Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Blue Velvet (1986)

#24: Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

I'm indifferent myself on the issue of spoilers—my thinking is that if the pleasure of a movie is solely dependent on its ability to surprise (*cough* The Crying Game *cough* The Usual Suspects) then it's only more obvious whether it has anything else to recommend it when someone has already tipped me off to the twist. I figure that I get enough surprises in my day-to-day life as it is, so I don't mind the occasional heads-up on my entertainment choices.

That said, however, I do count myself fortunate to have seen Blue Velvet under the circumstances I did. A friend saw it at a press screener, and called and urgently told me to "just go." So I saw it the week it opened, knowing nothing about it, hoping only that it had something to do with the Bobby Vinton song, which I like. I was as unprepared as anyone could be for the roller-coaster ride that starts with Kyle MacLachlan's discovery of a human ear in a field near his home and continues on down into the figurative rabbit hole of this picture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Talking Heads, "Animals" (1979)


Fear of Music has its flaws but it's also a great album, the best Talking Heads ever did I think, and it's mostly because of these loopy wackjobs that keep coming out of nowhere. There's a bunch of them on the album—"Electric Guitar," "Mind," "Air," you can tell most of them because the titles tend to be simple nouns—and they're not anything like this or one another either, at least not in the ways they approach being a song. Here the singer has a comically deranged take on the fauna, which goes mostly unnamed by species (except for a "crazy dog"), who he is convinced "are laughing at us / Don't even know what a joke is." I liked David Byrne a lot more back then when I didn't know as much about him. He was still pretty much a mysterious figure, skinny and intense, rumored to be mentally ill (fallout from writing "Psycho Killer" most likely), wearing all black and hanging around with Brian Eno, and he could really pull off a joke like this, not least because it was so unexpected. The singer is in a rage. It's the first thing he tells us. And why? Something about animals eating nuts and berries. "I will ignore animals' advice." And, oh yeah, he thinks they're laughing at us. "They're laughing at us!" he says for emphasis. You can tell it's what really sticks in his craw. The whole thing is so stupefyingly inane, just dumb. That's why you start making like an animal too, baying with laughter at the guy. With also, let us not forget, a very find band throwing down a regular pile driver pattern to drive the thing at throttle. Just like that it's over. On to the next trip.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

#25: It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

This one kind of sneaked up on me. I don't recall it as ever being much of a holiday staple in my family when I was growing up, and by the time I had started to figure out how much I like Capra movies—Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and especially Meet John Doe did most of the heavy lifting there—I was still suspicious of the Christmas and angels theme. I saw bits and pieces of it over the years, enough to convince myself that it was worth continuing to avoid.

Then, somehow, I ended up watching a TV broadcast from beginning to end at some point in the late '80s. I was surprised by how dark it is, even the photography, which verges on noir in some sequences. It's not just that it's a story about a man who has decided suicide is his best option. It's that it's a portrait so dead-on believable that it's almost painful to watch, telling a story in excruciating detail of lifelong frustration and disappointment. George Bailey keeps seeing his (relatively modest) dreams so systematically denied that his interior life shrivels to the point where, in one of his darkest moments of despair, he can cry out to his wife, "Why do we have to have all these kids?"

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Orchid Thief (1998)

In general terms, you're never going to go far wrong picking up a nonfiction book by a New Yorker writer to read, and sure enough, Susan Orlean's meditations on her travels through Florida and the life of its own of its plant life was pretty good. Made me think about orchids more than I ever have, taught me a good many things I hadn't known about them (for some reason I had the impression they were all odorless), sent me rushing to the Internet a couple of times to look up pictures, which are oddly missing here. There shouldn't just be pictures, there should be old-fashioned color plates. Orlean's book and those Internet pictures didn't quite close the gap enough for me—I realized, with some frustration, that I wanted good high-definition color photos and someone I could interact with and put questions to. Even better than pictures, actual plants. Orlean's book awakened the interest, at least for as long as it took me to read it. I suspect it won't go much further than that, but still, that's pretty good for a book with no pictures and a guy with the opposite of a green thumb. I think I liked best when she got into some history of Florida real estate scams. I responded on a general level to the collector bug infecting so many of the people she meets and describes, including the star of the show, John Laroche. I don't know much about orchids but I am familiar with the collector mentality. And, as I say, it definitely made me think how interesting a one- to two-hour presentation with full multimedia and, preferably, live plants could be. With extensive time for questions and answers and digressions. I came to it because of the furshlugginer Adaptation. movie, of course, and the effect was to make me realize again what a slight and mostly silly indulgent movie it is. I suppose saying that it does a disservice to the book is slightly wrong, or anyway to the writer, because she probably made more money and found more fame and opportunity this way than if the movie had been the least bit sincere, let alone faithful. I know, I know, in that case it would at best be in reruns by now on some nature cable-TV channel. But I want to see that version! (Note to self: DVR.)

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll (1989)

When I say The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll is my favorite album by the Mekons, I should probably also mention there may be some wild-hair element in that of latent hometown boosterism, as the Twin/Tone label, gateway drug to Twin Cities '70s and '80s punk-rock and home of the Replacements, Suburbs, and Curtiss A, among others, had a hand in this getting out, "by arrangement with A&M Records, which continues to manufacture and distribute the CD." This came fourth in line for the label after it had put out a few earlier lesser efforts of the mid- and late '80s, such as Honky Tonkin' and Original Sin—the Mekons, as I feel like I keep saying, was not only at its peak in this period but incredibly prolific as well. And it was a particularly awesome experience to put this on, worried it might be the community-theater kind of effort of which any local label is capable (and no doubt already guilty as well), not to mention the Mekons by design lived and breathed imminent self-destruction, self-immolation, and/or melting down to the center of the earth, a point, sadly enough, if they only knew, the children, oh the children, that is fated to be achieved sooner or later just in the nature of things. And there and then in that moment had my socks knocked absolutely right off by the roar. Yeah, rock 'n' roll. Which only meant an interesting new type of same old element, because the punkism and the country were still there, only receded into a landscape getting impressively complex and just plain impressively impressive. If I didn't know better I would call this an unprecedented second crossroads album. It's a lot of the usual shambolics, verse-chorus-verse clinging to life by force of will and the band playing it that way too, but—and maybe this goes to the pervasive influence that the sensation Sonic Youth was causing at the time—there's a consciousness of a deliberate texturing of sound I had not heard before in the Mekons. Nothing overt, just things one hears in the way they play with suddenly so much more clarity, in the definition of the arrangements (or the recording) and band interactions, tighter and more choreographed and more satisfying on playing loud and listening levels. "Memphis, Egypt" is where it starts—that's the one that gets your attention at 29 seconds in—and "When Darkness Falls" ends it on a whimper. In between it is so much bruising bliss. The titles tell: "Club Mekon," "Only Darkness Has the Power," "Empire of the Senseless," totally epic in "Amnesia," all episodes of Heironymous Bosch drunker after hours in saloon. And so forth. I'm not saying the urge to be in a rock 'n' roll pantheon is the best impulse any rock 'n' roll band ever had. I'm saying the Mekons played and sweated and earned their way into it. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are you getting this?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Yi Yi (2000)

A One and a Two, Taiwan/Japan, 173 minutes
Director/writer: Edward Yang
Photography: Wei-han Yang
Music: Kai-Li Peng
Editor: Bo-Wen Chen
Cast: Nien-Jen Wu, Issei Ogata, Elaine Jin, Kelly Lee, Jonathan Chang, Hsi-Sheng Chen, Su-Yun Ko, Shu-shen Hsiao, Adriene Lin, Pang Chang Yu

Don't act surprised, but I'm having a hard time translating "yi yi" based on hasty Internet searches. Good old Wikipedia tells me that "yi" means "one" and "yi yi" means "'one one,' in the sense of 'each one,'" whatever that means. It goes on to mention that the Chinese characters for it (一一), when vertically aligned, mean "two" (which at least helps explain the off-point British adaptation of the title, A One and a Two). Thus, the best I can make out is that it may be an idiom describing an aspirational level of spiritual integration, a oneness. At least, that happens to be the very state that every single person occupying this vast picture of small family drama (not to mention you and me) yearns for every minute of their waking lives.

In fact, with these insights, I find it helpful now to remember the old joke about the Buddhist monk who encounters a hot-dog vendor and places his order: "Make me one with everything." Set in modern Taipei, Taiwan, a city of some 3 million, it's that profound human yearning as much as anything—I mean for spiritual integration, not hot dogs—that drives the poignant complexity of this deeply meditated story of an extended middle-class family coping with death and life and meaning in a modernized Western society. It's charming, provoking, sad, and lovely by turns, with the deceptively placid feel of a Lifetime movie whenever the music starts to play (I say that as someone who appreciates Lifetime movies, but don't worry, the music doesn't play that often). It's nearly three hours, with a host of complicated characters and interrelations, but it goes down easy, as one simply enters into this life, immediately engrossed even if it is ultimately mostly uneventful.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Steely Dan, "Pretzel Logic" (1974)


I believe a slightly trimmed version of this was actually the first single released from the album of the same name. I see that it peaked at #57, not even close to its follow-up, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number," which made it all the way to #4 and has become the song that people sing with in the movies now. Injustice! They should be singing with this one, I have always been certain of that, even now, when it's all but exhausted after too many years of '70s hard playing constantly. Indeed, you might well hear it better than I can any more, but I am nothing if not loyal to those fond memories of staying up all night over at one person's apartment or place or another and sooner or later this side went on, and this song played again. It's practically a little movie all in its own right, with the big boss blues riffs commanding all attention and Fagen's crazy-wacked surrealist lyrics strained through the blues gestures bringing up the rear. I suppose it's a somewhat tepid workup compared to the evident sources of admiration, Bob Dylan and William Burroughs, appearing in a figurative soft-shoe routine for the ages: "I stepped up on the platform / The man gave me the news / He said, 'You must be joking son / Where did you get those shoes?'" (compare "And dropping a barbell he points to the sky / Saying, 'The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken,'" but never mind, not important). I loved this band and this album in this moment and you can hear all the reasons for it here—a certain swagger, an appreciation for the turn of phrase, spiffy-clean playing everywhere you look. It was Steely Dan's world. We just lived in it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Apocalypse Now (1979)

#26: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Apocalypse Now has always been preceded by the legendary stories of its troubled production, one of those cursed film enterprises (The Exorcist is another) whose backstories are almost as entertaining as the final product itself : in this case, weathering a typhoon that wrecked the sets, earning condemnation from the Animal Humane Society for filming the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo, attempting to direct Marlon Brando at this stage in his career, various haphazard budget overruns and casting adventures (e.g., Harvey Keitel dumped at the last minute for Martin Sheen, who subsequently suffered a heart attack during the shoot), and continuing delays in its release that ultimately earned it the nickname Apocalypse Later. All of this and more are detailed in the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which makes a worthy companion piece for a night of Apocalypse Now.

The final result is hardly a flawless picture. Attempting to transpose Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to America's Vietnam adventure, the whole thing is very nearly torpedoed by Brando's arguably unbearable performance in the final hour, and it's often marked by an almost narcissistic tendency to amp up the drama of scenes beyond what they can support. Yet for all that it contains numerous unforgettable sequences, such as the mission led by the Robert Duvall character to take the point of a river and drop Willard's boat past a point of danger on his mission upriver. Watch for the Coppola cameo as a TV news producer in this sequence, attempting to direct the visuals of the military action, and look for how much is going on in any one of these scenes, with their tracking shots and explosions and helicopters diving into the action and amphibious vehicles leaving the water, and Duvall calmly striding through all of it. In those moments, it is riveting as spectacle. (A clean clip of this sequence in the original English is what I wanted to point to but couldn't find, so instead I'm going with the fine opening.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Against Joie de Vivre: Personal Essays (1989)

Phillip Lopate's second collection of essays, eight years after the first, is more explicit about his ambitions, signaling it from the subtitle and opening the front further with a piece entitled, "What Happened to the Personal Essay?" Indeed, if Amazon reviewers are anything to rely on as cultural barometer, it is a clear case of mission accomplished. "If anyone has an inkling of reservation about the form personal essay, they need to read Lopate," writes one of them. "He's a master of the form." To which I can only add: ☺LIKE. But while Lopate does drop a number of useful names in that meditation on the form (Montaigne, of course, and Jonathan Swift, Dr. Johnson, Addison and Steele, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, etc.), most of us tend toward agreement that the piece "Chekhov for Children" is the best one here, and likely one of the best he's ever done, a simple and straightforward account of his experience staging Uncle Vanya with a group of 5th- and 6th-graders. From the primary expectation that the material could well be over the heads of its players to the concrete problems of memorization and the usual chaos of putting on a show, Lopate teases out all the intriguing detail and troubles and unexpected successes of the project. Anyone who likes Chekhov and those who don't know him but have an interest in the arts and sciences of pedagogy will find much to fascinate and even move them in this account. One only wishes to have been present for either of the two performances, especially the second one, which Lopate found successful beyond his wildest hopes. All the intricacies of casting, managing bored, impatient children, and just plain taking a big chance are chronicled with Lopate's usual wry, clarion language. And that goes for everything else here as well. Much of the self-involvement that occasionally marred Bachelorhood has been cleaned up, no poems are included this time, and Lopate's choices of topics are loose, wide-ranging, and searching, whether it's opening up more about his lifelong career as a cineaste, or the politics of landlords, or smoking, or patience, or more of his experiences both as writer and teacher. It's a perfect pleasure front to back.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Edge of the World (1986)

More of the same from the Mekons after Fear and Whiskey, yes more where that came from, and in this case it's all anyone could have hoped for and much more than they could have asked. When a band this good reaches heights this lofty it's fun just to follow along. The most trifling throwaway gestures can bear the most surprising fruit. It's like great athletes having a great game, as if they have entirely absorbed their talents and skills and their ambitions and just effortlessly channeled it all doing the most amazing things. The ennui here is thick from track to track, but I bet they felt good. I bet they knew they were operating at peak levels. The punk-rock seems to play slightly the lesser role with the sawing and wheedling of their country interpretations more often ruling the day (although if you're looking for the punk workup, that would be "Dream Dream Dream"). They play a Patsy Cline cover, "Sweet Dreams," like a wailing funeral dirge. "Big Zombie" is pure rave-up, you know what to do with the volume knob. "Hello Cruel World" opens the album by turning the suicide's parting shot all upside down. "Shanty" is a faux but convincing enough seagoing ballad, and a pleasure too, particularly when the guitar goes carefully spider-picking on the break, "as we float off the edge of the world." And Sally Timms more and more emerges as a force than I had noticed previously. "Oblivion" works a nice tension between a lullaby melody, a churning throb from an electric guitar, and the way Timms's singing veers back and forth between flinty stone and a tremulous vulnerability. "Garage D'or" is another of her tone-and-word poems, sounding improvised on the spot with handheld tape recorder. I usually have little patience for this sort of thing, but I can't deny that, collectively, they do seem to have a knack for making it work—within the rhythms of the songs as they come and on its own terms as well. And the hits just keep coming. The Mekons are in possession of a number of ways to attack here, and remember, they are also in a phase where everything they do works. All you have to do is put it on.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

UK/USA, 159 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler
Photography: Larry Smith
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Editor: Nigel Galt
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Julienne Davis, Rade Serbedzija, Vinessa Shaw, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Marie Richardson, Leelee Sobiesko, Leon Vitali, Alan Cumming, Fay Masterson

A telling fact about Eyes Wide Shut: Ultimately it earned $55.7 million in the U.S. on its release in July 1999, four months after director Stanley Kubrick's death, but $31 million of that (or nearly 57%) came just in the first week of its release. A simple but transparent story of high expectations thwarted. One contingent had been excited to see the first Kubrick film in some 12 years, and the last ever, while others were excited about the "it couple" of the moment who star in it, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Still others knew it was supposed to be sexy and naughty. What little they otherwise had in common came to include reviling the movie. I took them at their word and, on that basis (and also Full Metal Jacket, his previous movie and weakest by far), decided to skip it.

When I finally sat down with a copy of it on DVD years later my expectations were as low as everyone else's had once been high. My primary concern was how I was going to get through the two and a half hours I knew it lasted. But two and a half hours later I was barely aware any time had passed, and I started it up again. It is that kind of movie for me. Even when it is at its most ridiculous—and it gets very ridiculous—it gives me shivers constantly, shivers of fear, pleasure, recognition, panged confusion. I consider it now as among Kubrick's best, one whose mystery just seems to open up wider and take me deeper every time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Beck, "Jack-Ass" (1996)


Another album that largely escaped me: Odelay in 1996, the Imperial Bedroom of its era in terms of rock-critical falling in line, except this time Robert Christgau was on board too. In fact, he about nails my own reservations while at the same time generally liking it more than I do: "Not quite forbidding, it embeds its lyricism in soundscape, and only prolonged, well-intentioned exposure will enable outsiders to get inside its skilled flow and ramshackle sonic architecture." It left me cold, to be perfectly honest about it, though the wearying years have also had the evident effect of helping me warm to more of these insinuating little concoctions all the time, basically the ones that creased my attention as a result of being released as singles, "Where It's At," "Devils Haircut," "Sissyneck," and "The New Pollution." Except for "Jack-Ass," which peaked at #73 in the U.S. charts and instantly at #1 in my heart, always now and forevermore. I see at Wikipedia that it's based on a sample of a cover of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" recorded by Them in 1966, which until this moment I had not known. But yes, sure enough, checking now for myself (listen). That's where the trembly guitar figure that opens "Jack-Ass" comes from and is indeed one of its highlights. But Beck's falling-face-forward-from-a-chaise-longue melody is all his, as far as I can make out, and it's the main point here—sad, tentative, relentlessly feeling itself into existence. A real beauty. It also doesn't hurt that he ends it on a flourish straight out of Au hasard Balthazar, although I did not actually become familiar with the 1966 Bresson movie until years after Odelay came out. My favorite song by Beck by miles.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

#27: Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)

You could watch Cabaret six or seven times before you would even get to the strange epilogue of Fassbinder's massive 13-part-plus television mini-series, which I first encountered in a theatrical release in the mid-'80s (broken into three-hour chunks shown weekly for five weeks). It's based on Alfred Doblin's 1929 novel of Weimar Germany, a novel that is often compared to the work of James Joyce for its dense, allusive language (Fassbinder reproduces it in extensive brooding voiceovers all through, and if I don't understand the German the sense comes through loud and clear). I think the better comparison may be to John Dos Passos's USA trilogy—equally modern, experimental, wide-ranging, and ambitious to define a national character at a specific moment in history, with a powerful narrative momentum sweeping all in its path forward.

Berlin Alexanderplatz proceeds from episode to episode, most of them just under one hour each, in a way similar to HBO's "Deadwood." There's an arc to the entire production, which in this case never strays far from the story of Franz Biberkopf, a small-time criminal released at the start of the picture from imprisonment for a crime of passion. It details his various attempts, usually thwarted, to embark on the straight and narrow, amidst the tumultuous cultural, economic, and political forces of Weimar Berlin. Yet each episode starts from a unique vantage and moves to its own rhythms, finding its own climaxes, even as it chips in its part of the larger story. The results are evocative and enthralling, fresh and poignant, absorbing and dangerous-feeling, moving deeper and deeper into the historical crossroads across which Cabaret sings and dances so seductively.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

"Daisy Miller" (1878)

Daisy Miller—the main character in this long story, as promised (or implied) by its title—put me in mind of Herman Melville's Bartleby, the scrivener who resolutely and absurdly "preferred not to." She is a kind of willfulness personified, which evidently was taken as some intrinsically American trait in the 19th century. Henry James, who is careful with language, is at pains to show us how careless Daisy Miller is. The entire touring Miller family, from upstate New York, visiting Switzerland and Italy, uses "ain't" with abandon (that's mother, little brother of 9, and Daisy herself). Even more cringe-inducing (as intended), "He says he don't care much about castles," Daisy says at one point, entirely indifferent to her verb usage. Her name happens to be one she has taken for herself, reinventing herself American style, one presumes; it is actually Annie. With Winterbourne, the expatriate gentleman who takes an interest in her, I am puzzled by the odd extremes of her behavior. She rejects polite European (and expatriate) society to hang out, as we would say now, with an Italian gentleman of little means but evidently good heart, as events transpire. Well, as events transpire, Daisy Miller dies of a lung disease contracted as a result of her typical carelessness. It's all a bit sudden, but it's not such a long story and James has little interest in dilly-dallying, which might strike anyone familiar with James's later career as rather out of the norm. "Daisy's grave was in the little Protestant cemetery, in an angle of the wall of imperial Rome"—here, I think, one may find a sense of what James is about with this otherwise somewhat inert tale, worrying the feebleness and futility of her protest against an entrenched society or culture that is nonetheless itself doomed. Daisy Miller may be a casualty but she is striking significant blows on her way down. And it is not so much that society itself, the Europeans, who work so hard to consign her to her oblivion, but rather the heirs of the original protesters, now trying so determinedly to accommodate the narrow perceptions of the empire that their own forebears once rejected so emphatically. Winterbourne may be the only one who grasps this paradoxical shallowness, and even that's not a sure bet. Daisy Miller may be the wisest one here after all.

"interlocutor" count = 3/55 pages

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

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Fear and Whiskey (1985)

The first great thing about the Mekons' great fourth album is, of course, the title. It's so good it was almost too much to hope that it would be a good album too. But it is exactly that, indeed a great one. The surly slop of UK punk-rock turned out to fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces with the brooding resentment of country music in a way that even those assaying the attempt at the time (X, Gun Club, Meat Puppets, all Americans, for what that's worth) never quite managed. This is also a crossroads album. It's the fourth by the British punk-rock journeypersons—but I don't hear anything close to the extraordinary power of this in any of the earlier albums. It dwells in some miserable hell where music like this is the only relief afforded, a bracing, spooky, roaring attack textured by harp, fiddle, and steel guitar, and easy to fall into the habit of playing constantly. In moments it is beautifully awful, er, I mean awfully beautiful. They are playing as if their lives depended on it (by which I don't necessarily mean professionally) and, most exciting, they are suddenly possessed of genius instincts that play out impossibly true, as if they suddenly hit a hot hand at the craps table that no amount of drinking, whooping, and tomfoolery can cool. Everything they do here is a hit, a direct hit. "Chivalry" opens the album like a drunk Jonathan Richman, sounding the themes: "I was out late the other night / Fear and whiskey kept me going / I swore somebody held me tight / But now there's just no way of knowing." Followed by daffy CB radio shenanigans in "Trouble Down South." And so it goes: "Hard to Be Human Again," a basic but obsessively insinuating punk throbber. "Darkness and Doubt," a boggy country wallow that plays almost like send-up. "Psycho Cupid," a tone-and-word poem of great and chilling power enbreathed by Sally Timms. "Country" sounds like a mighty Clash anthem, a beautiful thing of tremendous power; it is one's cue at home to climb on a chair. Not one track is wasted. They are all great. The overall impact is unmistakable—on oneself, and on musical history. I don't know how you get to Wilco, Cowboy Junkies, Lambchop, Old 97's, and great swaths of alt-country without the Mekons and Fear and Whiskey.

Friday, July 06, 2012

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Fa yeung nin wa, Hong Kong/France, 98 minutes
Director/writer: Wong Kar-wai
Photography: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan, Ping Bin Lee
Music: Michael Galasso, Umebayashi Shigeru, Nat King Cole
Editor: William Chang
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, Kelly Lai Chin, Rebecca Pan, Ping Lam Siu

It's interesting that In the Mood for Love should find its way to the top of the critics' consensus list for the 21st century (as collated by the fine folks at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?), inasmuch as it seems notably one that involves a deliberate choice at some point, choosing whether or not to like it. Of course that's true to some degree with all movies (and literature, music, art, etc.).  But few films I know seem set up for that on such an active, conscious basis. So if I have decided to like it I'm aware how easily I could have gone the other way, complaining about its arch premise, its maddening indirectness, and all its surface sheen that arguably comes at the expense of narrative coherence.

There's also the matter of the contrarian in me and the fact that In the Mood for Love has occupied its #1 position for as long as I have been aware of the list (unfortunately the fine folks have not made information available about how the rankings have changed year to year, as they do with their big list). But I can't imagine it won't give way sooner or later to something else—it seems altogether too slight to hold such an imposing position. On the other hand, it's possible to make out surprising connections to, for example, Citizen Kane: it's a moment of a great flowering in a national style, it plays with an array of cinematic elements (and does so with bracing confidence)—soundtrack, composition, staging, performances—and it's insanely capable of delivering pleasures once you begin to take it on its own terms and forgive it its louder qualities of implicit braggadocio.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, "Independence Day" (1980)


If Bruce Springsteen ultimately won me over by way of osmosis, across a period of many years, I can still remember the moment when I clicked over to being admirer and fan, which came with this song. I was moving from Minneapolis to Seattle, dragging a U-Haul trailer behind an iffy Dodge station wagon, going out of my way to head first to a small town in South Dakota that had represented the Midwest to me since I was 8 years old. I thought I was taking advantage of a chance to visit it once more. I didn't realize until this song happened to start that I was actually detouring to say goodbye to the Midwest and the first half of my life, at which point I burst into tears—I mean the hard, wracking sobs kind. It would be easy enough to quibble with the fuzzy aspect of the lyrics here, the inexpertly rendered and incoherent scene between a father and son. It doesn't matter. It's the sound of this song, the doleful mourning quality of it, the way he sings, "Just say goodbye it's Independence Day," focusing it so explicitly on the word and the idea of "independence." That's what did me in. This is one of the truest expressions of "independence" I know, going way past the usual screechy good humor associated with it—the way Dick Cheney said we would be greeted in Iraq in 2003. This song feels like it's doing its work at the greatest depths. Because "dependence," remember, does come with its comforts. An independence day is a mixed thing, that's the reality. It is also a loss, and thrusts one into a future without certainty. These are thoughts and feelings I suspect people such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, etc., etc., knew and felt too.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Do the Right Thing (1989)

#28: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

Steven picked this a couple weeks back for his #33, and between his write-up and commenter Damon Matthew's point about how Spike Lee "piles up the oily rags and lets the spontaneous combustion take place," I think this remarkable X-ray of a race riot has been pretty well covered here. Woo hoo, day off for me!

What has always particularly attracted me is its visceral energy. As Steven alluded to, there's actually a good deal of easygoing camaraderie among the various residents and players of the Bedford-Stuyvesant block in Brooklyn where it's set, but there's an inevitable amount of tension there as well. Working that friction with attention to the small details adds up to a very big, very complex story with a lot of fascinating reverberations.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

A Clockwork Orange (1962)

The story of how this novel came to be written is very nearly as interesting as the book itself. Following a collapse in a classroom where he taught in Southeast Asia's Brunei in 1959, Anthony Burgess was (mistakenly) diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and told he had less than a year to live. He was 42 and worried how his wife would survive after he was gone. As a result, he churned out some five novels within the year and 11 by 1964, including A Clockwork Orange, The Doctor Is Sick, Honey for the Bears, Inside Mr. Enderby, Nothing Like the Sun, One Hand Clapping, and The Wanting Seed. It's thus little surprise that A Clockwork Orange feels like a rush job, often reminiscent of some of Philip K. Dick's novels produced under similar pressures. As much as anything it's saved by two factors: Burgess's training as a linguist enabled him to concoct a flamboyant argot that thoroughly permeates the action (a glossary of this so-called Nadsat was published in earlier editions and is now found easily online; it's essential to understanding the book, though contextual clues are plentiful). Much of Nadsat is based on adaptations of Russian, which makes this more or less de facto a post-apocalyptic Cold War novel as much as anything. Perhaps most significantly, the fate of the work was sealed when filmmaker Stanley Kubrick took it on as a project. Burgess complained loudly and often that the picture distorted the novel unconscionably, particularly in following the American publishers' lead of lopping off the last chapter entirely, but the film seems to me actually remarkably faithful to the novel. Or maybe that's some artifact for me of the indelible aspects of the picture, notably Malcolm McDowell's performance, which rings loudly all through this in dialogue lifted straight off. Even little throwaway lines such as "What didst thou in thy mind have?" recall the picture for me vividly. I loved the movie when I was in high school—perhaps for the wrong reasons, the cartoony verve with which it relished its brutality, "the old ultra-violence"—and was suitably impressed when I read the novel then. Now I think it's still an interesting book, and think of it still for adolescents, though I suspect it's way more marginalized in this day and age. I think the dense slang is what makes it useful, more for the way it forces appreciation for language and its sources than for the moral/ethical conundrum that the narrative pretends to address of the "clockwork orange"—a thing manufactured but with the appearance of the organic—which gets a bit simplistic and overly dependent on I-R-O-N-Y to makes its heavy-handed points about freedom and social conditioning.

In case it's not at the library.