Monday, May 31, 2010

Manifesto (1979)

"Spin Me Round" In the wake of new wave and all that it seemed to entail and promise, Roxy Music decides to stage a big comeback bid, minus a number of the critical figures who rode the train with Bryan Ferry from the beginning (though both Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay are on hand). To facilitate success, perhaps, it rubs off any number of the edges and burrs we had come to appreciate about this band through so many years of hard work, concentration, and dedication to the craft of what they seemed to be about. Ferry's voice is recorded with more clarity than ever, certainly in the context of Roxy Music, and it's deepening and mellowing and more confident too; much of that had already started on Ferry's solo outings following the breakup of the band. And they've obviously been listening to disco. No objections here. There's not actually much that I can think to carp about on this album—I liked it a lot at the time, and I still think it's one of their best. The intervening four years of their hiatus were not unkind to them. But there's an overweening sadness here too: the vim of youth is suddenly well behind them, replaced by a disquieting veneer of professionalism, and that sans irony (which I suppose, all things considered, is for the best). Where all the earlier albums had risked boredom and made mistakes and laughed and moved on, this is careful, like a person who has learned a lesson and come to embrace caution. It's not as much for our pleasure any more. At the same time, with the effort moving out of the cerebral regions it once ruled, it now appears to be knocking on the doors of our hearts: there's an emotional appeal at work that had previously been detectable only through peeling away the painstaking layers of irony on Ferry's earliest solo work. Growing old is a hell of a price to pay for maturity, but Ferry, more than ever the man in charge at this point, appears to have measured carefully the scope of his choices. (As for the cover, I believe it's a terrible pun: mannequin festival.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Magic Mountain (1924)

Initial hefting of this 700-page+ opus might lead to feeling as if one faces the prospect of climbing a literal mountain itself, but I say have no fear and take the trailhead. I like the classic H.T. Lowe-Porter translation almost as much as the more recent John Woods, but ultimately favor the Woods if only for going the extra service of translating a long passage in French that Lowe-Porter leaves in French. I have probably mentioned before that I am a monoglot, so I need all the help I can get. I can't even speak to Mann in the original German, of course, but holy cow, if he reads this slick and knowing and elegant in translation I can only imagine. The Magic Mountain tells the tale of a naive yet mostly sincere young man at the turn of the 20th century, one Hans Castorp, who pays a visit to a cousin who is recuperating at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, finds himself incidentally diagnosed as symptomatic, and ends up remaining there for years himself. Is Castorp actually sick? Well, tuberculosis even now is notoriously difficult to gauge and treat, and surely even more so a century ago, but the short answer is probably no, not so much, and in any event it's a bit off the point. Once there, Castorp discovers that the routines of the place, the simplicities afforded by having his everyday needs ministered to, eventually even the boredom itself, along with the fascinating cast of European characters into whose orbits he falls, serve to liberate him in any number of enviable and exciting ways as he embarks—or, more accurately, stumbles—on various adventures of the modernist intellect, whether sociological, religious, or political: attempting to comprehend the experience of time, pondering the vagaries of how we are affected by music, and so forth. It all gets a bit allegorical, standing in for a Europe unwittingly rotting from the inside in the run-up to World War I. There are wizened, effete, dare I say decadent intellectuals mixing it up with would-be proletariats posturing for the revolution, radical Christians, dedicated hedonists, louts and the well-mannered, the innocent and the predatory and the utterly oblivious, there are even objects of heartbreaking love, and all of it taking place snug as a bug at the glorious remove of a remote outpost in the Swiss Alps. You say I'm not making this sound interesting? I can't explain exactly why this works so well—maybe it's as simple as the sheer seductiveness of Mann's language, which works so well even in translation. Maybe it's the masterful allusiveness with which he approaches and backfills his plot points. Whatever it is, this powerful and slyly humorous novel grabs hold and doesn't let go until the very end, and it rewards rereading too.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Country Life (1974)

No, neither one of the two women on the cover are Bryan Ferry's girlfriend at the time. But Ann Magnuson was unceremoniously booted from Facebook a few weeks ago for posting a parody photo of this album cover, which testifies to both the enduring potency of the image and the witlessness of the people running Facebook. Getting to the point, I think this may be my favorite of all the Roxy Music from their first period—I'd call it their classic epoch, but that '80s release is probably the one that's better known to the mainstream. So let's call the first handful of albums their European phase—after all, Bryan Ferry previously demonstrated he's happy to go ahead and belt it out in French when so inclined. Here he airs it out auf Deutsch (again, strictly as inclined). And as much as it thuds and crashes about like that legendary bull in that storied china shop, it never loses its ability for the subtle touch: "The Thrill of it All" entertains the possibility of sincerity, with big, wide, open arms. "Out of the Blue," all cascading shimmer, sinuously pulses and phases across its own surfaces like visible waves. "Bitter-Sweet" plays like a demented interpretation of The Blue Angel. "Triptych" even seems to have a notion of going baroque. And it's possible somebody has started to develop a sense of humor. From the cover shot to the straight-up blues of "If it Takes All Night" to the last song here, "Prairie Rose," a kind of Western ballad filtered through certain sectors of Brussels and incidentally one that both Talking Heads and Big Country obviously listened to closely, there's something a little funny about the whole thing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Michel Gondry
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Photography: Ellen Kuras
Music: Jon Brion
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson

This high-concept blend of science fiction and romantic comedy works best, as you might expect and as is true for so many things, where it penetrates deepest to the complexities and maddening contradictions of the human heart, which it actually manages to do more often than one might think, given some of its handicaps. The motivating conceit involves a medical procedure that has been developed in which specific memories can be "erased"; the procedure has since come to be marketed as a way to cope with loss and grief. The facile analogy to antidepressants and stomach stapling is all over the place, up to and including the ubiquitous availability and use of it and the surprisingly casual way it's administered, with staff entering one's bedroom after one has fallen asleep and spending the night hovering over laptops parked at the foot of the bed. In fact, that latter point remains one of the movie's most intriguing and unsettling elements. Joel Barish (played by Jim Carrey) finds out that Clementine Kruczynski, the girlfriend with whom he just broke up (played by Kate Winslet), has recently opted for the procedure, and in a fit of pique decides to do so himself. The rest is a confusing and sometimes amazing interior exercise relating the experience itself of having the memories excised, mixed in with a couple of startlingly unpleasant storylines about the medical staff administering the treatment and a few trite observations along the way on the Tenacity of Love driving Joel and Clem. This is Jim Carrey in probably his best role, giving arguably his best performance, certainly as the serious actor he covets being like so many gifted comic actors, and sad to say he seems to me in way over his head. He tends toward overplaying the part of the self-involved twenty-something loser, in the end communicating more the actor's fear of blowing the role than the character's anxiety about blowing the terms of his life, and as a result he rarely seems even remotely likeable, or believable. For her part, Kate Winslet is great as always but she has little to work with opposite Carrey and often comes across as someone flailing against thin air. The best performance here may go to Kirsten Dunst in a relatively minor role as the receptionist at the clinic in love with the doctor. She is lovely and annoying and embarrassing and a little otherworldly as she takes on the airs of a callow poseur. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and this, three films from two different directors, has managed all on his own to challenge auteurist ideas of filmmaking (to which I generally subscribe, let me hasten to add). I still haven't seen Synecdoche, New York, which Kaufman directed, or Gondry's Human Nature, which Kaufman wrote, but Eternal Sunshine, along with another look at Adaptation, makes me think there may actually not be as much "there" there to his work as first impressions made it seem. But it's certainly worth checking out.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Stranded (1973)

"Amazona" More of the same, only better, better and better. The sound remains cerebral and weird, but the band is well acquainted with itself by this time, knows when to charge forward in unison, when and how to hold back and open up spaces, and who gets to jump in to fill them. This may work most for guitarist Phil Manzanera—or, frankly, us, with his fully mature and artfully deployed playing—but head songwriter and singer Bryan Ferry, no shrinking violet, naturally takes his share of the spotlight too, and Mackay's reeds continue to lend the sound unsettling tearing and ripping textures. At least one song here is arguably too long ("Psalm," at 8:05) but the good moments are plentiful, coming straight out of the kind of hard-won confidence that only a working band can earn for itself. "Street Life" sets the hard rocking tone, a self-conscious vamp but one that gets the job done. "Amazona" floats in like a butterfly, unfolds like a flower, soars like a blimp. "A Song for Europe" might be the definitive statement of purpose; it sounds like it, all impassioned, but I can't make out the French. The manifold layers of "Mother of Pearl" are ultimately a gift for your head, relentlessly lapping a permanent place there. Say welcome and give in. It only gets better. And, oh yeah, that's Bryan Ferry's girlfriend at the time on the cover, Marilyn Cole.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

For Your Pleasure (1973)

"Do the Strand" The second Roxy Music album, and the last that Eno would be associated with (rumors of the time had it that Ferry was jealous of the attention Eno was getting, even coming eventually to relegate him to doing his thing in live performance from back at the soundboard), this tidy set continues apace the development of the art-rock unit's sound, at least as it existed in its first phase, which ran to approximately 1976: a thick blend of lead-footed texture, led by Bryan Ferry's perfectly ridiculous warbling, Andy Mackay's wailing reeds, all manner of odd plank and chizzle from keyboard and guitar (the latter courtesy Phil Manzanera), and Eno's electronic treatments and atmospherics, a strategy the band continued to build on even after he was gone. This is strange music even for its time—not that much to do with new wave or any of its antecedents, no matter what you might have heard, and in terms of style something even bigger and more ambitious than mere glam, something that set out to absorb and internalize and fetishize the artifice itself. As someone who was more a fan of Eno at the time (and incidentally Bryan Ferry's solo turns, which were covers projects), I had always assumed Roxy Music grew out of this bunch of yobs sitting around on hard chairs in studios feeling it out, after having first decided to unilaterally jettison even the vaguest gestures toward the blues or anything particularly rhythmic. It has that feel, and maybe that's the fact of it too, but then there's Bryan Ferry with all the credit for the songwriting, which I never noticed before. Is it an acquired taste? I suppose. And humorless, with no sense of history. But ultimately worth living with, a houseguest that can stay with you the rest of your life if you want. And, oh yeah, that's Bryan Ferry's girlfriend at the time on the cover, Amanda Lear.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Fear (1974)

John Cale is nothing if not uneven—if you prefer, the more diplomatic way to put it might be "eclectic" or "restless." Certainly it was the most valuable quality that he brought to the Velvet Underground, and the element most sorely missed (by all but Lou Reed) after he was gone. Yet for all that it's when he sets himself to the mission of dirtyass rock 'n' roll that I tend to sit up and most appreciate him. For a fix of that there's Slow Dazzle, there's Sabotage/Live, but most of all there's this. Even when it grows most raw and raggedy, as on the harrowing "Gun," he does it with a riveting level of authority that I'm not sure he ever managed to achieve anywhere else, and that includes the Velvets. The title pretty much strikes the tone in terms of themes, but to me the main draw here is the way it's recorded, with Cale's vocals thundering forth as if it were Yahweh Himself getting biblical from the mountaintops, the pounding piano chords, the texture of Phil Manzanera's scratching guitar twang and abrasive chording, Eno doing his thing invisibly extracting indelible intonations via ... whatever he's doing (the credit is for "synthesizers, Eno," likely the same thing elsewhere characterized as "Enossifications"), and the way so many of the songs reduce themselves to rubble as if of their own destructive power. Lots of stars on hand too: Manzanera, Eno, Fred Smith, Richard Thompson, Judy Nylon. And it's hardly all exploding shards of sound either, even if it tends to live on that way in memory. "Buffalo Ballet," "Emily," and "You Know More Than I Know" are positively elegiac, while "The Man Who Couldn't Afford to Orgy" manages to carpetbag some sneaky pornography into the proceedings, all of which only means that the whole thing is actually quite nicely paced.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Memento (2000)

USA, 113 minutes
Director/writer: Christopher Nolan
Photography: Wally Pfister
Cast: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano

I often find discussions of film noir a little frustrating because I'm never sure what exactly are the terms of consensus—noir would appear to be something less than a genre and yet something more than a style. In the end perhaps it's best thought of as one of those things, like the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography in 1964, that we know when we see. Thus, if one can forgive Memento for being filmed in color (mostly) and for being made outside of the time period 1945-1959, I'd like to just go ahead and submit it as one of the better examples of film noir around. Certainly the five main points that Wikipedia tells us the French critics rely on are present in sufficient quantity and quality, bullet-pointed for easy consideration: oneiric (that means dreamlike), strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. It's also preoccupied with crime and the criminal underworld, another typical feature. The utterly ingenious narrative strategy does set it apart from much that most of us have seen before —rhythmic bite-size pieces that move sequentially backward through time, alternating with slowly clarifying flashback interludes (shot in a gauzy black and white). It's essentially the point of view of our hero, Leonard, who has suffered since the murder of his wife from a condition of chronic short-term memory loss—he can't remember people he has met or things that have happened even an hour earlier. In spite of this, Leonard has set himself to finding his wife's killer, making endless notes to himself, even tattooing himself, to keep the facts of the case as intact in his mind as possible. But the shadowy figures in his life (even including himself, eventually) find it child's play to manipulate and cruelly use him. Watching movies is very often a kind of dreaming, but I've seen few that come as close to the experience of the dreams we have at night (outside of David Lynch, a discussion for another time). (I should note, as long as I'm inside these parentheses, that noir has seen other experiments in shuffling up time sequences, such as Kubrick's The Killing, and also that another famous noir, The Big Sleep, demonstrated it's not critically important to understand every point of a plot as it unfolds, or even for that plot to cohere.) Indeed, Memento is often baffling the first time through even as the kinetics keep one in thrall. Upon closer examination, however, it does all pretty much fits together, which ultimately produces an experience both overwhelming and unsettling, and deeply undermining of surprising depths of psychic certainty. In fact, every time I see it still I seem to take more away from it and come away more impressed—with the movie, not human beings. And if that's not noir, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Has Been (2004)

(This is my contribution to the William Shatner Blogathon hosted July 5-9, 2010, at She Blogged by Night.)

About the last thing I ever expected from William Shatner was an album to love, at least the good parts. I have to confess I don't know much about his chief partner in crime here, Ben Folds, who provides most of the music and obviously deserves a lot of the credit. As for Shatner, I figure it this way: something, call it despair, switched him over around the time his third wife died (the incident gets a 1:46 treatment here, by the way, "What Have You Done," though it's a bit much for me) and/or when he started doing TV commercials for Priceline. The commercials were funny, and that led in some fashion to the hook-up with David Kelley, who occasionally knew what to do with him on "The Practice" and then "Boston Legal." Suddenly "Star Trek" had fallen entirely by the wayside, not to mention "TJ Hooker," and we were confronted with an uncanny performance artist hitting his peak as he reached his 70s; see also his more recent interpretations of Sarah Palin's twitter tweets as oily beat poetry. But what's best here isn't exactly what goes for the laughs, it's the stuff that is almost cringingly honest and as a result exceedingly poignant, proceeding from the center of a man overwhelmingly plagued by vanity and shallowness—and who's willing now to play it for laughs, if that's what it takes. In "Familiar Love," this man gives it to us straight-up on how to keep a dysfunctional relationship going over the years. In "It Hasn't Happened Yet," this man is realizing that his life is almost over and nothing he expected from it has happened, or probably will. In "That's Me Trying," this man is trying to reconnect with a middle-aged daughter he has been estranged from for years, and doing everything wrong—everything. He explicitly wants to avoid talking about the problems between them; he'd rather read and discuss Cold Mountain, if it's not too long (the chorus is a dagger to the heart: "Years of silence / Not enough / Who could blame us / Giving up? / Above the quiet / There's a buzz / That's me trying"). The Pulp cover, "Common People," is there mostly for the yuks, but opening the album as it does it's also a good way to introduce this man we will get to know over the next 40 or so minutes—the pathetic narcissist who craves our liking him, and who we can't help liking a little in spite of ourselves. Others along for the ride here include Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Lemon Jelly, Henry Rollins, and Adrian Belew, many of whom I would expect to find indulging camp irony high-jinks. But I think Folds really proves he knows what he's doing. His songs and arrangements carry this as much as Shatner the blithering lumbering brilliant main character.

Monday, May 17, 2010

101 Two Minute Pop Songs, pt. 2

Remember those two-minute pop songs? Well, here's 34 more, with still more to come.

Blasters, "Stop the Clock" (1981) To spend more time with you. With you. (1:57)
Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Love for Tender" (1980) (1:57)'s, "Woo Hoo" (1989) As featured in Vonage commercials and Kill Bill. (1:59)
Fugs, "Slum Goddess" (1965) From the Lower East Side. Gonna make her my bride. (2:01)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "Keep Searchin'" (1964) All the covers on those Gary Lewis albums were my first exposure to a lot of the great pop hits. (1:58)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "Needles and Pins" (1964) (2:02)
Gary Lewis & the Playboys, "Palisades Park" (1965) (2:01)
Girl Trouble, "Tarantula" (1987) (2:00)
Great American Main Street Band, "Dogs & Ponies – Honey Boys on Parade (March) (Snare Drum & Chord)" (1992) And now, time for some circus music. Don't miss the big finish. (2:01)
Green Fuz, "Green Fuz" (1968) (2:02)
Jagged Edge, "Big City" (1966) (2:00)
Jeanne Moreau, " Le Tourbillon de la Vie" (1962) From Jules and Jim. (2:00)
Jethro Tull, "Move on Alone" (1968) (1:59)
Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs, "Sugar Shack" (1963) I know this from the radio when I was a kid. Thought it was great. (2:03)
Joey Dee & the Starliters, "Peppermint Twist – Part 1" (1961) Best twist record ever. (2:01)
Johnny Pate/Adam Wade, "Brother on the Run" (1973) (1:59)
Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers, "Get Off the Phone" (1977) This is almost kind of cute. (2:01)
Julie London, "I'll Remember April" (1956) (2:01)
Kai Winding, "More" (1963) Just try to forget that you ever decided to look at Mondo Cane. But you can't. You never will. (2:01)
Kokomo, "Asia Minor" (1961) (2:01)
Laurel Aitken, "Honey Girl" (1960) (2:01)
Loretta Lynn, "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath" (1969) (2:02)
Lovin' Spoonful, "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind" (1966) (2:01)
Margo Guryan, "Under My Umbrella" (1968) Probably the best song here. (2:02)
Mascots, "Words Enough to Tell You" (1966) (1:59)
Merle Haggard, "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" (1965) What an asshole. (2:00)
Millie Small, "My Boy Lollipop" (1964) (2:00)
Mindbenders, "Groovy Kind of Love" (1966) (2:03)
Mothers of Invention, "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" (1968) (2:01)
Neutral Milk Hotel, "The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1" (1998) The whole album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea really is a kind of miracle. (2:00)
Newbeats, "Bread and Butter" (1964) (1:59)
Novas, "The Crusher" (1964) Do the hammerlock you turkey necks. (2:00)
Old 97s, "Holly Jolly Christmas" (1997) Probably the best song here. (1:58)
Patsy Cline, "Walkin' After Midnight" (1957) Good divorce song. (2:01)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

I come to praise Joan Didion, not to bury her, and while this first of her collections of essays is widely praised and honored, and I remember admiring it quite a bit too a couple of times through—like back in the '70s and/or '80s—a more recent visit seemed to me somewhat disappointing. The much-vaunted pellucid clarity of her language, to start, now seems to have almost curdled over the years into finicky, brittle fisticuffs with long sentences and piled-on clauses, dependent and otherwise, willy-nilly seeking commas and semicolons for allies. (Not that I have anything to say about precision language, of course.) Worse, for me, her treatment of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury in the late summer of 1967 now reads as an unpleasant mix of petulant get-off-my-lawn carping, faux drama, and a willful obtuseness about what was in front of her eyes. I note without comment the deeply felt paean to John Wayne: "... although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear." On the other hand, she hits the sweet spot of my latter-day infatuation, true crime foible, as well as anyone, with trademark cool style and an eye for the telling detail. Yet it seemed to me this time that even the crimes she chooses to focus on, noir plots where the hopelessly amateur slayings in the suburbs of Los Angeles are entirely for the insurance, feel a bit creaky with age, and predictable. The middle section, "Personals," which tartly delivers her dense, thoughtful, and acerbic views on morality, stands up best for me now. Time was that, when pressed, Didion is the author I would name as my one favorite, even then offering the caveat that that was strictly for her nonfiction; I have never got much from her novels. And I'm hardly going to give up on her yet. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of her collections of essays—maybe I was in a bad mood when I read through Slouching again recently. But I think I have to say that this may not be the place for those new to her to start.

In case it's not at the library. (Everyman's)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trans (1982)

"We R in Control" If it weren't for Arc this would probably have to count as the weirdest Neil Young album ever. His first for Geffen, it marks an auspicious kick-start to a relationship that eventually soured to the point where the label filed suit against him, claiming he was willfully creating "unrepresentative Neil Young albums." Interesting theory. Back on Earth, I count this among my favorite Neil Young albums—if not on the short list of his sizeable catalog, certainly in the top 10. He's no electronics wiz, let alone proto-techno artist in any sense of the term, as has been pointed out ad infinitum elsewhere—even such basics as fancy beats are missing in action here. In fact, I think I hear a drumkit. The exotics of it really boil down to just vocoders and keyboards. And, oh yeah, it's a bunch of Neil Young songs too, which is something, writing songs, that he's always been pretty well known for. Now that we are decades beyond the mentality that overshadowed this at the time ("disco sucks and so does new wave, probably"), much of the daringness of it is lost as are the various transgressions against Neil Young fan dogma, which I just like to think means we can make the appropriate assessments now. Or try looking at is this way: if you are a Neil Young rockist and dislike the folkie exercises, or vice versa, there's probably no point checking into this one. You probably never have. If, on the other hand, you like both the rock stuff and the folkie stuff, then you probably already know this is pretty good.

Friday, May 14, 2010

You Can Count on Me (2000)

USA, 111 minutes
Director/writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Photography: Stephen Kazmierski
Music: Lesley Barber
Cast: Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Rory Culkin

Kenneth Lonergan's directorial debut—and to date the only film he's directed, though IMDb shows he's got another one in the can this year—stands as an astonishingly well done drama of family relations. The story, written by Lonergan, details the return of a wandering and soul-lost brother (Terry, played by Mark Ruffalo) to visit his single-mother sister (Sammy, played by Laura Linney) in their hometown in upstate New York where their parents died in an auto accident, leaving them as orphans on the cusp of adolescence. They are now in their late 20s or early 30s. Terry has become a despondent and self-destructive ne'er-do-well who flashes anger in a heartbeat while Sammy has turned to Catholicism and sex on the side to cope with her life working in a small bank and raising a kid on her own (good kid too, played by Rory Culkin). The performances from Ruffalo and Linney are absolutely outstanding. They take the complexities of Lonergan's nicely observed screenplay, the mixes of battling motivations of the two characters, who are suffering a deep pain at the bottom of everything they do, and raise the whole thing multiple notches at a time. There's a good deal of melodrama here—Terry's pregnant girlfriend back in his present home attempts suicide shortly after he arrives for his visit, Sammy starts up an affair with her boss (played by Matthew Broderick in a good performance) even as an old boyfriend has suddenly asked her to marry him—but Lonergan is smart enough to keep all of that grinding almost silently in the background, where it effectively puts the stress as much on the viewer as on the characters. There's good music here too—Lesley Barber's original score features sawing cellos that feel like tears welling up, and the country selections from Loretta Lynn and Steve Earle never fail to advance the story miles down the road even in their snippet appearances. This is a terrific movie that everyone from a family (and all you orphans too) owes themselves seeing. But Ruffalo and Linney are the reasons to revisit, and they make that worthwhile every time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More Fun in the New World (1983)

At the time this was released, in the fall of 1983, X was closing hard on only-band-that-matters status. They had hardcore cred and a wonderful set of perfect loopy elements going for them: Main guy singer/songwriter John Doe, with movie star good looks, a burgeoning talent for country singing, and a drinking problem, and wife main chick singer/songwriter Exene Cervenka, Lydia Lunch soul sister and all but outright goth poet, also with a drinking problem (both with a failing marriage on their hands). One of the best rock 'n' roll traditionalist guitar players that punk-rock ever produced in Billy Zoom. And a drummer, DJ Bonebrake, who made it a point to live up to his nom de plume on a very consistent basis. But this was the last stop before a lifetime of dithering, and if that didn't come without its pleasures—the Knitters' first album is well worth seeking out, though not exactly for the same reasons as any of the first four X albums—it nonetheless amounted to an endless moiling confusion of wrong-headed careerist moves. But listen, forget that Jake and enjoy what you get here: infinitely loosened up and playful, the band goofs on whatever enters its head. John Doe takes his country turn in "Poor Girl." Billy Zoom works out all the kinks in the sloppy Jerry Lee Lewis cover "Breathless." John and Exene put their heads together like they really mean it for "Painting the Town Blue," then turn around and tell all in the soaring "Drunk in My Past" (and then in "I See Red"). And collectively they stroke their long chins and play the thoughtful agonized role of only-band-that-matters in "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," which derides the neo British Invasion of the time (and why not?) even as it name-checks some of their most worthy peers: Minutemen, Flesh Eaters, DOA, Big Boys, Black Flag.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Sister Carrie (1900)

Theodore Dreiser's first novel remains one of his best and probably his most famous, along with An American Tragedy. It tells the story of a young woman at the dawn of the great American urbanization toward the end of the 19th century who escapes the country for the city and the various travails she endures in order to survive. She works in a Chicago factory, she encounters setbacks, she takes a lover, eventually she marries and ends up in New York, where eventually she divorces and finds success as an actress. Such realities of America's Gilded Age and its aftermath—the endless grasping for money because the agency that having it brings enables dictating one's social status, and thus the illusion of controlling one's fate—were ongoing preoccupations of Dreiser the former journalist and well-intentioned (and never actually overbearing about it) scold. His work is always far more engaging and engrossing than bare-bones synopses or the tiresome complaints about his "clumsy" language would lead one to believe. At more than 500 pages, this is actually one of his shorter works, but it flies by all too quickly. Sure, there's a lot of bland exposition here alternating with sections of dialogue dropped in like passages of transcripts. The question is why it works so well. Dreiser would seem to have an ability to abstract himself entirely out of the action he creates, implicitly suggesting that these are things contemplated from Olympian distances of remove, and inviting us to consider them from the heights with him. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. Even with all this abstraction and supposed distance, we recognize easily the urgency motivating these characters, caught up in circumstances they can barely even influence, let alone control. They are our own motivations and circumstances, and Dreiser has nailed them cold. And that is why you could well find yourself calling in sick one day in order to finish the "clumsily written" Dreiser novel that kept you up all night reading.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Poet of the Blues (1950-1954)

Poet, huh? "Existentialist" might be the better word. Look up Percy Mayfield in any Internet source and the first thing you're likely to learn is that the singer and songwriter wrote the 1961 Ray Charles hit, "Hit the Road Jack." That's fine and good, I suppose, if you like that. Me, I think it's one of Ray Charles's lesser accomplishments (for the best, see here) and, certainly in the context of the riches on display here, not really among Mayfield's greatest either. Underneath the smooth proto-cool R&B of these songs Mayfield's baritone warble solemnly intones all kinds of dark nights of the soul. At first that seems likely because, as the second thing you'll learn from those Internet sources, in 1952 he suffered a horrific auto accident that left him seriously injured and with his face "disfigured," which sounds like something straight out of some Douglas Sirk movie. But chalking the sensibility up to that, of course, is way too easy and doesn't nearly cover it, as the accident happened approximately halfway through the recordings you'll find here—and don't miss that his earliest success as a recording artist came in 1947 with a song called "Two Years of Torture." Maybe he always was oriented this way? But the accomplishment is that he manages to avoid any taint of self-pity, first by his careful, studied phrasing, the way he gently seeks and touches and caresses the notes (the kind of thing that Merle Haggard, in an entirely different style, also excels at), and then by the delicately wrought lyrics, which I suppose is where the "poet" notion comes from. I will leave you to ponder these words from the above-named "The River's Invitation"; Emily Dickinson might have given us "I heard a fly buzz when I died" but this is not so far behind: "I spoke to the river / And the river spoke back to me / It said man you look so lonely / You look full of misery / And if you can't find your baby / Come and make your home with me."

Friday, May 07, 2010

Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

USA, 107 minutes, documentary
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Photography: Adolfo Doring

A family tragedy compounded by our own never-ending prurient complicity and hysterical (in every sense of that word) fears—though filmmaker Andrew Jarecki is very careful to never actually point the finger at the viewer. The first time I saw this I was astonished and outraged at the level of injustice in the criminal case it describes and that tore apart the Friedman family, an injustice that stands starkly visible even through all the obfuscating and infuriating complexities (and grows even more so with the extras offered on the DVD). The second time through, a few years later, I just found it enormously sad. The Friedmans themselves are the authors in many ways, of course, of their own implosion, or certainly its portrayal—literally so, in the fetish they embrace for relentlessly taping, filming, shooting, and otherwise recording practically every aspect of their lives, which is instrumental in making this documentary the richly varied and overwhelming viewing experience that it is. But that doesn't make them so different from many mid-century American families, who will recognize the fashions and styles and even the technologies of the documentation throughout. What makes the Friedmans different is that two of their members were accused of horrific crimes of child sexual abuse (which, in close examination, even Superman with all his strange alien superpowers granted by the yellow sun would have been hard pressed to accomplish, were he so inclined)—and more so, the twist of the knife of this tragic story, that one of them could all too easily be painted as psychologically capable of them, though likely never took the action, certainly not as alleged by police. The one indulgence Jarecki allows himself here, in an otherwise admirable job of walking a journalistic tightrope, is that he doesn't always manage to mask his contempt for the authorities and accusers, who frequently come across as the ignorant buffoons and petty attention-seeking lunatics (approximately respectively) that one is forced to conclude they must be. Stories like the one this tells are likely to become only more numerous and more and more widely understood for what they are with the passage of time. And, yes, of course there is a website for more information; with this family, how could there not be?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

"Downbound Train" Immediately following the "future of rock 'n' roll" covers of "Time" and "Newsweek" in 1975, little old contrarian me settled into long-term resistance to Bruce Springsteen—Born to Run, the many pleasures of Darkness at the Edge of Town, "Because the Night," the "Street Hassle" cameo, and the outstanding high points of The River all notwithstanding. But his best and most popular album finally won me over. Following the model of Thriller or Rumours, it was a giant hit-making factory unto itself, eventually spawning some seven of them, all top 10. Some people, including little old contrarian me in some cases, would consider that a bug rather than a feature (hi Alanis!), but the sounds herein are so joyful, forthright, authentic, and stirring that I just don't know how anyone can resist it, and certainly I couldn't, especially after hearing it spread so persistently far and wide. I suppose I could do without the title song, which never really gets off the ground, or even up from the floor, too busy reveling in its bombast. And of my favorites here, the story of the birth of rock 'n' roll distilled to intuitional essence in the 1-2-3-4 of "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," "Downbound Train," and "I'm on Fire," only the last successfully made its way to radio. I found out later that I actually worked into this album essentially the way it was recorded, across gaps over the space of a couple of years, by vinyl LP sides, absorbing the first first (lifting the needle over the first track). The second side, while its sound is more generally coherent, more pure E Street Band, at least in its '80s incarnation, came to me more in pieces assembling—the plainspoken courage of "No Surrender," the poignance of "Bobby Jean," the silly but affecting baseball pathos of "Glory Days," the poise and muscle of "Dancing in the Dark," until finally the sad elegy of "My Hometown" worked its way in too and erected a home in some suburban development of my heart, where it and the whole album resides still in a kind of timeless glow. It's one for the ages.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Studies in Murder (1924)

By my calculations, Edmund Lester Pearson was 12 and living in Newburyport, Massachusetts, less than 100 miles away, at the time of the murders in Fall River for which Lizzie Borden was accused. The murders obviously made an impression on him. They are not only the subject of the longest and most detailed piece, "The Borden Case," in this first collection of crime accounts by the meticulous librarian, but are mentioned in the other pieces here as well—and, if I understand correctly, come up frequently in his other collections, most of which are unfortunately out of print and not readily available, and indeed were the subject once again of his last book. As with the Scotsman William Roughead, of the late 19th century, the New Englander Pearson is a gifted amateur criminologist with a knack for thoroughness, relentlessly uncovering the relevant documents, reading them closely, and then telling the tales straightforwardly and politely, arguably glossing some of the unpleasantness but never shying from communicating the realities. It's the kind of thing, bowing to tender sensibilities of the reader, that most crime journalists of the past 50 years or so don't bother with any longer—in fact, the shocking and the lurid is pretty much what they unfailingly play to. Pearson picks his cases carefully, with an eye for those that remain most mystifying, either in terms of whodunit itself or, more interestingly, in terms of the motivations that produced or could have justified them. He proceeds smartly, with a deceptively soothing, studious tone that relentlessly examines everything in reach. The Borden murders would appear to stand as Pearson's ur-example. It's not hard to see that Lizzie Borden, in her early 30s at the time, has to be considered the most likely perp, though she was acquitted by a jury and remained in Fall River until her death in her 60s. It's not even hard to see, at least on some basic level that accepts the degree of fury against one's parents in the first place, what may have motivated her. What is most unsettling, however, and what seems to affect Pearson most about it, though he never quite expresses it so explicitly, is how perfectly forces of the universe seem to align and conspire in order to make the case against her such a difficult one—all circumstantial, and thus so eternally strangely allusive and indeterminate for such a savage crime, committed on a lovely summer midday in a house full of people coming and going.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sticky Fingers (1971)

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking" With the studio album before it (Let it Bleed) and the one after it (Exile on Main Street) making a virtually seamless Himalyan peak of an already impressive career—outdoing themselves at every level, put it that way—this comes with a pedigree you can take straight to the bank. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, it's the most relaxed and rollicking of the three. The various pleasures arrive fast, deep, and manifold: The original cover, designed by Andy Warhol, which famously came with a functioning zipper. A raunchy #1 hit in "Brown Sugar." A minor hit in the ultimately affecting "Wild Horses." A woulda-shoulda-coulda hit in "Bitch," which likely failed even the attempt by virtue of the title. Naughty Stones! The outré drama of heroin addiction of "Sister Morphine" (somewhat overplayed, or is it really a joke?). More ridiculous drama in "Dead Flowers," the Altamont song; more tuff-style rockin' in the cover "You Gotta Move." But the absolute peak for me is the elaborate "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," which starts as one of their more effective rave-ups (and they have always been good with the rave-ups) and then turns with almost no warning into an atmospheric Junior Walker by way of War kind of rhythm & blues-inflected essay at jazz, complete with congas, chattering tenor sax, and guitar solo straight out of Blind Faith, courtesy Mick Taylor. Try that, Beatles. Oh, that's right, your career was over by then.