Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Art Pepper, "Brown Gold" (1952)


Another gift, and one I can be more gracious talking about than the last one. The album was Black California, a double-LP anthology of somewhat disparate '40s and '50s session work featuring Sonny Criss, early Eric Dolphy, Slim Gaillard—including his redoubtable "Dunkin' Bagel" ("splash! in the coffee")—Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Helen Humes, and others. My favorite side was the one that had four by alto-sax player Pepper with piano-player Hawes as a sideman, followed by four more from a Hawes trio. All smooth as silk, with lovely dynamics and potent forward momentum. An easy habit to play every day. I was so smitten with "Brown Gold," which opened the side, I once declared that when I owned a home I would wire up the doorbell to play it so I would always be in a good mood when someone dropped in, even unexpectedly. And I meant it. That never happened, of course—things like that rarely do—and in fact time has worn away my keenest appreciation of it a little. Not that it doesn't still sound pretty good. It does. It's spry and nimble as ever. And it introduced me to Pepper and incidentally to Hawes. I still like Pepper a lot and you can hear most of the reasons why here: a neat, clean reading of a jaunty melody, a plain and effective arrangement, and nicely crafted solos on the breaks—lyrical, jumpy, rolling, and confident, and all done in two and a half minutes nothing overstays its welcome. In fact, if anything, this applies an old show-biz adage well, "Always leave them wanting more." It worked. I find myself still gathering up Pepper and Hawes material as I find it, and when I'm in the mood nothing else will do.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Double Indemnity (1944)

#33: Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Billy Wilder's breakthrough Hollywood hit features a lot of things I am prepared to like no questions asked: Wilder himself, one of my favorite directors; a literary property from James M. Cain, my favorite hard-boiled crime fiction writer; and Barbara Stanwyck, one of my favorite actors of the period. It doesn't hurt that Fred MacMurray and Raymond Chandler, both of whom had to be talked into their participation and hand-held through it, are on board this project as well.

A lot of movies from Body Heat to Blade Runner to Breathless get characterized as "film noir," a slippery term for something that doesn't even appear to aspire to genre status, but is rather more like a stylistic overlay. People can be fanatical about it. It typically involves elements such as a stark, expressionistic use of black and white, heavy on the angled shadows; characters who are lost in their own depraved greed and/or lust; a black widow femme fatale that is sure to be the end of everything; and the good old unfeeling universe. Double Indemnity: Check, check, check, and check.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Stranded (1979)

The first time I read this was across a handful of sessions standing in various college bookstores, too poor at the time (or maybe too cheap) to pay for a copy. Revisiting it recently I didn't like it nearly as much. Editor Greil Marcus's chatty and expansive epilogue—which directly contravenes the strictures imposed on everyone else—remains the star of the thing. Entitled "Treasure Island," it's a 50-page list of favorites, alphabetized. For the main corpus, by contrast, Marcus has asked his correspondents to select the one album they would take with them to a desert island, presumably for a very long stay. For the exercise he has rounded up many of the usual suspects of the time: Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Simon Frith, Nick Tosches, Ellen Willis, and so on. Each, in his (mostly) or her way, does a yeoman's job of attempting to rise to the occasion and stand in at the plate. The ghost of DH Dave Kingman broods over the results: walks, strikeouts, and occasional homeruns. I was most impressed this time with Langdon Winner on Trout Mask Replica and, as always, Ellen Willis on the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks is pretty well undeniable too. In general there is a lot of muzzy breast-beating with regard to the concept and various ways to cheat it and hack ways around it and get cute with it (Dave Marsh: "Onan's Greatest Hits"), alternating with earnest defense-attorney closing arguments at trial (Ariel Swartley on The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle). Whether they are over-sincere or overly worked they mostly seemed tedious. And once again, damn, I want Greil Marcus's job. That's half the fun of reading his epilogue, which is pure self-indulgence done somehow so artlessly as to be perfectly charming, not to mention compulsively readable. From Johnny Ace, Russian roulette victim, to the Zurvans, "Close the Book" (End). Release date unknown, he's having such a ball you can't help but wanting to do a version yourself. And don't let me get in your way. I would love to read more of these kinds of broad-sweeping surveys of the music, and from any vantage, not just 1979.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Trouble in Paradise (1983)

For his first LP of the '80s (seventh overall), Randy Newman appeared to be traveling with enough cachet to attract quite the impressive stable of hands to help out: Lindsey Buckingham, Don Henley, Rickie Lee Jones, Christine McVie, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Jennifer Warnes, and you get the idea. I bet they had a hell of a party. The production is buffed to the point that you can almost see your reflection in the gloss; even Wikipedia notes the loss of some of Newman's folk and country bent, replaced with keyboards and drum machines. If "Mikey's" is any indication, Newman hates himself for that. But the point of view of the singers in his songs never amounts to shit, does it? Trouble in Paradise is filled with songs that are equal parts novelty, broad plays for big laffs, and marvels of the school of tasty production, with a couple dreary ballads dotted through—all steeped in his usual dry, sly, and wry wit that verges on the caustically bitter, a stance we have come to know well. The style roams considerably from track to track and across the totality of the album. There aren't any outright homeruns, but a lot of base hits. I declare "My Life Is Good" as the funniest song (narrowly beating out the backing vocals on "I'm Different"), a riff on the privileged yuppie in his native environs, complete with name-dropping fantasy of Bruce Springsteen asking for some help of his own ("Ran, I'm tired, how would you like to be the Boss for awhile?"). It's also the easiest target, more or less. Well, wait a minute, Capetown, in "Christmas in Capetown," may be easier, beating Newman's familiar territory of the racist attitudes that will not go away. It's also possessed of the loveliest moment here, when the song abruptly swoons into the chorus. "Mikey's" may be the single most obvious cry for help of the curmudgeon trapped in the future, a zigzagging and robotic parody of New Wave four years late: "Whatever happened to the fucking 'Duke of Earl'?," he, or the singer, implores. And there are not one but two modest anthems about two emblematic American cities—Los Angeles and Miami. For me, start to finish, all things considered, and applying judicial prudence, it's a really solid set.

Friday, May 25, 2012

M (1931)

Germany, 109 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Egon Jacobson, Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang
Photography: Fritz Amo Wagner
Editor: Paul Falkenberg
Cast: Peter Lorre, Otto Wernicke, Gustav Grundgens, Ellen Widman

Back when I started watching late-night movies on broadcast television, shortly after getting out of high school, this seemed like a natural—I loved Peter Lorre from his iconic supporting roles in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, and I appreciated Fritz Lang particularly for Metropolis, which I read about avidly and eventually had the opportunity to see at a nostalgia film club in the suburb where I grew up. That film club occupied the space above a storefront, furnished with folding chairs and a tiny screen, and it showed Max Fleischer cartoons and old movies in 16-millimeter—Freaks, Reefer Madness, White Zombie, and, eventually, M, which by that time had assumed something of the role of a holy grail for me.

Thus I have to count M as the most disappointing movie I have ever seen, an experience I replicated a couple more times (for purposes of verification as much as anything) over the decades. More than once it has worked as a soporific on me, literally putting me to sleep. I've come to have more appreciation for it—the commentary track by Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler in the Criterion DVD was helpful in pointing out its many virtues on my most recent look at it—but it remains one that frankly mystifies me. It seems so promising with Lorre and Lang and especially with all its accolades: greatest German movie of all time (according to the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?), "the best of all serial-killer movies" (Jonathan Rosenbaum), and way high on any number of lists of greatest pictures.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Odds, "Wendy Under the Stars" (1991)


The adolescence of this runs to strange depths, in more ways than one, a few a bit over-aged and vaguely unpleasant (warbling adenoidally about "an older woman's well-banked fire"). But I love the way it figuratively yodels, throws a lasso, and hauls in the king of rock 'n' roll, Elvis Presley, to appear in a supporting role as the specter of death playing opposite virgin sex. Something like that appealed to Greil Marcus, who went on about it in vintage fashion in Dead Elvis: "'Wendy Under the Stars' began circulating on homemade cassettes in 1990, and it offered a spirit no one had ever before caught even for a moment.... The tune was recorded on a Sunday, in a Christian Music studio that was closed to Christians on the Sabbath; a TV played in the background, up and down—you can hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner'.... [Elvis] enters the two bodies, guides them, seals the act with his presence—it's what he would have wanted—and the boy and the woman must rise to his promise. He's a succubus and an angel. The sense of betrayal one hears in the first punk songs about Elvis—the fury at him for not being who he said he was, the fury at his being, finally, so ordinary as to die—shifts now: it has taken thirteen years for the anger that powered so many good songs to change into the plainspoken awe of a better one." Well, I'm not sure the song really supports the weight of all that. But it is the presence of Elvis that makes it, and it's certainly a good deal more than simple coming of age.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Boogie Nights (1997)

#34: Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

Since Hard Eight, his first feature in 1996, P.T. Anderson has pretty well made himself a force to be reckoned with. The only one I haven't liked so far, Magnolia, still gets talked up in so many surprising ways by so many surprising people that I think I probably need to see it again (it's the Biblical claptrap that tends to put me off). There Will Be Blood may yet become my favorite, with all the powerful currents animating it, but I've only seen it once.

That leaves Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights, both of which I like a lot, but I'm going to go with Boogie Nights. It thrums with infectious energy and a heedless, fanatical style of moviemaking. It proceeds almost like a novel, telling the stories chapter by chapter of a handful of players in and around the Southern California porn industry, neatly capturing the transition from the brief post-Deep Throat period in the '70s that was marked by pretensions of art to the era of quickie video productions for the backroom VHS storefront market. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003)

As its title would appear to imply, this is a strange and fascinating hybrid of literary criticism and political/personal memoir, essentially detailing life for Azar Nafisi, a professor of literature and a woman, but most significantly an Iranian living through the Islamic revolution of 1979 and its aftermath. The operating frame here is that Nafisi has created a reading group, which she calls a "class," that meets in her home weekly to discuss various landmarks of Western (and Persian) literature, most of them at least tacitly marginalized by Iranian Islamic authorities: Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Henry James, Jane Austen, and others. (It should be noted, while we're on this, that Nabokov's Lolita, for one, is not particularly warmly embraced in many quarters of the decadent West either.) Nafisi skillfully interposes her personal  experience in Iran after 1979 and uses the literature and its themes and the conditions of life in Iran to reflect and enrich and deepen the understanding of one another. The first (and main) hurdle that I had to get over was the shocking level of oppression in Iran. I knew, but I did not know really, until I read this. It's particularly hard on women, of course, who must wear robes and veils in public under penalty of flogging and imprisonment. Women are also restricted from appearing in public with any man who is not her husband, father, brother, or son—also under dire penalties. Nafisi's discussions with her students of the books are lucid and illuminating, and her areas of focus are carefully chosen: the Islamic regime is compared to Humbert Humbert, Jay Gatsby becomes a potent symbol of forbidden individualism, and Henry James and Jane Austen are convincingly exposed as the radicals for human potential that they have always been. The stories of Nafisi's students, and her own eventual emigration to the United States, where she lives now, are full of heartbreaking details, but delivered always with a light touch. As much as my horror of Iranian life was viscerally confirmed, this book also provokes a feverish excitement of reading, a facet of literary criticism that I most deeply appreciate. I kept running to my shelves for more to look at, or look at again, and I finished this surrounded by stacks of books to read, in a pig's heaven.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Free Hand (1975)

This came to me as a gift from a friend when I was about 20 or 21, which if nothing else I guess indicates the kind of gifts we were giving and receiving at the time, back when prog really held sway (if I recall, the gift I gave in exchange was Gravity's Rainbow). Even at the time I was pretty picky about this kind of thing, but I do remember enjoying this album and playing it frequently for awhile. When hanging out with friends playing sides I could well have thrown this on once or twice when it was my turn to choose. A lot of my pals then were plain nutty for Gentle Giant (even more so for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the uber touchstone) and I had heard things by them I liked—I think Octopus probably remains my favorite, though I want to be clear that Gentle Giant was never a band I went for much. But hearing this again I'm actually a little surprised by how much it turns me off. Some prog albums still retain some of their appeals for me sometimes (Tubular Bells), or if nothing else replace that with nostalgia and the various memories that have come to be associated with them (Head Hunters). But Free Hand mostly feels strained and phony to me now, with overly tricky and usually unnecessarily busy rhythms and song structures, and a kind of ambling way of never getting to the point in a five-minute song. It draws a good deal more than I had remembered (or, perhaps, ever properly knew) on British folk idioms, which in my case is not automatically a virtue, certainly not when it's all tarted up and overproduced in this thoroughly affected kind of way. When it tries to make a play for big lights-up rock moments with electric guitars it's even worse. It just feels like arch gesture—by their own choice, I believe, because to actually embrace it would be to drift from the effete smarts on which they clearly pride themselves so inordinately. It's a kind of I-R-O-N-Y. I think I am understanding better all the time why people didn't like music like this even in its moment. Somebody got out of bed on the wrong side this morning.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Les triplettes de Belleville, France/Belgium/Canada/UK, 80 minutes
Director/writer: Sylvain Chomet
Production design: Evgeni Tomov
Art direction: Thierry Million
Music: Benoit Charest
Editors: Dominique Brune, Chantal Colibert Brunner, Dominique Lefever
Cast/voices of: Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin, Monica Viegas, Beatrice Bonifassi, Lina Boudreau, Mari-Lou Gauthier

It's not hard to guess from promotional material such as posters and trailers that The Triplets of Belleville is going to make its bones square in the service of charm and eccentricity, as only animated features can do it. But there's little to prepare one for how deeply weird and ultimately satisfying on that level that it is. It's practically all visuals, music, and sounds, virtually no dialogue whatsoever, and its plot points careen and linger seemingly at random. There's a lot going on for an 80-minute film but it's rarely confusing and never rushed. It is equal parts breathtakingly beautiful, howlingly funny, and weird beyond words.

It signals its essential positions in the opening sequence, a clip from a movie seen on TV, the kind of portmanteau picture of musical acts made more often in the '40s and '50s (with half a foot in a few of the Busby Berkeley musicals of the '30s)—A Song Is Born is one good example, Orchestra Wives is another, and so are some of the '50s rock 'n' roll pictures, such as The Girl Can't Help It—featuring performances by an array of well-known musical acts with a vague narrative dotted through. In the Triplets version it's the opportunity for a series of quick, economical, and amazing set pieces: a topless performance by Josephine Baker, a Fred Astaire routine in which his shoes turn carnivorous and devour him, Django Reinhardt working the frets with his bare foot so he can take a smoke break, and, of course, the Triplets themselves, performing their hit, which is ubiquitous, and ubiquitously well-known, all through this picture, "Belleville Rendez-Vous," a marvel of sleek syncopation and rhythm and harmony. Then the story proper, such as it is, begins.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Womack & Womack, "Baby I'm Scared of You" (1983)


This comes from a terrific concept album, Love Wars, which has always seemed to me much greater than the sum of its parts, a lovely and ingenious suite of songs mostly by husband and wife Cecil and Linda Womack seriously taking on the gritty of long-term commitment to a relationship. Keeping it real. They came with pedigrees too: Cecil is brother to Bobby Womack, who both performed with three more of their brothers as the Valentinos and enjoyed a close association with Sam Cooke. Linda is Sam Cooke's daughter, and Cecil's second wife after Mary Wells. I say the album is greater than the sum of its parts, but "Baby I'm Scared of You" is definitely one of the best parts. It was not only the biggest hit they got out of the album (#34 on the R'n'B chart) but kind of a basic self-contained statement of style and principles for it too. The whole thing takes a minute or two even to start winding up but in the end it's glory all the way to the horizons. A gentle, meandering dance of advance and retreat, gradually stoking its fires until they burn both hot and tender, buoyed by a cracking sharp rhythm section, lush harmonies in the backing vocals, and all the unexpected feints and dodges the music takes in imitation of the dialogue going on here. She doesn't want a Houdini escape artist. He claims to be a magician. She's talking about love and security. He's talking about sex. They are talking past one another in all the ways we know. But they are committed to this thing, connected and locked into it, eye to eye, and the result is a deep groove simmered over 5:38 that ends up delivering on everything: warm, loving, and sexy, as pure an expression of the joy of connection as I know. The whole album plays like this multiplied by a few times.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)

#35: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Werner Herzog may be most famous for his all-out gonzo approach to filmmaking. He once hauled a steamship over a steep hill in Peru in order to make a historical movie (Fitzcarraldo) about hauling a steamship over a steep hill in Peru. (Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, is nearly as entertaining.) That kind of thing is at play in Aguirre, but Herzog demonstrates a lot of skill and economy in putting together a story that feels very big in little more than 90 minutes.

Built out of long shots of the cast in full Spanish 16th-century conquistadore regalia trudging though a jungle (Peru again), a dispassionate fixation on the bug-eyed rolling-gaited figure of Klaus Kinski shot through a fish-eye lens, and a haunting score from Popol Vuh, it's almost purely visual. The theme? Drudgery, privations, and insanity of colonialism spurred equally by spreading the news of Jesus to heathens and a lust for gold. With the explorers driven by legends of El Dorado, and the experience of Hernando Cortez a scant 40 years earlier, the madness is palpable.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Microserfs (1995)

I have probably read enough Douglas Coupland by now that I should be able to make up my mind how I feel about him. In some ways it's tempting to reflect back his own tone of studied disaffection and shrug my shoulders. His novels read quickly, almost effortlessly, the narratives studded with the kinds of details and bric-a-brac of popular culture that it makes you happy to understand, but resentful not to—here a Popeye coffee mug, there some programming code, everywhere a lot of self-conscious irony and acute insight vying for supremacy. Ultimately I like Coupland most for his sweetly sentimental air, which might be the wrong reason. There's a gallantry to him that desperately wants the human race to do the right thing, honors father and mother and home, thinks there's more to a relationship than just sex, and never starts eating before everyone else has started. It's the one thing about him that always surprises me. I probably should start with Generation X, which is probably better in every way, but I lost my copy in a hotel room, and anyway, I love the first hundred pages of Microserfs so much that I'm willing to forgive the larger novel the wandering aimlessness into which it drifts afterward. It's not, I'll say it right out, particularly redeemed by all its remarkable prescience not only for the dot-com bubble but also for a good deal of the way we now live and orient ourselves towards the world, so heavily mediated by particularly our sophisticated computer devices. Technically it's not supposed to be a book about Microsoft, except those first hundred pages quite patently are. And having been at the "Lazy M" myself, in years not far beyond those depicted here, I remain impressed with how swiftly, completely, and ruthlessly he nails it. Not everyone agrees, including any number of Microsofties, but I've never seen anything else close. Coupland did work there for a brief time, that's true, and that would help. But he's also got the wit and self-awareness to see it plain, and he brings a good many illuminating insights into the strange mix of arrested adolescence and precocious aging that holds sway around there, or did. The various foibles of the kind of people (and I would have to include myself here on some level, for better or worse) who gladly slave 60-80 hours a week because they're smart and the work is easy and fun and because someone has offered them unlimited amounts of free soda pop to do it.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Murmur (1983)

I did not care for the first full album by R.E.M.—well, perhaps more accurately, I did not care for the worshipful reception it received from all sides. In time, this proved to be one of my more abject collapses in judgment. Worse, I had to write a review of it and gave it a lukewarm one. I know, I know: "Better to say nothing and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." I have wished many times, including the day I got the assignment, that I could squirm out of that review. On the other hand, I truly did not recognize the virtues until years later—in fact, listening to it recently, it has never sounded so good. All the things people were saying that sounded so odd to me are now the things I want to say: it's powerful, allusive, strangely stirring, moving with audacious confidence. It feels like coming home to a home one never knew before. I don't know exactly how they are doing it. I think this may be the last time they did it so consistently, except in patches, the longest of which, perhaps (to me), is found on Lifes Rich Pageant (I only say this, as an already suspect evaluator of R.E.M., because that is where I truly fell in love with the band, as opposed to keenly liking, as with the EP Chronic Town). I remember hearing people talk about the Byrds but I don't hear much of that. I don't hear much of anything that came before it, in fact—I think it's almost breathtakingly original. There's a democracy of the parts that fell away as Michael Stipe became the star. Stipe's contribution here is barely formally "lead vocal" as the singing is deliberately blurred over and made fuzzy of its meaning and intent, sliding around to feel for its notes, even as words and phrases can be easily gleaned from the tumult passing by. Why do I feel reasonably certain this was a deliberate decision on their part? In retrospect because Stipe enunciated just fine on other occasions. Also I can't help thinking the cover art is evocative of an aesthetic. There is also the scope and tenor of the song titles: "Pilgrimage," "Laughing," "Talk About the Passion," "Perfect Circle," etc. This is an album and a band reaching very far, and even within the context of mumbling singer guitar bass drums, it not only has an astonishing ability to reach very far, it also has much more grasp than one would normally expect from a rock band in their mid-20s, just starting out. Jesus, no wonder everyone was so excited.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ugetsu (1953)

Ugetsu monogatari, Japan, 94 minutes
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Writers: Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Kyuchi Tsuji, Akinari Ueda, Yoshikata Yoda
Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa
Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Ichiro Saito
Editor: Mitsuzo Miyata
Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyō, Kinuyo Tanaka, Sakae Ozawa, Ikio Sawamura, Mitsuko Mito, Kikue Mōri

Ugetsu appeared in the West a couple of years after Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, helping position Japan as a world powerhouse of art cinema even as the country's postwar recovery continued. Kurosawa was junior by some 10 years to Kenji Mizoguchi (and more infatuated with Western culture, likely the reason he was first to break through in the West). Mizoguchi's work goes well back into the silent era of the 1920s. In typical Japanese fashion, Mizoguchi alternated between stories set in modern times and "Jidaigeki," set in Japan's Edo period, from about the 17th century into the 19th, and concerned with the lives of samurai and others of the time, often the unremarkable and mean lives of the lower classes. Jidaigeki sounds roughly analogous to Westerns and cowboys and farmers.

Rashomon and Ugetsu both count as Jidaigeki. "Ugetsu" seems like something of an ugly word, but its definition is actually very lovely, "moon obscured by rainclouds." The direct source is a 1776 collection of ghost stories by Ueda Akinari, which are themselves adapted from legends. Perhaps because it reaches so far into the past, Mizoguchi's picture looks and feels ancient, and incidentally theatrical in spite of all the exteriors and creative use of the camera to establish and underline scope and perspective. It's a morality play that confoundingly appears to accept class divisions at face value. It starts on war but spends most of its time in the strange lighting and shadows of ghosts. All its extremes tend to sneak up on one. Once begun, it is utterly engrossing, strange and beautiful. In the end it is an exquisitely balanced story that ends so satisfactorily one hesitates to question its vaguely noxious class implications. (It also has unique twists and turns along the way, which I will be discussing past the jump, so spoiler alert.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

White Stripes, "Ball and Biscuit" (2003)


The White Stripes came along with their notorious and somewhat mannered color schema, their primitive squealing and squalling, and the strange relationship between the principals, and the next thing you knew it was all about finding room on the mantel for Grammies. It felt like it all happened in a flash, that's the price I pay. I've been somewhat at sea all this time, ambivalent and not easily or often drawn in, maybe the contrarian as usual kicking at the thought of something actually getting popular. But I like them more and more. This bruising slab of downhome dirtyass rock 'n' roll hangs around longer than seven minutes, Jack White doing his usual business with the bluesy crunch and roar and shriek. I think it succeeds fine as a blues, in fact, though I have to wince a little at the black-cat-scratch 7th-son-of-a-7th-son bent of the lyrics, which are after all hard to ignore in the spaces that White leaves open for them. I'm sure he's running circles around me and's got me out-ironied by a factor of three minimum. You can argue it. Oh hell, white boys will be white boys anyway so that's all right too, when the guitar is played and recorded so hot. And you know what? Now I'm listening close that's some pretty neat drumkit from Meg White too, damn. It all gets to working. This is slow, like tanks entering a city, and loud and piercing no matter where you set the volume. It never quite gets back into the background, remember that if you're thinking about when and where to play this and company is around.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Godfather (1972)

#36: The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

The Godfather remains for me still the quickest three-hour movie I know, a picture that moves in almost stately fashion but is never less than compelling. The sweep of the story is epic, proceeding from an extravagant wedding sequence as expertly handled as it is vivid, setting everything of importance in motion all at once.

The story and the manner in which it is told are warm, rich, and bursting with life and poignance. It's all dressed up in the garb of a gangster movie but with deep family dynamics and tensions propelling the narrative—lean and muscular with few indulgences yet rarely cutting away too soon from even the smallest details that advance its themes. Even when it threatens to become ham-handed and obvious, as in the baptism scene near the end (trivialists note: the baby is Sofia Coppola), it never entirely boils over because it always seems to understand exactly what it's about and what it can and can't do.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Because They Wanted To (1997)

Mary Gaitskill's second collection of stories is the first thing I read by her. Now, after circling back to it after getting to the rest of her stuff, I'm pretty sure it's the best thing she's done, with the possible exception of her novel Veronica. From the trajectory of her career I get the sense somehow that she's happiest working in the short-story form. She applies herself to it particularly well here. At least three stories—"Tiny, Smiling Daddy," "Because They Wanted To," and "The Girl on the Plane"—are just great, remarkable, searing portraits of disaffected lives in extremity, utterly without pretensions, and they leave marks. The first is largely the interior dialogue of a middle-aged man who doesn't know his daughter any better than he knows himself, stubbornly clinging to seeing her primarily only as an extension of his own identity and nothing else. It's comical but mostly painful to see him thrashing around the ruins of his life, angry and embittered and alone, with no understanding of how he has come to such a pass. The latter two are more simple—externalized scenarios that unfold with implacable inevitability, yet also in directions that are hard to guess. "The Girl on the Plane" is told first-person by a cocky and frivolous man who attempts to make a pass at a woman he meets on an airline flight. He goes about it in ways that are almost shockingly inappropriate, snarling and sneering and insulting her. And it even seems to be working at some points—it's hard to tell—but then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid—stupefyingly stupid, so much so that it entirely calls into question his veracity as a narrator in the first place. The response is swift and real. The title story is even more externalized, recounting the tale of a 16-year-old runaway from California trying to eke out a living in Vancouver, knowing virtually no one there and evidently understanding so little about making one's way in the world that one shudders for her. Even so, what happens when she takes a day job watching kids for a woman in the woman's apartment while the woman goes out job hunting is completely unexpected, unsettling, and more haunting than I can say. The depths and power of it surprise me every time, even as every time I return to it I hope for something better. It never comes and I am always surprised again.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Like This (1984)

I guess it makes about as much sense as anything that my favorite album by the dB's would turn out, in the absence of Chris Stamey, to be something closer to a Peter Holsapple solo album, even though the founding rhythm section of Gene Holder and Will Rigby is on hand for the project. But I put Like This on and connected instantly. I love this album. I called it my favorite album of 1984 (somewhat defensively, in the company of Born in the U.S.A., Let it Be, and Purple Rain) and I played it many days beyond that. A lot of Stamey's cerebral stuntcraft is dialed back with the all-Holsapple songs and the production by Chris Butler, late of the Waitresses. I miss it, but I also like what comes of its absence. Inevitably, Holsapple's greater bent toward an emotional openness threatens constantly to tip the project over into bathos (as in a line Christgau hails as "Inspirational Verse" in his review, a line with a certain sly wit but that nonetheless feels to me vaguely unpleasant: "I can understand / Why you want a better man / But why do you wanna make him out of me?"). On the other hand, there's always something to be said for candor, and these plain tales of the lonely alt-rocker in his native environment hit home often and in surprising ways. I like the line in "She Got Soul" that goes "Every girl I know has got some soul," sung ruefully. I like how "A Spy in the House of Love" achieves a certain density of groove; it sounds worked out the way a band works things out, playing, even as it remains athwart its jangly forward momentum. The big hit "Amplifier" is represented here in the best version I know, the tragic story of a psycho girlfriend who steals everything but the amplifier. Holsapple's guitar-play all through is rudimentary but loose and spontaneous, hitting multiple right notes practically every time he steps out. I guess it was obvious enough even at the time, viz., no Stamey, but this was pretty near the end for the dB's. Well, no, never say never. They reunited in 2005 and there's new product this year for the first time in 25 years (see the official website), not counting solo work and whatnot in intervening years. I can't speak to that, yet (and keep putting off speaking to the last album, from 1987). I do think Like This is a good place to reconnoiter them, and indeed all alt-rock, such as it. In many ways to me the dB's and this album are the epitome of everything it can be, good and bad, and coming from reasonably well back in the emergence of that often annoying and often beguiling nexus of attitude and sound.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Mean Girls (2004)

USA/Canada, 97 minutes
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Rosalind Wiseman, Tina Fey
Photography: Daryn Okada
Music: Rolfe Kent
Editor: Wendy Greene Bricmont
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Franzese, Neil Flynn, Jonathan Bennett, Amanda Seyfried, Rajiv Surendra

The surly clerk in need of a shave I bought a used copy of this from held it aloft at the counter and announced emphatically to me that it's way better than most people think. I was heartened by this (though glad the store was empty) as the one time I had seen it had been under strange circumstances, alone in a Portland motel room, with a full day ahead of me and not much to do before I could leave. I lapped it up the way I do Lifetime movies when I'm sick, the way I do comfort food when I'm depressed. I came back to it thinking of it as a guilty pleasure. But a nagging part of me insisted that, as the clerk said, it's actually better than its reputation as market-tested teen product hitting a sweet spot of American money-making, high school kids in the 'burbs.

I haven't paid much attention to the tribulations of Lindsay Lohan, which has probably helped me remain relatively immune from a celebrity tragedy narrative that no doubt intrudes, for those in the know, all over this otherwise fine high school teen comedy. I tend to think of it as a Tina Fey picture—her creative energy is easily recognized, the way she can stuff a handful of surprising gags into a brief scene, the coolly observational point of view, the niceness lurking under the mockery, and a uniquely insightful focus on coming-of-age experiences, mostly for girls and women.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Third Stone From the Sun" (1967)


A high school pal sat me down with Are You Experienced. I had been somewhat intrigued by the raggedly textured bouncy-ball of "Purple Haze" as it briefly flitted across the AM airwaves when I was in junior high, no doubt within the context of the reputation of the mysterious Jimi Hendrix and my burgeoning fascination with underground counterculture. Hearing the whole album really opened up Hendrix for me once and for all, and it was songs like "The Wind Cries Mary" and this that did it for me. "Third Stone From the Sun" is at once so blown-open and so gentle, a weird mix of the lush and the inhuman, the harsh and daffy, making a conceit out of the god-like perspective of the title and never shrinking from going as big as it can. Wonder of wonders, that's pretty big—bigger than anyone could have imagined for a little pop song. I use "little pop song" figuratively because this song is mostly instrumental and all of 6:44 and it is actually epic, big as worlds as they say, a vast vision, encompassing and superseding the solar system and/or galaxy itself, and finally an end-of-the-world story. The words are fragmentary, with many long patches obscured and virtually indecipherable from the production, but the story is about aliens coming to visit the earth (in a "kinky machine"), disapproving of what they find, and destroying us. It's also very funny: "Although your world wonders me, / With your majestic and superior cackling hen / Your people I do not understand, / So to you I shall put an end / And you'll / Never hear / Surf music again." Dick Dale wept. When the end comes it is strange and desolate and elegiac and moving, a song once heard never forgotten. Anybody still not sure about Hendrix, start here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

#37: Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)

I first came to appreciate Fellini as a result of an incident when I was working as an advertising copywriter for a cruise line and had reason to be present at the launch of a ship departing Seattle for the Inside Passage. The sun was blazing, the day soft and warm. An eight-piece brass band was playing. The air was thick with confetti strewn far and wide. Jovial passengers laughed in groups and embarked the ship. People bustled everywhere. But even after the confetti had fallen to the ground, and the passengers had boarded the ship, the band kept playing. And playing. Finally an ambulance arrived and medics boarded the ship to remove someone on a stretcher who had suffered a heart attack, and through all of that, for a departure delayed by more than an hour, the brass band kept playing.

Thus was the connection made: fragmented elliptical human drama + eccentric soundtrack = Felliniesque.