Friday, July 30, 2021

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

USA / UK / France, 104 minutes
Directors / writers / editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham

Just to get some sense of where I stand here, I did a quick and dirty internet search for lists of "best Coen brothers movies" and then, a little appalled by what I was finding, made my own list (off the cuff, without benefit of systematic review). See below. I know I have been in the minority in not thinking much of this early-'60s Greenwich Village period piece, at least the first time I saw it when it was new, but it turns out there's a fairly wide range of opinion on Coens movies—one list has True Grit last, for example, while another has it at the very top, as the best movie they ever made. Inside Llewyn Davis reliably makes it into the top 10 of these lists, sometimes the top 5, and it was #2 on one list.

After a second look more recently, I agree top 10 of their 18 or so pictures total seems fair enough. My first reaction was a matter of my own biases, which start with a lifelong indifference to midcentury American folk music, particularly the fruit of early-'60s Greenwich Village. Then the way Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan was too much for me, and it is still annoying. He shows up off-camera at the very end as approximately the Inevitable Future of Folk Music (iconic voice of a generation not far behind), which struck me more as cheap pandering than ... well, I'm still not sure what the idea of sticking him in there that way is supposed to be. Mostly it feels like playing cynically to Greenwich Village folkie sentimentalists like Pete Seeger.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

"The Mezzotint" (1904)

This M.R. James story is full of the fussy little complications I'm starting to like about him. The story's setup puts the most fantastic stuff at least at thirdhand account, for example, though you don't particularly notice. He uses such devices to distance and blur, as a kind of misdirection, even as he maintains a lucid if slightly stiff academic tone. The characters are stuffy people who work in libraries and museums along with the dealers they rely on. Our main guy is in charge of procuring topographical drawings and engravings for a university museum. One of his dealers alerts him to a mezzotint, a print using a technique that gives it a distinctive lustrous tone, all in silvers or sepia. The dealer thinks it may be of interest, but it's expensive. Send it over, says our guy. When it arrives, he is disappointed. He doesn't find it remarkable. It is only a lackluster image of a mansion with information about it missing. Later, a visitor likes it more than he does, pointing out the image of the figure entering in the foreground from the side. Hmm, our guy had not noticed that before. Even later, a third person has a strong reaction to it. Now the figure is on the lawn of the estate, creeping on all fours. The drama of the mezzotint proceeds from there, with our guy and his crew checking it regularly and getting a narrative out of what they see. Some minor flaws: at some point I for one would have sat and look at that mezzotint like I was watching TV—our team tries it late but it doesn't seem to change when they're watching. They also construct a big narrative out of the changing scene, as if that's the point, when in this situation I think the simple fact that it is happening would be sufficiently alarming or at least intriguing. Wouldn't we be getting the print into the lab for analysis of the ink and such? The changing picture is the really freaky thing here, not the story it is depicting, as satisfyingly horrible as that is when we learn more about the mansion and its history. Still, I have to admit James can cast a spell and I end up liking how fanciful some of his premises are—they're both playful and uncanny and they often work. The academic setting where art is prized is a nice one too. The mezzotint exists to be beautiful or informative or both, but there is also something disturbingly wrong with it. It's a good tension—good story.

Read story online.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

"Go West" (1993)

[listen]

The idea that Very is the grand unified statement by the Pet Shop Boys of a pro-disco, anti-rock ethos and way of life is obviously reinforced by finishing off the album on the high note of a cover of the Village People. "Go West" is almost certainly not recognizable to the folks who gyrate to the VP at sports events and political rallies. Even this Pet Shop Boys version was a top 10 hit practically everywhere else but the US (which appears to be eternally stuck at the Young Men's Christian Association figuratively speaking until its citizens can come to terms with what the song is about, if they ever can). This "Go West" is large and in charge—iconic, of course, and wry, double of course, and furthermore exuberantly joyful. The ghost of the Village People as the '70s turned to the '80s and AIDS arrived lurks in the background of this song about moving to San Francisco. Indeed, yearning for liberation broods over the entire album. But the Pet Shop Boys have made this song all theirs, respecting the disco drills and thrills but tarting it up with musical flourishes like a lusty men's chorus and various production tricks already familiar from the foregoing 11 tracks (the soul singer Sylvia Mason-James, for example, dialed down to the mush of the mix where somehow she stands out even more). After a brief overture, "Go West" proceeds directly to the business of the dance song, doing what they are all intended to do at base level, which is get you on your feet and moving. Richard Simmons approves this track, I am certain. It moves and it grooves and then finally it hits an exquisite dance club high point at 4:25. I have always wished they rolled with it from there for the full eight minutes the track lasts or more. Instead, it closes down early, followed by two full minutes of silence (enough time too often to forget the album is still on) and then a snippet of a hidden track sung by Chris Lowe. The 1992 12-inch version of "Go West" (available now in the Further Listening package) is closer to an ideal of a seamless transition into the second album Relentless, which is still sadly the limited property only of early purchasers of the UK release, collectors, and/or ardent fans (not available on streaming but YouTube has it in full). Relentless affords another 37 minutes of dance groove on six more tracks, all in the vein or close to it of the high point in "Go West." The video for the 12-inch version is an interesting mash of US and USSR imagery, making New York City the metaphorical endpoint of the move west, with Mason-James standing in as the Statue of Liberty. Between the cartoony show-biz performance style of the Village People and the beautiful fantasies of liberation in the West (dreams of San Francisco still alive in 1993), the album's big finish is an ecstatically blissful climax to the extended formally informal coming out party of Very: disco, gay, sentimental, and capable of great flights.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Saint Maud (2019)

This picture walks a line in the gray area between extreme faith and mental illness, pushing it into the realm of horror where arguably it belongs. It reminded me in some ways of The Rapture, with some willingness to entertain or at least pretend to entertain that there might be something to Christian views of time and space and reality. Morfydd Clark is Maud, a hospice nurse who previously lost a patient (circumstances murky) and subsequently turned to a cultish brand of the Catholic Church. She is presently giving private care to Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a successful dancer and choreographer in her 40s now terminally ill with cancer. Maud, naturally, believes God has delivered them to one another to save Amanda's soul. Accordingly, she tries to control every aspect of Amanda's life but she's not doing a good job of winning her over. Amanda is a cosmopolitan, a genial but firm atheist. Though familiar, it's not a bad setup and the movie effectively seesaws away at this tension inside a dark and gloomy mansion somewhere in England by the sea. Amanda is amused by Maud and feels some affection for her but is often annoyed by her attempts to convert her. CGI special effects are used sparingly but with a good sense for how to play them. There is the usual handful or so of shock cuts but they seem more designed to unsettle Maud than the audience. We can see a lot of them coming. In a way, Saint Maud is a picture for connoisseurs of subtle horror. Director and writer Rose Glass has a good grip on the material and no evident baggage or scores to settle with the church. She just sees a good opportunity there and goes for it. She's interested in questions of faith but tends to use technique to explore that more than any of the inherent theatrical drama in what is essentially a two-hand piece between Maud and Amanda. For example, the ending comes in the form of a certain apocalypse which is predictable enough. Less predictable are the exalted aspects of it, and even less expected is a shot that lasts for maybe one second and may be the most shocking image in the whole picture, a gut punch. There's also a late scene that's quite good and feels almost like an homage to The Exorcist without even trying hard. Definitely worth a look. Abstracted enough that it might be OK for the faint of heart too.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

"So Much Water So Close to Home" (1975)

Here's another classic Raymond Carver story with lots of familiar themes and notes. It's instantly recognizable as one of the stories adapted for the movie Short Cuts. As it happens, it's also one of the more extreme examples of Gordon Lish's editing. Carver's original manuscript version is 20 pages in the Library of America edition whereas the version in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is only seven. In the restored-plus version in Where I'm Calling From it's 25 pages. So that makes three versions of the four suburban husbands on a weekend fishing trip who discover the nude corpse of a young woman who has been murdered and dumped. You recall they tie the corpse to a tree and go on fishing and drinking for another day or two, and therein lie all the problems. It's an ingenious premise, a perfect fictional device. The morally occluded fishermen stay a little longer in the long version, but in both cases leave earlier than they had planned. The wife of one of them is the first-person narrator of this story. I think Carver does OK at the cross-gender voice though it's not perfect—cross-gender voices rarely are. This wife is not taking this situation well and her husband does not understand or anyway is defensive. It's serious enough that it seems to threaten their marriage though the ending is ambiguous. I've done a side-by-side a couple times now and for what it's worth came out both ways. The first time I liked Carver's easygoing storytelling style more, but this last time I thought Lish's editing made the points of the story hit harder. It's unfortunate you can't approach each version in a similarly open way. Who knows? Maybe my different preferences are a matter of which one I read first each time. I don't recall. What a problem! The long version spends more time on the wife and her crisis, externalized when she travels 120 miles to attend the young woman's funeral, and really her crisis is the point of the story along with her husband's oblivion. She has an unsettling experience on the way to the funeral, which is handled better in the long version. I can see Lish has turned it into a sort of half-comic anecdote about witless men and their exasperated wives. But the power of this one in concept still basically transcends the confusion of the myriad versions. My suggestion is stick with Where I'm Calling From. But keeping a copy around of What We Talk About is not a bad idea either. Even lamed Carver is still pretty good fiction.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

Friday, July 23, 2021

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

USA / UK, 104 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Gary K. Wolf, Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Ted Osborne, Ali Taliaferro
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer, Kathleen Turner, Stubby Kaye, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Amy Irving, Lou Hirsch, Mel Blanc, June Foray

Who Framed Roger Rabbit deserves a fair amount of credit along with Studio Ghibli for launching this golden age of animated feature movies in which we now live. No point going into the doldrums that animation suffered from the 1960s on, when cost-cutting and merchandising to the death was the name of the game. Whatever anyone thinks of its entertainment value now—my take is that it holds up remarkably well—Roger Rabbit came along and shook things up, making the case an animated or mixed live action picture could do bank and win Oscars. In the name of nostalgia as much as anything it loaded up with vintage greats, from Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny to Donald and Daffy Duck, along with Betty Boop, Yosemite Sam, Droopy Dog, Woody Woodpecker, and many others. They're all part of the extravaganza—for once, money was no object in making an animated picture.

I am also struck by how it works an idea that Frank Miller and Alan Moore were playing with over in the comic book world at about the same time: what if, in the 1930s and 1940s, superheroes were real—what would they be like? Just so, Roger Rabbit imagines a world where a "toon" is a life form with specific properties living in the world with us. Because of what cartoons are and can do, the result is infinitely more surreal than anything anyone got to in the comic books with superheroes. Roger Rabbit can be surprisingly disturbing right down on the profound levels, like the best surrealism, particularly Toontown proper, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. It doesn't hurt, of course, that executive producer Steven Spielberg was on board this project with his production company, which in turn brought in one of Spielberg's most gifted proteges to direct, Robert Zemeckis, a special effects aficionado with a knack for making his movies work like finely tuned clocks (Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future).

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Prince and the Pauper (1881)

Wikipedia has this short Mark Twain novel down as both "children's literature" and "realistic fiction." Well, first, it has some elements of social realism but it is absolutely not realistic. It uses a plot line Twain would go to again and again, ostensibly by way of mocking romantic literature. The basic version is that a low-born person and high-born person exchange positions. It's more typical in these stories that the switch takes place at birth (not least because it's more believable), but Twain's amazingly preposterous premise in this one has the boys meet when they are 14-ish. They meet by happenstance, note they are remarkably identical in appearance, and decide to give the ruse a go. It works! (yeah, right) It does have some of the self-conscious simplicity of a fairy tale, which of course requires accepting the premise as is, which somehow remains a tall order. I guess it's a little like granting superpowers of superheroes. So, right, children's literature. After that comes the social realism, as the King of England (no less) sees for himself what life is like for commoners. Once again Twain seems to implicitly accept the idea that the best of the high-born are the best of us all, while not ruling out some of them are rats and also there are good people among the low-born too. The Prince and the Pauper seemed predictable and even tiresome to me, with lots of unlikely and virtually meaningless action as Twain moves pieces about the board. The story is trying to please many and all, with cheers for the aristocracy and cheers for democracy too. If the high-born can have low characters they are rarely as low as the lowest of the low-born, which I think is sort of the giveaway with Twain. He seems to buy the existing European class structure to a certain extent. So it goes, as one of his inheritors would put it later. But I note that The Prince and the Pauper has been and remains fairly popular, with plays, movies, and TV productions coming along at a regular clip for better than a century. You can't knock that?

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Meat Puppets II (1984)

At the time I thought the Roman numerals gambit in the title was strange, especially for a hardcore punk act on SST. Full disclosure, I was not aware of the Meat Puppets until this album but going back for a listen to the first like everyone else disclosed basically what everybody else also agreed: uninspired generic thrash (see also Land Speed Record and a thousand more). So maybe the Roman numerals signaled some kind of conscious reset, as these Arizona punks turned their blear-eyed gaze more in the direction of the Grateful Dead. That would not really see full fruition until the next album, Up on the SunMeat Puppets II is more like their Harry Smith phase—the vocals by the Kirkwood brothers are yelpy, mumbly, weird. They miss a lot of notes, which doesn't always work. Coming back to this album for the first time after many years was a shock to the system. I was not one who was ever impressed with their '90s work with Nirvana (indeed I was embarrassed for them in 1994) and it brought back memories of that. Later I remembered it was my experience the first time too in 1984. Meat Puppets II has a lot of enduring charm and surprises but it is an acquired taste. You might have to give it a couple tries. Or maybe it'll hit you right away. The production and guitar play are coiled and aggressive and often surprisingly beautiful but skittish, pulling up a lot just when they seem to be hitting something. Their punk instincts are still winning handily over their GD "country-rock" instincts and most of the songs are under three minutes, a couple under two (including a 1:21). They're not songs so much as they are essays at moods, fragments of rehearsal jams given ramshackle homes. The vocals are often a mess, smears and fat brush strokes like the cover painting and lots of mistakes—or "mistakes," but I think in this case there's no need for scare quotes. The glowing budding imposing guitar play is reflected in the cover painting too. The singing counterpoints the intuitive muscle of this oddball power trio band set free on these sprints. Some of the songs are instrumentals—good move. As usual with latter-day rereleases of albums (this one circa 2014), there are extra tracks of some interest now but nothing you couldn't live without. In 1984 SST seemed mad with instinct the way they were turning up bands.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Mouchette (1967)

France, 81 minutes
Director: Robert Bresson
Writers: Georges Bernanos, Robert Bresson
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet
Music: Jean Wiener
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Marie Cardinal, Paul Hebert, Jean Vimenet, Marie Susini

The internet is not particularly helping me with the title of this picture by director and cowriter Robert Bresson. Mouchette, a favorite of Kelly Reichardt and Andrei Tarkovsky (not to mention the Criterion company), has surprisingly few "also known as" versions of the title listed on IMDb. Bresson, or someone, was not budging on this one. So Google Translate says it means "handkerchief" in French while other dictionaries describe an architectural feature. "Mouchet" means "speckle" and "mouche" means "fly" (noun), which both seem closer to the intent here. Wikipedia weighs in with "little fly." It appears thus to be an affectionate (and/or demeaning) name, like "sweetie" or "kiddo," for the main character, a girl of about 14 (though played by a 19-year-old, Nadine Nortier). Mouchette and her family come from an impoverished and abusive background in the French countryside and this movie is the story of her life—sad, grim, and short (I think—the ending is ambiguous of course).

In keeping with Bresson's aesthetic, Nortier and most of the other players are amateurs who basically appeared only in this picture (though Jean-Luc Godard may have borrowed a couple of them for Weekend, another movie from 1967, and Jean-Claude Guilbert is also in the 1966 Au hasard Balthazar). I respect this aesthetic as an aspect of naturalism, even when it's Jack Webb deploying it, but I'm not sure the desired effect always comes through. Professionals may come with artifice but they also tend to have theatrical skills. Bresson's use of amateurs is further undermined by an evident requirement of being beautiful. This frankly baffles me as in effect it only piles on the artifice, which I thought he was against. Bunuel's Los Olvidados, for example, with its mix of grotesques as well as natural beauties, works much better as naturalism.