Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pride and Prejudice (1813)

A recent Salon article discusses the fetishization of Jane Austen's work since approximately the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a Colin Firth vehicle, noting that the infatuations for it actually extend to well before that. I know when I first read her work in the '70s she did not seem to loom much above the surface of college literature survey courses. I started on her because I read how Joseph Heller mentioned in an interview that he was making a project of reading her, so I did too. At the time, I was impressed with the clarity of her language and her brisk, straightforward plotting. More recently, reading this again as backgrounder for a look at last year's fleetingly brilliant concept of taking Austen's public domain text and incorporating zombie battles, I was impressed by the many levels on which it works (and subsequently have postponed the zombies version. Maybe I'll see the movie). The language is plainspoken and direct as ever, continually advancing a neatly complex story, but it's also much more acerbic and knowing than I had noticed in my 20s. More importantly, the characters are genuine, palpably human and flawed, funny and curious and charming and repellent. Best of all, Austen not only inhabits them believably, but renders their various changes of heart with unerring veracity. It's startlingly contemporary in its ability to strip away the unnecessary and concern itself only with what matters. It even made me blow my nose in a couple of places; for a book, that's really something.

In case it's not at the library (as if it wouldn't be, but you might like your own copy).

Friday, January 29, 2010

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Director: Dean Parisot
Writers: David Howard, Robert Gordon
Photography: Jerzy Zielinski
Production Design: Linda DeScenna
Cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni, Robin Sachs, Patrick Breen, Missi Pyle, Jed Rees

Even as a self-admitted fan of "Star Trek" I never understood what the attraction of this could be. Chalk that up to my internal resistance to Tim Allen, who has never remotely appealed to me. The premise: aliens from outer space who have been monitoring Earth television broadcasts show up at a nerdy convention of fans of the TV show "Galaxy Quest" in search of help for their imperiled civilization. I figured it for ham-handed, broad, and obvious parody by Leno-level haters (whereas I preferred the documentary Trekkies, released a couple of years earlier). Then I found it for a dollar as a VHS somewhere and kept it around for when I didn't have anything else to look at. Good thing I did. It's absolutely first-rate hilarious, with a terrific script that hits just as effectively as the documentary at all the things that make "Star Trek" so ridiculous, but never without a nice appreciation of the fan impulse. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It nails cold many of Roddenberry's various empty flourishes, as with Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Tawny Madison, half naked by the end of the adventure, whose duties are to repeat the words of the computer back and forth in discussions with the crew, even though the computer, the crew, and Madison are all speaking English. Weaver is great throughout, as are Rickman and Shalhoub, and the aliens take command of the screen with brilliant shtick every time they are on it, all of them. Even Tim Allen is good. Winner.

Petula Clark

(Restoration project 2: Torn out of this blog for TOS violations during my hiatus so I "don't dare" upload the related music files. Sorry about that.)

006 Petula Clark w/ "Downtown" annex
Most people now associate Petula Clark solely with her hit "Downtown," and perhaps for the soundalike follow-up "I Know a Place." A one-hit wonder, in short. But between 1965 and 1968 her releases landed in the top 40 no less than 15 times, in the top 10 six times, and went all the way to #1 (for two weeks) twice. Petula Clark articulated the various private fantasies of workaday Londoners, putting the material over with a tone-varnished voice of gleaming clarity and a small, odd note of weary knowingness. She was Julie Andrews yearning to become Dusty Springfield. Somehow she became my favorite female pop vocalist of the decade, which I treated as guilty pleasure for a long time. But now, hearing this all again, I think it's plain that her catalog is actually filled with no small number of pleasures.

Petula Clark, "A Sign of the Times" (1966, #11) (2:55)
Petula Clark, "Colour My World" (1966, #16) (2:50)
Petula Clark, "Cry Like a Baby" (c. 1969) (2:51)
Petula Clark, "Don't Sleep in the Subway" (1967, #5) (2:56)
Petula Clark, "Downtown" (1965, #1[2 wks.]) The classic, now as well-worn (and perhaps useful) as a bald tire. But it has nonetheless left behind an indelible ideal of the good life of the young and wealthy that appeals to practically anyone everywhere raised in suburbs. (See also: songs in annex.) Disregard Seinfeld on this one. (3:06)
Petula Clark, "Downtown (1999 Remix)" (1999) Not sure this really works, but included as some kind of historical context. (3:26)
Petula Clark, "I Know a Place" (1965, #3) That place, of course, is "Downtown." (2:43)
Petula Clark, "My Love" (1966, #1[2]) (2:44)
Petula Clark, "Round Every Corner" (1965, #21) (2:36)
Petula Clark, "The Life and Soul of the Party" (c. 1966) I love the "yeah" after she gets the dig in. (3:01)
Petula Clark, "The Other Man's Grass Is Always Greener" (1967, #31) This really gets splendid, breaking on to open seas at the bridge, and not even the tedium of the verse following can erase the brilliant momentum. (2:55)
Petula Clark, "Thirty First of June" (c. 1967) (2:52)
Petula Clark, "This Is My Song" (1967, #3) From my Billboard book: "Written by Charlie Chaplin; from the movie A Countess from Hong Kong, starring Marlon Brando." (3:18)
Petula Clark, "Where Did We Go Wrong" (c. 1966) Evidence she could put a song over with her voice alone. I guess the arrangement has its points, as when the Tijuana-tinged horns swell into something like dignity. (3:06)
Petula Clark, "Who Am I?" (1966, #21) (2:21)
Petula Clark, "You're the One" (c. 1965) Very nice cover of the Vogues hit. (2:25)

"Downtown" annex
David Bowie, "Kooks" (1971) For the giddy daddy-to-baby promise of the future: "And if the homework brings you down then we'll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown." (2:53)
Hamell on Trial, "Choochtown" (2000) Listen for it. (3:47)
Johnny Temple, "I Believe I'll Go Downtown Again" (1946) Psychic vibration nearly 20 years before the fact. (2:53)
Mudhoney, "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown" (1994) (2:50)
Neil Young, "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" (1975) From Tonight's the Night. (3:36)
(Note: B-52's "Downtown" cover omitted for reason of being truly wretched. I say that as an ardent fan of the B-52's all the way through Whammy!, well past their use-by date.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Director: Kevin Costner
Writer: Michael Blake
Photography: Dean Semler
Music: John Barry
Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant

Well, here's one I never saw coming. I had put off looking at this for nearly 20 years, convinced that any Costner vehicle of such length (and then I waited too long, as the original 181-minute theatrical release subsequently morphed into this evidently now only exclusively available 236-minute director's cut)—a western, an Oscar bonanza, and a self-serious treatment of the all the usual sorry Native American issues—would at the very least have to add up to four hours of my life sacrificed forever to excruciating long-faced Hollywood sincerity. I anticipated that with sufficient breaks it could well require a whole day to crawl through, and I might not even make it at that. Do you understand now my motivations for waiting? But, honestly, I was impressed. It's a long movie, but there's an intermission-type break, at least on the DVD (remember intermissions at the movies?), and the pacing is deliberate but certain, building its plot carefully laid point by carefully laid point. What happened here, Costner got lucky?!? (At any rate, I'm still not ready for Waterworld.) It definitely comes with its share of cheaply manipulative moments, particularly in its treatment of animals (none of which actually harmed, etc.). But it develops an interesting, complex portrait of the Lakota (a/k/a Sioux, for those from the upper Midwest) and this moment in history with a fair amount of veracity, and even makes a little feint at turning The Searchers on its head, at the same time that it predictably enough never gives the U.S. whites a chance, which does or doesn't play to stereotypes according to each viewer's disposition, more or less. Me—OK, I appreciate that (no doubt raising the question in some quarters, "why do you hate America?"), particularly its use of the Lakota language itself, which I thought worked. Those who find the element pretentious or otherwise bothersome—well, that's on you.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Iggy Pop: Open Up and Bleed (2007)

It's hard to believe, this late in this game, that here we have what amounts to perhaps the first substantive, more or less "authorized," and well-received biography published of Iggy Pop, who turned 60 the year it came out (setting aside Iggy's own odd 1982 picture book, I Need More). Brit journalist Paul Trynka delivers an admirably workmanlike account, covering it all from grade school to the launch of the Stooges' reunion gigs of recent years. The organizing conceit—the psychic war between Jim Osterberg and Iggy Pop—can grow tedious from getting banged on so frequently, but that doesn't mean it doesn't explain an awful lot of the mystifying goings-on. I came to the story with a fairly good sense of the general outlines: the fizzled catapult to fame out of Michigan, the subsequent drug addiction problems and institutionalization in Los Angeles for reasons of mental health, the return to form with the aid of David Bowie, and much of the turmoil that followed. But there was still a lot I didn't know, particularly about the bleak mid-'70s LA period. Or, the best part of this book, the details of the Berlin years and of Iggy's really you have to call it heartwarming friendship with David Bowie, which Trynka finally clarifies for those, like me, who have may have watched Velvet Goldmine too many times and generally picked up (and/or believed) too many urban legends to really understand the nature of it. Or even little fun facts like that Iggy (make that "Jim") was a student council member notched Most Likely to Succeed in junior high. Well, didn't he? This is as welcome as it is long overdue.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Up Series (1964-present)

Seven Up! (1964); 7 Plus Seven (1970); 21 (1977); 28 Up (1985); 35 Up (1991); 42: Forty Two Up (1998); 49 Up (2005); UK, 710 minutes, TV, documentary
Producer/director (except Seven Up!): Michael Apted

Except for the first entry in this series, intended as a one-off for the British newsy documentary TV series, "World in Action," producer/director Michael Apted has throughout been at the helm of this ambitious project, whose premise is simplicity itself: take a dozen or so British youngsters of age 7 in 1964, interview, shoot, edit, and repeat every seven years (and Apted was actually on hand for that first one too as an uncredited researcher). Seven Up! is confusing, compressed to less than an hour and forcing us all at once to sort out the numerous faces and stories and details. Then across the sum total of nearly 12 hours that the entire series now clocks in at there is an inevitable amount of repetition. Each project, after all, separated by seven years, necessarily has to seek its own audience and stand on its own, and must fill in the backstories right along. What's amazing is that, even watched virtually consecutively as I did recently, the repetition barely registers. That's because the stories are so surprising and unsettling and fascinating and normal. My favorite of the bunch is 28 Up simply because that's the one I found to have the most jaw-dropping developments per capita. These people never go in the direction you expect—and yet they always do: educations, personalities, marriages, children, divorces, deaths, hardships, victories, and losses. It's always predictable and not at all predictable every step of the way. The original selection of the subjects was deliberate in terms of class, geographic, and other formative backgrounds, and Apted's biases are often painfully at the fore in the interviews. But then these characters push back and obviously surprise him as much as they surprise us. Now that I'm finally in on this, I can't wait for 56 Up, due in 2012. I leave the last word to Roger Ebert, who notes that the movies are "an inspired, almost noble use of the film medium" and that "Apted penetrates to the central mystery of life."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Behavior (1990)

(Restoration project 1: Torn out of this blog for TOS violations during my hiatus so I "don't dare" upload the related music files. Sorry about that.)

"Being Boring" The Pet Shop Boys were never going to fall within my typical, rockist tastes of the time, which ran toward Neil Young, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and the inevitable Nirvana. But that only made it that much more compelling the way this album insinuated itself into my daily routines. I couldn't get enough of it. Some days I played it over and over. This went on for months. Every song here is a stone winner, lush, beautiful, haunting, limning an emotional vulnerability as open and vulnerable as it is studied and reserved. Plus it's funny. In retrospect, I don't know why I found it all so surprising. But this is probably where I moved them from "guilty pleasure" to something more along the lines of "essential."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Once (2006)

Director/writer: John Carney
Photography: Tim Fleming
Music: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Cast: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová

This is a musical in approximately exactly the same way that Tommy is an opera (it has songs the way Tommy has an overture and underture). Whatever you want to call it it's a beautiful and tremendously moving love story, which I suspect benefits in no small measure from the somewhat unsettling fact that the actors playing the principals were actually falling in love during the filming. These things happen, as they say, and if I have my misgivings about the players (the age difference, see) I don't about the characters, which has to do with the story, but I'm not going to give things away. Another key point in its favor: the music is terrific, a kind of woodshedding Band circa Big Pink by way of Irish busking sort of thing (but much more romantic)—think Richard Thompson infinitely more raw rather than Bono, please (let alone The Commitments)—a fresh and invigorating sound that harks clearly enough to the late '60s/early '70s, which also fits the characters, who are lovely and charming in every way that matters. Oh, and some of the songs are guaranteed to stick your heart. Which, I guess, must make it a musical after all—at least to the extent that it's such a perfectly delicious fantasy, all those gritty street trappings notwithstanding.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Scener ur ett äktenskap, Sweden, 299 minutes, TV
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Sven Nykvist
Cast: Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson

Ingmar Bergman's amazing take on marriage and middle-class complacency, with brilliant performances from Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, is fine even in the first version I saw as a teen and found interminably boring—the dubbed, bowdlerized, U.S. theatrical release of the original five-hour television series. Seeing it again in my mid-30s shortly after a divorce was a stunning body blow of an experience. More recently, I finally saw the complete and uncut original television episodes side by side with a subtitled version of the theatrical release. There's virtually no comparison. The TV episodes have more of everything and not too much of anything. I didn't have to blow my nose this time, but I did feel myself transported to another place, a place outside of time, familiar and painful and comforting all at once. This really is my favorite Bergman running away. Nothing else comes close, and there's much of his that I like and much more that I admire and respect. But this is something special, with a uniquely throbbing, complex, expansive, and generous humanity at its core and just enough cerebration to keep it real. Even the last episode, a fantasy but one that tore my heart out once, remains pitch-perfect.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

general statements of purpose and intent

First, when I say I have been watching TV for most of the past two years, I mean that by way of introducing the discussions of movies (and, now and then, actual TV shows) to follow, which I plan to commence shortly with a consecutive debriefing, top to bottom, of my favorite movies of 2009 (not many of them actually released in 2009, but all of them seen for the first time by me then). Those links will go to pages on Netflix, which I have found to be a tremendously useful and reasonably priced strategy for conducting a never-ending film festival in my living room. I recommend it (in spite of their annoying long-term strategy of marketing with aggressive pop-ups on the Intertoobz). The range and depth of its catalog is simply amazing, and my experience has been that the service is never less than very good.

Discussions of music and books will continue presently as well. I haven't made a habit of visiting very many music blogs for some time now (those I do are in the blogroll). I no longer know the landscape well, so there will likely be much less of that.

On services: Having spent the past several days revisiting the dead and dying links that resulted from dropping my Rapidshare account last summer (the surprise to me is how many of them are still good), I herewith serve notice that not all of the music I discuss will any longer be accompanied by free downloads. I do this with mixed feelings. It never was my intention to cheat artists of their deserved earnings, but rather to help get the word out on their products. I didn't much mind stinting on bitrates, file format, and/or inclusion of artwork for that reason, and if some tracks were inadvertently omitted that didn't bother me either. As Chocoreve once put it so well, "Either be grateful for the music for free, regardless of bitrate, or go and buy the fucking album." For my part, the idea always has been to promote music I love and encourage you to guide your own consumer dollars, when you have them, in those directions (or euros, or whatever).

At any rate, I'm no longer interested in throwing mine at Rapidshare—nothing against it in particular. I just have better uses for my resources, which have suffered some under this economy. I may now and then upload files where I can, to services such as Sharebee, but more often I will be pointing to three online destinations that sell either downloadable music files or CDs/vinyl or both (with the additional moral benefit for us all, such as it is, of being legally contracted with the artists or at least the labels who still own the rights to the artists' music). In some cases, your clickthrough may have some marginal benefits to me, which as usual will be applied to maintenance and improvement of this site.

Those services are:

eMusic. Over the years I have used eMusic, I have had my various problems with it—currently, the agonizing and painfully slow page-loads, and always the kludgy downloading experience itself, which routinely locks up my system for minutes at a time. Rapidshare and the others are leagues better at the actual downloads. But eMusic's catalog has always been huge and lately it's been growing by leaps and bounds. Plus it's not particularly expensive and it's always a great browse (when the pages load, that is), packed with information and interesting, useful byways and tangents. I can only hope they have been focused on acquisitions and that eventually the service itself will improve. On balance, eMusic remains something I recommend.

CD Universe, which sells music as downloads and new CDs/vinyl, has the chief advantage over Amazon that it is not Amazon. Its product notes tend to be much better than Amazon, nearly on a par with eMusic, if that makes any difference to you. Its one disadvantage to Amazon is that it doesn't sell used CDs or vinyl, which of course if you ask Garth Brooks is at least as controversial and open to charges of thievery as downloading free music files. Or home taping, I suppose. We must never forget the imminent threat to the music industry of home taping. I have bought CDs before from CD Universe and have no complaints about the service.

Amazon. Since its introduction and marketing of the (still overpriced) Kindle, which may yet prove to be the iTunes of reading material, my attitude toward Amazon has softened somewhat. I have been a relatively faithful customer for years, and can vouch for every level of its service from music files to used and new CDs and books. (In fact, I even use it for selling CDs myself.) But I still have my issues. That's on me. I'll get over it one day. Meanwhile I'll link to them, but not first, at least for now.

As always, comments are welcome and invited.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Apologies for delay. Been watching TV.