Saturday, June 30, 2012

Urban Hymns (1997)

There's something about this album that seems just right out of time. It's got a date, of course—1997—and arguably the stamp of an era as well, tracing back along with peers Oasis to a '90s traveling-festival audience weaned on the Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, and Spiritualized. All my shoegaze pals loved this to pieces, let me put it that way, but the Verve managed to cut a wider swath than normal, appealing equally to Sheryl Crow or Squirrel Nut Zippers fans I knew too. They all loved it and I did too and still do. Interestingly, many have tended to be rather quiet about it, myself included, so it often comes up as a something of a surprise. I learned after awhile that it's one of those interesting albums to throw out there for opinions on. As often as not someone gets melty and soft in the eyes and reduced to, "I love love that album." And you know they mean it. It's an album to live with and return to frequently. It gets to be as comfortable as an old shoe. Yet it remains elusive too. When I sit with it playing, listening closely, it can start to seem long and draggy and underdeveloped. Most of its songs are over five minutes and three are over six. But just let it go and amazing things start to reveal themselves, in the textures and swirls of words and the ways it opens up wide. It can feel epic. It's coherent in that it's clearly all mined from the same lode, a stubborn walloping monolithic quality that persists through the whole long set. But the four singles—"Lucky Man," "Bitter Sweet Symphony," "The Drugs Don't Work," and "Sonnet"—are each lovely works in their own right, without need of differentiation (as you will notice, living with it), and when any one of them comes welling up out of any mix there's such a sharp pang of recognition it almost hurts for a moment. The stock in trade here is your basic raw emotional pain inflected by a wistful melancholy (or maybe that's vice versa), pulled off so effortlessly they are enabled to dwell at will on themes and feelings that would turn most others into the sorriest prancing buffoons. I keep waiting for the pratfall here—it's part of the tension that brings me back. When is it going to start sounding a little silly? I'm sure for many the answer is, "Already." But it hasn't happened for me yet, and I've heard it a lot now. One of the best of the '90s at large, no question.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Amores Perros (2000)

Amores perros, Mexico, 154 minutes
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Writer: Guillermo Arriaga
Photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Editors: Luis Carballar, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Fernando Perez Unda
Cast: Emilio Echevarría, Gael García Bernal, Goya Toledo, Álvaro Guerrero, Vanessa Bauche, Jorge Salinas, Marco Pérez, Rodrigo Murray, Humberto Busto

Amores Perros is a picture overflowing, by design, with dogs—mean dogs, righteous dogs, killer dogs, foo-foo dogs, dogs that run in packs. Even the title, which is translated in the subtitles as "life's a bitch," makes the element explicit and incidentally gives away the theme plain. As downbeat as it is dazzling—you do not come away from this with a glow, but you are likely to be impressed—it mixes up three stories of six people, each pair unaware of the other two, all equally involved in sin on the level of flouting the 10 Commandments—adultery, covetousness, murder, and so on. It all adds up to a shaggy dog story (pun probably not intended), which sprawls untidily across the screen in great bolts and washes of energy, riveting from start to finish.

It opens plunged in media res into circumstances leading up to the central event of the picture, which serves (imperfectly) as the unifying point around which everything else revolves: an auto accident that kills one, injures another, and enables one of the most supernaturally unsettling dogs on film, a creature named Cofi, to escape and live another day. If the overall structure is a bit rickety, and it is, with peculiar narrative lacunae and a way of moving from scene to scene that is not graceful or elegant, but rather base and urgent—yet at the same time often quite beautiful—it somehow manages to cohere into something very big, its various parts distorting and swelling up and force-fitting themselves to one another to make it work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yo La Tengo, "Nowhere Near" (1993)


The album this song calls home, Painful, marked the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day between Yo La Tengo and the redoubtable Matador label. It's also the first appearance on record of bass player James New and of producer Roger Moutenot, now both fixtures within the humble world of this band, which is fairly enough charged with cult appeal. I am a member of that cult. Even though it was already their sixth album to that point, I hear the band still pulling pieces together, though with this they are very close—it would be the next two albums, Electr-O-Pura and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, that witnessed the full flowering. I would still call them their best. Painful, as its title and "Nowhere Near," its exquisite representative here, would indicate, is chiefly an exploration into the textures of doomy glum humor, appending fat moody imposing keyboard chords and layering in feedback in broad, desolate widescreen landscapes, all done intuitive fashion in a suite of songs that is remarkably 2 a.m. alone, no sleep in sight, and the drugs gone. Such overlays at will would go on to become a critical piece of their repertoire but here is where they baked it and took it out of the oven. The basic elements: droning keyboards, mournful twanging guitar, gentle but rough-hewn whisper/mumble harmonies, a certain constancy that endures for the six minutes it lasts, swelling and receding like pounding surf, hypnotic, organic, saturated, fulsome, expansive, and generous, as inevitably it grows steel-gray ocean moods into and out of the circumspect shrieking and caterwauling of all fine shoegaze, to which it connects naturally. This is a pretty good place to go get lost, no matter where you are starting from.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Modern Times (1936)

#29: Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)

I first saw this in 1972 on a rerelease that was most likely predicated on Chaplin winning one of those put-up-job Oscars, in this case for his score for Limelight, a 1952 picture for which he was somehow eligible that year. I was an angry teen on a bored Sunday moping around the house. My dad piled me into the car and dropped me at the theater. I thought it might have been the most ridiculous thing he had ever done for me—done to me, actually, I probably thought.

It turned out to be one of the best. Phil has been talking recently about the paucity of comedies on his list. I may (or may not) have a few more than him, but I know this. Most comedy classics of the period between the world wars are mostly lost on me: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, even the Marx Brothers. In company with others, especially on the rare occasions when I can find a packed theater, I laugh right along with everybody else—I love to be with people who are laughing; it's infectious. Alone, however, I barely crack a smile, and I'm more often just bored and restless. I understand this is entirely my own loss.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In the Freud Archives (1984)

For anyone interested in Janet Malcolm this slim little book is the one that got her into all the trouble, and for that alone it's worth reading. Taking on the intricately insular world of latter-day Freudian scholarship, even as it details the early history of psychoanalysis with typical precision, the book earned the ire of one of Malcolm's subjects here, Jeffrey Masson, a psychoanalyst who appeared from her account to be rather shallow and frivolous, more interested in cultivating his own charisma and cult of adoration. Masson didn't like that so he went after Malcolm with a $10 million lawsuit that kept her virtually tied up in legal minutiae for a decade or more, as one of the issues went all the way to the Supreme Court before the case was remanded back to a jury trial. Masson denied saying some of the things Malcolm attributed to him, such as that he was, after Freud, the greatest analyst who had ever lived and that he had slept with more than 1,000 women. In turn, Malcolm could not produce the statements in question on tape, though later she claimed to have found a notebook with some verification of them. The jury found for Malcolm, saying that Masson's case was simply insufficient, which was something less than a ringing endorsement of Malcolm's journalism. Thus a cloud has been left over them both, and I still see people popping up randomly in comments sections on the Internet to condemn her in absolute terms as a fabricator. It's hard for me to believe, based on the consistency and quality of Malcolm's research during her career, but I don't know any better than anyone else who wasn't there what actually transpired and was said between the two. We will never know. In fairness, Malcolm's objections to that point for tape-recording her subjects—"the practice of depending on a tape recording makes for a lifelessness in the way you report," she has written. "It makes you lazy and inert"—has not helped her case much. On the other hand, she's right, as anyone who has ever attempted to transcribe an interview already knows—people don't speak in perfectly formulated thoughts, and the attempt to clarify the intent of an interview subject's words is one constantly fraught with peril, particularly if your subject has a litigious bent. If I were going to be scrupulously fair about all this I would take the time to read some of Masson's work in order to better judge his credibility relative to Janet Malcolm's. But I'm basically already sold on Malcolm's integrity, and besides, Masson does come off as a bit of an ass, and not just in Malcolm's book. I realize this makes me somewhat less than scrupulously fair.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

...Baby One More Time (1999)

Oh man, I had some low expectations coming back to this—well, "coming back." I liked the songs when they were on the radio. But when I finally got a cheap used copy of the album a couple years later it didn't seem to me to amount to much more than the hits, and the hits didn't sound so good anymore. So I filed it. I had always felt a little like someone claiming to enjoy "Playboy" for the thoughtful and hard-hitting articles anyway whenever I tried to talk about the various virtues of Britney Spears's music—her good fortune of a sweet and sultry voice which she can play like an instrument, the infectious layers of glittering production, and some basic understanding of the principles of pop music and hooks and so forth, not to mention an erratic but unmistakable sense on her part for soul singing. As her public persona developed into chronic celebrity problems it got too tiresome and I thought I had put it all behind me. In fact, I'm not even sure why I included it on the list of albums I am still working from, at the time intended for much shorter write-ups and download availability. I think I wondered how my audience of the time would respond to something so blatantly mainstream. Anyway, holy buckets, it sounds way better than I remember. It's still the hits I tend to favor; the stellar track this time is definitely "Sometimes" (#21 in 1999), which might be the most obvious Spice Girls knockoff here, now that I think of it. It's sweet and hot and all kind of sad and uncertain about a love relationship, and swells up big on the chorus, lush and full of presence. The kind of thing you can't always put in words, you know? So I usually turn it up a little for that one. Then a song called "Soda Pop" follows, so winsomely sweet as to be nauseating. It's part of what chased me away from the album in the first place. But then that's followed by "Born to Make You Happy," which is not a hit but good, with her bruised vocals playing nicely off a chanting background line. In a certain mood, which the album is at pains to set by that point, it's tolerable enough—if you feel mired in by saccharine dreck, hang on. There's bound to be better, or maybe the dreck will clarify into the more and more pleasing passages I seem to hear in this every time now. To be sure, there are silly exercises here, such as "E-Mail My Heart," which pains me just to see the title. But then there's a decent Sonny & Cher cover (and I like the pick). There are at least four or five good to great songs here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

La Strada (1954)

La strada, Italy, 108 minutes
Director: Federico Fellini
Writers: Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Photography: Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini
Music: Nino Rota
Editor: Leo Cattozzo
Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Marcella Rovere, Livia Venturini

"La strada" is Italian for "the road" and that is probably as good a way in as any to this great Fellini picture. Three years before Jack Kerouac and a decade past Bob Hope and Bing Crosby—and well in front of The Road Warrior—this steps in with yet another variation on the look, feel, and traditions, now well worn, of the road story. Some of its most powerful moments are set in motion by the simple expedient of transition shots showing the principals on the move again across the postwar landscape of Italy in their ramshackle transport of motorcycle, sidecar, and covered wagon.

La Strada is frequently classified as neorealism—as much as anything for its exteriors and the desolate postwar mise en scene, not to mention that it's Italian when neorealism ruled Italian cinema—but it proceeds much more like a dream. It plunges straightway into its disorienting narrative, introducing two-bit circus strongman Zampano (played by Anthony Quinn), who is in the process of buying the child-like and otherworldly Gelsomina (played by Giulietta Masina) from her mother. He has also just informed them that another daughter he had purchased previously, Gelsomina's sister Rosa, is now dead; evidently he can't even say where she is buried. Within minutes Zampano and Gelsomina are on the road. Possible spoilers on the other side of the jump.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pet Shop Boys, "Rent" (1987)


"West End Girls" was and is a novelty—an interesting one, perhaps, but in the end a lot of shtick. It has always been everything that came after it that interested me about these purveyors of pop music's everlasting now, starting with all the other hits, e.g., "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," "It's a Sin," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," "Always on My Mind," and "Domino Dancing." Among this handful are four top 10 U.S. hits, one both a Willie Nelson and an Elvis Presley cover, and one a duet with Dusty Springfield. The Pet Shop Boys are not one-hit wonders. And those songs aren't even their best (well, there's an argument that "It's a Sin" is their best) (well, also "What Have I Done to Deserve This?"). "Rent" is one of the earliest I knew, after I got a laugh when I spied the two of them in tuxedos and Neil Tennant yawning on the cover of Actually and bought the album. I thought "Rent" was hilarious, of course, as intended. But the long-term staying power is from a certain quality of oh let's call it neorealism, which lofts it well beyond the realm of a one-joke song. Yes, yes, there's this over and over in the chorus: "I love you, oh, you pay my rent." I take that as the joke, as opposed to the verses, where the details are laid out with economy and precision: "You dress me up, I'm your puppet / You buy me things, I love it / You bring me food, I need it / You give me love, I feed it." It's pretty too. There's a version by Liza Minnelli from her 1989 album Results, produced by the Pet Shop Boys, but it's played in a whole other register. It's funny too, but a bit wintry about it, as befits a star of her magnitude (listen).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chinatown (1974)

#30: Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

I've spent most of my adult life admiring Roman Polanski movies so I knew at least one of his pictures had to make my list. Given his legal status, however, and the anathema that has recently come to surround even the mention of him, it didn't seem particularly wise to include him with the other five directors on my list who get two titles apiece. Still, I can't help recommending any of the following—in fact, can't recommend them enough: Bitter Moon, Death and the Maiden, The Ghost Writer, and the three films of the so-called Apartment Trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant).

In the end, I had a very tough time choosing between Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, which is that rare thing among horror films, a picture as nuanced as it is unsettling, and with a good many excellent performances and nice touches about the way it's done.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bachelorhood: Tales of the Metropolis (1981)

Phillip Lopate's first essay at a book of essays would fairly have to be qualified a success. At that time poised about equally between poet, novelist, and essayist, Lopate's attractions to the form—certainly within the context of his aesthetics, which he gets into some here—are palpable. This allows him to waver naturally over the commonplace and everyday, which he so clearly prizes. Are there various sins of narcissism here? Yes, one would have to say yes. Too many girlfriends. Too much talk of dating. And self-consciously making "bachelor" a concept within which he invites us to live with him does not necessarily excuse forays into confessionalism. But he knows when to pull back or withdraw silently, and he is always brisk and charming to read. He is clearly still feeling his way into his voice—he includes a handful of poems and a handful and more of very short pieces, which are not hard to think of as "prose poems" (eternally mystifying term). When they work they remind me a little of Harvey Pekar's very short pieces, blunt and elliptical all at once. This makes me wonder how familiar Lopate may have been with Pekar at the time most of these pieces appear to have been written, in the late '70s and early '80s. The longer pieces are entirely different animals, often playing Lopate's cards very close to his chest. There's little here, for example, to suggest the depths of Lopate's cinephilia, though some clues exist. His memoir of Lionel Trilling is an interesting look at the mid-century academic and literary critic (whom I've never read) and his milieu of the '60s and '70s Columbia, and a touching story of a connection between a teacher and his student, which is enriched with the fabric of literary life well loved. If it was not yet apparent how much Lopate would ultimately bring to the project of restoring the personal essay to the more prominent position that it deserves, it's plain enough how much it means to him, as he begins to dive into the topic in another long piece, "Bachelorhood and Its Literature." Names such as Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Cesare Pavese, Sei Shonagon, and Walter Benjamin come up for perhaps the first time in print by Lopate here—the first time, but not the last.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Underachievers Please Try Harder (2003)

I hear a touch of Young Marble Giants in the way Camera Obscura strips back the sound so far, and I imagine close study of the words would likely affirm sharp-elbowed ironies of the young and pretty that now glide so dreamily across its glistening surfaces. But honestly, it's the Fleetwoods I keep hearing in this lovely mess first. Two female singers mixing it up with two male singers (one more than the Fleetwoods had), it's all trembling, whisper-soft vocals occupying wide, wide open spaces, pastels of pure yearning, and plain-spoken singing that falls together into sumptuous harmonies. This is their second album but I went for it first because of the title—and a moment, please, for the pleasure of it, the delicious, delirious wordiness, the sheer droll cheek. It was their Lloyd Cole name-checking in the 2006 instant classic, "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" that made me aware of Camera Obscura in the first place. "Teenager" was the first song on Underachievers that jumped out at me (before I even knew what it was called), an ominous cloud-covered brooder with shivery, spidery guitar pushing it along, gorgeous swooping background vocals, and an aching melody (listen). It's just beautiful. Then I noticed the name of the first song, "Suspended From Class" (rhymes with "don't know my elbow from my ass"), a warm ushering equally candy confection—since when did a cornet ever get so effective?—and I guess that's where I started catching on to the game. There's some country and Leonard Cohen and Brazilian pop gestures in here too, but it's arguable that approximately everything proceeds out of the primal singularity of "Jesus" by the Velvet Underground—do they really mean it or don't they? are they really callow or aren't they? This is tricky, heady territory, the plaintive tone of sincerity unto the death, and they don't always pull it off, but the songs are usually interesting at least. After some poking around on the Internet, I see that Camera Obscura is connected to Belle & Sebastian in a few ways, so throw them on the pile too. I have meant for ages to make a project of getting to know Belle & Sebastian better and perhaps this will be my prompt to do so, and the rest of the Camera Obscura catalog more closely too. The high points do seem to come at a pretty good clip here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: AI, USA, 146 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, Steven Spielberg
Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Frances O'Connor, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, Jude Law, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Al Jourgensen

An interesting project would be to go through A.I. and catalog all uses of the word "real"—and its counterpart, "artificial," which is in the title two ways. The boy-robot David (played brilliantly in an unsettling performance by Haley Joel Osment) is constantly reminded by others that he is "not real." When he is abandoned in the woods by Monica Swinton (played by Frances O'Connor), in one of the most wrenching scenes in a picture full of them, he shamelessly pleads and grovels, drawing on his understanding of the Pinocchio story to ask if he can come home again if he is a real boy. "That's just a story," Monica says. "But a story tells what happens," David responds. "Stories are not real," she says. "You're not real."

The story of this film is well known and fascinating, involving a collaboration that seemed unlikely at the time between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Starting in 1984 they traded notes, design ideas, and suggestions back and forth, riffing on a Brian Aldiss story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long." But as with so many movie projects it never came to be. After Kubrick's death Spielberg took it up again. The result is a formal collaboration that feels at once like both of them—and a little strange and disorienting at that, because directors with such distinctive visions so rarely collaborate. In the end it feels more like a Spielberg project (with some admixture of Gene Roddenberry's optimism in there as well), concerned with families and impossible love lost and found, and unafraid of the heartwarming gesture. But the ghost of Kubrick definitely hovers over it in its visual schematics, in the ways it so freely philosophizes and addresses its largest issues, and in its clinical precisions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ennio Morricone, "La Storia Di un Soldato (The Story of a Soldier)" (1966)


Here's a song whose impact I suspect is almost entirely dependent on seeing the movie from which it comes, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and even more specifically the scene with which it is associated in its context. In effect I am recommending with this a 161-minute movie, and I know that's a lot to ask. Odds are reasonably good if you read this blog that you have seen it, so I call your attention to the scene in which Eli Wallach's Tuco is tortured for information in a Civil War POW camp. An impromptu POW orchestra, assembled for the purpose, is instructed to play when prisoners are tortured, in order to mask the sounds of the screams. This is the song they play. Truly, it's ludicrous—the song is a narrative device, it doesn't mask screams, it's quiet. It sounds the way you and the cowed orchestra feel in the moment, knowing such depravity goes on in this world, in tandem with the powerlessness of the situation, which must be accepted. The music is slow, ponderous, yet filigreed and lovely, and for all its simplicities it verges on the ornate. It's also a production piece that would likely not even be easy to reproduce on a stage with a soundboard, let alone standing at dusk in the open corner of a POW camp in the Texas desert, moaning vocal lines, blowing sweet harp, tapping fragile notes on a xylophone. The scene is thus almost funny, yet deeply moving at the same time. The brutalities inside the cabin, the expressions on the faces of the musicians outside and of the leering guards who find it all a big joke, and the mournful music itself—the heart is absolutely rent.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Dogfight (1991)

#31: Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991)

Dogfight is a determinedly small movie, a romantic comedy, and a baby-boomer parable of the '60s rich with period detail. Set mostly in the late fall of 1963, Lili Taylor plays a young wannabe folk singer living at home in San Francisco with her mother above a diner, which they run. River Phoenix is a Marine passing through town on his way to Vietnam. Already that puts a lot of cliché-balls in the air, but the "dogfight" premise enables the picture to successfully stave off Big Chill-style baggage for the most part.

The dogfight is a game the Marines play on their R&R stopovers. They allow themselves a certain amount of time to split up and wander the city, each one picking up the ugliest girl he can find. Then they rendezvous back at a bar with the girls and carry on the competition among themselves. The ugliest girl wins the prize for the Marine who brought her. Mostly this is all hidden from the girls, but the Marines don't particularly care if the game is exposed either.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Europeans (1878)

I'm not sure this would be the place to start with Henry James but it's an interesting way station—early enough that it reads as almost a crude and certainly an awkward and even shallow version of James at his various peaks. At the same time it has all the themes and stylings we have come to know so well, notably the mix of American and European 19th-century cultures encountering one another. Here the more usual dynamic is turned upside down, with a pair of European cousins traveling to the New England hinterlands of Boston to meet their American counterparts. The Americans are stamped all over with stereotypes—rugged and dour Puritans of naïve spirituality. One friend of the family is a Unitarian minister; another in their circle is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays on her deathbed. The European cousins by contrast are worldly and "Bohemian," at ease with levels of privilege and status, and charming as hell too. James takes the bunch and stirs them all up with the wooden spoon of the comedy of manners, and soon enough the characters begin to fall in love with one another in any number of vaguely incongruous ways. The resolutions are neat, more so than we usually get from James or, probably, than he entirely approved himself later in his career. The big bow tying it all up happens to be perfectly symmetrical, which throws an unfortunate (and surprising) whiff of the hack over it. And no one seems to have a dark heart, as James would later make a point of working in regularly, taking his cues perhaps from Jane Austen, the real master at this kind of thing. So, no, not necessarily the place to start with James. But worth a stop if you appreciate him, often quite beguiling all in its own right and refreshingly free of the intricate cross-hatchings of meaning and intent that can grow wild and confusing and beautiful as kudzu in his later works. The Europeans is obvious, done in broad strokes, and rarely subtle. A daisy, let us say, among the orchids of his shelf.

The Interlocutor Count
As I traveled recently through a used-bookstore find of James's oddly-sized works I idly began to catalog his use of the word "interlocutor," which I have long had the impression he is wont to use in profusion—it's a word I associate entirely with him. Merriam-Webster defines it: "1. One who takes part in dialogue or conversation. 2. A man in the middle of the line in a minstrel show who questions the end men and acts as leader." Needless to say, perhaps, I have never known James to use it in the second sense (and I have never known anyone else ever, anywhere, to use it at all, which might say something about my 19th-century reading habits). In the case of The Europeans, where it appears only once, I wonder if James might not have inserted it himself years later when he returned to his earlier work for some revisions.

"interlocutor" count = 1/145 pages

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

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Strange Man, Changed Man (1979)

Whither Bram Tchaikovsky? The power-pop trio out of Lincolnshire, England, that is, headed up by the very self-same Bram Tchaikovsky (nee Peter Bramall), late of the Motors. He (and they) somehow nicked off a piece of the American top 40 in the summer of 1979 with a #37 hit, "Girl of My Dreams," and somehow I ended up with the album. I think I must have read about it in "Trouser Press." The wonder now is that they scored the hit at all. It's not exactly sparkling pop fare—well, it is anthemic. And pretty. But also it hacks and bludgeons and lurches not exactly gracefully across the swollen turgid landscape it creates, with its throbbing heart pulsing metronomically against its figurative chest wall (listen). This is always the place my head goes first with the phrase "power-pop" because they were so serious about advancing the "power" side of the equation, and just naturals at the "pop." This is way more murky than the New Wave reviews implied or the primary colors album design vaguely promised (that or something about Lenin in the glorious days before his betrayal by the dogs of power). But it wears so well. You can really lean into it all volumes, high or low, and it has a way of pounding into your soul under regular inspection. I played it for years on hot nights when I couldn't sleep, way into the small hours. All intentions are fully laid out in the opening two-song suite, "Strange Man, Changed Man" and "Lonely Dancer," which serves up eight minutes of the howling, thumping drone and the tunesmithery both, attacking in sheets of sound. The signifying cover, buried toward the back, is "I'm a Believer" and they knock it right out of the park. It's one of the great versions and it's also all Bram Tchaikovsky, self-serious and potent and entirely within themselves. "Girl of My Dreams" is no slouch either, as long as we're at it, going just shambolic enough on the Raspberries-style approach to opening up a song to actually outdo them at their own game, if only for that moment. And it only was a moment, wasn't it? But it was really quite a good moment. And remains so.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim, France, 105 minutes
Director: Francois Truffaut
Writers: Henri-Pierre Roche, Francois Truffaut, Jean Gruault
Photography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Georges Delerue
Editor: Claudine Bouche
Cast: Oskar Werner, Jeanne Moreau, Henri Serre, Vanna Urbino, Boris Bassiak, Anny Nelsen

I had some plans here to complain some about Jules and Jim. I have been overexposed to it over the years, plain and simple—it seemed to be always a picture someone or other wanted to force on me, or that was around when I was with people in the mood for an art film. It has always been there. Its dour subject matter and grim resolution would appear to fly in the face of most of the conventions of French New Wave, which it bears in abundance, indeed in many ways stands in for as symbol. As with, say, Wild Strawberries—which I liked a good deal more at one point—it has suffered some from its position as Important Landmark of Film.

But a funny thing happened. One more viewing unexpectedly mellowed me some. Generally speaking, the problem I tend to have with Truffaut is inherent in what I also tend to like best about him and consider his strong suit—his humanity and his light-hearted and almost mischievous playfulness. But the playfulness can also veer toward the precious and at those times he is like the angel cherub currying favor with teacher, wrinkling his nose and dimpling his chin in order to acquire another tablespoon of kindergarten paste, which as likely as not he has been eating.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Bill Coday, "On the Chitlin' Circuit" (2002)


I was drawn to this artist and label (Ecko) several years ago when on eMusic I was attempting to track down what remains to me the ever-mysterious "beach" music, a mid-century rhythm and blues variation of some kind out of North and South Carolina oceanfront dance clubs. Every example I've heard has been smooth, slick, and sweet. Some vinyl anthologies I owned now 20 years ago and more were marketed as "beach" and I loved them. You know how Internet searches go: try this, try that, up and down and off on tangents, and the next thing I was confronting these vaguely (and explicitly) bawdy offerings from a dozen or more Ecko anthologies with artists I barely knew: Ollie Nightingale, Barbara Carr, Sheba Potts-Wright, Chuck Roberson—and Bill Coday. Not much in the way of Major Lance, Tyrone Davis, or Billy Butler & the Enchanters, landmark beach artists I knew. But I was emboldened when I saw one of the Ecko series of anthologies traveling under the name It's a Beach Thang! Net net, I don't really know what to call someone like Bill Coday, for example—above and beyond a rhythm and blues variation of some kind, in this case fronted by a barrel-chested singer with a band with a way with the guitar. It feels older than it is. It feels ever so slightly pro forma. But somehow 1968 was the first date I had for this, and I believed it until I started to notice all the keyboard sweetening and the generally buffed production values. I still hear threads of gutbucket in it (maybe a result of the "chitlin' circuit" reference?), but all cleaned up too, like Times Square. So there's an ineffable element of danger that is missing from it in this day and age. But, geez, I swear, some days I could listen to stuff like this by the hour.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

High Art (1998)

#32: High Art (Lisa Cholodenko, 1998)

Much of the buzz associated with High Art on its release (and since) tends to focus on it as a vehicle for Ally Sheedy, for whom it is frequently touted as a kind of comeback bid. It's true that she's good here as a disaffected art photographer of some talent who is able to live an undemanding life because she comes from a family of means.

What interests me more is the story it tells of Syd, played by Radha Mitchell. Syd is a smart, ambitious twenty-something just entering the rarefied world of New York art business via a magazine internship that has lately developed into a career opportunity. She is capable of throwing around a familiarity with Barthes, Derrida, and the usual suspects without appearing pretentious about it (unlike other characters here). When she connects with the Sheedy character, who is her upstairs neighbor somewhere in lower Manhattan, she is almost immediately in over her head—the drugs, the sexualities, the personalities, and the lifestyle afforded by the mostly unseen (and unacknowledged, as that would not be cool) resources of wealth.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Cat's Cradle (1963)

It had actually been awhile since I read this, widely considered Kurt Vonnegut's best or close to it. I couldn't help realizing that when I came across a scene that reminded me of 9/11 and then, less than 10 pages later, another that reminded me of Jonestown. Cat's Cradle was published decades before either event so I don't know how anyone can get too far from the idea of and the word "prescience." But there's more: it's extremely short, some 191 pages in my ancient mass-market edition, addresses itself to the end of the world, and gleefully riffs off Moby-Dick every chance it gets. First sentence: "Call me Jonah." No chapter any longer than three pages (thus, 127 chapters in a compact 191-page book). And cetacean imagery and language everywhere he can make it fit, and a few places where he can't. It's also really funny. It's true I generally have a taste for things that go under the label "black comedy," which fits here fine, but it's not often I find myself actually laughing very hard at some of this stuff. There's a lot of plot here, which gets a bit tiresome. It's much more fun when it dwells on its invented religion, Bokononism, and even more when the narrator (Jonah, which name, by the way, you never encounter again after the first page) enters into high moral dudgeons, with the rest of the players—and there are a lot of them here—standing around blinking and wondering what he's all of a sudden going on about. Those Bokononist terms and concepts—wampeter, foma, granfalloons, and all of it—would come to permeate Vonnegut's work time and again until they veered close to rancid from overuse. But this is not nearly as cutesy and Peanutsy as Vonnegut would wander off into with commercial success (compare Charles Schulz). With The Sirens of Titan, Welcome to the Monkey House, and Slaughterhouse-Five, this is where you find Vonnegut working as if everything mattered and rarely indulging himself. Everything that's funny here, such as the capital punishment in the banana republic where the action concludes and the way that people talk about it, is equally terrifying. Nothing is intuitive. It's all by design. And deserves the label "prescient" a hundred times over.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Land of Dreams (1988)

Randy Newman's second and last album of the '80s (and eighth overall) is loosely unified by an overarching preoccupation with fragments and images of Newman's experience growing up in New Orleans after World War II. The themes are there plain enough, though they begin to submerge more toward the second half. "Dixie Flyer," "New Orleans Wins the War," and "Four Eyes," the first three, work it pretty good. "Something Special" made it into a movie with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell (also parts of "Dixie Flyer" became bumpers on TV and radio); the full transition to soundtrack man well underway (and remember, he came by it honestly, with Uncles Alfred, Emil, and Lionel Newman). "Roll With the Punches," a little further along, stands in as the designated voice of the ugly-racist POV for this album, and it's unpleasant as always, complicating it with an equally ugly bent toward parental-abuse types of justification. Remember, Newman never means any of it, busy as usual with the songwriting equivalent of having and eating his cake. Oh hell, he's allowed, even if it seems more and more arch mannerism; the songs and the attitudes and the distance between the singer and the songwriter at least remain interesting, more than can be said for most songwriters on the planet. Anyway, I don't know what it has to do with New Orleans or growing up, except obviously enough he's had those sentiments ringing in his ears all his life. "Masterman and Baby J" is another example of Newman's creeping hip-hop envy, a progression from "Mikey's" on Trouble in Paradise, perfectly entertaining for what it is (which is not hip-hop or New Wave). The biggest hit the album produced, "It's Money That Matters," also doesn't have much to do with New Orleans, nor does one of the best songs he ever wrote, "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do," which dwells innocuously as the album-closer at the end of side 2 of the vinyl (and which I've written about before here). But they sure are great, lifting the level way high at the end with a couple of King-Kong wallops. In the end, I like Land of Dreams a lot and count it as one of my favorite Randy Newman albums but I know I'm in a minority here. Or maybe, at my age, I've just always been seduced by the broader and wider swaths of Adult Contemporary so clearly beginning to piggyback more and more on the soundtrack work. He still turns a mean phrase, however, no point denying him that.

Friday, June 01, 2012

City of God (2002)

Cidade de Deus, Brazil/France, 130 minutes
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writers: Paulo Lins, Braulio Mantovani
Photography: Cesar Charlone
Music: Ed Cortes, Antonio Pinto
Editor: Daniel Rezende
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga

In the immediate aftermath of a first viewing, City of God may seem like a bit of a hard nut to crack. It very much dons the garb of the gangster picture in the post-Godfather manifestations we know well now, telling a big complicated story about petty crime and big fights that sprawls across decades, families, and friendships. GoodFellas is the most obvious template, even set in the poorest slum of Rio de Janeiro in the '60s and '70s (known as the titular "City of God"). Voiceover narration controls the bends and focus of a storyline that is as fluid as it is dense with information, a jittery narrative strategy that is nonetheless fully in control and always feels it, continually prepared to stop, back up, and add another layer with another story for more context and detail.

At the same time City of God is very much an exercise in style, with its supersaturated palettes, its handheld verite, its many long lyrical tracking shots, its sudden blasts of inflecting music, such as a pitch-perfect use of "Kung Fu Fighting," and its split screens—never an indulgence, always useful, and just as fully under control as everything else here, for example signaling with the relative sizes of the split screens their relative importance. It's a picture full of set pieces that operate virtually as movies within the movie, intensely rendered tangents that nonetheless find ways to circle back and continue advancing the tangled narrative. In the end there's little else to do but let oneself get swept up in it, as there are virtually no cheats. It's the kind of great natural storytelling more often found in slabs of 19th-century novels, Dostoevsky and Henry James and Charlotte Bronte, with chapters and flashbacks and elaborate foreshadowing. There may be spoilers on the other side of the jump.