Sunday, February 27, 2011

Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science (2005)

M.G. Lord's memoir provides a mostly straightforward yet affecting account of growing up in the southern California household of a rocket scientist, her father, and of the highly funded federal agency that employed him. During the '60s, her father worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena and was involved, among other projects, with the Mariners Mars 69 mission. He was a decidedly minor figure among the many thousands who have made the U.S. space exploration efforts what they are on the world historical stage, but he was there, participating and contributing. As a father, not altogether surprisingly, he was abstracted and distant, even cold, absorbed in the work. This family dynamic was typical of its time and place but further exacerbated by the early death of Lord's mother from cancer. As Lord describes it, the household atmosphere grew insufferably claustrophobic after her mother's death as her father withdrew further and further into his work; eventually she left for college, a normal point of growing up that felt to her like fleeing. Her own studies and interests led her to cultural history; her first book, which was well reviewed, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, chronicled the origins and career of the well-known Mattel doll. Thus, her training and natural instincts, in combination with her life experiences, see her approaching her memoir almost as a journalist, carefully detailing a history of JPL and the significant milestones of scientific/technological history associated with it along with incidental effects of sexism, overt and covert, woven through, effectively constructing a context from which she can limn the broader outlines of her and her father's lives. In a work environment that worried as a matter of policy about letting women who were menstruating handle sensitive electronic equipment, it's almost inevitable that Lord is going to find ample opportunity for discussion of feminist issues, and how they ultimately came to shape and define not only her father, but herself as well. Lingering resentments are equally inevitable, but Lord attacks her project with clarity and balance, shuttling expertly back and forth between the personal and the institutional. She illustrates where she is coming from at every step, and one never gets the sense that anything about this is indulgent or "therapeutic," which makes it the best kind of memoir. Never cloying, always fact-filled and engaging and insightful, one comes away from it with a broader sense of an industry and a time in place in history, and most important, yet subtly so, of the person who is telling you the story.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Potyomkin, USSR, 75 minutes, silent
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Writers: Nina Agadzhanova, Nikolai Aseyev, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Sergei Tretyakov
Photography: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov
Editors: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Ivan Bobrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Aleksandr Levshin, N. Poltavseva, Konstantin Feldman, Prokopenko, A. Glauberman, Beatrice Vitoldi

Critical consensus over the long decades has secured the position of Battleship Potemkin even still as not only the greatest Russian (or Soviet Union) film ever made, but the greatest silent picture as well. Thus, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which this could well turn out to be the most disappointing movie you have ever seen.

Even as recently as last month, Andrew O'Hehir at Salon could be found raving about a painstaking new restoration that includes a re-recording of the original score by Edmund Meisel (full disclosure: I am writing based on an older print obtained via Netflix with an incidental Shostakovich score). "For better or worse," he writes, taking a calculated position that flies in the face of the movie's daunting academic credentials, "this film's true revolutionary legacy is not art cinema but Hollywood; it's got a lot more in common with Tony Scott's Unstoppable than it does with Andrei Tarkovsky."

Whoa up, Bucky. The point might be arguable in terms of film history, but its suggestion is fairly misleading. Let's not forget that perhaps no other film, until Citizen Kane came into its own, has been so over-praised, over-celebrated, and, ultimately, overrated. I'm here to tell you that it's still fans of Tarkovsky who have the better chance of extracting pleasure from Battleship Potemkin than fans of Unstoppable. And I'd be willing to bet the house on that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

1999 (1982)

How time flies—already it's fast closing in on as many years since 1999 (12) as it was until then (17) when this album, the big commercial breakthrough for Prince, came out. Do you remember (or, in the Norwegian, "husker du"?)? With only a few more songs here than on either of the two albums that immediately preceded it, he went ahead and took all of four vinyl album sides to spread them across, which puts the average time per song well north of six minutes. Which makes his celebration of the actual street date in "All the Critics Love U in New York" at least a little suspect: "It's time 4 a new direction It's time 4 jazz 2 die," he breathlessly declares. "4th day of November We need a purple high"—isn't the usual complaint about jazz that it goes on too damn long? Never mind. If the offerings here tend toward the scattershot and uneven, with notable padding along the way (for the dancing, I guess), it doesn't mean you won't find love in spite of all misgivings. There's no one best side, and at least one clunker or dull patch for each, but there are also some very fine high points. The title song alone stood as an enduring party staple for years (if not decades, if not still). "Little Red Corvette" was the first big hit, so insinuating and seductive that John Cougar (nee/later Mellencamp) reportedly stopped mid-concert to play it on a boombox for his audiences at the time. (Note that Sandra Bernhard's later, mocking cover made it all too apparent that you don't want to pay close attention to the words, however.) My own favorites, "Let's Pretend We're Married," "Lady Cab Driver," and "All the Critics Love U in New York," are bursting with energy and/or great moments and/or attitude and/or pure dance groove and/or charming perverse weirdness. All through everything here are hints of the freakshow behind it, random announcements and other interruptions with messages, such as the opening to the whole thing, a robotic voice in front of the title song that tells us, apropos of nothing, "Don't worry, I won't hurt U. I only want U 2 have some fun." Or, elsewhere, "Whatever U heard about me is true / I change the rules and do what I wanna do." Or, at the end of "D.M.S.R.," a terrified girl inexplicably calling for help. What's that? Oh, and hippies on board once again as well, this time all singing together, "Ooh-we-sha-sha-coo-coo-yeah."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Great Gatsby (1925)

I don't think it's possible to overstate the value and pleasure of this slender novel. Set quite deliberately in 1922, written mostly in 1923, and published in 1925, it was as contemporary to its times, the so-called "Roaring '20s," as it could be. It so completely occupied them, in fact, that it came to practically overwhelm them. It packs in everything: the psychic fallout from World War I, the shallow mania for wealth, the widespread ongoing exodus from country to city, Prohibition and the gangsters it spawned, the rise of the automobile, and all of the hysteria and desperation and foolishness and exhilaration. The main points may now be found in an image on a U.S. postage stamp from 1998, but the emotional realities are detailed expertly in this novel. As a work of literature, it is at once so subtle and so complex that it has proved almost entirely resistant to conversion to film—Baz Luhrmann is reportedly the latest to give it the old college try, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan along for the ride. Good luck with that. They are the right names, I will say, or right enough, and if the picture is almost certainly doomed to failure I'm looking forward at least to a resurgence of interest in the book that it may engender, as I recall the failed attempt in 1974 of Jack Clayton and Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston accomplishing too. That's when the book first came to my attention anyway, and how I came to encounter this strange story of a man so quotidian, so mundane, and yet so extraordinarily obsessed with an incident in his past that he enters into the times with the sole intent of amassing a fortune he can use to enable him to attempt to recapture it. And the times happened to be right for him to do exactly that. Fitzgerald was a writer who plied his trade almost entirely by instinct, using the expedient tool of English language dedicated to varieties of fantastic and ineffable throughlines. His work is unified in the way it is all mad with romance, drunk on it, rich with extravagant notions and presumptuous images. It could be awful, lugubrious and indulgent and tin-eared and grossly misunderstanding of the terms of life for many. But when he caught the thrum of something vital, and nowhere did he do that better than he does here, he was capable of an almost monstrous beauty. In its language, its structure, its deceptively modest goals and its approach to the problems of the novel, it is almost perfect, with an uncanny ability to transform a lovely story, almost as if by accident—except that, by everything we know about the ambitions of Fitzgerald, it was anything but an accident—into one of the most profound observations of America that exists yet even today.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

USA, 103 minutes
Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed
Choreography: Gene Kelly
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Douglas Fowley, Millard Mitchell, Cyd Charisse, Rita Moreno

It's interesting how some of the best Hollywood movies of the early '50s—thinking specifically of this and 1950's Sunset Blvd. but several others fit the bill as well—seized the moment to look back acidly on the transition of the industry from silents to talkies. That's the story here, set in the late '20s, as Donald Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (played nicely as Judy Holliday send-up by Jean Hagen), a beloved Hollywood couple of the grand era, are forced to confront the coming realities of sound.

But wait a minute, does the plot here even matter at all? Singin' in the Rain backfills its narrative with any number of clever ways to show how film technology continually failed everyone in those times—most notably, of course, jarringly wrong voices emanating from beloved faces, but taking on as well the necessity for static microphones on set, troubles such as the incidental sounds inevitably captured, precarious synchronization, and words that worked on title cards failing miserably as dialogue. But the answer to that question remains decidedly no. The plot doesn't matter here in the least.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Controversy (1981)

Prince's follow-up to Dirty Mind is pretty much where I found myself getting fully on board the project (along with the Time's second release, the comedy album What Time Is It?). Controversy doesn't add much to the turf staked out in the previous album, but digs in and makes clear he's in it to win it, whatever the hell "it" was. The title song, in fact, sounds remarkably in form like the title song for Dirty Mind, but with the expedient addition of an unexpurgated Lord's Prayer at the bridge, intoned with all due solemnity over a pulsing beat and powered up by funk guitar. The track that impressed me most and brought me full into the fold was "Sexuality," a pinpoint-perfect exercise that revs up and works out like a finely tuned machine. I learned the throwaways by heart, and came to believe that once you have the timing to them down, to the point that your voice is indistinguishable from Prince's as you chant along, that you become, for those few moments, Prince himself (interestingly, the same effect may also obtain with Buddy Holly): "We live in a world overrun by tourists. Tourists—89 flowers on their back. Inventors of the Accu-jack. They look at life through a pocket camera. What? No flash again? They're all a bunch of double drags who teach their kids that love is bad. Half of the staff of their brain is on vacation." And later this lovely admonishing mot: "What's to be expected is three minus three. Absolutely nothing." This album comes in closer to 40 minutes than 30, but with the same number of songs as the last, which meant only that Prince was letting himself stretch out—trying to avoid the word "indulgent" here—a foreshadowing of what was to come next. Controversy is anything but even across its offerings. I could do without "Do Me Baby," "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," "Annie Christian," or "Jack U Off," and already that's half the tracks. Even when the album was a full-on daily obsession it involved a lot of lifting and moving of the needle. Then again, "Controversy," "Ronnie, Talk to Russia," and "Annie Christian" all evince a bracing willingness not just to flout convention but to outright attack it, in a style that seemed, anyway, to find its sources in the hippie ethos of the '60s. Who was this guy? Why was he saying and doing the things he did? And where was it all headed? Most importantly, damn, that's some fine funk.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I Married a Dead Man (1948)

I frequently see Cornell Woolrich touted as essential, and by a wide variety of sources. But he's not much like the figures of the crime genre with whom he is often mentioned, Dashiell Hammett or Erle Stanley Gardner or Raymond Chandler. A devotee of F. Scott Fitzgerald, flirting with mainstream literary credibility in the early stages of his career, Woolrich's prose style often tends toward a leaden floridity that's easy to get bogged down in. But this novel, found in the first Robert Polito Library of America volume, has sent me scurrying back for a reconsideration. Woolrich became one of those mid-20th century writers so prolific that he resorted to publishing some of his work under pseudonyms to get it out more quickly. I Married a Dead Man, published originally as by William Irish, can be fairly characterized as a flavor of "woman's story," a big purple aching melodrama, at least as much as a crime story. It tells the story of Helen Georgesson, a city transplant, 19 and pregnant and abandoned by her cad boyfriend, who is returning by train to her hometown to have her baby and face the shame. On the train she meets a happy newlywed couple, recently eloped, Hugh and Patrice Hazzard. They had met while Hugh was in the service, and now they are on their way to visit his family, whom Patrice will be meeting for the first time. Hugh and Patrice are warm and friendly with Helen. Shortly before bed, as the sleepers are being turned down, Helen and Patrice have an intimate conversation in the bathroom. Patrice lets Helen try on her wedding ring, and then, suddenly: TRAIN WRECK! When Helen wakes up she finds herself in a hospital, her care paid for by the Hazzard family, who believe she is Patrice, widow of Hugh. Helen goes with the flow, adopts the identity of Patrice, and various complications ensue, including, eventually, the cad boyfriend showing up to blackmail her. It's not much of a crime, as crimes in crime fiction go, but it's a delicious complication of a situation, made more so by the wealth of the Hazzard family and the feelings that Helen begins to develop for them and for her new life with them, materially comfortable but emotionally precarious. The Fitzgerald influence is still clearly in evidence, with great swaths of pretty writing often but not always entirely under Woolrich's control. The pleasures of the thing are on every page, however, and it's easy enough to allow oneself simply to be swept up in the swirling tides and undercurrents of a surprisingly powerful story.

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Seven Samurai (1954)

Shichinin no samurai, Japan, 207 minutes
Director/editor: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Photography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Daisuke Kato, Isao Kimura, Minoru Chiaki, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Inaba, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kokuten Kodo, Keiji Sakakida, Shinpei Takagi, Haruko Toyama

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was probably even more revolutionary to popular Japanese cinema and the samurai culture on which it is based than it proved to be ultimately to world art film—and it has been a pretty big deal in those circles. Made shortly after the end of the American occupation following World War II, during which samurai films had been virtually banned for their democracy-undermining messages, Kurosawa practically reinvented the form for a new time, one that corresponded with his own brief period of optimism about the fate of the Japanese and more broadly about humanity itself.

Where once samurai culture had concerned itself with accomplished warriors of honor owing debts of fealty to feudal lords, Kurosawa repositioned the historical focus from their glory years of the 17th and 18th centuries to the time just before that, in the late 16th century, the Sengoku period, known as an era of constant civil wars. With this one stroke—augmented, to be sure, by many dozen more shrewd decisions in the composition of the story and in the filmmaking itself—Kurosawa found the key that enabled him to make one of the richest, most deeply involving epic tales ever concocted, one that has lost nary a jot of its power in the nearly 60 years since its release.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Consideration for a Michael Mann Remake of The Searchers

(This is my contribution to the Michael Mann Blogathon hosted Feb. 7-14, 2011, at Seeti Maar- Diary of a Movie Lover.)

It's notably outlandish even to speculate on the prospect of Michael Mann attempting some species of reboot of John Ford's classic John Wayne western, The Searchers. For one thing, Mann has shown remarkably little interest in the western genre for a director so preoccupied otherwise with hypermasculine material (crime, cops, gangsters, boxing, things blowing up). About the closest he's ever come was 1992's Last of the Mohicans, which misses the target era by well over a century, not to mention the target geography by a good 1,500 miles.

Nor does he seem the type to take such a flier at one of the most formidably established and canonized of all films. Maybe Jim McBride and Breathless. Maybe Alfonso Arau and The Magnificent Ambersons on the A&E channel. Maybe even Gus Van Sant and Psycho. But Michael Mann and The Searchers? Never.

Think of this, then, in the nature of a thought experiment.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Dirty Mind (1980)

Prince's critical breakthrough album did not arrive entirely from out of a vacuum. Having somehow won a major label contract as an unknown 20-year-old he already had two creditable lite-funk wanna-sex-you-up LPs under his belt (For You and Prince). But this, from the front cover image—a black and white shot of him in bikini briefs, tailcoat, bandana, skeevy 'stache, and little else—to the abrupt shift in tone in the closing seconds of the last song, "Partyup" ("U're gonna have 2 fight your own damn war / 'Cos we don't wanna fight no more!"), was something a little different. Lying about his age (he claimed to be two years younger), but not about his name (which actually is Prince Rogers Nelson), and proudly claiming his home turf of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the main agenda is plain enough from the titles alone: "Dirty Mind," "Do it All Night," "Head," "Sister," the latter of which is about incest, but ludicrously so, and at any rate lasts just a minute and a half (I think he maybe considered it a punk-rock song). This is why the closing hippie chant caused whiplash to those unprepared. It's simple enough to be preoccupied with sex, but here it appears to be just the equivalent of the carnival barker come-on. The real show, inside the tent, was a funk-rock sound absolutely stripped to the bone, keyboards, guitar, rhythm section, and a lilting falsetto that could swell up and swallow a song inside of a scream. He favored the rock guitar more than the typical funkster (all due respect to Eddie Hazel) and seemed prone to deck out the proceedings with surprising new wave flourishes. Most importantly, he was no slouch as a songwriter—this is the album with "When You Were Mine," which probably qualifies at this point as a rock standard, about the last thing you would expect from this album. In fact, this album is full of last things you would expect from this album. He took the whole thing home to Minneapolis and brought it to the stage in June 1980, appearing with nascent fragments of his band the Revolution, most of whom dressed shockingly in scattered pieces of lingerie, except for the one appearing as a surgeon. The album may have clocked in at a scant 30 minutes, the show not much longer, but nobody felt cheated. Already there was a sense that he had plenty more where this came from.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Mildred Pierce (1941)

You could fit both of James Cain's first two novels inside of this one, and still have room left over for a good chunk of his third. It's a funny thing when a writer's work starts feeling expansive when a novel comes in at 300 pages, but that's the thing about Cain. With the preternatural compression and determined hard-nosed flint of those first two, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Cain went to supernatural lengths to remove the inessential. He's still pretty hardcore hard-boiled here in his fourth, but as the title alone would seem to indicate, this is more a self-conscious attempt at a "woman's story"—sardonic parody, straight-up melodrama, or otherwise—and so even though there's enough mayhem and cruelty to satisfy any aficionado of crime fiction, there are shades and nuance of emotion and a parade of sticky relationships as well. Those things require time and space to develop, hence the comparative War and Peace scope. I was familiar first with the classic Joan Crawford vehicle directed by Michael Curtiz. But I see now that typically enough a lot of blunting and elision was required to get the story whittled down to a two-hour feature (unlike the productions based on Cain's first two, which are practically straight lifts). (I am looking forward, let me add quickly, to the Mildred Pierce mini-series scheduled to arrive late next month on HBO, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet, which I think from its scope has a better chance of successfully hewing closer to the novel.) I was surprised at Cain's ability here to strike a relaxed tone and let events unspool more deliberately, as the complications ripen naturally. The Crawford movie is starkly black and white in more ways than one; I recall the central relationship between Mildred Pierce and her daughter as fairly clearly defined. One is bad and one is not. While much of that dynamic comes from the novel, the situation in toto is infinitely more complex, even starting with its surprising grasp of the difficulties confronting women who need to earn a living and want to be successful about it, particularly in those times. Cain's voice here reminds me more of hale and hearty American bonhomie, more Sinclair Lewis than Dashiell Hammett—though, to be sure, Cain as always remains an original. The shift in tone suits the material better, setting up the gut punches more effectively rather than telegraphing and continually attempting to top them. In his first two novels Cain delivers a gnawing sense of doom from the first sentences forward. Here, he dresses up that sense of doom inside pretty wrapping paper of ordinary American lives, simple hopes, and the bravado of cheer. Open the package, it's still pretty dark in there.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Searchers (1956)

USA, 119 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Frank S. Nugent, Alan Le May
Photography: Winton C. Hoch
Music: Max Steiner
Editor: Jack Murray
Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan

I have to admit this has always been fairly an acquired taste for me, as John Ford has tended to be generally, and westerns too for that matter. And while I'm at it I better note also that I have little appreciation for John Wayne either—entirely overrated, I think, by a generation who saw some ideal of manliness in his grouchy, laconic contempt for everyone and everything that falls within the orbit of his characters. I'll grant that he's an icon, for what that's worth—because how could I not?—but for me he is an annoying, one-note figure whose various achievements, such as they are, are mostly a matter of someone else knowing how to erect a setting for him.

Certainly that's what we have here, a crafty piece of work that is always beautiful to look at, often astonishingly so, with a strange, darkly stirring, and disturbing story. Yet it's almost fatally out of balance with itself, frequently harsh or lumbering in its details and with broad swaths of cringe-inducing humor—routinely belittling ethnic minorities, abusing "squaws," offering up grotesquely cornpone accents, and when all else fails going to the yuk of last resort, butt hurts—which unfortunately swamp the many admirable subtleties of Ford's obvious gifts for economical and visual storytelling.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-1965)

In the recent countdown exercise of hit songs I occasionally found myself chastised for various exclusions, inclusions, and perceived mistakes in emphasis, none of which particularly surprised me. I mean, 100 seems like a pretty big number, but it's finite, and I know already I'm a bit of a crank anyway. But in retrospect shutting out Chuck Berry seemed weird even to me, so I made a point of revisiting this essential collection of the best of his best. No question, this is the cream: the virtual invention of perhaps better than half of the most familiar rock 'n' roll guitar licks, Berry's guitar playing itself, clean and punchy, often underrated or forgotten, and of course his endless sly and biting wit, the winking, knowing references to staples of teen life (which sadly metastasized in his late visit to the charts, 1972's "My Ding-a-Ling," his biggest hit but thankfully not included here). On this latter score I think he is most underrated—"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" alone, the deeply coded mid-'50s assessment of the state of racial relations, demonstrates that he pretty much always knows what he is saying and saying exactly what he means, e.g., "Arrested on charges of unemployment" (although the song distractingly doesn't appear to understand some of the most basic terminology used in the game of baseball, or maybe I'm missing something?). Some of the tracks leaping out at me on this tour have included "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Come On," almost perfect expressions of exasperation about the hassles of life. "Havana Moon" has a spooky stripped-down sound. "Beautiful Delilah" features a hilariously brisk, practically harried piano tinkling in a distant background. "Oh Baby Doll" is upbeat and on the attack. And what do you know, some of the hits sound as fresh and bracing as ever too, notably, at this moment, "School Days." To make it the complete package, there's even a mystifying omission—1964's "You Never Can Tell." But I would be less than honest if I didn't also mention the gulches of familiarity into which my car of pleasure drove as well, the places where maybe I need to accept that I have used up my lifetime supply now: "Maybellene," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock  & Roll Music," "Johnny B. Goode," so on and so forth. Is it possible to do anything about this? Does it even matter? Sometimes context may take a role—even what I like here usually sounds tired on the radio. Maybe judicious use in movie scenes might wake some of them up for me again? At any rate, I have to think those new to Chuck Berry can still hear them with the same delights I once found, even if that pool of listeners is likely shrinking all the time, inevitably hearing first the ever-increasing ancient oldness before anything else. And if I don't exactly feel the thrills still myself, at least I still have clear memories of them, "cruisin' and playin' the radio." Maybe hauling out the old shibboleths and saying nothing else is the best idea after all. Rock 'n' roll it will never die!