Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Sonic Youth, "Shadow of a Doubt" (1986)


This fascinating sound sculpture is mysteriously focused on Alfred Hitchcock movies—named after one, with plot points from at least one more woven into the whisper-chant from Kim Gordon. In my YouTube travels I found a nice homemade video (here), made out of this song and scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It is an inspired mashup as indeed is this song itself, potent with popular culture imagery and currents. Yes, the strange tunings, it's always the strange tunings with Sonic Youth. I love them, they always sound evocative and insinuating and lovely to me. I'm convinced it's the basis more than anything else of where people fall on this band. Here it is distilled to one of its purest forms, jewel-hard and gleaming. Compare "Providence" on Daydream Nation. As musique concrete the open spaces are similar but the sense of a narrative is stronger in "Providence." In "Shadow of a Doubt" there is only the sense that a narrative might exist. Or narrative itself—the sense that narrative might exist. "I swear I didn't mean it / I swear it wasn't meant to be / Must a been a dream ... He said / 'You take me and I'll be you' / 'You kill him and I'll kill her' / Kiss me." This is a similar way of looking at things to what one finds in David Lynch movies, dreams and fragments and an idea that narrative might exist, which is probably why the video mashup works so nicely. To close the loop on this, you also find this way of looking at things in Alfred Hitchcock pictures, notably Vertigo, which doesn't so much eschew narrative as grow absent-minded about its existence, distracted by ... something. And Sonic Youth wraps it all up in a beautiful strange noise that goes down easy and lingers to effect. It's as if they knew, as I said once in another context (here). And that guy doing the mashup? Him too.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Day for Night (1973)

#11: Day for Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973)

OK, another little story: In 1989, fully under the sway of Errol Morris and Gates of Heaven and a bare-bones aesthetic that relies chiefly on talking heads, I decided to make a documentary. The premise was simple, not to say narrow: I pointed the camera at fans of the Grateful Dead and at fans of the Velvet Underground, who told their stories of how those bands had changed their lives.

I had, of course, scarce resources and thus zero budget and went in well aware of other constraints as well, such as that my interview subjects had to live in and around where I was living at the time, Seattle (when I should have been in San Francisco and New York). But I did what I could, hoping that serendipity would connect the dots: wrote to publishing companies to get the rights to music (received a very nice letter from Sylvia Reed), advertised in local alternative publications for interview subjects, and worked the word of mouth the best I could. I signed on with a public-access cable-TV channel, which provided equipment and even technicians and medium-grade video stock. It was free, but added more layers of complexity in terms of accommodating and coordinating schedules—not just mine and those of the people I wanted to interview, but now the crew and even access itself to the equipment had to be scheduled weeks out.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Reading Like a Writer (2006)

As a general rule I try to avoid self-help books of all kinds, especially for writers, although the latter can be shiny distracting objects that I find coming home with me from bookstores. This one is a little different in that it's actually more of a self-help book for readers than for writers and that's something I can get behind. I haven't read a lot of Prose's fiction—I'm afraid I find it in the vein of too much MFA fiction—but she is really in a comfort zone when she talks about reading, breaking it down first by "Words," "Sentences," and "Paragraphs"—and even they follow "Close Reading," the first chapter and essentially the statement of purpose, which may contain the single most useful prescriptive strategy for reading I know: "[Begin] at the beginning," she counsels, "lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhance[s] and contribute[s] to the story as a whole." That's her approach to teaching (and she says she and a class can get through up to 10 pages of a narrative in a day), but it's also her approach to reading—and mine too now, within the limits of my patience (which, alas). This is when reading can become the most rewarding—going slow, slow, slow. It reminds me of the old piece of advice about the best way to understand a poem: memorize it. Then it is in your head and accessible to ruminating thought and connection. I like Prose's taste too, also presented as a quick list in that first chapter: "Chekhov, Joyce, Austen, George Eliot, Kafka, Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Nabokov, Heinrich von Kleist, Raymond Carver, Jane Bowles, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant." Lots of usual suspects there, but also plenty of new directions to go as well, and more within the book, which is packed with great examples and great writing. In fact, the section at the end she calls "Books to Be Read Immediately" (there is no list of books to be read later) has made itself one of those go-to lists I like to keep around and consult frequently—among other things it has already brought me back to Jane Austen, and turned me on to Flannery O'Connor and Paul Bowles. In terms of teaching writing, the ostensible end to this, it's about choosing the apt role model; for better or worse, it's always been my own instinctive approach to learning writing. But Prose's book accelerated that for me remarkably, offering fresh new ways into the pleasures and utility of reading, not only by the examples she chooses but also by the way she models her own process. She is a lucent writer and I learned a lot from reading this.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Leave Home (1977)

I suspect the reason Leave Home is my favorite Ramones album is because it's the first one I owned and lived with extensively. Late in 1977, as Ramones product was already starting to pile up, a friend and I, economizing, agreed to take turns for awhile. No surprise, Rocket to Russia is the best of the lot according to him to this day. But Leave Home takes the rudiments of the debut and advances it with just enough confidence and flourish to establish the Ramones sound once and for all: simplistic three-chord rock 'n' roll, verse-chorus-verse pop song structures (with melodies), and calculatedly demented lyrical concerns ("Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," etc.). The pleasure of it is palpable and infectious; the Ramones have always seemed to me so engaging, non-threatening, and spirited as to almost run against the grain of punk-rock. I still think their music is closer to bubblegum and the Ohio Express—OK, make that the Trashmen—than most of the angry mob across the Atlantic. Foundational tracks include "Carbona Not Glue," left out of the original release because of concerns about legal action from the manufacturers of Carbona, a stain-removal product offering a superior high (the song was quietly included in later versions and no lawsuit ever materialized). "Pinhead" is another significant milestone for the band, inspired by director Tod Browning's classic 1932 horror picture, Freaks. The "gabba gabba hey" chorus (modeled on the "gobble gobble, one of us, one of us" scenes from the movie) practically became the band's official motto and ambassadorial calling card. "Suzy Is a Headbanger" is nearly as fine a statement of purpose as Rocket's "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." Song countoffs everywhere, of course. The cover song was the Rivieras' "California Sun," which is approximately perfect, and nicely furthered the persistent punk-rock/New Wave meme of the carefully selected signifying cover. There's a story that the track sequencing here is based on the order the songs were written in so perhaps it follows that "Commando" and especially "You're Gonna Kill That Girl," #s 12 and 13 of the original 14, are the best put-together here, with the kind of hooks and production touches on the chorus that start to unfold only when you get the right hang of how it's sung. But the whole thing is damn fine. Like a whole lot of punk-rock it plays best in the company of itself rather than within shuffle, where Ramones tracks tend to knock heads with almost everything else, so be sure to take the time to enjoy it as an album proper. That's my one piece of advice about the Ramones.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Unforgiven (1992)

USA, 131 minutes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: David Webb Peoples
Photography: Jack N. Green
Music: Lennie Niehaus
Editor: Joel Cox
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek, Frances Fisher, Anna Thomson, David Mucci, Rob Campbell, Anthony James

Director Clint Eastwood so thoroughly gulled me with this self-serious and anachronistic meditation on women's issues and gun violence transposed to the 19th-century American frontier (1880 Wyoming, to be specific) that I took away a number of enduring misperceptions from it, chief among them that Eastwood embraced liberal/progressive values. It's fair enough to say I like Unforgiven in the same way and for much the same reasons that I like the Star Trek franchise, particularly The Next Generation—for the earnest way it supplants toxic old myths and replaces them with new and convincing models (to me, the eternal political naïf and social optimist). As propaganda, one might say, putting a less pleasant spin on it. It wasn't until the last presidential election cycle that I finally said something that caused a friend to disabuse me of my sense of Eastwood (imagine if it had been this year when he turned up talking to an empty chair in prime time—how embarrassing for me!).

Twenty years on, it's readily apparent that Unforgiven is more a picture about 1992 than 1880—or perhaps, more abstractly, about making Westerns in 1992 rather than 1939. The self-seriousness is written into practically every line and gesture. For all the sturdy structure and fine pacing and confidence of the storytelling, the two sets of values are so jarring in opposition to one another and our expectations—the look and feel of the rugged West where a man is a man vs. "c'mon people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love one another right now," etc.—that it often comes across as stilted and affected. Yet I have seen Unforgiven many times and it rarely fails to work on me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Them, "Gloria" (1964)


Garage-rock actually did manage to seep down to my 10-, 11-, 12-year-old world in various screwy ways—church youth dance functions of one sort or another, mostly—and even back then I had "Gloria" pegged as the one they all played (along with, in my neck of the woods anyway, "Surfin' Bird" and often "Liar, Liar" too), even before the Shadows of Knight brought it to radio. It was usually a barnstormer, filling up the dance floor, sometimes even closing sets. For me, it took Patti Smith's inspired twist on it 10 years later to wake me up to the true dimensions of Van Morrison's amazing rock 'n' roll standard. She turned it into a profane starry-eyed goof on medieval Roman Catholic orthodoxy, as in "Gloria in excelsis Deo." And even then I still had to work my way back through that Shadows of Knight version—the one I knew first and best, which is not bad at all, if a bit on the copycat side with some slight sweetening, and indeed was my official favorite version for a time—to finally get to this good and proper. These mid-'60s Them sessions yielded amazing stuff and you might as well start right here. The attack is pugnacious and sullen, pressing in with deft moves like a pickpocket on a crowded platform, the band a model of tight sharp-elbowed poise, and Morrison raspy and harsh within the melodics of the blues form as only he can be, still a raw talent, prowling the song like a tomcat, arguably learning some of his slinky vocal moves off Mick Jagger, arguably teaching them to Jagger too. Did I mention that it is 1964 and he is 19 years old? You know what he went on to. You know the chorus. This is classic rock in every way that is good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fearless (1993)

#12: Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993)

Fearless came along shortly after Peter Weir's most blatant Hollywood paycheck projects to that point, Dead Poets Society and Green Card. It also came a year after Alive!, another picture concerned more or less with air flight disaster. My sense has long been that Fearless kind of got lost in the shuffle, whether because of some sort of Weir fatigue, or maybe just a matter of being second to get the elevator-pitch concept out to the public. I think it's much better than most people know.

Its story, about a man who has survived the crash of an airliner and come to believe he is invulnerable to death, often strays into touchy-feely New Age realms, but does so with a flinty poise that rarely fails to redeem it. If only Nixon can go to China, perhaps only Peter Weir can go to such baseline emotional matters of life and death.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Family (1994)

Ian Frazier really does some amazing things with his memoir of his own family history. Studded as always with a stimulating array of facts that his exhaustive, painstaking research uncovers, it ties his family to the larger American project, even as it sets that larger American project into a surprisingly useful world historical context. In terms of history, religion, politics, and wider cultural issues, he offers it up all neatly tied with a nice bow. I did have some trouble and often found myself glazing over a little bit trying to follow along with the nuances—even the main threads—of some of the older family history. It reminded me some of family reunions where people are at pains attempting to elucidate all the connections and relations. Get me much beyond "cousins" and I'm lost; I don't even know exactly what "removed" means. I also found myself struggling with various corporate histories and explications, as when he describes the work his father did for Sohio. But what I loved, and there's a good deal more of this than the other, is when Frazier just lets the stories of family members' lives unfold and play out, particularly those from his own family of origin. They are wistful and sad and can become quite powerful at significant points, as when he includes love letters between his parents when they were courting, or when he reports on his family's response to the death of a sibling. Much of my interest may stem from the fact that he's only a few years older than me, hence his formative years in the '50s and '60s correspond fairly closely to mine. It's certainly interesting to get the perspective on how similar things were back then, whether it was his suburban community in Ohio or mine in Minnesota—and then on how different they have become now. As much as anything, the sense of the larger arcs of a lifetime are sad and interesting to encounter and compare to my own and those of others I know. I think I may have enjoyed the best parts of this book more my second time through, with 10 or 15 more years of living behind me. But there's also a good deal of sadness in it too, which is kind of the price you have to pay.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Ramones (1976)

Thought experiment: The Ramones self-destruct in 1977—much as they actually did 25 years later—before getting any more than a few demos of the second album in the can, while the Sex Pistols (no doubt under the direction of Glen Matlock) release annual albums well into the '80s that work variations on and/or weakly echo the historic first. Now which band and which album would we have made iconic to the point of fetish? I guess that question answers itself. Don't forget this Ramones debut! To me, it has come to seem almost absurdly monumental over the years—the big bang of punk-rock that produced an ever-expanding universe. I think it's impossible to understate how critically important it is. There should be prominent statues in public places and speeches every year. At the same time, and this is the real kicker of it, it's equally impossible to understate the vitality and pleasure of it, still, the more so when listened to as an album, all 14 shards blasted at once and in sequence. It is a rush of oxygen to the brain, lively and fun and goofy and strange. It is truly the ur-album of a wide swath of music that followed and is still implicitly following it. It cost $6,400 to record. The song count-off emerges as badge of pride and identity. The songs are short—six of the 14 under two minutes and the longest 2:35. The Ramones didn't invent the "the" style of band names but they sure helped bring it roaring back. The band lived in the middle of a huge city, wore shades, sneakers, blue jeans, and black leather jackets. And as for the sources of this—it was new, but often felt familiar—they weren't elaborating on them the way they would later, but somehow one sensed it all intuitively: too much TV, too many trashy B-movies, drugs, comic books, dysfunctional families, sketchy street scenes, and, of course, hangin' around with nothin' to do. The unholy alliance of '60s garage and Brill Building pop, the basic Ramones musical aesthetic strategy, was a revelation at the time and it is still. Simply for so imposingly inventing itself as if all at once, this album will always be on the short list of the band's best, and indeed at the top of many of those lists. It is certainly the place to start with them, and stop if you must. For me, it's just the beginning of a long, delicious, always fun-filled ride across many years and many albums. It stands within the Ramones catalog as a most emphatic "1-2-3-4."

Friday, October 19, 2012

I Love You, Man (2009)

USA, 105 minutes
Director: John Hamburg
Writers: John Hamburg, Larry Levin
Photography: Lawrence Sher
Music: Theodore Shapiro
Editor: William Kerr
Cast: Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Jaime Pressly, Sarah Burns, Jane Curtin, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jon Favreau, Rob Huebel, Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, Mather Zickel, Thomas Lennon, Lou Ferrigno, Rush

As much as I enjoy laughter, I'm not particularly versed in latter-day American film comedy. I think this one may fall loosely under the "Apatow" label. Director / screenwriter John Hamburg is more closely associated with the Ben Stiller industrial complex, with writing credits on all three Fockers travesties, Zoolander, and Along Came Polly (the last of which he also directed, and the only one I've seen that I liked even approximately). Stiller himself goes way back with Apatow, but more than anything I think it's the familiar faces of Paul Rudd and Jason Segel that is giving me the impression. They are in many of these things, along with the omnipresence of that congenial try-anything gross-out aesthetic that permeates this.

I liked this movie when it came out and then I forgot about it, but seeing it again recently I was surprised by now much closer to classic romantic comedy it is than the usual straight-up broad bids for bigg laffs. Indeed, it is actually quite faithful to the formula, except the formula has been turned cockeyed. The couple that marries at the end, Peter Klaven and Zooey Rice (Rudd and Rashida Jones), are basically OK all through. It's finding Peter a best friend so he can have a best man at the wedding that's more the problem, and therein lie all the familiar "meet / break up / make up" dynamics of the rom-com.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Iggy Pop, "I'm Bored" (1979)


This is not the first song I've written about from the album New Values, let alone the first time I've written about New Values. I think it's a good one, its stuffy, airless atmosphere has somehow aged well, standing as a fine setting for a memorably tight unit: James Williamson on a punchy, delicate, reeling guitar, Scott Thurston doing a little bit of everything, including horn arrangements, and rhythm section drummer Klaus Kruger and bass player Jackie Clark. Recorded in Hollywood, produced by Williamson. Iggy is about 32 years old and fit as a fiddle. The best songs are rife with throbbing guitar chords and a powerful propulsion, artfully detailed by the horns—talking about "Five Foot One" and the title song mainly, maybe "Tell Me a Story" and "Billy Is a Runaway" and some others—but this takes a page out of the loose and playful Iggy I last showcased with "Success." This one also has a precious turning-point moment, and that is what I love about it, as it seems to me to be the real Iggy id, as it were. For the most part it's all Iggy the peacock, strutting and preening about in exuberant clown-like fashion, pouting and declaiming his disaffection even as he sounds anything but: "I'm bored / I'm the chairman of the bored / I'm a lengthy monologue / I'm livin' like a dog," etc. It's a bit monotonous perhaps, to tell the truth. Then comes the guitar break, ushered in with, "Awright, doll-face, come out and bore me." And that's it. That's the moment I'm talking about. Williamson eats it up alive, and then back to the verse/chorus at a slightly higher pitch, over and done, 2:48. I have a theory that only old friends who know each very well and have been through a lot together can pull of a stunt like that. But I'm often wrong about these things.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

#13: Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Billy Wilder's background in Weimar Berlin served him well even if he had to suffer the inconvenience of fleeing. He's cynical, bitter, and funny, pretty much in all the right proportions, and his talent as a screenwriter is at least as abundant as his ability to work with actors and frame visuals. In a list of 50 I was never going to name any more than two titles by any one director, even for my favorites, and Wilder is certainly on the short list of my favorites. I was happy to see Phil pick The Apartment earlier, because that was one it pained me to omit, and I was sorry Phil felt constrained to drop Double Indemnity just because I got to it first. Like other pictures that have been mentioned here twice, I think it's one that's always worth talking about some more.

But Sunset Blvd. is my favorite Wilder. It's frequently characterized as a noir, and indeed one of the great ones. Its various deep shadows and the incidental crime in the frame make that appropriate enough, I suppose, but its black absurdity makes it seem to me more of an American gothic—or even more specifically a Hollywood gothic. A lot of unexpected faces come floating out of it: Erich von Stroheim as the dour butler; Cecil B. DeMille in a cameo; even Buster Keaton's stone visage turns up, aged a couple of decades and sitting at a table playing cards. The most cheerful, healthiest version of Jack Webb I've ever seen is there in a small role too.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"The Pupil" (1892)

"The Pupil" is short enough that it's probably more reasonable to consider it a story (or "tale," in the parlance) and be done with it. It's all at once a dense thrust of language and so lucid that its terms are clear from the start: a boy, a tutor, and the mother (and family) who hires the one for the other. Yet it never seems to go quite where you expect, and the ending, which is predictable enough, even so took me by surprise. In fact, a good many things are turned upside down in this. As usual with James it's often very funny, deceptively so. His authorial voice runs along in its eternally studied murmur and suddenly something happens—a turn of events or a turn of phrase—and one realizes he has just made a very sly joke, one that, in fact, is perfectly timed when you go back to look at it more closely. Follow along carefully, for example, with his use of the term "man of the world." But for all that, it turns tragic and effectively sad and moving in the end, simply by the expert way in which he continually turns expectations on their heads. The first—my first, anyway—is that this will be some variation on O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" or maybe something by Booth Tarkington or Clarence Day (all of which would have come after this story, but bear with me), a wry, puckish account of an unruly boy and the adults who try to control him set approximately at the turn of the 20th century. Instead, it turns out to be the boy's family that is the source of problems, to a degree that grows increasingly pathological and less funny (even as the jokes keep coming, but now they sting). As usual, it's 98% Americans cast adrift in Europe, attempting to adapt to the social climes and make them work for themselves, even as they inevitably impose unsophisticated homegrown values one way and another. In the end the boy and tutor are enormously likeable and I found myself coming to hate the family every bit as much as the tutor comes to, a point that is initially baffling when it is brought out early as foreshadowing, before we have any more idea than the tutor what about them could engender such loathing.

"interlocutor" count = 1 / 41 pages

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Songs for Drella (1990)

This is a bit of a solemn project, a memorial album for Andy Warhol that Lou Reed and John Cale collaborated on after many years of estrangement, coming together in memory of their mentor and friend and blowing apart again almost immediately after. Perhaps because of lingering strains between them—or perhaps for some other reason entirely—the result is closer in feel to Double Fantasy than any kind of Velvets redux. Both artists are credited coequally for all 15 songs here but the styles veer about quite wildly, settling in two distinct places, one that sounds like John Cale and the other like Lou Reed. If the old Lennon & McCartney strategy for figuring out the real songwriter applies here, namely, who's got the lead vocal, then it's Reed by 10-5. But because it's not actually that simple (and isn't either with the Beatles), Songs for Drella also works as the Velvets redux everybody wanted. But that is more because the sense of Andy Warhol is so potent, taking off from the manifold images of him that Reed, Cale, and we as listeners carry around with us. They explore his biography, as in the opening "Smalltown," or in "Slip Away (A Warning)," which remembers the aftermath of his shooting. They play with his aesthetics and background milieu on "Trouble With Classicists" and "Images." Mostly they just heap love on him. You can feel it. This is a side of that whole scene that partly got lost in all the mess, but the degree of affection for Warhol that is on every song here, however melancholy, guilty, and defensive, is bracing. It's impossible to miss, the one thing I always take from it again. They liked Warhol. They resented him. They got exasperated by him. But more than anything they admired and loved him fiercely. They are humbled and proud to have been associated with him, and grateful. All that comes through the weird tensions and cross-currents that are nearly as palpable here. It's all good music, for all these reasons and more, but I think Reed has the advantage of Cale (which he evidently pressed with twice as many songs). This is the year after his mini-comeback New York, one of his better periods. He's all over his controlled noisy guitar squall thing here, and when he goes into his Coney Island Baby adorable pouty confessional style at the very end, in the song "Hello It's Me," he gets the last word and uses it to nearly steal the show. But I think the whole dang thing is just prime really, an interesting collaboration and a great album, testament, and set, tender and very moving at its best.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Short Cuts (1993)

USA, 187 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Raymond Carver, Robert Altman, Frank Barhydt
Photography: Walt Lloyd
Music: Mark Isham
Editors: Suzy Elmiger, Geraldine Peroni
Cast: Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Jack Lemmon, Zane Cassidy, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Joseph C. Hopkins, Josette Macario, Robert Downey Jr., Lili Taylor, Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis, Alex Trebek

I think I might be safe in calling Short Cuts the last great Robert Altman picture that Robert Altman ever made—though at least two others by him that came later, Gosford Park and A Prairie Home Companion, are worth chasing down for other reasons. But Short Cuts goes further, taking that patented messy style Altman perfected in the '70s, with handfuls of interesting characters, overlapping dialogue, and parallel narratives that operate like string theory alternate universes, occasionally brushing up against one another to ignite little big bangs and new universes, and raising it all a notch higher by dressing it up in the emotional finery of shards and fragments of Raymond Carver stories, transposed to Los Angeles.

It is a tremendous and brave reimagining of Raymond Carver that happens to work very well. The cast is dazzling. The jazzy soundtrack is surprisingly propulsive. It's strange and beautiful and alienating from its first shot, the glorious landscape of Los Angeles seen at night from above, a community united by television, celebrity, helicopters, tony culture, and cars. Into this intrude the fragments of Carver, familiar, haunting, seared into anyone who has read them: the boy who dies before his parents can pick up the birthday cake they ordered for him; the fishermen who find the corpse of a 23-year-old woman who has been raped and murdered, and simply go on fishing until they catch their limit; the man who methodically destroys everything in his estranged wife's home while she is away for the weekend. In the end, I think this turns out to be a great, unexpected match of unique sensibilities, on a par with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg for A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lou Reed, "Bottoming Out" (1983)


"One of the greatest songs written about alcoholism, spousal abuse and suicide ever!" says a YouTube comment at the video at the link. You have to give it up to that person. Setting aside how many songs are written about alcoholism, spousal abuse, and suicide in the first place, it's not far wrong, although it's not the alcoholism, spousal abuse, and suicide that make it one of the greatest songs written ever. A lot of the credit has to go to bass player Fernando Saunders, whose soaring, loping playing style provides one of the most important dynamics to Lou Reed's band in this period, one of his best, and this is one of his best showcases. The Blue Mask and Legendary Hearts, which is the home of this track, both feature Saunders, guitar player Robert Quine, and Reed in one of his best songwriting periods. "Bottoming Out" is told from the point of view of a person an awful lot like Lou Reed at the time, but not exactly, into discipline and control but weakened and tortured by addiction and a deep hunger for redemption, a drunk by the sound of it, with a searing drama about a terrible night and a bad accident, a relationship and bitter fights and making up and calling it love all over again, etc. Personal growth on public display, and it's bracing enough on that level, kudos to Reed of course. But I have to bring it back around again to Saunders. Because the way he lives inside this song, and the best of all these songs, the way he feels for the big moments in the tawdry rubble of Reed's stories, it's really something. Gorgeous. He makes it positively heroic. Alcoholism, spousal abuse, and suicide. Also a chopper, child bride, and open road "drunk but my vision's good"—straightforward bottoming out style. You don't forget it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

#14: Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)

There are times, usually when I'm caught right up in the middle of one of his pictures, that I'm pretty sure Todd Haynes is the best filmmaker we've got going at the moment and into the imaginable future. A cooler head prevails days and weeks later and then I'm less sure, with misgivings and natural second guessing about my overheated response. Then I look at another one of his movies again.

Safe is probably the best, objectively speaking, Far From Heaven is just a wash, and I haven't seen the HBO Mildred Pierce yet. My favorites are the fables of pop mythology, which find any number of ways of blowing up history and reassembling it into cultural zombie form in order to get at the base essentials. His 43-minute meditation on Karen Carpenter from 1987, Superstar, is famous for the way it uses Barbie and Ken dolls to enact the roles and tell the story with sensitivity and a surprisingly touching way. The Carpenter family has never granted rights for the music, obviously central to the story, so it's been available over the decades only as a bootleg. It can be seen via the YouTube link below. (The strategy with the dolls is briefly reprised in Velvet Goldmine and I've included a link to that clip too; I think it's actually amazing how well Haynes can make it work.)

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006)

I'm still not sure what I think about the Stieg Larsson trilogy after reading this. I'm not even sure when I'm going to read the third one, though I expect I will eventually. I see how by constructing a narrative of some nearly 2,000 pages and keeping it together with a good deal of complexity and yet with an essentially simple story at its base—the romance between Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander, I am presuming—Larsson really did pull off something remarkable. That said, this does feel to me like a bit of a placeholder and there mostly for the exposition, thus a decided momentum killer. The most interesting part to me was the first 200 pages or so, with Lisbeth traveling around and eventually setting up a new identity and life for herself in Stockholm. Once the plot kicks in—the triple murder that Lisbeth finds herself accused of, and all the efforts to track down the killer and/or clear her name—it felt to me like it lost a good deal of steam. Larsson is remarkably artful in the way he elides the murder, following his characters right up to the point it happens and picking up immediately after, in order to keep us guessing. But it's fairly stale bait. In general, he is very good at structuring, moving nimbly from one character to another, one scene to another. There are small cliffhangers along the way, but more often it's a matter of smoothly pivoting from one to the next. Also, as others have noted, he is masterful at making the mundane interesting. Who knew that a diet heavy on apples and Billy's Pan Pizza (whatever that is) could be so compelling? Even so, the complaint I registered after the first novel (and, before that, with the first movie in the Swedish TV trilogy ... the only version I have seen), is Lisbeth's status as a kind of de facto superhero. I'm not entirely comfortable with the outsize exaggerated here, which crops up with more than just Lisbeth (for example, the invulnerable giant, Ronald Niedermann), but is most evident with her. This seems to be another version of Tom/Joey from A History of Violence, in terms of her raw physical capability. She's tiny but she routinely kicks ass (sometimes literally)—even defies death here, a gunshot to the head and buried alive (I did like how Niedermann was afraid of her and ran away). I can see that's as intended, for effect, but still. Some general believability issues going on here.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

XO (1998)

I saw Elliott Smith in 2000, and I enjoyed the show, just like I enjoy all his albums, but it didn't help me get a bead on him any better. I'm often impressed with his material; I'm often impressed with this album and with all his albums. I can distinguish this one because I can distinguish the song "Baby Britain," which I would have to call my favorite by him, although I'm not entirely sure it's in character. I'm not sure what's in character for Elliott Smith in the first place, which is the problem I'm trying to talk about. On the other hand, it's always such a lovely mood, and there is a lot to be said for that, at least in his case. This may be why I tend to prefer him by the albumful, by a dozen songs or more at a time—a groove of them, if you will. They blend with one another into the finest tapestries, touching and developing musical themes, more so as one comes to know them. But there's something vague about it too, I know. I'm still not sure exactly what the difference is between "Waltz #2 (XO)," the other single from the album with "Baby Britain," and "Waltz #1," because I just haven't taken the time to listen to them side by side (the album sequencing puts "#2" at #3 and "#1" at #8, someone else can make sense of this) to compare. I think I hear the Pacific Northwesterner in him in the wide-open eclecticism delivered with an American accent, but there are all kind of influences lurking in here like beasts of the sea—Nick Drake, Byrds, Merseybeat, to name three obvious ones. It's cozy wintertime coffeehouse music, something to play while reading Signet Classic paperbacks or for in the darkroom. It's sad and human, warm and engaging, but at the same time a little cold and clinical too, which I take mostly as artifact of an introverted personality attempting to get over, on which terms I identify. I really like this—I had better state that clearly because I think I might be making a muddle of this. It's comfortable and comforting, and if it isn't exactly memorable, in terms of causing one to carry the songs around in one's head, it is instantly and easily found residing in memory, calling up old feelings and creating new ones, elusive as fog while it plays, somehow making more sense in the times heard between, confirmed by playing again, when the familiarity and the nice comforting feel of it take hold again, deepened and refined. Nice to hear a lot of at a time.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Mexico, 106 minutes
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writers: Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Cuaron
Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Alex Rodriguez
Cast: Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Maribel Verdu, Daniel Giminez Cacho, Andres Almeida, Juan Carlos Remolina

Y Tu Mama Tambien makes its intentions evident from its first shot, a bedroom glimpsed through a doorway. On the wall is a Spanish language poster for Harold and Maude. On the bed are two nude teens, writhing and gasping in desperate jackrabbit sex. Their bodies are not perfect. They look like ordinary people. The girl, we find out, will be traveling to Europe soon. The boy is worried that she won't be faithful and she, in turn, is worried that he won't be. They make silly playful promises to one another. It neatly captures the film's charming balance of sexual charge, innocence, danger, and observational precision, and then swiftly begins to introduce more characters and sketch out the remarkable narrative engine that will drive this.

Before long we encounter the picture's one conceit, a calibrating perspective that regularly intrudes on the action, when all sound drops out for two or three seconds, and then a voiceover narration commands our attention briefly. This narrator is unnamed (Daniel Giminez Cacho, who is even uncredited in the film!). He is evidently not involved in the story but knows all the details—or at least has a version. He tells us things we need to know about the characters. He tells us trivial details about incidental matters such as the fate of a marauding band of pigs that is encountered. The effect is to give the picture the quality of a formal short story, a literary work, evoking a powerful mood. Even the fates of the pigs are poignant coming from this narrator. That sense is confirmed by the powerful ending, a memorably great last scene, last shot, last line, last moment—finished at its apex. Y Tu Mama Tambien often feels random and scattershot, a road movie times impromptu documentary times Godard madcap, handheld cameras and weird frames and action that often feels improvised. But in the end it becomes obvious how careful it has been every step of the way.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Mojo Nixon, "Elvis Is Everywhere" (1987)


A lot of things about what is likely Mojo Nixon's best known song have dated badly, not least the main thrust, the tired old literal deification of Elvis Presley, with its unpleasant echoes of the hobbyhorse mythmaking of the '80s. It's a novelty song, and sounding infinitely smaller a year or two past their era is a problem that novelty songs have. I knew someone who shared a place with Mojo Nixon for awhile and he said what you see (hear) is what you get, an entirely unfiltered guy who sat on the couch and played a guitar and held court, day and night, 24/7. Any time my pal came home, he'd find it again. Mojo Nixon. Carrying on. I've only seen him once, but yeah, it was pretty much this, raving around a lot of different songs, including this one, of course. I have always connected with the whole shtick somehow, it just makes me laugh. He's got a kind of Don Rickles/ Rodney Dangerfield type of energy that I love, the comic who throws everything he's got into it until you can feel the figurative veins throbbing in the brow. And in this way he gets laughs. Example: After he blows it (nowadays—it used to be one of the reliable laugh lines) with an unfortunate Michael J. Fox dig, this is where he goes: "And Elvis is in Joan Rivers but he's trying to get out, man. He's trying to get out! Listen up Joanie baby"—and into the chorus. I know it's risky to make this kind of assertion, but—that's funny! It's really funny! In the 25 years since this song came out Joan Rivers herself has made it better and better.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Lady Eve (1941)

#15: The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)

In his earlier pick of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Steven wrote, "There was a time when it was the duty of Americans to insert the wisecrack that could deflate delusions of grandeur." Preston Sturges practically spun an entire career out of that—short, perhaps even limited, but so fully realized that nearly every one of the dozen or so pictures he made are worth seeing. They crackle with energy and spitfire dialogue, which sometimes goes by so fast even the players seem to be having a hard time keeping up (and I have to think a lightbulb or two lit up over Robert Altman's head when he saw the way Sturges made use, perhaps inadvertently, of overlapping dialogue). The troupe of character actors Sturges regularly went to—William Demarest, Eddie Bracken, Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, Arthur Hoyt, Victor Potel, and many others—are so familiar it's a case of never-ending déjà vu, and they are absolute comedy pros.

My favorites include The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Betty Hutton's great moment), Sullivan's Travels (in which a successful comedy director wants to make a very serious Grapes-of-Wrath-style picture called O Brother Where Art Thou?), Christmas in July, and Unfaithfully Yours, which came a bit later than the sweet spot of Sturges's early '40s surge. (The Great Moment is really the only one to skip.)

Monday, October 01, 2012


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)—Wow, a ton of good energy, lots of surprises, completely engaging beginning to end. I think I liked this a lot.
Beautiful Boy (2010)—A couple (Michael Sheen, Maria Bello) about to separate find out that their son and only child, a freshman in college, has killed 16 people at his college and then himself. It tries very hard, but still, dry eyes in the house.
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
Boy Meets Girl (1984)—Extremely annoying.
Brazil (1985)—Second time. Still do not like. Just checking.
Come and See (1985)—Really good WWII story about Nazi atrocities in Byelorussia. It sounds tediously familiar/obvious but it is anything but. One of my favorites this month.
Consuming Spirits (2012)—Years-in-the-making animated feature, complicated and weird, sometimes makes you work too hard, but a pretty good payoff.
Crime Story (s1, 1986-1987)—Got to the end of the first season of this interminable, weirdly baked early Michael Mann production finally, with Dennis Farina deplorably bad as a tough-guy Chicago cop bent on taking down a gangster. So much is bad about it but every episode also had something you just wouldn't expect—a shot, a scene, a set piece, a plot detail, a surprising face. Lots of familiar faces here—David Caruso, Deborah Harry, Pam Grier, Ving Rhames, Julia Roberts, Michael Rooker, Christian Slater, Lili Taylor, even Miles Davis. YMMV but I'm not rushing into the second season any time soon.