Monday, December 31, 2012

Devil's Music (2011)

So you probably already knew this (I'm behind on everything as always), but it turns out the Teddybears have been a band for more than 20 years with deep roots in Swedish grindcore/death metal. Now those old impulses seem relegated to elements such as titles or maybe themes (e.g., "Devil's Music" feat. ADL, or "Cisum Slived," which reminds me happily of the mentality of Miles Davis circa Live Evil). I must say nonetheless the Teddybears do not strike me as the least bit evil in any way. I would not have even begun to guess the roots from this or the previous album (Soft Machine, 2006), which are a lot closer to product from the Silicon Teens (with star power) than Carcass. By star power I'm talking about the various "feat." guests on display—Robyn, Eve, B.o.B., Flaming Lips, Cee Lo Green, B-52's, etc.—which mostly seem to me irrelevant. I note the heavy Flaming Lips vibe because I know it already. I wouldn't necessarily have picked out the B-52's on my favorite song here, "Cho Cha," an appreciation of a pet cat, but recognizing it's Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson singing doesn't hurt anything. More to the point, the parade of guests does nothing to obscure the overriding unifying vision of the project, which seems on the usual errand of many great albums: having a real good time. You can complain that it amounts to little more than lightweight techno grooves and pop music gestures, but even if you do, I can only respond, "You say that like it's a bad thing." "Cardiac Arrest" is their turn with countryman Robyn and it should have been a hit if it wasn't. "Get Mama a House" makes me want to stand up and jump about the place and I appreciate the sentiment about doing right by one's mother too. "Cho Cha" (so clearly the B-52's playing, now that I know) is funny and tender about the affection between pet and caretaker, soaring on precisely that in the chorus. The instrumentals are good too. Because I happen to love the way this album insists so single-mindedly on the simple pleasures and joys of a dance groove, boppy tunes, and cool beats, I'm left to conclude that I must recommend it, even as I set it on repeat for awhile, till I'm tired of it for another day.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Rescue Artist (2005)

If nothing else, I appreciate The Rescue Artist for clueing me in to the intriguing factoid that Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's famous 1890s painting The Scream is actually painted on cardboard rather than canvas, an evocative point I somehow can't quite get my head around. The painting also holds the distinction of commanding the highest price in history for one sold at public auction, when it went for just short of $120 million at Sotheby's this last spring. It has also been the target of multiple thefts. This book is about one of them, which occurred in 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. It's a great idea because it brings together the appeals of both police procedural and art history lesson. Crossing and breeding such thematic elements seems to come naturally for author Edward Dolnick, formerly a science journalist. His interests are obviously catholic—this is the only one by him I've read, but he's written at least one other about art crime, another about psychoanalysis, and another about 19th-century explorations of the American West. In The Rescue Artist he finds a hundred roads to chase down, and they are always interesting, weaving about across art history, art crimes, and forensics. As detective story, it's a relatively simple and straightforward case but Dolnick makes it a real page-turner, simply because his research has produced so much of interest and he is a deft and effective writer with a sure feel for the delightful fact. He mentions in passing, for example, Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which was stolen in 1961 and recovered in 1965; a reproduction of it, he reminds us, makes a cameo appearance in the villain's lair in the 1962 James Bond picture Dr. No, emphasizing the popular but generally wrong idea that art thieves are eccentric criminals with fine taste. Our hero and the self-same "rescue artist" of the title is one Charley Hill, a Scotland Yard investigator (and undercover agent) and also a Fulbright scholar specializing in stolen art. He knows a lot about it and had a lot to tell Dolnick. I liked it best when the book stayed close to art crime, not just involving The Scream. It was honestly a bit of a shock to find out how much work has gone missing this way and may ultimately have to be presumed destroyed. A Vermeer, The Concert, one of only 35 works by the artist known to exist, has been missing since 1990; other works for much longer, by artists such as Caravaggio, Raphael, and Van Eyck. As an added bonus, even my trade paperback copy comes with eight pages of gorgeous color plate reproductions of paintings and details discussed in the text, including work by Goya, Manet, Munch, Picasso, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Vermeer, and others.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Learning to Crawl (1984)

This must be approximately the point where Chrissie Hynde made the calculation to break for the mainstream even as she managed to retain a modicum of punk-rock credibility. Both factors were more or less direct result of losing half of her band—guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon, both to drug overdoses—in the intervening years between the second Pretenders album and this one. Also having a child by Ray Davies, a marker of whose development provided Hynde with the title of the album. That title is obviously apt in other ways as well. No small part of the work of getting this album done was finding players, thus for example the appearances, on "Back on the Chain Gang," "My City Was Gone," and "Thin Line Between Love and Hate," of Andrew Bodnar, Billy Bremner, Tony Butler, and Paul Carrack. There's a lot of good stuff here; it's a very strong album, with a brooding, rueful air that developed a side of Hynde previously sidelined for the most part. The material is a little uneven, a motley hodgepodge of singles and multiple sessions. Long-time Pretenders producer Chris Thomas and indeed Hynde herself account for continuity. But there's also a powerful sense of searching and probing here. It is an aftermath project, connecting naturally to albums like John Wesley Harding or Tonight's the Night, proceeding out of a post-traumatic emotional state and carefully putting pieces together again. It's probably Chrissie Hynde's most thoughtful album and second only to the amazing debut in her catalog. She's never done anything quite like it before or since. "Middle of the Road," "Back on the Chain Gang," and "Time the Avenger" is the 1-2-3 way she starts it, and there you see the themes she is working with plain. Some of it is lightweight throwaways, such as "Watching the Clothes," which somehow reminds me of something on Double Fantasy (as you can see, she is either determinedly projecting herself into the rock pantheon at this point, or I am framing it to see it that way). But my favorites are toward the end of the set, with "My City Was Gone," which is actually one of the best songs about Ohio in a surprisingly crowded field, produced to a tee but convincingly full of tender and bitter emotion. That is followed by the cover of the 1971 Persuaders soul hit, "Thin Line Between Love and Hate." I love the way that nothing in the story of that song of simmering domestic tension has much of anything to do with anything Hynde had recently experienced, but she nonetheless took all that and poured it into the song. It is a remarkable performance, as fragile and beautiful as it is hard-hitting, and feels to me somehow like one of Hynde's most nakedly confessional songs even though it is a cover. Classic.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ray (2004)

USA, 152 minutes
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writers: Taylor Hackford, James L. White
Photography: Pawel Edelman
Music: Craig Armstrong, Ray Charles
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Aunjanue Ellis, Harry Lennix, Terrence Dashon Howard, Larenz Tate, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Warren, Chris Thomas King, Curtis Armstrong, Kurt Fuller

All right then, one more beloved dead icon of various complex attractions up for our end-of-year delectation. Granted, Ray now happens to be many years old. But it's a product of a reasonably unchanging formula, which has been in place since at least The Glenn Miller Story, and in a way, seeing an older version now sets off the basics in stark relief. Ray is a biopic, most plainly and fundamentally. But also Oscarbait, major career enhancement vehicle, hoaried slice of 20th-century popular culture, heroin cautionary tale, inspiration narrative for the disabled, civil rights story, and a few other things as well. It's trying to hit a lot of notes, pun not intended, with a little bit of sugar for everyone. But here's the kicker: it doesn't matter that much because the little bit of sugar for me (division of invention of rock 'n' roll) in many ways trumps all. Critical acumen, such as it is, goes right out the window. All sins instantly forgiven whenever the music starts to play.

Now I happen to be fond of Ray Charles—as who isn't?—so there was always cause here for both interest and wariness. If we have to wallow in something it might as well be Ray Charles. And for the most part Ray seems to get the basics right. But too often it becomes overly wince-worthy, playing for too-easy emotional effects by springboarding transparently off troubled childhood, dead younger brother, impoverished single mother, Jim Crow South, and the loss of his sight as a youth. Fine and good, because true enough, but in Ray it's just the context for various outrageous, unfortunate exaggerations, which only caricature the man that the film is attempting so self-seriously to canonize, even as it seriously bags what it existed to bag: Best Actor, Best Sound Mixing, and nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editor, and Best Costume Design. Yippee!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bob Dylan, "Clothes Line Saga" (1967)


I think this is one of Bob Dylan's best and most funny moments and he's not even trying very hard. But that's what makes it. It seems so effortless. It's some vaguely sketched easygoing neighborhood scene with people shuffling about the place tending to laundry and bantering back and forth. "It was January the 30th / And everybody was feelin' fine"—somehow a portentous statement. The tones of Garth Hudson's organ drone on like someone nodding their head as they listen to a story. The whole band is into a poky groove. It swirls about with nothing much making sense, when all of a sudden striking events are reported, and the song snaps into sharp focus: "'Have you heard the news?' he said, with a grin / 'The vice-president’s gone mad!' / 'Where?' 'Downtown.' 'When?' 'Last night' / Hmm, say, that’s too bad!' / 'Well, there’s nothin’ we can do about it'..." And then the song goes shuffling off to other precincts, even attempting less successfully to replicate the rhythms of that "where? downtown, when? last night" little trick, which is so much fun to sing with too. In general I prefer these throwaways that so generously pepper The Basement Tapes ("Lo and Behold," "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "Please, Mrs. Henry") because it feels more like people enjoying themselves and I think that's the best point of this and the best of his stuff from the time, immediately post-famous motorcycle accident. But I'm equally intrigued by a song traveling under very nearly the same name ("Clothesline Saga") on the big "Genuine" Basement Tapes, in which he seems to be singing "Get your rocks off" as much as anything. Maybe a mislabel.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

#4: The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)

I first encountered this long, slow, drab, confounding, and utterly engrossing four-hour last gasp of the French New Wave on its U.S. release circa 1975. It was formative in its way—I was barely out of adolescence. I went to it with a bunch of people with whom I shared a house and we all spent the next few weeks smoking Galouise and Gitane cigarettes like Jean-Pierre Leaud and his pals and women. Of course the themes and subtexts were over our heads—what was 1968 to us but ancient history already? But the desultory, dissipated lives that it reports on so talkily seemed at once fascinating, seductively appealing, and a kind of promise of a road we could well find ourselves on one day ourselves. Not exactly a cautionary tale, more like a preview of one version of adult life.

I've had similar reactions every time I've seen it since, though I've long since given up cigarettes of any brand, French or otherwise. I dread seeing it every time on some level for its punishing length (217 minutes). My back aches and my butt hurts from the kinds of seats found in the theaters that show it. But once started, there's virtually no going back. One time I noticed shortly before I was planning on going to bed that it was on a cable channel—unusual in itself. My girlfriend at the time had never seen it, never even heard of it. "Let's watch a little bit of this," I said. "We can turn it off when we get tired." We watched all of it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Road (2006)

It's probably just as easy to make criticisms about Cormac McCarthy's end-of-the-world exercise as it is to praise it to the skies. I have heard it both ways, mostly the latter. There's definitely something about it that gets inside of you—I've been reading it the past few days, and in the past few days I've been in a mood—sad, depressed even ... "emotional," as people say when they don't know what else to. Whether it's the book or other external factors is hard to say. But I keep thinking about the book a lot, as when I am on walks. I don't know how much I believe some of it, notably the cannibalism and the pederasty, but who knows what such a world would look like. Little things just take your breath away, like a thought in passing about how cows have become extinct. Or a conversation between the protagonists, a father and his son, about how there probably aren't any crows anymore. Or birds. That's when you start to grasp the scope here. It's a devastatingly imagined picture. I like that the great disaster that caused it is unknown—nuclear war is the first place you want to go, but there didn't seem to be any issues with radiation. Just fire, or rather, now, ash. Whatever the event was it happened in the lifetime of the father. It pleases me somehow to think that Yellowstone went, although it could as well be a meteor strike. In any event, it's not central to the story, which is about the will to survive and, even more, the faith that there is purpose in it, on which the stakes are raised as high here as I can remember ever seeing them. McCarthy is probably most often compared with Faulkner, but long passages here often reminded me of Hemingway, because of the simple, rhythmic dialogue between the father and son that occupies so much of this. Overall it's not as scary as I thought it might be, though there are some indelible images, most of them horrifying, such as the cellar where people are kept imprisoned and alive even as they are chopped apart for food. Or the newborn infant on a spit. Just awful stuff. The wife and mother committed suicide before the action of this book even starts. I have a feeling, if I ever did become a survivor in such a scenario, I'd be likely to go her route. I'm just not sure I have that much faith, and perhaps that is what gives me such profound pause about The Road.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Pretenders II (1981)

I've spent so much time thinking of this as a bad album that I was surprised when I returned to it recently and found more than I expected to like. This is overall a good example, maybe the best, of the "sophomore slump" problem that dogs many rock artists. Symptoms include the tired Roman numeral in the title, songs that sound dangerously close to retreads from the first album, and perhaps most discouraging the abject trivialization of themes that made the debut interesting. For example, the album opens on "The Adultress," a gleeful embrace of an ethos or orientation Chrissie Hynde seemed explicitly to be rejecting before. And the next one, "Bad Boys Get Spanked," is more indication of the direction of cheesy exploitation in which it gets stuck. If you never liked Hynde or the Pretenders project as it developed from here—I've known a few people of this persuasion, some quite adamantly about it—there's surely little here. Perhaps only "Talk of the Town," a good single that came a few minutes late for the first album (which even the naysayers generally do not try to deny). It's true there aren't many new ideas here. Pretenders II often sounds uninspired or overly familiar from track to track. On the other hand, there is at least one notable Hynde trademark that finds its origins here, in "I Go to Sleep." These Hynde torchers, which start approximately here, are songs and productions designed to highlight the soaring, aching, nakedly emotional strengths of her voice, which steps out leaving the rock band behind for orchestral touches. By the time she gets to the chorus it is swooningly gorgeous; in live shows this is where the arm is raised and swayed slowly back and forth. She usually found room for one or two of them on most albums from then on—she even had a hit with one, "I'll Stand by You" (#16 in September 1994). Everything else I have to say about the album would almost certainly be damning with faint praise—good band, good band, the calamity not yet upon them. But given the subsequent dimensions of Hynde's ambition, I'm not sure they ever had a shot at making a lasting impact as a band, even if most of them had survived. This one's for fans only.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dead Ringers (1988)

Canada/USA, 116 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider, Bari Wood, Jack Geasland
Photography: Peter Suschitzky
Music: Howard Shore
Editor: Ronald Sanders
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack, Nick Nicholas, Lynne Cormack, Jill Hennessy, Jacqueline Hennessy

Director David Cronenberg suffered the indignity of seeing what is arguably his greatest film headed for release in the same time frame as the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito comedy vehicle Twins, which necessitated a retitling exercise for Cronenberg. It's a small thing in the larger scheme, but what a clanking substitution. This is not a movie about the idiomatic senses of the term, a casual way of remarking on a surprising resemblance, but instead more explicitly about profound psychological implications of a reasonably common biological occurrence, identical twins. In many ways it is all about the process of psychological separation—individuation, if you will.

It is also, no surprise, an unrelieved creep show with a masterful performance at its center by Jeremy Irons as a pair of identical twin gynecologists who have their own approach to things. That might just be Cronenberg having fun the way he does (and many parts of this are actually very funny, another of his hallmarks often missed)—but it's also not hard to imagine a case for Cronenberg's entire career having been always pointed, true north fashion, toward making just such a movie about twin gynecologists.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lincoln (2012)

USA/India, 150 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Photography: Janusz Kaminiski
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Peter McRobbie

Over his long career Steven Spielberg has always seemed to find ways to inject himself into the zeitgeist, even to the point where sometimes he seems to seize control of it and point it in new directions. With Jaws, he took a gnawing fear pervading vast numbers of lives and gave it a name and a place to focus—was anyone really that worried about sharks before 1975? With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he took a groundswell yearning for meaning and did the same, extracting the spiritual out of the secular impositions of superior technology.

In many ways the historical film Lincoln plays to that pattern. I keep returning to the extraordinary timing of it, even knowing how hard it would have been to plan for, let alone achieve, and even given that ultimately it is beside the point. But I keep trying to imagine what Lincoln would have looked like if Mitt Romney had won the presidential election last month. And I find that I can't imagine it at all. I'm convinced that a good deal of the power of Lincoln—and I think it is an extraordinarily powerful movie—lies in the way it resonates with our present circumstances. Abraham Lincoln is one of our greatest presidents precisely because as Americans we return to him and his era whenever we find ourselves plunged in internal crises, as we are now.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Neuromancer (1984)

I was happy to take another blast through this much praised, pioneering science fiction classic recently and came up about where I expected. The byzantine multi-layered high concept plot, which is its inheritance from hard-boiled detective fiction, lost me pretty fast, as these plots will, while the imaginative near-future visionscape impressed a good deal as always, and even more, the gray dense metal language Gibson uses so skillfully to suggest that visionscape. It should be noted that Gibson is a pretty good story architect even while I have never felt particularly moved to go on and read the next two novels in the larger trilogy (Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), or much of anything else by him. Interestingly, Neuromancer seems to me now to move much more like a graphic novel, image by image, word balloon by word balloon, piecing together the complexities of its plot and its ideas, even though it was well ahead of most such formal novel-length illustrated enterprises. The action here moves almost entirely on spindle legs of concept, which is its deeper inheritance from science fiction—so fully realized, in fact, that it invented its own subgenre, "cyberpunk," stories of infinite cool, vaguely Asian, technologically superior, anonymous youth, living and surviving in a world of smoldering disaster zones and sophisticated communication. Even though I'm not always 100% certain I know what's going on here (along with a good many of the characters to keep me company), and even though the narrative sometimes is so elliptical that all detail of plot points is lost in the blinding edgewise views, I always feel like I know this world on some natural level, and that is what remains most eerily seductive for me about it. It feels convincingly like a place, a time, a way to live and perceive, somewhere that existed. On the other hand, times change and so do perceptions. I find that I understand less now than ever I did some of the basic animating concepts, such as "jacking in." It seemed so intuitive at one time, so exciting and mysterious, but now I associate it more with the refresh button and browsers that won't load. To that extent, at least, Neuromancer may be suffering some tarnish to the gleam, and growing dated. But not by much.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Pretenders (1979)

Not sure I can actually call this an album that changed my life, but it was sure a big deal when it came along, felt like a kind of discovery or apotheosis a long time coming actually, instantly recognized from the first I played it, as if I had always been waiting for it. Which sounds a little corny I know, but when I listen to it again it still sounds impossibly fresh. I took blasts of it daily for months: I seem to recall hanging out of third-floor apartment windows on hot summer nights with it playing very loud. Listening to it again I don't have to wonder why. It's a dilly, a first-rate rock band pouring it out track after track. They are mostly British, swimming up out of the river of punk-rock New Wave of the time, joining forces with a singer and songwriter from the American Midwest working in London as a music journalist. Right time, right place, right everything. Chrissie Hynde, creature of pure instinct by the evidence, a supremely natural songwriter, and more than that, a supremely natural rock star. She was born to do this, genetically predisposed, if not preconfigured. Slinky, sexy, sassy, wrapped in leather and denim, decked out in lace and boots, topped by a shag haircut, singing lewd songs about domination and laughing at you when you liked it. It was irresistible, from the tossaway "fuck off" in the opening "Precious" to the pure pop sass of "Brass in Pocket" (#14 on the pop chart, April 1980) to the instrumental rave-up of "Space Invaders." Longer moody exercises such as "Private Life" and "Lovers of Today" bore intriguing depths, a sensibility that transcended the sensationalism the rest of it sometimes purely got over on. Already she was playing a game of underpromising and overdelivering, this skinny slutty chick who could make chills go up and down your spine when she sings about adultery and other matters in terms of sin—adultery and sin, because she knows that's how the people she has a bottomless contempt for think of it. It's a bracing shot in the face to convention, which should not surprise us when we recall that she is from Akron, Ohio, attended Kent State University during the National Guard shootings in 1970, escaped America in 1973 to London and eventual punk-rock salvation. Sometimes I think she and her story are so good we would have had to make them up if she hadn't actually come along.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Capote (2005)

USA/Canada, 114 minutes
Director: Bennett Miller
Writers: Dan Futterman, Gerald Clarke
Photography: Adam Kimmel
Music: Mychael Danna
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Mark Pellegrino, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan

If you are a collector of Oscar-winning performances you must be familiar already with Capote. A prestige picture practically by definition—classy, ponderous Oscarbait with one foot in tony cultural history (Truman Capote! Harper Lee! Wallace Shawn!) and the other in lurid quarters of popular culture (conservative Midwestern ennui, mass murder, and crime scene photos)—it is chiefly distinguished by the titanic central performance of the redoubtable Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. Hoffman took home the Best Actor prize for his troubles, in the process lending the project enough momentum to also win nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Catherine Keener), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hiding behind the mask of biopic (another winning Oscarbait gambit), it is actually less biopic proper than rote myth-making about a book, In Cold Blood, trying to make of it a Thing That Killed Men's Souls. Capote is precisely the kind of project that can tie me up in knots attempting to assess. It is an empty careerist vanity project in many ways, going through familiar awards season motions, yet incidentally packed full of indie cred signifiers that make bells go off in my head: Truman Capote, '60s fashion, New York City, senseless crime, Catherine Keener, To Kill a Mockingbird, period literary hauteur, Bob Balaban, empty Kansas plains (with wind blowing). Cool! Not cool! How do I decide?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Soft Boys, "I Wanna Destroy You" (1980)


The rockin' side of Robyn Hitchcock often comes as a bit of a surprise in these old Soft Boys songs—could it be that Kimberly Rew has more influence than I know? Dunno. But the big attack of this is formally up to the implications of the title. It's reaching for ringing anthemic heights, however ironically, and hits some nice peaks, particularly at the top of their lungs, in harmony. Hitchcock is speaking metaphorically, of course, as he typically does, but he's also serious that he wants to destroy you. Has he positioned himself with yippies attempting to levitate the Pentagon, feeble blows against the empire, making small cracks in the foundation, some figment of Greil Marcus research streaming from past centuries into Johnny Rotten and the (no) future? More likely he's mad at a girl, who may not even know he exists at all, although the general drift is more on the lines of really bummed about war: "They feed your pride with boredom / And they lead you on to war." That was a popular route at the time, with various world events going on such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. hostages held in Iran, and general Cold War strains. You could get a lot of aggression out by being against war. And who isn't against war (besides Dick Cheney)? But the capper sounds more like a spurned lover: "And when I have destroyed you / I'll come picking at your bone / And you won't have a single item / Left to call your own." And then the band shakes up the whole house knocking it down on the way out. This is a good way to construct rock songs.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Annie Hall (1977)

#5: Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

I suffer with Woody Allen fatigue right along with so many others now, but must say I am probably more surprised than I should be to find out how many people don't like him or his work at all and never did. He was easily my favorite filmmaker for quite some time. Guilty pleasure or otherwise, I looked forward to every new release, unfailingly attended the week they opened, and absorbed them like a sponge. I used the scandal attending his breakup with Mia Farrow and hookup with Soon-Yi in the early '90s as my excuse to officially check out, even though one of my favorites among his more obscure titles came shortly after. I have probably seen only half of his output over the past 15 or 20 years, but on a list like this, if I'm going to be honest, he deserves a lot more from me than just one or two mentions. The least I can do is throw up a top 5...

5. Another Woman (1988)
I already picked this for my #47 for this list, and I know, I know, I know: "out there," "misguided," and not one of his comedies. I admit I am mystified by similar exercises of his from around the same time, notably Crimes and Misdemeanors (which has evidently been settled on by many as one of his best; I guess I need to see again) and Husbands and Wives. But I loved this from the first I saw it and spent a period utterly in thrall to it with a VHS tape from the library.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

"The Beast in the Jungle" (1903)

This late longish story by Henry James is both a fine example of his language at its most tangled, tentative, and nuanced—with approximately one million hedges before the arrival of any period at the end of any sentence—and also a tender and penetrating love story among the middle-aged. We have a good deal more psychological jargon now for the romance at hand—better make that "friendship," the term of choice by author and principals alike—and the general direction it takes between John Marcher and May Bartram. "Fear of commitment" will do, most of that on Marcher's side (of course). The title refers to a conviction Marcher has long held that he will one day be called upon to confront something great and fearsome in his life (the "beast in the jungle" of the title), and hopes only to be able to rise to the occasion when it comes. He admitted this to her spontaneously, when they had met once when they both were in their 20s. When they meet again in their 30s she raises it as a question and he confirms his continuing belief. This is not such an unusual fantasy in the scheme of things (or oops, maybe I gave away something about myself there), but May takes him as seriously as he takes himself, and designs to stay by his side, waiting with him. Waiting is as much what this story is about as anything, and one of its great surprises, as in life, is the swiftness of time. They enter their middle age together, waiting—with respect and even with affection, waiting. Then May becomes deathly ill, sees the beast itself that John must face—a very specific one, and not death—and spends the rest of the story trying to protect him from it, refusing to name it for him. It is almost maddening the way James dances around the point, but it is finally a real and profound one, and it finally gets through to us and to John too, after May has died. It's a remarkable achievement, I think. Terrifying, profound, and believable, tying up its loose ends with grace and humility, it pretty much has to be told the way James has done so.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 42 pages

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

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Brazil Classics, Vol. 1: Beleza Tropical (1971-1989)

I will always credit this for propelling my interest in Brazilian pop music, although now, knowing a little more about it, it's easier to see how David Byrne stacked the deck in his favor here, wearing his anthologist cap, with multiple tracks from Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso, among others. In interviews at the time Byrne said it was impossible to buy anthologies of Brazilian pop music without at least a few excellent songs, often more. I thought that was ridiculous until I tried it myself. A few years ago, when mp3 blogs exploded, whole sectors were devoted to the stuff, going back to the '60s and sometimes further, and the amount of it was truly staggering. I am still sorting through some of those hauls. But this 1989 anthology, the first of a series that has been agreeably fine, has always seemed to me a notably propitious entry point. Or it was for me anyway. As I have come to know the wares of the above-named giants better, as often as not the songs found here still tend to remain high on my lists of their respective artists, though some of those lists are getting longer, and there are still other artists as well. By my lights, it's the best anthology by a good distance of Brazilian pop music that doesn't have any Antonio Carlos Jobim. That might be one useful way to think of it, though a bit of a cheat because Jobim is so ubiquitous on them. I scored this in the first place out of a slush pile, drawn by the Byrne name (of course) and the Sire label. I'm still not even versed enough on the intricacies to get into the nuances of the '70s and '80s periods. I had this on vinyl, short a song or two of the CD release, so I came to know it first as album sides, and then as an album entire when both sides sounded so great, and then I played the hell out of it for several weeks with many memorable things in my life going on, most of those memories attached now to this music. Oh yeah, that old story again. Therefore I love this. YMMV

Friday, December 07, 2012

Do the Right Thing (1989)

USA, 120 minutes
Director/writer: Spike Lee
Photography: Ernest R. Dickerson
Music: Bill Lee
Editor: Barry Alexander Brown
Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Richard Edson, Rosie Perez, Joie Lee, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Savage, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Benjamin, Frankie Faison, Robin Harris, Martin Lawrence, Frank Vincent

It's very possible that I overrate Spike Lee's third major feature. This makes the third time I've written about it one way or another for this blog in the past couple years and I haven't written about anything else by him and, in fact, I still need to see a lot of his pictures that people recommend. Somehow I keep coming back to this one and finding new things in it all the time, from the extraordinary work of its soundtrack, drawing on vast sources of African American music, to smaller pieces of it, such as the fluid court and spark occurring between Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) and The Mayor (Ossie Davis), or the powerful performance of Dee in the final scenes.

It remains what it intends to be first and foremost, with great power: a penetrating diagram of the development and execution of a race riot, which takes place on a baking hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, USA. A good deal of its power, in fact, derives purely from this laser focus. Seen again, it only becomes more apparent how carefully it is put together. All the myriad tiny factors that contribute to the conflagration at the end are systematically identified, defined, laid out, put on display: the simmering hot day with no relief, the brewing complexities of resentment among the characters, the sense of boredom and desperation and hopelessness. Yet it is always full of strange byways and surprises.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Angry Samoans, "They Saved Hitler's NSFW" (1982)


Because I love "They Saved Hitler's Cock" as much for the words as anything, I will start there. It clocks in at only 1:40 but a lot is packed in, though it wanders a bit: "They saved Hitler's cock, They hid it under a rock. / I discovered it, last night. I couldn't even, believe my eyes. / If Hitler's cock could start to talk, it would say: To kill today. / If Hitler's cock could choose its mate, it would ask, for Sharon Tate!" There's more—offensive, vulgar, corny, slapped together, fucked up on so many levels it's hard to know where to start. A cheap shot at movies so bad they're good, or maybe a play for that audience, then much in thrall to They Saved Hitler's Brain and Plan 9 From Outer Space. And they could have saved Hitler's anything but they choose his cock, which is incoherent. They hid it under a rock, presumably because that rhymes. Later they go too far, as the Angry Samoans will. They have to make it erect, they have to drop the name of the Resnais documentary, so on so forth, but it doesn't matter because the song is over and done so fast. This is the Angry Samoans way—fast, raw, and funny. Somehow it works. I particularly like the way Hitler's cock is endowed with a personality. It seems to be a bit of a Sid Vicious kind of character—loutish, vaguely stupid, totally committed, and somehow charismatic. Of course, to "choose its mate, it would ask, for Sharon Tate!" And, of course, if it "could talk, it would say: To kill today." It's Hitler's cock, for Pete's sake! What do you think, it's going to stick a flower stem in your gun barrel?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

#6: Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

I saw Mulholland Dr. when it was new, as it happens with a couple of virulent naysayers, who walked out of the theater with me infuriated, sputtering, and ranting—this was it, they declared, they were through with David Lynch, who they believed meant no good whatever, who in fact they had come to believe was actually laughing at them, sounding a theme by Lynch debunkers heard now for decades. I mumbled something to the effect that maybe I had liked it a little more than they did, but the last 30 minutes were indeed so confounding and seemingly such a capricious slap in the face of anyone invested in the story that I was simply in no position to start trying to marshal my thoughts on it. The air was too thick with imprecations.

I'm not immune to such experiences myself—that could as well have been me walking out of Natural Born Killers or The Color Purple or The Usual Suspects, movies I disliked intensely for their various violations of good faith and intelligence and above all for their pandering, pretentious low-mindedness. I'm not even willing to take another look at them. But when the best-of lists for the decade started rolling out with Mulholland Dr. so frequently in such high position I knew it was time to take a look at that one again.


Monday, December 03, 2012


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Argo (2012)—Great thriller, great story, great detail.
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)—Bloody sequel to the bloody Ipcress File directed by bloody Ken Russell. I mean "bloody" in the Brit sense, of course ("damned"). It's not gory, just perversely willful. And I couldn't follow it. Took me two tries and still not sure why I did.
Christo in Paris (1990)—With this fourth picture of five, the scope of the collaboration between the Maysles and environmental artists Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude comes into impressive focus. Christo's life story, a refugee from Bulgaria as a young adult who has made his way as an artist in the West, is fascinating. It doesn't hurt that the actual project documented is also one of his most interesting: wrapping in beige fabric the Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge in Paris, built from 1578 to 1607 and a staple of French visual art ever since.
Christo's Valley Curtain (1974)—Maysles short about a large-scale environmental art installation, their first collaboration with environmental artists Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude. Some nice images, notably the installation itself, a giant curtain of orange fabric drawn against a valley floor in Colorado. Nice use of the golf course within view of it.
Crimes of Passion (1984)—Very dull Ken Russell sextravaganza tarted up for the '80s.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Preparing to reread Saul Bellow's breakthrough third novel recently, I was, to be honest, afraid of what I was going to find. The novel had meant a great deal to me when I was about 20. But it turned out to be no disappointment. It gets a little silly, or trite, toward the end, and it lacked a lot of the majesty I remember finding in it. The vistas of American landscape did not inspire the same awe of yore, not to mention what was with the Mexico stuff? But I might have even appreciated a little more the episodic structure, which is wonderfully rambling and one of the best parts about it. Basically, I still think the best point is the voice of its narrator, Augie March himself, clearly entwined with vagaries such as the structure. That voice is so clear and forthright, in error and in vindication alike, with a charming "think out loud" earnestness that really carries everything. The nascent postmodernistic deconstruction of Mark Twain works only insofar as what insight it provides into Augie March, the self-conscious writer of the narrative. It feels more like his idea than Bellow's to even go down the trail, which is admittedly a pretty good trick on Bellow's part. There's something more like Dreiser or Richard Wright—or maybe it's Chicago—something naturalistic about the way the characters in Augie's life, such as his brother, simply come and go, reappearing randomly in various circumstances that usually feel like the way things really happen, and sad, all mixed up with love and confusion, driven by nothing that even makes sense. When I think about the books I liked most when I was about 20—big, sweeping interior pieces like Joseph Heller's Something Happened, or the first two volumes of Frederick Exley's memoir, or even John Dos Passos's massive USA trilogy within its vast multiplicity of characters—it makes sense that I would go for Augie March. The real surprise, as I say, was how well it held up more than 30 years later.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Blues (1966-1970)

If I'm honest, the only Hendrix album I've played as much since this anthology came out in 1994 is Electric Ladyland itself. It's nothing against Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold as Love, Band of Gypsys, or any other live set or anthology that you or I might be in a mood to champion. It's just that this one turned out to be so shrewd at playing to one of his great strengths—and the one strength that is perhaps most taken for granted about him. He played rings around his generation of guitar players—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page—particularly when he retired into the sound on which he cut his teeth in the first place, playing all those hardscrabble dates and sessions with the Isley Brothers, King Curtis, and whatnot. He had a real affinity for blues and you don't need to look any further than this for the evidence. In fact, this is exactly the place you need to go. It roams at will through sessions crisscrossing his brief career, cherry-picking, sequencing as much by feel as anything, and somehow turning out a set nigh unto perfect. Whether it's nine more minutes of the epic "Voodoo Chile Blues," versions of his own first blues, "Red House," or live performance, there is some of everything here in this hour-long set. He is generally as loose-limbed as I've ever heard him and the sound is good from track to track. It's always a blues but otherwise the playing styles range wide, solo and with a band, usually on an electric but sometimes an acoustic guitar. Some instrumentals and many long instrumental passages. He plays around with the songs, their structures and thematics, he pushes at the borders with his playing. Lots of long songs here, seven of the 11 are six minutes plus, including a live version of "Hear My Train A Comin'" that's 12 minutes long. Blues wears notably well, an odd comfort in the background frequently worth turning up, lots of cool moods burnished up nice. I like it when he just spontaneously (seeming) starts singing along with the guitar notes as he plays them, emphasizing again how perfectly lyrical his playing was. He made a lot of this just seem so effortless, blah blah. You have heard it all before. But you really can hear just about everything that really counts about Hendrix here. Is this my favorite anthology ever? I'll have to think about that!