Friday, November 26, 2021

The Thin Red Line (1998)

USA, 170 minutes
Director: Terrence Malick
Writers: James Jones, Terrence Malick
Photography: John Toll
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editors: Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber
Cast: Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, John Savage, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Adrien Brody, John Travolta, George Clooney, John C. Reilly

In 1998 the director and screenwriter of The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick, had not made a movie in 20 years. To that point, he had made only two feature-length pictures (Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978). But they are well-made and had shown some cult appeal, so it was manifestly not hard for him to cast this World War II picture with all eager stars of the 1990s all up and down the line. At the time Malick was 55, which is pretty amazing all things considered, but what might impress even more about his career is that, in the past 10 years, into his 70s, he has made five more: The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and A Hidden Life. (Of them, I have only seen The Tree of Life and Song to Song, neither of which I liked.)

So this movie is already kind of a strange project even before you have seen a frame. It's based on a James Jones novel, but there is a lot of Malick in it too. All his familiar filmmaking tics are here: the brooding voiceovers, the attention to the natural world, the stately pace, the tone all but exalted. It affects me in the peculiar way so many of his pictures before 2011 have. I didn't like The Thin Red Line the first time I saw it, but I have liked it more every time since. This has unfortunately not worked as well for me with The Tree of Life, or even the intervening picture from 2005, The New World, part of why I've given up on the rest.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

"One and One Make Five" (1993)


What I've always liked about this song is the turn of phrase in the title, which at first makes it sound like someone is just dumb or something. But there's a story here, another sad one on an album that features them, about a philandering partner who has just been caught again. I like the compression, proceeding to the inevitable via logic. The singer is adding up the clues, and then comes the flash of understanding, jumping to the number of betrayals it makes, and it's not a trivial number (5). On the album it provides a kind of light palate cleanser after the big stagy production of "The Theatre" and before "To Speak Is a Sin," an equally big production but different in tone. "One and One Make Five" comes across as one of the most frivolous tracks here, relatively short and with gimmicks, except for this sadness, which is experienced in the context of Very almost like a flavor of candy, cherry sadness vs. lemon-lime vs. blue raspberry. I like it—I like everything on the album. But it's a bit overdone in patches ("... giddy-up giddy-up giddy-up ..." etc.) (actually "here we go" but the moral equivalent of "giddy-up"), and it doesn't particularly add up to much. But what am I saying? It's good on relationships and the discussions therein. The singer, the betrayed one, can't believe his beloved homely comforts could be boring and foolish to his partner. The singer is the fool, and he doesn't know it completely quite yet. He is practically learning even as we listen. Thus it is poignant. But the singer also seems callow and smug. It sounds like he won't accommodate anything but his homely comforts. He could even be using them to imprison his partner. We don't know. It is just fragments of a bad relationship passing by.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Riddles and confusion. You can see in this strange little novel that Mark Twain has a few scores to settle with the Catholic Church and romance literature, but I'm not as sure about the good old American can-do capitalism. Is that parody, or is it good old American can-do capitalism? I tried this novel when I was a kid, attracted by the time travel science fiction premise, but bogged down. I started over and finished more recently but it certainly does have dull passages. The premise is only a device and there's little here to tickle the imagination about time travel. Mostly the point seems to be that the time traveler, Hank Morgan, is way ahead of the people in King Arthur's time in 6th-century England. It's possible that the point is Morgan only thinks he's way ahead of everybody (human hubris, don't you know), but it appears more likely he actually is way ahead, as he quickly sets up as a tycoon, building factories and getting that backward world up to speed with dynamite, a stock market, and even telephones. Good job! If he is ultimately defeated—because people are sheep, or something—he still knows what's best, and we're probably still intended to agree with him. I know I do, on general principles: democracy is to be preferred over theocracy and/or feudalism. The structure is episodic, per the usual Twain, but these adventures just aren't that interesting. He meets a woman who serves as his guide, calls her the most boring person he has ever known, and sure enough, the whole thing collapses in on itself every time she speaks. And it's not that funny or effective to make your main character a basic egotist. He's not sympathetic and his accomplishments are not at all believable. Some of the things he claims to be doing give some idea how far back in history this is set. He builds a match factory so he can smoke, for example. He might note in passing that smoking is entirely unknown in that time, and really matches should be more impressive to them than just evidence of his peculiar habit (and where did he get the chemicals and facility, etc.). I guess it falls under humor, which doesn't always age well and doesn't always work for me here. Twain obviously has more sympathy and respect for Connecticut Yankees than Knights of the Round Table, which I can go along with to a degree. Perhaps the best part of this book is Morgan's unswerving contempt for royalty and nobility. Huzzah! But a grasping American-style hustler is not much of an improvement. If that's the point, it ends up tiresome.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

East Side Story (1981)

New wave UK popster unit Squeeze was always more popular elsewhere than the US, so I was surprised, looking it up, first to see that they did chart twice here and then that those occasions were in 1987 and 1988, with "Hourglass" and "853-5937," respectively. Full disclosure, I don't know those songs. I barely knew they were even still together then—and note, furthermore, they are still together today. But I think the very early part of the 1980s remains their heyday, on the new wave project of a self-conscious return to three-minute pop aesthetics and dynamics (and "fun"). I had the 1980 album Argybargy, their third, and loved it dearly, playing it to death. This follow-up East Side Story is arguably their best. The first single they released from it, "Is That Love," felt like a continuation of the Argybargy groove, a sprightly tune that skips and dazzles and clocks in at 2:31. The second single, "Tempted" (4:00), better represents attempts at growth and development, not to mention a certain star power. It features the band's newest keyboard player then in Paul Carrack, who sings the lead. You may recall Carrack's steady imploring style from the 1975 hit by Ace, "How Long." "Tempted" also features vocal support from Elvis Costello and it's still an exciting moment to hear his memorable, barely competent voice burping up and squeaking out his lines and harmonies. My complaint about East Side Story is not exactly a complaint. I just have never quite been able to put my finger on the whole. It skips around so willfully from style to style, asserting the pop mastery of Chris Difford's and Glenn Tilbrook's collaborative songwriting, that it never quite finds its own groove. These exercises include essays at country in the third single, "Labelled by Love," a limping "Eleanor Rigby" take in "Vanity Fair," all tarted up with a dreary string arrangement, and some tossed-off rockabilly in the fourth and final single, released only in the US, "Messed Around." The song that caught my attention most often listening to East Side Story again recently was the unfortunately named "F-Hole" (in fairness, an F-hole is technically the opening in the body of stringed instruments in the violin family). But "F-Hole," more of a rock band number with a driving hypnotic groove, is another song unlike any other on the album. I see I've used the word "groove" a few times, which is kind of unusual for a project that is so determinedly pop, at least in formal terms: it's all verse-chorus-verse variations with a lot of emphasis on melody and hooks, clocking in at three minutes at least aesthetically. The average song length here is actually closer to four minutes but you take the point. These songs swing wildly in style though most are recognizably Squeeze. I never quite feel like I have a firm grip. Yet playing it, I often find myself noticing how it is full of amazing moments. Maybe they don't quite all add up to an album (14 accomplished tracks notwithstanding) and maybe no song stands very well on its own—they seem to need each other somehow. Curious project, curious reaction. Solid good album?

Thursday, November 18, 2021

"Nurse's Stories" (1860)

This piece by Charles Dickens has appeared under different names ("Captain Murderer," "Captain Murderer and the Devil's Bargain"). I found it in an anthology of stories and assumed that's what it was, a story—a rambling and strangely put together one. But it's actually closer to an essay or memoir, with Dickens (or the narrator) recalling in daylight the horrific stories a nurse used to tell him at bedtime. It appeared originally in The Uncommercial Traveller, a collection of pieces with a little theme of travel lightly thrown over to unite them. The first effect of "Nurse's Stories" is that it feels like someone crazy talking to themselves. There are elements that make the stories feel like fairy tales, unusually gruesome ones. Dickens—or his childhood nurse originally—is intent on getting under our skin, effectively doubling the impact with two stories related only by their intensity. The first is about Captain Murderer, a serial cannibal who marries and eats his brides ritualistically, three times: "he chopped her in pieces, and peppered her, and salted her, and put her in the pie, and sent it to the baker's, and ate it all, and picked the bones." The repetition along with the extraordinary scene described are part of what remind me of fairy tales. Captain Murderer comes to a bad end eventually and then it's off to a completely different story, this one about a family of shipbuilders named Chips. Each generation sells their soul to the devil for a specific list of products that are apparently irresistible to them: an iron pot, a bushel of tenpenny nails, a half-ton of copper (which they seem to be just toting around), and a rat that can speak. They're not as interested in the rat generally, but it comes with the deal. That story then goes off on a strange tangent about rats. This whole piece takes some getting used to—well, full disclosure, Dickens always takes some getting used to for me—but I like the rambling style here and when the narrator decides to be vivid he is quite vivid. It's obviously intended to scare with one overwhelming jolt after the next—that kind of horror, rushing you along, never letting you get your bearings. It's more effective than a lot of horror literature its age. In its antiquated way it's squarely in the mindfuck vein, which I can respect. I don't typically think of Dickens as a horror writer, but of course even the beloved A Christmas Carol is full of ghosts and creeps and let's not forget Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. I've been impressed with the other forays I've seen by Dickens into the genre too.

Read story online.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021)

I was surprised to see that this Netflix miniseries has been ranked in aggregate on IMDb by some 16,000 viewers at 5.9 stars out of 10. I did what I could, giving it 8 stars, but one person can only do so much here. The complaint, as far as I can tell, seems to be the same as mine about Wormwood a few weeks ago, which is that it is too long and padded out. But that was not my experience. Parachuting in to check out the first few minutes of the first episode—a new habit of mine, and I'm quick to abandon ship—I was completely pulled into this strange story of a young woman's disappearance from the legendary Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Looking further into it before committing myself to all four hours I noted that the documentary was coproduced and directed by Joe Berlinger, coproducer and codirector of the memorable Paradise Lost series, recounting the harrowing story of the murder of several children in May 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. So that did it and I went all the way with this fascinating documentary, which is so skillfully put together. It tells the story of Elisa Lam who disappeared from the hotel in 2013 in mysterious circumstances. She was a young Chinese-Canadian woman traveling. She kept a prodigious account of her own life on Tumblr. The elements in the case were baffling and tantalizing: video of Lam behaving strangely in a late-night hotel elevator the night she disappeared basically drove the whole phenomenon of it. Unexplained editing of the video confused it further, along with an army of eerie coincidences and the very strange circumstances of her death and how her body was discovered. Everything is ultimately explained, and it's all there to be discovered. Berlinger evidently still has some of his old sympathies, as the case also involves accusations against an outsider figure, a Mexican death-metal musician named Morbid who happened to be staying in the hotel at the time Lam disappeared. In this age of social media mob action, he found himself the object of hundreds of self-styled web sleuths who were sure he was good for the crime. Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and the case are deeply involved with the effects of swarming social media. Sometimes I think social media is all there is to think about after climate change. Add to the mix that the Cecil Hotel, located at the edge of the Los Angeles Skid Row, has a longstanding reputation for being haunted, tainted, cursed, and otherwise an ineffable vortex of evil. What a cluster! The only spoiler I'll mention is that, even though I am generally sympathetic with their impulse, 99% of the web sleuths were wrong about everything in this case. Berlinger and crew put this miniseries together artfully, making it work well as a suspense production, and a lot of the interviews are just great—not only the people corralled for it but all the things they have to say. This is a good one. I think I've talked myself into revising my ranking to a 9.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (2005)

Kim Cooper is a busy author based in Los Angeles with many different interests, publishing zines and blogs that run well afield of rock music. She's still obscure enough that she doesn't have her own Wikipedia article, but her 33-1/3 entry remains one of the bestselling in the whole series. I take that as mostly artifact of the cult following of the band, such as it is. Neutral Milk Hotel was mostly a product of one man, Jeff Mangum, who came up with two albums before moving on to mysterious other things. He's considered by many to be one of rock's great lost souls, like Syd Barrett or Arthur Lee. It's not entirely fair, but there are the facts: he's an eccentric, he made an amazing one-of-a-kind album, and then he has mostly disappeared since. Cooper is not particularly into the myth. Like most of the cult she is into the album. I am too. I will say that, for being one of the bestselling titles in the series, it gets kind of a shabby translation to e-book, with what looks like a quick and dirty OCR scan job. But maybe that's more of a jab at Amazon and its customers. It's legible enough. Cooper goes with a clipped, just-the-facts-ma'am approach, detailing the travels and interactions of the informal Elephant 6 consortium, of which all NMH members were more or less participants (along with Apples in Stereo, Beulah, Olivia Tremor Control, and others). The project was mostly based in Athens, Georgia, although Denver, Austin, and other towns were involved too. I like the continuum from the B-52s to R.E.M. and on. In fact, a graphic designer for R.E.M. was responsible for the Aeroplane cover. Long after the album and even this book came out I finally had my own infatuation period with the strange masterpiece. Nothing else is quite like it and it stands timeless of itself. Cooper gets into the history of Mangum and the band, has some insights on the nuts and bolts of recording and production (based on numerous interviews with nearly all the principals but Mangum), runs through the album track by track, and entertains the inevitable questions about Mangum and his semiretirement from music. I learned a lot of things I didn't know. Some I might have been exposed to before, such as the oblique focus on Anne Frank or Mangum's cryptic Southern Christian spirituality, which I wanted to respect but found a little more creepy. I hadn't actually noticed the yelping for Jesus that much before. But that's OK—really, as weird as it is, it only makes the album richer, deeper. If we're going to make comparisons of classic rock, I think Mangum is linked more closely to Jonathan Richman than Syd Barrett. Check out this album sometime if you haven't yet. You could be surprised. If the appreciation runs deep enough, and you have some questions, that's the time to turn to this useful little book.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, November 12, 2021

His Girl Friday (1940)

USA, 92 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Charles Lederer, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Morrie Ryskind
Photography: Joseph Walker
Music: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills
Editor: Gene Havlick
Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, Helen Mack, Alma Kruger, Billy Gilbert, Abner Biberman

His Girl Friday is an older picture, like Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, that remains worth seeing for everyone at least once. It pulls off a killer stunt in the impossible pace alone, and you also can't miss director Howard Hawks's evident ability to translate a party atmosphere on his shooting sets into his movies. Everyone appears to be having a ball. Hawks's version of the stage play The Front Page (which has been made into movies three or four times) is still unique as it sprints on a tempo that defies all speed limits, along with some interesting and innovative technique like overlapping dialogue. Admittedly His Girl Friday may look primitive to a lot of contemporary viewers, but it's still impressive and likely to surprise. Not even Billy Wilder could come close when he took it on in a 1974 version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

The play's original story and dialogue carry it some way, doubtless the reason it has been made into a movie so many times. Cary Grant by himself puts on a clinic in screwball timing and fast talking and Rosalind Russell keeps up admirably. Grant is Walter Burns, a newspaper editor and political kingmaker in the cynical mode of the time (slower and possibly more corrupt versions would appear in Citizen Kane and Meet John Doe). Russell is Hildy Johnson, Burns's best reporter and ex-wife. Now she is about to remarry and move to Albany but Burns has one more last-minute assignment for her, which she can't resist. The blood of a newspaperman plainly courses her veins.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Top 40

1. Eve 6, "Black Nova" (3:27)
2. Vampire Weekend, "2021 (January 5th, to be exact)" (20:21)
3. Mike Casey, "No Church in the Wild (Radio Edit)" (7:13)
4. Sault, "Strong" (6:18)
5. Masked Wolf, "Astronaut in the Ocean" (2:12)
6. Jazmine Sullivan, "Pick Up Your Feelings" (3:49)
7. Rolling Stones, "Monkey Man" (4:12, 1969)
8. Lindsey Buckingham, "I Don't Mind" (4:05)
9. Denzel Curry, "Bad Luck" (2:52)
10. K.Flay feat. Tom Morello, "TGIF" (3:19)
11. Mastodon, "Forged by Neron" (3:05)
12. Frank Turner, "The Gathering" (2:39)
13. Los Lobos, "Sail On, Sailor" (3:20)
14. Rilo Kiley, "Dreamworld" (4:43, 2007)
15. Beharie, "Don't Wanna Know" (3:53)
16. Wings, "Let 'Em In" (5:10. 1976)
17. Avalanches, "Since I Left You" (4:22, 2000)
18. Jorge Ben, "Os alquimistas estão chegando os alquimistas" (3:15, 1974)
19. Blossom Dearie, "Once Upon a Summertime" (2:47, 1958)
20. Love, "Alone Again Or" (3:17, 1967)
21. Love, "A House Is Not a Motel" (3:31, 1967)
22. Marias, "Hush" (3:01)
23. Hadda Brooks, "That's My Desire" (2:44, 1947)
24. Happy Mondays, "Dennis and Lois" (4:23, 1990)
25. A Place to Bury Strangers, "Never Coming Back" (5:14, 2018)
26. P.J. Proby, "Niki Hoeky" (2:34, 1967)
27. Van Morrison feat. P.J. Proby, "Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby" (3:42, 2015)
28. Kaleidoscope, "Mr. Small the Watch-Repairer Man" (2:44, 1967)
29. Kaleidoscope, "The Sky Children" (8:01, 1967)
30. Yoko Ono, "Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City" (5:39, 1970)
31. Liza Anne, "I Love You, But I Need Another Year" (3:42, 2018)
32. Mamman Sani, "Five Hundred Miles" (5:53, early 1980s)
33. Wire, "I Should Have Known Better" (3:52, 1979)
34. Jimmy Castor Bunch, "Space Age" (3:21, 1977)
35. New Order, "Your Silent Face" (5:59, 1983)
36. Jessie Ware, "Please" (4:32)
37. Funkadelic, "If You Don't Like the Effects, Don't Produce the Cause" (3:48, 1972)
38. Newcleus, "Jam On It" (8:15, 1984)
39. Charles Mingus, "Haitian Fight Song" (12:01, 1957)
40. Girl in Red, "Bad Idea!" (3:39)

thnx: Billboard, Spin, Skip, Dean, unusual suspects