Friday, April 30, 2010

Sideways (2004)

USA, 126 minutes 
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Photography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Rolfe Kent
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Everything in this dire romantic comedy, from the preoccupations of the two losers who occupy center stage to the myriad perfectly observed details of California life to the insipid jazzy soundtrack, is just right. Paul Giamatti with his wonderfully swallowed guttural growl is proficient as ever as Miles, a junior high English teacher, wannabe novelist, and wine-snob drunkard watching his life fall apart from his own self-pity. He is usually annoying, and often wrenching. His buddy Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, is even more annoying and equally affecting as a commitment-phobic sex addict and two-bit actor. Old college friends, the two have little to connect them any longer beyond low-level golf skills, compulsive lying, and a shared sense of profound disappointment with themselves and their lots. But their affection for one another is genuine, not desperate, as becomes evident over the course of the week-long trip through California's wine tourist country prior to Jack's doomed wedding that makes up the bulk of the movie. In form it's thus a species of road movie, but for me in many ways it updates the Woody Allen I appreciated from the late '70s and Hannah and Her Sisters, the Chekhovian impulse for mild, occasionally discomfiting set pieces of grown-ups (who are also children, which is all of us) grappling with the pains and complexities of romance and life and meaning. Virginia Madsen as Maya, a sensitive and intelligent recently divorced woman who works as a waitress in the wine country while she pursues a degree in horticulture, somehow lifts the whole thing a notch higher even as her character raises the stakes. With her own interest in wine, Maya is drawn to something in Miles—more likely that's a fantasy of director/writer Alexander Payne, but set that aside for the moment. The conversations between Miles and Maya as they find themselves falling into each other's orbits, the discussions of interests and motivations and dreams, are impossible. Do people really talk like that? Well, they do here, and the conversations are exquisite and endearing, the movie's unbearably attractive heart, the point where my guard dropped all on its own and left me vulnerable to the shenanigans. Call it the tenor of Madsen's voice. The resolution that's offered would have to be categorized as fantasy, but it's a relief from the surprising degree of pain of the closing scenes—Giamatti always has the face to carry off such anguish, it's basically his bread and butter—and ultimately leaves a beautiful note to end on: Madsen's lovely voice again, and the way she addresses Miles, speaking to an answering machine.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Beggars Banquet (1968)

"Street Fighting Man" In which the curtain goes up on the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band 1968-1972 (though I suspect the Stooges challenged them in their latter supremacy, but that's a discussion for another time). Having spent several years persistently and purposefully dogging the shadows of the Beatles—up to and including a "retirement" from touring, if you can believe that now, though for vastly different and even slightly sordid reasons (but we wouldn't have it any other way, would we?)—and having effectively sidelined their one non-traditionalist, founding status or no, the Glimmer Twins and crew here step out with all the confidence they were born with and otherwise accumulated, and simply play. Loud. Menacing. Cocky. Slick and rough all at once, like virtually nothing anyone had ever heard before, though all the sources remain transparent enough. Some of the transition may be glimpsed intermittently, through the fabled glass darkly like, in Jean-Luc Godard's typically infuriating quasi-documentary art film of the time, Sympathy for the Devil, where they are seen slowly woodshedding the details of the title sound—the title of the movie, I mean. But even though that odd 6:26 workout would open the album and seem to indicate a statement of purpose, it's the 3:18 romp that opens the vinyl side 2, "Street Fighting Man," that's more the genuine article, certainly in its attack and implicit statement of purpose. The lyrics are the usual pack of lies, as they are throughout the Stones' catalog. That's just what they do, and likely why Jagger prefers mumbling, muttering, and all the other strategies he uses to obfuscate what he's "saying." That doesn't mean, however, that it doesn't work. Remember: you must never underestimate what this band is capable of.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

12 X 5 (1964)

"Time Is on My Side" One of the things that never fails to astonish me about the Stones is how quickly they sounded so self-assured—and so good. This is only their second album (approximately: as with the Beatles and other transcontinental artists of the time, their US and UK releases run down two separate, imperfectly matched trails) and they are basically all the way there, a first-rate blues band with a knack for the surprising effect, well past simply aping the old 78s and Chess singles they had spent their brief lifetimes collecting, whether it's the sounds Keith Richards and Brian Jones casually wring, the odd vocal conceit of Mick Jagger's that is unfailingly dead-on, and always, always the solid bottom of the rhythm section, which even in 1964 was clearly going to be one of the all-time best in the business. (For comparison, see the Animals of the time, or even better, or worse, the Who.) Already the Stones had no place to go but down, but incredibly, they had a long road ahead of them of continuing to go up. Consider: this album was just about the point when manager Andrew Loog Oldham had begun to convince Jagger and Richards, who would eventually become their own personal hit-making factory, to even try their hand at songwriting. Except for three fledgling efforts, this is an album of covers. But I defy anyone to point to any album of covers not by the Rolling Stones that is even remotely as confident and accomplished. (What's more, they've got more than one of these from the early days.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Le Grand Meaulnes (1912)

Upon considering a tour of the "revised version" of The Magus by John Fowles, published circa 1978, I found Fowles himself in his introduction making reference to Le Grand Meaulnes as a significant source for his own novel of impossible mysteries and paradox. I had never heard of Le Grand Meaulnes. It turns out that author Alain-Fournier only had time to compose this one slender volume; he was subsequently called to serve with the French in World War I, where he perished shortly before his 28th birthday. The novel tells a strangely toned story of an adolescent student at a boarding school in the French countryside who, one night of a full moon, goes out for a ramble and comes across a small village in the throes of a strange and lovely masquerade festival. He enjoys various adventures, finds a girl for whom he falls hard, and in brief a good time is had by all. But the funny thing is that once he finds his way back to the boarding school he can't seem to find that village again. In time, he enlists his companion, the narrator of this novel, to help him find it. Both continue the effort but are singularly unsuccessful. The resolution is a bit anticlimactic—it's clearly a first novel—but it's a pleasant enough ramble itself getting there. And there's something hard to put one's finger on that is very weird and altogether unsettling about the whole thing.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rising (1995)

This is fully equipped with the usual caterwauling and yelping, particularly on the lengthy title track, though infinitely mellowed and sharpened as the times had finally caught up to her sound, her instincts and vision. Furthermore, it comes with a working band, IMA (Japanese for "now"), which includes son Sean playing guitar. And a fine band it is too, as you can hear. I was fortunate enough to be able to see them play a small club in Seattle in 1996 in support of this, and in many ways the whole thing was a perfect comedy of mutual admiration, soft and warm as a holiday with loved ones, the love flowing freely and from all sides. First there were the members of the audience marveling simply at being there, in the immediate vicinity of and actually standing in the wash of sound as it occurred, pouring from this tiny middle-aged Japanese woman who stepped to the microphone in all the din and chaos and let it rip. And Sean, of course—why, he looks like both of them! We were like ridiculous doting relatives. But the supremely comical moment was when Soundgarden's Kim Thayil was invited onstage to stand in for a couple of numbers. And there was Sean—what? 21 at the time?—gaping at a hero the way we had been gaping at him and his mother. Soundgarden! Seattle! Yoko Ono! Those sounds! That thundering rhythm section! Heavy chords! Screech! On and on it went. What a lovely night.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935)

UK, 86 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay
Photography: Bernard Knowles
Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Positively straining at the limitations imposed by the stodgy '30s talkie technology, it's probably fair enough to characterize this as a cracking good yarn. Marked by paranoia, murder, intrigue, the usual gang of Hitchcock's mysterious spies, and a setting that sprawls across the UK, from London to Scotland and back again, there's not much you could do to improve the bold strokes of this script—unlikely coincidences, outlandish resolution, and all. It gets off to a brisk start as a strange London music hall performance is interrupted by gunshots. Leaving the venue, Richard Hannay, played by Robert Donat, appears to find himself getting picked up by a Garbo-like woman. played by Lucie Mannheim, who asks if she can go home with him. There she drops hints of an incredible spy plot in which, she says, she has now involved him. He politely feeds and listens to her. It's all quite chaste—we know from earlier Hitchcock fare such as Blackmail that he wasn't afraid to veer toward the sordid if it suited his purpose—and Hannay never believes a word. Later that night she reappears with a knife in her back, clutching a map, and collapses across him (as a gentleman, of course, he had put her up in his bed while he took the living room couch). This would seem to bolster her story, and in any case he's now likely to be accused of the murder, so he does what any sensible character in a Hitchcock film would do: flees, and tries to makes sense of the cryptic clues that she left behind. Along the way he finds any number of close shaves along with true love, neither of which comes without their various difficulties. Will he evade the police? Will he ever get to the bottom of this mystery? What do you think?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Season of Glass (1981)

"I Don't Know Why" All right, let's talk about Yoko Ono. Like most Beatles fan I thought her an unwelcome intrusion in the messy conclusion of the band, though I never hated her the way some did and certainly didn't blame anything on her. I've never had much use for such projects as Unfinished Music, No. 1: Two Virgins, her collaboration with John Lennon better known for its cover of the couple in full-frontal nudity—it's still painfully unlistenable to me. Her '70s solo projects came with isolated moments (I knew enough of her champions to get fairly steady exposure), although their proportion to the noisy dross was ultimately way too low to be cost-effective for me. But I thought, and still think, that "The Ballad of John and Yoko" was one of the best late Beatles hits, and anyway, John Lennon by then was my favorite Beatle. Who was I to begrudge him his personal choices? (Who was anyone?) In 1980, I thought her half of Double Fantasy was almost embarrassingly subpar to Lennon's, and wished they'd each taken a side rather than alternating tracks; it was too much work to listen to the thing, either lifting and replacing the needle constantly, or sitting through the untoward interruptions to Lennon's amazing return. And then came the catastrophe, and a few months later this. I was afraid to listen to it for more than a year. When I finally did, I found that suddenly the rough edges and harsh textures and raw thrust of her sound had found focus and purpose—expressing an entirely appropriate rage, working through grief, dealing with the shock and pain of an unimaginable event. She did so as an artist, with dignity and courage. Entirely unexpectedly, she also appeared to have absorbed enough of Lennon's sensibility to make it feel like the collaboration that never really occurred. It stands as a startling and genuine fusion of artists, fleeting but real, the very thing I think Lennon sought all his life, and as such it's almost as unbearably sad as it is heartening. It also provides catharsis for anyone who cared. From that point on I believed in her at every level, and I still do.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Different Class (1996)

I read somewhere that fans of Neil Tennant and the Pet Shop Boys would be sure to appreciate Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. You didn't have to tell me any more than that. I signed on right away, though in the end I was as mystified by the comparison as by others I've heard with the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. At least I like Pulp, and quite a lot. Especially this little bitter pill. Don't hesitate on account of the bitterness. That's strictly limited to the lyrics—the storyline of "Common People," for example: "And then in 30 seconds time she said / 'I want to live like common people / I want to do whatever common people do / I want to sleep with common people / I want to sleep with common people like you' / Well what else could I do? / I said 'I'll see what I can do' / I took her to a supermarket." (Bitterness of course never precludes humor, and we will be examining a cover version of this song soon enough, one that very nearly outdoes this, or does.) There's sugarcoating too: the music is all upbeat, almost chirpy, capable of pealing off lusty rounds of "la-la la-la la-la-la" without demeaning the general tone. Plus it features a bottom that can whomp you good, gorgeous guitar fills, and numerous turns to a dance throb that's never gonna let you down. Except for a little matter of looks, the better comparison here may be to Bryan Ferry by way of Martin Fry and back again, filtered through David Bowie sobbing. One look at Jarvis Cocker and you know he's all business. He has to be.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004)

I don't normally go in for this kind of thing—fantasy and magic in a historical British setting—but somehow I ended up with a copy of it and somehow one day I opened it up and started reading. It's big, positively epic, and so suitable for the long wintertime evenings. Maybe that was it. At any rate, it's certainly worthwhile. I would say don't believe the hype about the second coming of Jane Austen. Susanna Clarke sets a nice equable tone, but she doesn't bring off that much of a sense of post-Enlightenment 18th century simply by replicating some of the eccentric spellings ("chuse," "shew," "sopha," "scissars," etc., etc.). But that's quibbling in the face of her larger achievement—a sweeping, breathtaking alternative history of Britain that incorporates an entirely unexpected element of magic. And that's "real" magic as opposed to stage magic, both of which are discussed and debated among the scholars who stalk this heavily "documented" (that is, liberally footnoted) narrative, which recounts the emergence of two "real" magicians during the period of the Napoleonic wars, after Britain has endured centuries without any such. In Clarke's universe, a golden era of magic in Britain took place circa the 13th and 14th centuries. (Merlin, it turns out, from a century or two before that, was just a relatively minor magician in the larger scheme—one simple example of Clarke's ability to be thoroughly comprehensive in her invention.) The big kahuna in her story is a mysterious figure known simply as the Raven King, and it’s testament to the authority Clarke brings to bear (or perhaps just to my gullibility) that I had to turn to Wikipedia frequently to sort out what was historical fact from what was Clarke's imagination. As a figure in the novel, the Raven King grows from an incidental passing reference to an imposing presence almost imperceptibly, as the scope of the story gradually establishes itself, until he becomes as terrifying and overwhelming to the reader as to anyone living inside this novel. There are fairies here too, which though by and large as spritely and charming as even their most conventional reputations have it, nonetheless don't mean particularly well by us. In fact, they are downright creepy across the breadth of this extremely impressive tale. And that brings me to what I think I like best about Clarke's novel. Unlike the Harry Potter books, which may or may not have set the stage for something like this, this is not a story for children, and in the end it's not particularly light-hearted, let alone frivolous. It's fantasy and magic, but it's happening to adults; the situations are serious, and the stakes grow to be enormous. In the end it's absolutely gripping.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

101 Two Minute Pop Songs, pt. 1

Two-minute pop songs are a little like pistachio nuts—hard to stop at one. So here's 34 with more to come.

Beach Boys, "Little Saint Nick (45 RPM)" (1963) Just plain fine no matter what the season. (1:59)
Beach Boys, "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (1964) (2:01)
Beatles, "Do You Want to Know a Secret" (1963) (1:59)
Beatles, "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" (1964) Probably the best song here. (1:59)
Beatles, "It's Only Love" (1965) From Help! but belongs on Rubber Soul, I swear. (1:59)
Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967) (2:02)
Big Four, "Outta Tune" (1960) If they are, I can't hear it, but then I've never had the ear anyway. Wait a minute, I think I did hear some bad notes? Nah... (2:02)
Billy Fury (w/ the Gamblers), "Stand By Me" (1960) Not the Ben E. King song. (2:01)
Billy Riley & His Little Green Men, "Flyin' Saucers Rock 'n' Roll" (1957) (2:02)
Blur, "Song 2" (1998) It's almost old-fashioned, in a way. (2:01)
Bob Dylan, "Suze (The Cough Song)" (1963) As featured on the main menu page for the No Direction Home DVD, albeit sans actual cough and attendant conversation and laughter. (1:59)
Bombay the Hard Way (feat. Dan The Automator and DJ Shadow), "Ganges a GoGo" (1999) (1:59)
Boss Hog, "Ski Bunny" (1995) Probably the best song here. (2:01)
Box Tops, "The Letter (Single Version)" (1967) (1:59)
Canned Heat, "Big Fat" (1969) (1:59)
Charlie Walker, "Soft Lips and Hard Liquor" (1974) (1:58)
Chipmunks, "Can't Buy Me Love" (1964) Hit that guitar, Simon boy. (1:59)
Chocolate Watchband, "Psychedelic Trip" (1967) (1:58)
Clash, "White Riot" (1977) A good one to sing along with. (2:01)
Clyde McPhatter, "Lover Please" (1962) (2:01)
Collins Kids, "Mercy" (1956) These Collins siblings, Lorrie 14 and Larry 12 at the time of this recording (as best I can tell), obviously must have had it in their genes, though I wonder what happened to them as adults. The real story, I mean. Note that it's Larry playing the guitar. (2:02)
Dave Clark Five, "Bits and Pieces" (1964) (1:59)
Dave Clark Five, "Over and Over" (1965) (2:00)
Dave Edmunds, "Here Comes the Weekend" (1976) Probably the best song here. (1:59)
Dean Martin, "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow" (1959) (2:00)
Dick Dale, "The Wedge" (1962) Can this guy play a guitar or what? (2:01)
Dusty Springfield, "Bad Case of the Blues" (1969) Even something as cheesy as this. Even something as cheesy as this. (2:00)
Eddie Cochran, "Summertime Blues" (1958) Major rock 'n' roll epicenter. Almost certainly the best song here. (2:00)
Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "No Action" (1978) Say hello to the Attractions and then get out of the way of this one or it will run you over like a truck. (1:59)
Elvis Presley, "All Shook Up" (1957) I'm itchin' like a man on a fuzzy tree. My friends say I'm actin' wild as a bug. (1:59)
Elvis Presley, "Bossa Nova Baby" (1963) (2:01)
Elvis Presley, "Don't Be Cruel" (1956) (2:03)
Elvis Presley, "Introduction-Early Morning Rain" (1977) From his final performance in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977. Mostly the show is the train wreck you would expect, or maybe that's the quality of the recording from a handheld microphone in the crowd, but this is a lovely moment.  (2:02)
Elvis Presley, "Make Me Know It" (1960) (1:58)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Zodiac (2007)

USA, 157 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Photography: Harris Savides
Music: David Shire
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Candy Clark, Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall

A brooding meditation that is relentlessly fascinating, comfortably inhabiting its leisurely length of some nearly three hours, which go by like a blink. It explores the never-solved case of the Zodiac, a serial killer who operated out of northern California in the late '60s and early '70s and sent taunting notes and ciphers (only one of which was ever cracked) to San Francisco Bay Area police and the San Francisco Chronicle as he murdered his way to infamy before suddenly and mysteriously stopping. Perhaps needless to say, the case is strange and shocking, unusual for a number of reasons even in the serial killer genre (of true crime and film both)—not least because the self-proclaimed Zodiac stopped at all, which our understanding of serial killers shows they generally don't do, but also because he claimed his victims using different methods, alternating guns and knives, changing up locales and times of day and approaches to his victims. A cartoonist at the Chronicle (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) takes an interest in the case and ends up devoting years to following leads and investigating the long-term suspects that the police could never clear, which offers byzantine entries into strange California underworlds of paranoia and the sordid. The movie is essentially based on the book of the same name by the cartoonist, Robert Graysmith. Fincher, who has never much impressed me—I particularly detested Fight Club—has done a masterful job here, setting a nicely obsessive tone that inexorably and genially draws us into its orbit, and assembling a real all-star extravaganza along the way to do so. Besides Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the police detective charged with the case who becomes nearly as preoccupied as Graysmith with solving it, and Robert Downey Jr. turns in his usual fine performance as Paul Avery, an arrogant crime reporter at the Chronicle who also worked on the case for years. For those who like their mysteries resolved, Graysmith and Fincher make a strong case for who the killer was, and why he stopped. I like the theory, but it's just a theory. We really still don't know.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Broken English (1979)

"Why D'ya Do It" I happened on Marianne Faithfull's big comeback bid when it was first released, during a Christmas season—one decade ending, another beginning—and was almost immediately knocked back by it, as much as anything by the bracing, foul-mouthed six-minute ragegasm of sexual jealousy that closes the thing, "Why D'ya Do It." Which was as intended, no doubt—obviously, we'd come a long way baby from the breathy dainties of 1964's "As Tears Go By," 15 years and a painful world of experience. How did we get here from there? "Drugs" is the simple answer, but the second half of Faithfull's career has clarified the finer points, as she cleaned up and traveled deeper into the Brechtian backwaters of European jazz-inflected artsong, with varying degrees of success (I don't think she ever touched Dagmar Krause, as one point of comparison). But Faithfull never did anything like this again, and probably no one could. The disco/new wave sheen on every track, it turns out, was an ideal strategy for the dissonant, minor-key tenor of the music, the croaking vocals, and the various lyrical concerns: terrorism, political oppression, domestic abuse, bitter pathos, loss, emptiness, suicide. Like that. At first, the cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" seems like the canny statement of purpose here. But then it's followed by "Why D'ya Do It," and silence.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)

Michael Chabon's deft and remarkable novel concocts an alternative history of comic books stretched just wide enough to contain his two titular characters, comic book scripter Sammy Clay and illustrator-with-portfolio-extraordinaire Joe Kavalier, who are cousins. Clay grew up in Brooklyn and Kavalier escaped Prague even as the fascist pall of the late '30s settled across it ("escape" in every sense being the operative word). The novel concerns itself with comic books and a burgeoning new industry and even art form, as well as with World War II, love, destiny, obsession, fate, and finding oneself, among other matters addressed. It sprawls from Manhattan diners where Gil Kane and Stan Lee get breakfast to the wastelands of the Antarctic to the back alleys of the Prague ghetto. It features golems and other super-heroes—even invents one for the occasion, the Escapist, which if not particularly believable as Golden Age fare to me was still good enough for Dark Horse to give it a try recently. There are Nazis here (of course), though mostly of the American variety, along with fisticuffs, spectacular magic tricks, gay sex, and no small amount of casual, historical name-dropping throughout. Orson Welles pops up once or twice. So does Man Ray. But for all the clever sleight of hand and determined wandering afield, Chabon is masterful at keeping the focus on mid-20th century life and all that it brought. And though it's rather a long novel, it lends itself easily to taking in large gulps—which, after the first hundred pages or so, could very well be all you want to do until you've finished it up.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ultraglide in Black (2001)

Nothing I know sounds like the Dirtbombs. The Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead used two drumkits too, but they sure as hell never sounded like this. Flipper also used two bass players and that's closer, but Flipper doesn't sound like the Dirtbombs. Vocalist Mick Collins sang with the Gories, but they didn't sound that much like the Dirtbombs either, nor any of the other Detroit peers of the time such as the White Stripes, although now we are starting to get close. But this freaky and shrewd confluence of mighty Detroit forces—the Dirtbombs, the Motown catalog, now appearing in one ring together—is notably like nothing else, a wall of catatonic funky sludge that destroys everything in its path, and even the undead likely move their liquid bones to it. Dig the titles: yeah, this is that "Chains of Love" and that "Livin' for the City" and that "Got to Give It Up" and "Livin' for the Weekend" and "If You Can Want." Smokey and Stevie and Marvin and Curtis, reanimated as never before. Hilarious and breathtaking and sure-footed and commanding all at once. Someone around here understood the mission.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Grand Illusion (1937)

La grande illusion, France, 114 minutes
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Photography: Christian Matras
Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Georges Peclet, Werner Florian, Jean Daste, Sylvain Itkine, Gaston Modot, Marcel Dalio

Amazing stuff, this, which by and large escaped me on my first viewing of it in a college film class. Not sure why—maybe I was tired that day? It's first a fine war movie, told from the point of view of a practical pacifism, nothing much political about it—anti-war but only by virtue of its whole-hearted embrace of life (and despite the fact that World War I is the one that can make anybody anti-war). The narrative is spirited and free-wheeling, multilingual in fascinating rhythms, telling the story of the capture and eventual escape of two French officers in World War I. The humanity that the two sides show one another, alongside the implied cruelties, are often surprising, even startling. Erich von Stroheim's performance as a punctiliously civilized German officer is notable in that regard. The settings and camera are both as restless as the story itself, which spans a continent and multiple class systems, all thrown into a discombobulating explosion of continual motion. My favorite scene emerges out of a love affair that occurs between Jean Gabin's Lt. Marechal and Elisa the farm woman (played by Dita Parlo) when the escaped soldiers are forced to hide in her home for several days during the December holiday season. On Christmas morning, she uses awkward German to shyly offer Capt. de Boeldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay) a cup of coffee with cream. It somehow signifies everything that has happened between her and Marechal, and the sad fleetingness of it, and it's an enormously touching moment. Then the soldiers must be off again, making for the Austrian border. An absolutely gorgeous final shot follows shortly to end this stirring and beautiful movie.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Mezzanine (1998)

I never understood the fuss about Massive Attack's first album but I understand it about this one, which I will just climb out on a limb and call their best (even though I haven't heard the new one yet). This misapprehension of mine, if that's what it is, may or may not be related to my generally fuzzy understanding of the term "trip hop." I can say with some confidence that I adore just about everything Portishead has done, at least appreciate Tricky, and certainly find the goings-on here nothing less than divine. The textures are deceptively thick and dense, like smoke, with throbbing, menacing beats, strange noises in the distance, sheets and layers of sonics, and relentless, persistent atmospherics like orange-tipped hallucinations in the dark. This features Horace Andy like I've never known him before, and Elizabeth Fraser as we've always known her. The mood is somber, but elevating—going up. Higher and higher. And the beastly things stalk these sounds, I don't know what they are (not Manfred Mann, I assure you), but I'm sure people must be dancing to them still, probably even somewhere today. Right at this very moment. After all, it's always 2 a.m. somewhere.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Motherless Brooklyn (1999)

I envy anyone encountering this novel for the first time. The pleasures and the surprises are so frequent and so unexpected and so apt that I found myself in a constant state of anticipation and satisfaction, a state verging on joy as one virtually impossible promise after another is not only fulfilled but topped. This is more or less a hard-boiled detective tale in which the first-person narrator and self-appointed chief detective, Lionel Essrog—perhaps not exactly hard-boiled himself, but in for a good five minutes anyway—happens to be a person with Tourette's, a person who understands his condition, accepts it equably enough, and spends the duration of the novel unraveling the mystery even as he almost blithely continues a lifelong exploration of the impacts and meaning of his condition. It's remarkable how deep into his head Jonathan Lethem gets, and how unobtrusively he maintains the conceit throughout. Meanwhile, Essrog's beloved boss and mentor Frank Minna is whacked and Essrog's determination to get to the bottom of it takes him, both in memory and in pursuit of the killer, through an orphan's life growing up in Brooklyn, into oddly shaded nooks and crannies of New York gangster life, to the blustery New England seashore, and even into a Zen monastery on Manhattan's Upper East Side. If the hard-boiled shtick wears a bit thin after the first time through, that's not so much the fault of Lethem's abilities but I think rather of his choice to work with a genre form that does not often reward second visits, having typically given up its goods the first time around. This is a pure pleasure.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Music for Films (1978)

"Sparrowfall (1)" I have to say it was a bit silly, even pretentious, for Brian Eno to characterize the various studies here as "music for films," which at best is a misunderstanding (if not outright denigration) of the work of Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and a host of others who have shown themselves so masterful at composing exactly that. The only thing sillier was another album he released the following year under the name Music for Airports. That said, the studies here do come with their various pleasures: the sparkling acoustic guitar tones of "From the Same Hill," the soaring jet sounds that swipe across "Slow Water" like writing only partially discernible on a slate, the Satie-like piano figures and feints toward luscious melody and the surprising fusions of the "Sparrowfall" triptych, the unsettling swells and undulations of "Alternative 3," the sheer uncanny presence of "'There Is Nobody.'" At the same time, all 18 disparate tracks here—many of them two minutes or less, with only the last one longer than four minutes—do manage to cohere into a whole, making their sonic alliances and then gently shifting and moving from one seamless vantage to another. So I'm happy enough to give Eno the benefit of the doubt on the poor choice of title. Maybe it was something that came out of that Oblique Strategies deck?

Friday, April 02, 2010

30 Rock (2006-present)

USA, TV series (NBC)
Creator: Tina Fey
Cast: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Alec Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Keith Powell, Katrina Bowden, Maulik Pancholy

Maybe ultimately you have to slot "30 Rock" into something like feel-good sitcom rather than the kind of all-out laugh fest that eschews heart like "Seinfeld." It's extremely likeable, as warm as "Mary Tyler Moore" ever was. On the other hand, there are several items that go directly to 11 on the comedy meter: Tina Fey (to whom I credit no small part for saving our country from itself) is a comic genius, there I've said it, which comes out first in the nuanced timing of her performance (all of her performance), and then in the brilliant shtick that she not only seems to know how to draw from but then to deploy perfectly from practically everything she can get her hands on—the cast most obviously, but the music and other trappings, the throwaways everywhere (the food Liz Lemon is forever spilling on herself, Jack Donaghy dating Condoleeza Rice, GE's ever-labyrinthine holdings, "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah"), all of popular culture, screwball comedy, single women tropes and cliches. Her family is the emotionally healthiest family anyone on TV has ever had, no small feat itself, and better, it's hilarious. I didn't know Alec Baldwin could be this loose and fresh and edgy. When did this happen? Where did it come from? Tracy Morgan is always perfectly ridiculous, and so is Jane Krakowski, who is even more than that—she and her perpetual little smirk are often positively inspired. Jack McBrayer, a/k/a Kenneth the Page, gets better and more dominating with every season, and he is like no character I have seen before anywhere (outside of the Louisiana governorship), a weird amalgam of denied gay, redneck, starfucker hanger-on, and prim good boy, and you never know what he's going to do next, up to and including fits of braying like a donkey. I am recommending this show so enthusiastically that I sincerely hope I am not setting anyone up for disappointment. I know it's won boatloads of Emmys without benefit of ratings impact—one of those. I don't want to jinx anything for anyone. I just want stuff this good on TV 24-7. Is that asking so much?