great Lakes State, or for both Indiana and Purdue Universities in the neighboring Hoosier State.  The Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota are also known for quality, world-class research and are thus a source of pride for their respective states.  Same can be said for Cal-Berkeley and UCLA in the once-Golden State or for the University of Washington in the Evergreen State.  Even the SEC, not necessarily known for its academic prowess overall compared to the Big Ten or even the Pac-12, nevertheless has a good example of a big, state flagship school with good academics (though a recent development, to be sure) in the University of Florida.  And yes, the adjective “state” also means “public,” with college tuition being more affordable for in-state students than if said students were to attend private schools for their higher education instead.

So what is the problem?  Well, the issue has two large, important dimensions.  At the heart of said issue is an existential crisis that seems to be gripping the University of Texas, another great example of a state flagship school that has good academics both at the undergrad level as well as the graduate one.  This existential, if not outright identity, crisis is the result of something of a culture clash within the vaunted institution.  USA Today reports that opposing factions within the school have very different visions for the direction and purpose of the UT.  The conflict basically goes this way:  do we focus on the prestigious aspects of the school, or do we make it more accessible?  It’s basically a Cadillac vs. Chevy argument.  Cadillacs are much nicer and classier, but Chevys will still get you where you need to go without breaking the bank in the process.  Both arguments have merit, but which way should the university go?

The prestige/class argument certainly has its place, but has severe limitations.  Undergrads usually choose their school based on its academic reputation, yet said reputation comes from research done by faculty and doctoral students.  Just because a professor is a leading researcher in his field does not necessarily mean he will be effectively imparting that insight to the undergrads.  In fact, in all likelihood, he might farm out that teaching to his teacher’s assistants, themselves concentrating on establishing their own reputations in academia.  The only way an undergraduate student would have a course taught be one of these hypothetical leading professors is if they take an arcane course that is directly within the narrow scope of the professor’s arcane research, as Dr. Thomas Sowell points out.  Such is often the case at Harvard and the other Ivy League schools, but less so at certain places like Purdue.

This leads us even further into the problem with “prestige.”  While some research is very useful in the real world, other research, not so much.  If the cutting-edge research is within the fields of engineering, medicine, food science, agriculture, chemistry, computers/electronics, or even business management to an extent, then all those things can translate to useful applications to advance our standard of living in the real world.  But if a professor is a leading researcher in sociology, communication, “women’s studies,” or “critical theory” (i.e., Marxism), so what?  How does a degree in a field of that sort of related study translate into marketable skills, which, now more than ever, are key to getting a job in a tough economy?

Long gone are the days when just having any old degree will get you a decent-paying job.  Employers look for specific skills to make specific contributions to their companies’ productivity.  Therefore, if major universities wish to remain relevant, the other argument goes, then they must adapt their teaching curricula to meet these more basic student needs so that said students, once they graduate, can be productive elements of society, and thus truly get their money’s worth.

Specifically, employers are looking for – depending on your industry, and yes, I’m generalizing here – nurses, engineers, chemists (to an extent), I.T. professionals/computer engineers/programmers, and accountants, not to mention HVAC technicians, plumbers, the latter two do not even require a four-year degree insomuch as a vocational certification.  Getting a degree in sociology will not help fulfill employers’ needs.

I for one lean towards the latter camp, but coming from an academically-oriented family myself, I fully sympathize with the other side’s point of view.  Where I part company with the other side is the blind eye they turn to, if not outright abet, all the side-effects that come with the purely theoretical, no-real-world-application side of academia.  To put it bluntly, one does not hear a peep of Marxism, or any other permutation of Leftist philosophy from engineering or medical schools.  Perhaps many a chemistry professor might vote for all the local, state and national Democrat lefties du jour, but one hardly hears any of their ideology trickle down into the classroom.  Ditto for engineering professors, or even math professors, though one is likely to find some conservatives in those camps and others where part of their profession is making sure that the numbers actually, you know, add up.

That can hardly be said for many courses in communications, English, sociology, “critical theory/studies,” any ethnic study one cares to choose, or even many – though thankfully not all – history courses and pretty else everywhere else within the purview of liberal arts, sadly.

The irony in the existential debate surrounding the University of Texas is that it has the resources to do a mix of both.  It has the resources to offer trade-oriented education to the majority of its would-be undergrads, while at the same time offer English, History, Foreign Languages, Math and Science courses to the kids who want to teach in those disciplines at the secondary (i.e., high school level).  If kids within the latter category want to continue their studies as actual scholars in those fields, UT ought to have the resources to accommodate that to an extent, as well as continue in the world class research in which the former camp takes so much pride.

A potential problem with this approach is that, yes, it can muddle the brand, and would run the risk trying to make the University of Texas all things to all people, which hardly anybody outside of G.E. and Carrier/United Technologies are capable of doing. Muddying the brand is problematic enough.  Packard tried that in the 1930s in order to survive the Great Depression.  Rival Cadillac already had the luxury of having the low-priced Chevrolet brand within the larger General Motors conglomerate.  As an independent, though, Packard reasoned that it needed to make low-priced models just to survive, but in doing so, it compromised the prestige of the brand.  As any marketing professor worth his or her salt will tell you, though, the solution would have been for Packard to come with its own low-priced flanker brand so as to not compromise the brand equity of its famous luxury marque.

Sounds simple in theory, but for higher education, it is not.  If UT were to adopt this idea, how could the ‘man on the street’ differentiate the practical vocation-oriented training from the prestigious research that is normally associated with such an institution?  Ultimately, it should come down to individual employers’ ability to be able to see how employment candidates from that school can translate the practical knowledge they have learned into applied abilities to benefit the companies, without regard to prestigious research done elsewhere at such a huge school.

This brief exploration of the opposing issues by no means will settle this huge argument in Austin.  But approaching market forces might compel the university to adapt some version of this proposed hybrid model, prestige or no prestige.  This discussion is surely to be continued.