Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This Year's Model (1978/1993)

(Also this.)

I guess it took me 15 years to fix on This Year's Model as Elvis Costello's best album and my stone favorite by him. That's partly because for many years there Costello pumped out product, fine product, like a crazy man, a regular dot-matrix printing machine churning through the reams. So I had good reasons for setting this album aside—Armed Forces, Get Happy!!, Taking Liberties, other stray singles, etc. As it turned out, however, This Year's Model improved immeasurably with the 1993 Rykodisc CD, which with a few deft moves and additions clarified so much. There always were version problems with this one. The original UK release had "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" and "Night Rally" instead of "Radio, Radio," likely the biggest difference between the two, and for me a huge one. So I am happy settling for that year's model—1993—over the original which I knew.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Swell-Looking Babe (1954)

I'm not sure what it says that one of the most typical and evocative titles concocted by Jim Thompson serves a story that reminds me more of minor keys in Theodore Dreiser and especially An American Tragedy. Oh yes, there's a glancing thread of incest, and sure, it's no doubt the ritzy hotel setting and the ambitious bellboy that puts me in mind of Dreiser. This is more of a caper story, which I find little more appealing here than I do when I find them in the movies. The swell-looking babe referenced in the title, and a good many other characters, harbor secrets. Our job is to read the novel until we find them out. The two places where Thompson seems most engaged are the details of the caper, with its complicated mess of betrayals, which is central to the story at hand, and the Freudian / Oedipal tensions between our hero the bellboy and his father, which is not. It's something like the stage act where multiple plates are set spinning atop of thin dowels. Busy busy. I kind of get the sense someone might have suggested Thompson try a proper beginning, middle, and end because so much attention is given to the plot. He really seems to have something he wants to say about the love between a mother and son but it's beside the caper point. The result feels muddled and belabored and often not that interesting. But it's still capable of the classic Thompson style—brusque, crazy, headlong. The image of the swell-looking babe is powerful and strange, even if her role is ultimately mundane and she's wasted. As for Dusty Rhodes, the bellboy, he's fine, another standard-issue Thompson figure—wise, underemployed, and desperate. The story is told third-person but it is so far inside Rhodes's head I kept being surprised it wasn't first-person. So, overall, a lesser Jim Thompson, a little mechanical and unsatisfying. But good enough, and interesting enough in the way it opened the door into the next one, as he evidently decided to start putting the monster female figures that haunt and devil his work right into the titles of the novels.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Modern English, "I Melt With You" (1982)


Modern English came along early enough that Wikipedia labels it a New Wave rather than a New Romantic act, but it was at least harbinger of the "second British Invasion" and an adequate standard of the times too: not just in the lush, soft, breathless, keyboardy way it proceeds but in the nuclear anxiety it embraces, as "melting with you" turns out to be dying in the arms of a lover at the onset of the final conflagration. Dinner by candlelight and long walks on the beach. Holding hands and no need for words. Mushroom cloud and out. At the time, we knew that was on the way (the TV movie The Day After became something of a media saturation event early in 1983, which may have been the peak for that). More fitting, I think, that "I Melt With You" served as soaring montage music in the teen movie Valley Girl, with Deborah Foreman and an 18-year-old Nicolas Cage. The churchy stained-glass tones of the song filter the empty-headed cheese just enough to make the moment romantic and energized, although remember also this is a Nicolas Cage performance we are talking about. One worth seeing nonetheless. Modern English plays it feather-light and deadly serious, with no evidence of a real thought of consequence in its pretty head. We hear "I Melt With You" everywhere nowadays, don't we? Shopping malls, laundromats, elevators, waiting rooms. Or is that my imagination? I keep looking in my Billboard book for the chart information but it is never there. I keep thinking if Spandau Ballet and Simple Minds managed to score top 10 hits this should have at least cracked the 40. Am I crazy?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Farewell to Arms (1929)

If a revisit to The Sun Also Rises was disappointing, A Farewell to Arms was worse. The only redeeming part of it, to at least start with the good, was the war scene of retreat and confusion in the last third, when our faithful narrator must finally jump into the river to escape. The love story I thought was hideous—juvenile, empty, unbelievable. If there are or were women like Catherine Barkley in the world, they are harder now for me to take seriously—that whole stoic, long-suffering, plucky figure seems to me mostly a relic of abandoned values and passé. Seems to be, let me say, as we know that all things pass and all things return again and that's how we do it. But in this post-feminist early 21st century a character like that seems to me irrelevant. The first time I read this, circa 1975, I found the ending moving and touching, and I should say that this time I was again affected by it. All sentiment, of course, because this time I also raged against it on another level—I mean, what obvious manipulative claptrap. He leaves the war, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. Events defy belief. It's too much. In this novel over and over it is the silently suffering stoic, sucking it all up and never making a peep about the pain. People nowadays may talk too much about pain and emotions—but people of that age certainly did not talk enough. Thus A Farewell to Arms seems to me more than anything else just dated. War is hard, but this story is hard in remarkably uninteresting ways. There are numerous conversations here that include apologies for saying too much, requests to stop saying so much, etc. I like to think that this is all a thing of the past, but we'll know better a hundred years from now. Meanwhile, of course, there are the usual Hemingway strengths, such as they are, some I had not noticed before, or forgotten, such as the extreme brevity of the first chapter, which gives it the feel of a curtain-raising invocation, and brings a kind of initial high that I only wish had been merited by what follows.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bruce Springsteen, "Downbound Train" (1984)


More confessions of a one-time Bruce Springsteen snob: This is pretty much the song that turned me around on him forever, the reason I favor Born in the U.S.A. of all his albums (also the sequence of which this is part from "Cover Me" through to "I'm on Fire," and speaking of which also all those hits too, except the title song). I know it's the triumphal ascendance point of his career, an annoying point in the careers of many. It's harder to feel special when you're sharing the object of your adoration with whole stadiumsful  of people showing up late. And some signs here already perhaps of the problems that were ahead, the frustrating admixture of bloat and vacuousness in there with all the good stuff. But one of the things I like most about Bruce Springsteen is that he looks around and feels sad, genuinely sad. "Downbound Train," which feels like a lost alternate-universe fragment of a chapter from The Grapes of Wrath, might be the best example of that I know. He's talking about injustice in as lucid and straightforward a manner as could be. He's not looking away from anything. He's working in a carwash. It grounds the high points of his other songs, delivers their joys better knowing all the extremes are acknowledged and felt. This is how I think Bruce Springsteen does it. He is carrying a heavy load in this song—presumably why it's a train. I love the way the burden flattens the words in his mouth into rounded vowels and sliding growls. On the lines "Now I swing a sledge hammer on a railroad gang / Knocking down them cross ties, working in the rain," he is practically just moaning and honking. It's good that people make lyrics available on the Internet, although thinking about it now every sense of those words is there in the vocal—the sense of working, and futility.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Making History (1983)

Linton Kwesi Johnson's great moment—or at least the one I happen to know best—is out of print now and looks to have become a pricy collector's item, so I recommend the Independant Intavenshan anthology, which contains all of the tracks from Making History and 28 more besides. Absolutely worth it. Widely characterized as a "dub poet," which is close enough—the musical accompaniment is heavily atmospheric strains of Jamaica and Johnson is a highly regarded poet (published in the Penguin Modern Classics collection). This is another album, I have since figured out, that we all seemed to have found out about from the "A" Robert Christgau gave it, so credit due thatwise. It actually bears a fair amount of musical variety across its seven tracks—including one, "Reggae Fi Radni," that sounds plucked from parts of Nino Rota's soundtrack for the Godfather movies. The last track ("New Crass Massahkah") settles into unaccompanied vocal recitation, spacing out its simple musical statements. The first four songs, which are as good as it gets, work lively, satisfying strains on uptempo grooves. On all of them Johnson steps in reciting polemic in a thick, deep patois, which can be heard as musical itself, blending in nicely, but is difficult to understand. Certain fragments swim up unmistakably: "Di eagle an' di bear people livin' in fear of impending nuclear war fear," "From England to Poland / Every step across di ocean / The ruling class is dem is in a mess, oh yes / Di capitalist system are regress / But di Soviet system nah progress / So which one of dem yuh think is best," and "it was in april nineteen eighty wan / doun inna di ghetto of Brixtan" (the latter available in full at The Poetry Archive). Well, we already knew the drift from the song titles: "Di Eagle an di Bear," "Wat About di Workin' Class?," "Di Great Insohreckshan." And we knew the level of ambition from the title of the album. What was harder to guess was how musically it would be delivered. Until that last track, this thing moves with propulsive force. Perhaps some drag to the vocal, it can be rumbling and monotonous, but the charge of the words as they clarify counterbalances that well, for me at least, and there is an amazing force to the album sustained surprisingly well.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Sonic Youth, "Titanium Expose" (1990)


After Daydream Nation thoroughly crossed my wires, "Titanium Expose" took a while to sneak up on me. I didn't care either way about the major label thing but I was never a particular partisan of its home, Goo, aside from the fact it's square in the middle of their great years. So it's good. In fact, it's very fine. But it's also when it started becoming a matter of sorting out hits and misses. Always some of both in Sonic Youth albums for many years—still, actually. For the longest time "Titanium Expose" was one of those fine points, that song near the end. In the CD era of listening to one-sided or scrambled sequencing it seemed more work always to distinguish one from another, or they could blur. Anyway, this is where I get all rock star-crossed. Swoon, high as a kite, did that just happen? See also The Year Punk Broke, opening shot. What it felt like and what it was like. That's found nearly pure in scattered passages of the 6:25 "Titanium Expose," floating up for maybe a minute altogether, when it's wound up right, when the pounding suddenly turns sublime, ecstatic, throbbing, powerful, etc. Life force, alive. At about the 3:50 mark, and the best of it lasts 20 seconds there—20 seconds good for a lifetime's faith. Here's where the breaking bread happens. All the good adjectives. I've heard it so much I have a hard time hearing it any more. It's already over and done, and I missed again (at least on a conscious level) it. But it's part of my brain or psyche now anyway. "Titanium Expose" will always have a place.

Monday, December 02, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)—An efficient and predictably wonderful documentary about the amazing Doc Pomus, author of Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" and approximately one million more great songs you already know and love ("A Teenager in Love," "This Magic Moment," "Save the Last Dance for Me"). Lots of interesting people show up—Lieber & Stoller, Shawn Colvin, Dion, Dr. John, B.B. King, Lou Reed, more. Must-see.
Alexandra (2007)—First picture I've seen by director and writer Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark probably the right place to start, oh well). Some very nicely realized moments, but I never connected with the story of an old woman traveling to a Chechen training camp to visit her grandson. It seemed at once fanciful and elaborately grim, which in this case was not good.
The Bigamist (1953)—An interesting noir/woman's picture cross-breed directed by Ida Lupino. Making a mountain of a molehill on the matter referenced in the title, but basically right, almost documentarian, on a common way it happens, and plenty of nice, weird moments along the way. Definitely worth seeing.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)—The bitter-saccharine adventures of Butch, Sundance, and Etta Place have become something like a reliable old friend for me at this point. Often schmaltzy but with a wonderful heart.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Rust Never Sleeps (1979)

(Related here and here.)

How are you supposed to settle on one favorite Neil Young album? I asked four friends—Phil Dellio, Steven Rubio, Jack Thompson, and Scott Woods—to help me with this imponderable, asking specifically for their thoughts on the one I have landed on, Rust Never Sleeps. For me, it could have equally been After the Gold Rush or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (and there's a good handful much loved right behind those three, and literally dozens of scattered songs beyond that), except I did not experience them in real time—I resisted Young until Rust Never Sleeps made it impossible for me any longer. I've got a couple of quick points to make, and then Phil, Steven, Jack, and Scott weigh in. Many thanks to them!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2011)

USA, 99 minutes
Director/writer: Whit Stillman
Photography: Doug Emmett
Music: Mark Suozzo
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin FitzGerald, Zach Woods, Hugo Becker, Adam Brody, Billy Magnussen, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Blaemire

Director and writer Whit Stillman's first movie in over 10 years is silly and shrewd from beginning to glorious end, with other agenda items signaled in various ways: The title bears a close resemblance to A Damsel in Distress, a Fred Astaire vehicle from 1937 that also featured George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine. Our modern-day damsels are named Heather, Lily, Rose, and Violet, a gorgeous and guileless bouquet that strides the campus of the elite Seven Oaks University like giants, attempting very hard to sort things out. Their distress is on the order of too much student body odor, too many suicides, and not enough compassion for fraternity house members.

"We're trying to make a difference in people's lives," explains the ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig) to new recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton). "One way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves. Have you ever heard of the expression 'Prevention is nine-tenths of the cure'? Well, in the case of suicide, it's actually 10-tenths."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Criminal (1953)

Although in many ways The Criminal reads like a Jim Thompson typing exercise, filled with typical language and situations, it is also the closest I've seen yet to "Dostoevskian," with its nearly total abstraction of a rape and murder. It is also a fragment, offering virtually no resolution and very little explanation, at least beyond, "Everything is corrupt and what if it wasn't." And it traffics in a popular noir device, apportioning the narrative chores to multiple first-person characters divided by chapter. Several characters get a chapter or two apiece. Kenneth Fearing has a very nice version in The Big Clock, but I suspect it all starts with As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, who could well be an outsize model for many crime writers of the mid-20th century. I get the feeling they were all well aware of him. In many ways The Criminal feels pro forma: the slutty teen tramp, the stammering good boy who behaves suspiciously because he's such an innocent, and endless corruption everywhere else. As always, the seven deadly sins play a vital role, and institutions such as newspapers and the criminal justice system are so rotten they are casual about the venalities that motivate them. As always, Jim Thompson's inner knowing raconteur keeps it compelling and compulsively readable. This may be an early attempt at innovating non-ending endings, but feels less thought through and more as if he reached some predetermined page or word count and stopped. All indications are that there's still plenty of plot to develop. After getting the young boy Bob Talbert, "the criminal" of the title, well and deeply into trouble, with charges of the aforesaid rape and murder via all the corruption extant and no good man to do a thing about it, he throws it into reverse and seems prepared to back out again, but that's where it stops. I don't even come away with a clear idea of who the guilty party actually is, or even probably is, or could be. Thompson may be at pains to portray everyone as guilty, and there's an argument it really doesn't matter. In fact, it could have been Talbert—he's more likely by circumstance than anyone else. And yet that would do little to change our perceptions. He's practically the most innocent person here no matter what.

In case it’s not at the library.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

McCartney (1970)

I loved this one-man studio project when it was new, McCartney's first solo release after the Beatles breakup. I was just getting out of junior high and looking forward to high school, and a little unbelieving that the Beatles had picked that moment to break up. I resented the reviews that slagged it as self-indulgent, lightweight fluff—what has become the usual casual knock on Paul McCartney, a deeply wrong view. I considered the one-man studio project aspect of it a positive rather than a negative myself. I thought it was pretty cool he was doing all this himself (what do you want, I was 15). So I had myself a good old infatuation with McCartney, moved on to other things, and eventually in my mind "Maybe I'm Amazed" stood in as the best of what I recalled. But over the years these potent fragments have surfaced one evocative way or another. A radio station randomly played "Momma Miss America" one morning in the '90s on my way to work and ever since it has been among my favorites, a hearty quirky stew of banging piano and fuzzed guitar, and pure rock 'n' roll (recognizing its uneven qualities, but the high points are worth it). Someone on Facebook name-checked "Junk" a day or two after shuffle had memorably put it in my way (it sounded so good I went to check the title). It all culminates on "Maybe I'm Amazed," which felt and still feels almost like a seamless next step for the Beatles, one anyway, or maybe what I mean is it sounds like it could/should be on Abbey Road. Who wouldn't like another Abbey Road song? Still, coming back in recent days, I was surprised by how unsatisfying the slightness of McCartney can be. Thirteen songs, 35 minutes, goes some way toward explaining. What's interesting is how unfinished most of them feel as songs—some wonderful ideas, some great performances, but they mostly feel like finely sculpted parts. Take "That Would Be Something," whose basic lyrical themes are "meet ya in the fallin' rain, mama" and "that would be something." I like the primitive style but it could stand development. Part of what has always been interesting to me about the McCartney/Lennon collaboration is that they were both good at lots of things and often managed to fill in each other's gaps in songwriting. All different ways, supplying a lyric for the chorus, a bridge, a chord change, etc. I'm not suggesting Paul McCartney missed John Lennon here per se, but rather that he missed a collaborator he could consider a pop music equal. Precious few of them exist in the world at any given time, of course, and it was never going to be Linda, God bless her. So part of what makes this album both deficient and fascinating is seeing McCartney's gaps so plainly left unfilled or rounded off.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lou Reed, "Coney Island Baby" (1976)

Lou Reed's death has caught me up a bit. It wasn't one anyone could say was a surprise, but I felt it as an unexpected loss and still do. More, I have been amazed by the outpouring I have seen, often exasperated by what people laud and ignore. But of course—it could not be any other way. Lou Reed contained peevishness too, a Walt Whitman of our times, contradicting himself, large, containing multitudes. I wanted to post "Baton Rouge" on Facebook as my own personal expression of grief, but played it safe with "Sweet Jane." More I was intrigued by what everybody else was throwing up—it was an amazing variety, from pre-Velvets to "Egg Cream" and beyond, which may have been the most remarkable testament of all. Applying the work ethic Andy Warhol so famously drummed into him, Lou Reed willed himself into becoming a creative giant, one of the most enduring, influential, and productive artists of his time, and someone who personally became important to me, for his storytelling and sharp eye and his stories of substance abuse, bad relationships and good, and for his commitment to physical and, yes, emotional health. I saw him in performance once in Minneapolis, in 1984, and again in Seattle in 1992, and he was a sensation both times. I've been listening to him for 40 years but am only now getting some sense of the giant figure he cut. As for "Coney Island Baby," it's Lou Reed the way I particularly like him, with his defenses down and his heart wide open, alert and paying attention and getting the details. I mean, "I wanted to play football for the coach"? How does he get away with that? Among other things, Lou Reed was a consummate showman and a dedicated student of the human heart. Sit for 6:47 and enjoy a little masterpiece, why don't you.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Savage Night (1953)

Here's another Jim Thompson novel that I like very well, and in spite of the clunky way it moves. Again, these stories seem to just come spinning out of Thompson's head, carried by a certain headlong, heedless momentum. Even a moment's thought can deal lethal blows to narrative credibility. But never mind. Thompson's voice somehow keeps things compelling. Savage Night is about the visit that legendary hit man Carl Bigelow makes to a small college town. He is there to kill a man who is about to testify in a case that could hurt the man who has hired Bigelow. This man is known only as "The Man," and even celebrity assassin Bigelow fears him. Bigelow narrates the tale, and though he doesn't take long to reveal his identity, he withholds it awhile. We are thus ushered into a world where, in Alfred Hitchcock's famous formulation—or was it Thompson himself?—"things are not as they seem." That's something Thompson does very well, if occasionally ham-handedly, obviously making things up as he goes along (which novelists do, but you know what I mean). And so legendary hit man Carl Bigelow, who has earned his celebrated reputation with multiple slayings to his credit, each one ordered and paid for, turns out to be an orphan who owes much of his good fortune to a kindly old couple who took him in as a boy. The pressures of cognitive dissonance produce strange results. Savage Night notably has one of Thompson's great moments, which I give you now, when Carl finds himself in early scenes seducing (or seduced by) Ruthie, the maid who is missing a leg. He goes into detail:
I looked, and closed my eyes quickly. But I couldn't keep them closed.
It was a baby's foot. A tiny little foot and ankle. It started just above the knee joint—where the knee would have been if she had one—a tiny little ankle, not much bigger around than a thumb; a baby ankle and a baby foot.
The toes were curling and uncurling, moving with the rhythms of her body...
"C-Carl... Oh,
C-Carl!" she gasped.
After a long time, what seemed like a long time, I heard her saying, "Don't. Please don't, Carl. It's a-all right, so—so, please, Carl... Please don't cry any more—"
End of chapter.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, November 04, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Baby Face (1933)—The Netflix disc had two versions, a "prerelease" cut as well as the original theatrical release. Either way, it's a remarkable (and, yes, remarkably frank) tale of a Depression-era young woman bartering sexual favors to make her way to the top. The differences between the two versions are mostly matters of degree but the movie is worth looking at two times in a row. I would have to call it mild by today's standards, but surprisingly raw when it has a mind. Barbara Stanwyck (at 26) is terrific, no surprise, and John Wayne has a small role as a city slicker. Must-see for any number of reasons.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)—Werner Herzog's gleeful take on Abel Ferrara's original from 1992 is pretty much up to the task, as tall an order as that is. I must say Harvey Keitel was better in the title role, and that Ferrara also had the better frame in the ongoing NLCS. But post-Katrina New Orleans will do, and though Nicolas Cage is not normally to my taste, he is nearly flawless here, inventing whole new twists on the foundations of the original. For example, when he attempts to be convivial and share a laugh with colleagues. It's intense, outrageous, nail-bite gripping, and perfectly wonderful, right down to the last scene. I love it.
Bitter Moon (1992)—This is much better in many small ways than I remembered. It revels so shamelessly in its own depravity it's like a geek show when all else fails. You never want to look away. But the misanthropy, no matter how perfectly and even exquisitely realized, is still pitched at toxic levels and too easily confused with narcissistic preening. In fact, I'm pretty sure it is narcissistic preening.
Black Swan (2010)—Bone-crunching aesthete Darren Aronofsky takes it to the ballet. The result is amazing, and gets better every time I see it.
The Body Snatcher (1945)—Lugosi is wasted in this Val Lewton production directed by Robert Wise, but Boris Karloff is remarkable as a thoroughly unlikable 19th-century Edinburgh lowlife. It's a solid creep show. Halliwell's calls this the best Val Lewton horror. I'm not sure about that but it was my Halloween selection this year (with one candidate for a better Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie, below).

Friday, November 01, 2013

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Werckmeister harmóniák, Hungary/Italy/Germany/France, 145 minutes
Directors: Bela Tarr, Agnes Hranitzky
Writers: Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Bela Tarr, Peter Dobai, Gyuri Dosa Kiss, Gyorgy Feher
Photography: Patrick de Ranter, Miklos Gurban, Erwin Lanzensberger, Gabor Medvigy, Emil Novak, Rob Tregenza
Music: Mihaly Vig
Editor: Agnes Hranitzky
Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla, Janos Derzsi, Djoko Rosic, Peter Dobai

Werckmeister Harmonies is the usual study in contradictions for a long and difficult art film, or at least for one that grows better with familiarity—bewildering but mesmerizing, confusing but lucid, slow and ponderous yet frequently nimble-witted. It opens on a strange and elaborately staged barroom demonstration of an eclipse, with drunkards standing in as the heavenly bodies. It finds its narrative focus (around which it stalks sideways fashion) in the arrival of a traveling circus, so called, to a small city. The circus features a whale exhibit and "The Prince," some sort of charismatic cult figure. The town, seen mostly through the eyes of its overnight newspaper delivery person and would-be litterateur Janos (Lars Rudolph and his haunting, fearful face), is in fragile condition, wracked by unknown forces politically, emotionally, existentially.

These elements are as carefully chosen as everything else in this movie, which is nearly as deliberate as it is possible to be. Whales carry portent that stretches back to the bible, revived again in the advent of the New World. "The Prince"—who is likely the strangest and most mysterious character in a movie stuffed with them—grounds it deeply in European experience, bearing the colossal burden of everything from Machiavelli and Saint-Exupery to the feudal estate itself. In many ways the opening scene works as prologue, because the narrative arc, such as it is, most closely resembles an eclipse, the single most cinematic natural event that occurs (aside from perhaps only tornadoes), ending at that moment Janos himself describes in his barroom exposition: "Everything that lives is still. Are the hills going to march off? Will heaven fall upon us? Will the earth open under us? We don't know. We don't know, for a total eclipse has come upon us... But... but no need to fear. It's not over. For across the sun's glowing sphere, slowly, the moon swims away...."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Ten Years After, "Adventures of a Young Organ" (1967)


Fun facts about Ten Years After (things I did not know dept.): The band stretches all the way back to 1960, with guitar player Alvin Lee (who died earlier this year) and bass player Leo Lyons putting together an act called Ivan Jay & the Jaycats. The outfit then went through several name changes (and some personnel adjustments) before settling on Ten Years After in 1966, which was in honor of Elvis Presley's banner year. I knew them first and chiefly as practitioners of acid-rock because of their Woodstock performance of "I'm Going Home," with Alvin Lee's famously impossible speedy play. This is how most people knew them at the time, I'm pretty sure, and many of the albums (spotty, to me, all of them) played more or less explicitly to that. But the first, self-titled album is something else altogether, showcasing a band that is much closer to a jazz unit. "Adventures of a Young Organ" is as good an example as any, a brief song by Lee and organ player Chick Churchill with heavy intimations of Jimmy Smith and other Hammond-style players. Yes, they were already looking to their blues-rock future on that album too, with a cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and a 10-minute workup on a song with another Willie Dixon songwriting credit, "Help Me." But it's this cleaned-up bluesy-jazzy bent that I liked best about it and it's still my favorite album by them—the only one I like without reservation. Others have played this type of music better (I already mentioned Jimmy Smith) but something about the way it flouted my expectations ultimately made me very fond of it, with this song as its basic model.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wuthering Heights (1847)

I suppose I can't recommend entirely without reservation this stone classic of British literature—last time I went through turned out to be a bit of a slog. But I certainly think it's worth at least a dip for one and all. Emily Bronte's monumental first and only novel (she otherwise focused her literary energies on poetry and died at the age of 30, the year after this was published), Wuthering Heights came out the same year as her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre and her sister Anne's Agnes Grey. I don't know Agnes Grey, but of the other two, more famous works, I think Jane Eyre is both more effective as a novel and more conventional (and it's not that conventional). Wuthering Heights is the next-best thing to full-on raving ghost/monster story, wild and howling and weird, gothic on steroids, buckled together with leather strapping and paste. Class distinctions are rendered metaphorically as stark lines between humans and beasts, and the great Byronic hero of Wuthering Heights, the remarkable Heathcliff, is of course on the wrong side of that line. Heathcliff notably has powers to compel and bend his betters to his desires, after coming to live with them originally as an orphan found on the streets of London, adopted out of the soft heart of the family patriarch. The combination of Heathcliff's ruthlessness in pursuing his ends and the family's sheltered, well-mannered naivete is the recipe for the disaster imminent from the first page. The forbidden passion between Heathcliff and the scion's daughter Catherine provides much of the dramatic tension, as Heathcliff and his will to power rise to great heights, while the rest are humiliated and torn to pieces and put into the earth one way or another, against the backdrop of gray skies and lonely barren moors. "Atmospheric" does not begin to describe it; "deranged" is closer to it in many passages. It can be a wild ride. In many ways it walks and talks and bears the trappings of the standard 19th-century novel of manners, with gentle folk gathering for fine meals and social occasions, and love interests emerging by degree. But the like of Heathcliff had never appeared in one of these before. His sheer gravitational force subverts and distorts everything around him, making a real mockery of the genteel upper class and their ways and values. It was the first time I read Wuthering Heights that I got the most out of it, taken utterly by surprise by the stunts recorded herein. I'm not sure what made the more recent reading so hard—perhaps the language, which of course is antiquated and made further eccentric with thick dialect (toned down somewhat after Emily's death by sister Charlotte in a later edition ... I can only imagine the original)—perhaps the sideways manner it crabs in and around its narrative developments. But the good news, if you haven't read it, is that you could well be in for a big treat.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dark Chords on a Big Guitar (2003)

I've spent most of my life indifferent to Joan Baez, but I like "Diamonds and Rust" (the song, not the album) so much I never entirely count her out, and this album, for one, has finally justified my persistence, such as it is. I caught up to it a year or two after release; it was the Steve Earle song, "Christmas in Washington," that drew me in—though it is about 1996 (and though it name-checks Woody Guthrie) I heard it through the filter of 2004, and its deep melancholy felt like respite, a connection sorely needed, however misinterpreted. I also liked the title of the album, which further underlined the appeal of the song, so I took a chance. It's a pretty good album overall. On close inspection, the basic idea appears to be casting a net and covering songs of a later generation and certain musical sympathies. So there's at least one songwriting credit apiece for Earle, Ryan Adams, Greg Brown, Natalie Merchant, and Gillian Welch, among others. The production by Mark Spector layers on a thick, buffed-up sheen that occasionally feels a little suffocating, but if it's undeniably pristine it comes up well short of sterile. It works fine with Baez's clarion singing, as true as ever at 62, her age when she recorded this album. And the implications of the title are not shirked on either. The Natalie Merchant cover, "Motherland," for example, with its carefully positioned post-grunge squalls, is well within the explicit promise of dark chords and big guitars—I admit it surprised me Baez could pull that off, but I'm happy for the schooling. On the other hand, the sensibilities of Baez and the songwriters are mostly aligned, but occasionally jarring, as in "Elvis Presley Blues" (by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), another brick in the myth of the cultural shit-house that is the day Elvis Presley died (compare Elvis: What Happened?, or the Odds, "Wendy Under the Stars"). I can believe it's someone else's experience—and see no reason to think it's not Welch's and/or Rawlings's—but it does make me wonder what Joan Baez was actually doing and thinking and feeling that day. The cultural figure she seems most genuinely involved with on this album, judging by what I hear as her commitment in singing the song, is not Elvis but rather the beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, who appears ghost fashion in Greg Brown's "Rexroth's Daughter." In my mind, that's as it should be. It grounds the album well within her sensibility, and enables her to reach beyond it credibly and with admirable force. So, finally, a Joan Baez album I can count as a real pleasure. I think I'd have to say it was worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Man Out of Time" (1982)


"Man Out of Time" is one more gorgeous mess buried between the vaporizing screams in the middle of Imperial Bedroom, an album that I recall reviewed as Elvis Costello's "Cole Porter album" (or "George Gershwin," or "Tin Pan Alley"). It was also dissed contrarian-wise by Robert Christgau in a year when it stormed to the head of the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. Maybe Christgau was right—not sure who would be willing to go full-throated on it anymore. It always struck me if anything as more Costello's shot at Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road (Parke Puterbaugh got that right in Rolling Stone)—because of the choice of producer Geoff Emerick, who engineered those Beatles albums, but also because of its ambition and how studio-focused and tricked-up it can be. It was the first Costello album that seemed to require study (and they all did for me after this). I remain suspicious of this self-training to like things—"you have to listen to it a few times, man"—but at any rate the judgment stuck. "Man Out of Time" still seems a terrific wounded cry of the soul, absolutely stunning at about the time of the title phrase, and definitely recommended for singing along. The words are typically fussy and cute: "'Cos the high heel he used to be has been ground down / And he listens for the footsteps that would follow him around," for example. It doesn't say that much and the attention to the foot-related activities is distracting and beside the point. But whatever, he gets a pass because his pop instincts remain so true. I really am not sure what this song is about, but it's obvious it comes from a profoundly felt place, one I naturally feel and respond to. That's good enough for me.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

Annie Hall (1977)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)—This seemed a very strange picture for director Sam Peckinpah, lighthearted and even resorting to fast-forward slapstick in places. It's loose and loopy and always engaging, but somewhat untethered. Jason Robards does everything he can to ground it in something you can hang onto, and almost succeeds. Worth seeing.
Bananas (1971)—Some really great bits I had all but forgotten. Laughing out loud, yes, it happened.
Le Boucher (1970)—Serial killer story by director and writer Claude Chabrol. I thought it had more of a handle on its late-'60s setting than "the criminal mindset," which anyway seemed as metaphorical as everything else here. Plenty of anomie to go around, but worth seeing.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)—Most heist stories are pretty dull affairs for me, not so interested in these wheels within wheels battles of wits, let alone highly specific security/vault procedures (or jewels, or gold, or cash porn). But this shot at it by director and writer Jean-Pierre Melville looks great, almost antiseptically clean, deploying swaths of color with precision. The tone is deeply desolate. I have a feeling it wears well.
The Conformist (1970)—My first time seeing what is likely Bernardo Bertolucci's best-regarded picture. It's nicely put together, swirling and colorful and allusive, with a harrowing chase scene at the finish, and Jean-Louis Trintignant nearly perfect as a cipher. If it struck me as too plunged into the aesthetics and preoccupations of its time—paranoid and still brooding over the sins of fascism (not that there's anything wrong with that)—I have a feeling it's another one that improves.
Contempt (1963)

Friday, October 04, 2013

Network (1976)

USA, 121 minutes
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Paddy Chayevsky
Photography: Owen Roizman
Music: Elliott Lawrence
Editor: Alan Heim
Cast: Peter Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty, Beatrice Straight, Wesley Addy, Kathy Cronkite, Lee Richardson, Arthur Burghardt

Network is one of those movies with a not undeserved reputation for getting things right, large and small. But first and more than anything it is an acting showcase, cast almost perfectly, built around stellar performances (at least six by my count), realized via Sidney Lumet, a director deeply simpatico with the art. Then it lucked into one of those defining iconic things, which defined it, ultimately outgrew and overshadowed it in many ways, in the catch phrase, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore," writer Paddy Chayevsky's nearly perfect mantra of learned helplessness, resonating more than ever today. I'm willing to bet it's a feeling familiar to anyone reading this. The reverberation of that sense is one of the great surprises and enduring pleasures of this picture.

Full disclosure: I didn't much like Network at the time of its release. I thought it was too broad and obvious, and was put off by the highfalutin corporate vocabulary, even more by what I perceived as satire that was simply too easy. I didn't believe it. But seeing it decades later brought a shock of recognition, in its pitch-perfect sense of corporate environment and notably in its anticipation of those tabloid talk shows we got from Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, all stocked with armies of raging plain folks and the depressing sense their motivations were just shallow, or incoherent—and certainly manipulated. Or, as Yeats described the situation some time ago, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Julie London, "Gone With the Wind" (1955)


Some years back I tumbled onto a trove of Julie London's mid-'50s recordings that completely turned me around. Before that I had associated her only with "Cry Me a River" (a song I was indifferent to because of the Barbra Streisand version) and with Jack Webb, her husband for a time. Shortly after that marriage ended, in 1954, her career took off, with a long string of albums starting in 1955. My favorite is Calendar Girl, a concept album before anyone thought of concept albums—13 tracks: "June in January," "February Brings the Rain," "Melancholy March," etc., finishing on "Warm in December" and "Thirteenth Month." But "Gone With the Wind" comes from what is probably the better starting place, her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name, which includes "Cry Me a River," "I'm in the Mood for Love," "It Never Entered My Mind," and many other standards. "Gone With the Wind" finishes the album in typical style. I like how it practically defines that style as it does so. Here's what you just heard, bub: scraps and pieces blowing around, deceptively casual yet tightly executed, thrilling in their moment and then gone. Most of her songs, here and elsewhere, rarely run even to three minutes. They are quiet and subtle, almost fussy, and here there is only a bass player and guitar player padding around behind her, and the reverb that is thrown on the vocal toward the end. Excess is not within the ken of this music. It's practically nothing but her voice, and her voice is practically nothing but a whisper and a thought, and she made many albums like it, each as good as the next, filled with this simple formula and a grab bag of sweet tunes.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Alcoholics (1953)

I'm not about to second-guess Jim Thompson on the look and feel of rehab facilities in the '50s, but the treatment center in this one, El Healtho by name, veers toward the unbelievable, not least in the jolly way it seems to be run by Dr. Peter S. Murphy on a belief that alcoholics will just go on drinking no matter what, straying at will over into upbeat "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" territory. Dr. Murphy looks the other way in some cases, even provides patients with drinks, apparently with an idea that giving them drinks of smaller volume now will somehow head off problems of drinking too much later. Meanwhile, the nurse on duty, Lucretia Baker, lisps and is a sadist. This is minor Jim Thompson for a reason, but it is Jim Thompson through and through. There's a plot about the facility and Dr. Murphy being dangerously in arrears financially, then some kind of redemption via the refusal to help cover up a lobotomy performed on a member of a rich family largely because he was a nuisance (or maybe to keep his mouth shut about something, that's not entirely clear). It veers quite wildly between hardboiled depravity Jim Thompson style and the strangely jovial antics of patients and staff alike, reminiscent of Frank Capra, as they pull together and get things done. Under the non-treatment treatment strategy practiced at El Healtho, the patients, one at a time and each for their own reasons, grin big, clap arms across shoulders, and give up drinking forever. The Alcoholics has a big happy ending and also numerous smaller happy endings dotted all over. Nurse Baker, for example (spoiler alert), changes her ways after once having sex with Dr. Murphy and actually becomes quite obedient—"Yeth, thir!" There are multiple convenient careers held down by the patients that prove remarkably adroit—a marketing man, publishers, etc. I said I'm not going to second-guess Jim Thompson on this, and certainly much of the raw behavior of drinking depicted here rings true enough. But boy, these miracles. Left and right. With the happy endings, I think you have to take it as a comedy pure and simple, because otherwise it's hard to believe a word of it, including "and" and "the." On the other hand, yes, everything I love about Jim Thompson is adequately covered in Lucretia Baker, R.N., the lisping sadist—inspired, freaky, and mordant.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Contempt (1963)

Le mepris, France/Italy, 102 minutes
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Alberto Moravia
Photography: Raoul Cotard
Music: Georges Delerue (Piero Piccioni, Italian/Spanish version)
Editors: Agnes Guillemot, Lila Lakshmanan
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, Jean-Luc Godard

The first thing that always surprises me about Contempt is how beautiful it is. That's a natural enough result of setting much of it in the daylight of Rome and Capri, casting Brigitte Bardot, and shooting in color—magnificent color. In fact, according to the consensus view revealed at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, it's now considered director Jean-Luc Godard's best after Breathless. I know Contempt was the Godard that left me most impressed walking out of the theater after seeing it for the first time (in a '90s rerelease). But the more I look at it the more frozen in stasis it seems to become, immobilized, inert, dare I say impotent, like the classical statuary on which it loves to linger.

It's a lot less playful than most Godard I know from the '60s, for one thing. In fact, it's almost stately, pitched at a snail's-crawl pace with Georges Delerue's remarkable score swelling like ripened fruit, intruding at will across anything in our field of vision. More money seems to be involved with this project too. The early '60s was a heroic era of art film, remember, one of those periods when money materializes for all kinds of crazy things. Godard and producer Carlo Ponti were kicking around names like Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and Marcello Mastroianni before settling on Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli. Jack Palance plays a leering, smacking American movie producer. And really, any movie that's about making a movie and has the wherewithal to cast Fritz Lang as Fritz Lang definitely has something going for it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Marilyn Manson, "Antichrist Superstar" (1996)


Parents, lock up your children, it's Marilyn Manson, scourge of a nation. Probably I never would have given any of this a second thought—too much arch concept in the programmatic monster / monster names, to start—except someone sent me a copy of the first album, which was way better than I expected. By the time of this follow-up the band had become a first-rate performing act, which I attribute to the influence of Trent Reznor, traveling with Nine Inch Nails, and because Fort Lauderdale's finest, Brian Warner, has always been a decent songwriter. If I ever happen to make peace with the bombast of opera I believe it may be with Marilyn Manson pointing the way. Yes, this is formally and intentionally a rip on Jesus Christ Superstar, and no, rock opera is another beast altogether. The tiresome / predictable / sophomoric (thesaurus, don't fail me now) Nietzsche thread in the album for which this is the title song at least does the service of locating it all closer to Richard Wagner than Pete Townshend (speaking as one who happens to love Tommy). I think you're supposed to care about the stories in opera but I don't care about the story here. What I like is the dense wallop, with a bottom that reaches to the molten core of the earth, nothing at rest. Even quieter moments (for the dynamics, see), with say a warbling choral sound straight out of Diamanda Galas, impress more as teams of wraiths and infernal termite buzz, alternating with football cheers, demon vocals, stepping down the scale into tumult, and a heavy riff that's ultimately quite satisfying. When it achieves full roar it's hard for me to see how you can call it anything but magnificent.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pet Sounds (1966)

(Previous shenanigans and assays here and here.)

Over the years I have come to think of this more as some obscure object of cult adoration, maybe on the order of Forever Changes or Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre or Five Leaves Left, a secret I share with maybe only a few thousand others on the planet. A delusion, in any case (and with all of them), but why do I think this? Fallout from the Smile debacle, maybe a little, which legend of course claimed as their Sgt. Pepper (which would then make this their Revolver, yes? So what's the problem?). Pet Sounds did spawn four top 40 hits, remember (counting the Brian Wilson solo, "Caroline, No"), two of them top 10s. But I don't know—I still have the impression that this familiar pantheon selection has been marginalized some, maybe more than it deserves. Or maybe not. It's hard to tell. It's an odd one, no denying that.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Annie Hall (1977)

USA, 93 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Gordon Willis
Music: Woody Allen's record collection
Editors: Wendy Greene Bricmont, Ralph Rosenblum
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Colleen Dewhurst, Christopher Walken, Russell Horton, Marshall McLuhan, Dick Cavett, Jeff Goldblum, Shelley Hack, Sigourney Weaver, Truman Capote

A lot of things that Woody Allen is good at—tormented narratives shattered by revision, pieces playing just so where they land, tender ruminations buoyed by comfort music and nostalgia and surprising jokes, and streaming patter of gags, to name three—arguably found their best homes in Annie Hall. The fine points of this very fine picture, the easiest and most obvious movie of the year I've had to pick yet and maybe ever, is a very long list as it also includes that indelible chemistry with Diane Keaton, that wonderful self-flattering feeling of grown-up sophistication in the cultural markers (from Groucho to Kierkegaard), that certain casting touch that goes down to the smallest roles, and being so funny generally. But you get the point. It is arguably both the best movie Woody Allen ever made and the best Woody Allen movie ever made, which are not necessarily the same thing.

So what to say? It's going on 40 years now and the template that Annie Hall established for romantic comedy has positively dominated since then, replacing the slightly shopworn screwball model, which had gotten to be a little stuffy or inane or both since its own heyday. Woody Allen brought more genuine emotional engagement to the enterprise and obviated the whole idea of matrimonial happy endings, replacing them with the much more expedient joys and frustrations of connection (or lack thereof), which in turn grounded and made it more appealing. Remember (spoiler alert), Annie Hall does not have a "happy ending." As Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) mentions in the first minutes of the picture, the breakup is already in the past. Yet it rarely leaves me anything less than happy, tickled, pleased as punch, or downright joyful. It has a very good energy, as the saying goes, from beginning to end.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Afghan Whigs, "What Jail Is Like" (1993)


Perhaps because of the word "jail" I tend to associate this in my mind with the devastating 1988 throwaway from Was (Not Was), "Dad I'm in Jail" (which, in its way, also sounds like what [I imagine] jail is like). "Jailhouse Rock" (Elvis Presley) and "Jailbreak" (Thin Lizzy) or even "In the Jailhouse Now" (Woody Guthrie) are not exactly of the same stripe, so perhaps it's more about mood, some certain personal appreciation of the subject matter. For all their unexamined privilege—on sight, Greg Dulli and Afghan Whigs never seemed particularly suited to grunge, let alone jail—it somehow bears a terrible gravity, as indeed does the entire album it comes from, Gentlemen. The concerns of the album are focused more on failed romances than incarceration but that doesn't make the contemplation of jail any less compelling, when we are forced to consider at least briefly why the singer might have been in jail. But that's not forthcoming, of course. For one thing, it's all conditional, he's not actually there. "This must be what jail is really like," he notes of the present relationship, as the song slips into the chorus and elevates a level or three at once. Even the condition is conditioned with the word "really," perhaps there to make the line scan but introducing more abstraction. The lyrics never really leap out, but burrowing down into them one finds a dark heart indeed: "I'll warn you, if cornered / I'll scratch my way out of the pain ... Think I'm scared of girls / Well maybe / But I'm not afraid of you." Dulli has always struck me as a terrific contrast, cutting a bit of a Whit Stillman character from the stage, charming and chatty and convivial. But then he delivers songs like this.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Camera Obscura, "Teenager" (2003)


I'm pointing to the "official" video but it looks more like one of those homemade jobs not least because I can't make out what camping has fuck-all to do with this song, which seems to me more at play in the glittery upscale sandboxes of Nico, Young Marble Giants, or Saint Etienne. Wispy girl vocals, understated playing, an achingly beautiful twangy guitar. It's almost lounge, in a way, but closer to saccharine early '60s highschool pop, reminiscent of the Paris Sisters or Fleetwoods. But the note of ironic detachment is pervasive for that or lounge. Dare I say, twee? As Scots out of the '90s perhaps they come by it honestly. I don't know. Part of the appeal here is the mystery. It comes from the wonderfully titled Underachievers Please Try Harder, which is itself preoccupied in gentle ways with matters of adolescence ("Suspended From Class" is the first song). Or, well, to be more accurate, with the grappling of adolescence by fully grown adults in their 20s and 30s. "Teenager," that is, as in "you're not [one], so don't act like one." To be fair, the tone of the music and of the words are somewhat at odds with one another. I like it most precisely because it does sound so teenager and highschool. It's easy to miss the quietly stinging rebuke when surrounded by so much else so lush and simple and sweet. In many ways it is the most emblematic song on the album, perhaps of their career. Released as a single, however, it barely cracked the nether regions of the UK top 200 chart. Never caught on. Perhaps they are just too '90s and this came too late. The irony.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Sun Also Rises (1926)

What I remember best about reading Ernest Hemingway "way back when" was that most of my reading friends disliked him to varying degrees of intensity, and thus he became something of a guilty pleasure for me, whose novels and stories I consumed in great chunks. But since then I have not returned to him much, at least until recently, for various reasons, not least that there was no longer any peer pressure mitigating against liking him. I noticed there were some changes to the blurbs on his books: he now has done "more to change the style of English prose than any other writer in the twentieth century" and is charged with paving the way for Raymond Carver. Thus encouraged, I embarked on his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, which I read first—again, in one great gulp—in 1975 or so, and went through again in the '80s. Even back then I was troubled by the appearance of the word "nigger," and even more, on that score, by the black jazz drummer whose dialogue is reported as "......" Fine—whatever. Allowances need to be made for historical context. Yet it still seemed offensive, because so gratuitous. But fine—leave that alone. I was more than horrified, this time, to find the style of writing dreadfully opaque—straightforward nouns and verbs, yes, but always concerned with superfluities, banal description alternating with banal dialogue. And then the premise. What hokum. I mean, I can handle the heavy-handed symbolism of castration by war. But making the eunuch the narrator? And, worse, the stoic sufferer? Too much. Almost laughable. Then there's the problem of the Lady Brett Ashley, who is thoroughly unlikable. She and the eunuch deserve one another, but it's fairly evident we're intended to find the two of them noble and heroic, or at least indulge their drunkenness as understandable. All right, but I'd preferred they remained passed out for the duration. I understand this novel is considered significant perhaps more for its stylistic, formalistic qualities than as a war novel or any other kind of novel (profligate youth, post-WWI manners, "lost generation," Roaring '20s, whatever). And, right, you can't miss the sizzle and electricity of the language, and I appreciate the connection to Carver. But this is such a simple-minded exercise of unexamined privilege that it mostly trumps all for me now. Enough with the silent heroics. Whine a little, why don't you. You were grievously wounded. For all the acclaimed pellucid qualities of the language it is remarkably ponderous, inflating itself to comical proportions. "......" indeed.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Truman Show (1998)

USA, 103 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Photography: Peter Biziou
Music: Burkhard von Dallwitz
Editors: William M. Anderson, Lee Smith
Cast: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Ed Harris, Peter Krause, Paul Giamatti, Harry Shearer, Philip Baker Hall

It's surely going too far to call The Truman Show a horror movie—it's not exactly ever scary, for one thing. But the affinities to Twilight Zone in its near-future science fiction premise are evident enough even as it slyly obverts the cinema of paranoia over to the point of view of the voyeurs. The deception it lays out in broad strokes and then methodically details is scandalous nearly beyond belief. It's hard not to be stirred at least a little—disturbed, even horrified. Which is not exactly the intent here, but not exactly not the intent either.

Indeed, it's not easy to know what The Truman Show thinks it is about beyond an overweening sense of its own prescience—at which, in fairness, even 15 years later, it seems very good indeed in the hurly-burly of seeing it. Easy shots proceed like automatic weapon fire at creeping corporatism, media/celebrity culture, TV and the displaced and alienated lives of people living vicariously through it. There's even, arguably, an attempt to illuminate the Situationist spectacle. It is almost dazzling in the way it picks up on and flies down the rabbit holes of media criticism then in play, gleefully embracing and inflating practical marketing savvy tactics like product placement and embedded marketing. Most importantly, I think, it's very sharp tracking the diminishing levels of public discourse. It doesn't know who or what to blame it on, but it knows there is a problem. Likely spoilers ahead.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Buzzcocks, "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" (1979)


Well, this is an old favorite just because I owned the single before making the smart move and latching onto the band's masterpiece album, Singles Going Steady (A-sides and B-sides, arguably the only way to do a punk-rock album). It's thus a sentimental favorite but I think anyone would have to agree. "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" is still a beaut—it's the slashing guitars that make it, which are so nimble and quick and yet so suddenly heavy, pushed to the forefront when the backing vocals cut in. David Gedge, for one, was an evident student. They are like blasts of gently scrubbing steel wool to the brain, abrasive yet cleansing in the full-out sprint of this song. Pete Shelley's vocal traces a relentlessly hooked-up melody, made to pogo to yet so much more, operating at precision levels of popcraft, chiming notes and fat chords and ratatat snare. When the space opens for it Shelley's nervous yelping, "but I know it's OK OK," makes the point perfectly. Of course this is no song about happiness, even if it sounds that way, but rather one of jeering anxiety, with built-in propulsive release courtesy those slashing guitars, which suddenly elevate and relieve and go full circle to the song's fundamentals. Manchester's finest, I don't care what anyone says, the Buzzcocks would have been stars in any era, and they should have been bigger stars in the late '70s. The art is all over it—this is the punk-rock that willfully eschews politics—and they are so good at assembling pop music out of 2 guitars bass drums that one is practically humbled by it. At the same time "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" is so generous there's only occasion for the joy of it, and playing again.

Thank you for comments

Yesterday afternoon, I inadvertently concluded an experiment with Google+ integration. The unfortunate result is that all comments left on this blog since last April are now gone. My apologies to everyone whose comments were lost.  I like and appreciate all of them that I get. But I had heard from too many people that commenting had become too hard on this blog. And I was also not receiving notifications of what comments I did get—or, to be more accurate, I could not get them without also opening myself to too many other Google+ notifications. Thus, I realized it was time to attempt returning to the old system, which while not exactly good, was still better.

Please feel free to leave comments on this blog. It should be a little bit easier now. I love to get them.

Monday, September 02, 2013


Movies/TV I saw last month...

American Horror Story (s1, 2011)—The potluck stew of horror tropes does too quickly become tedious soap opera, but that's TV and maybe it was still worth the try? I appreciated the way Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton were so summarily dismissed, it often hits nice scary notes, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the second season is even better (or even worse). Not sure how soon I will finding that out, however.
Au hasard Balthazar (1966)
Badlands (1973)—Oh, yeah, I remember, this is why I like Terrence Malick. Though, now that serial killers and mass murderers and true crime generally have become popular, iconic, and ultimately formulaic, the way in which I appreciate it is hardly less complicated than my response to his more recent stuff, which I'm holding my tongue not to call overrated. But this is beautiful and shocking and haunting, in perfect strokes.
The Bad News Bears (1976)—I've always considered this among the "very good" baseball movies. I love how the losers really are losers. It's bleak if you think about it too much—thus, to me, a perfect family entertainment, because it's also genuinely uplifting. I'd also like to say it's a pleasure to see a 14-year-old Jackie Earle Haley.
Ball of Fire (1941)—I am not as enamored of Howard Hawks as some but there's no denying him, Barbara Stanwyck is fine as always, and what's not to like about a parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (with a few sly smacks at Capra as well)? Still, this never quite seems to spark the way one wishes it would.
Carlos the Jackal (2010)—The third part in no way salvaged the bloat of the first two, though to be sure it's attractive in many ways, not least the central performance by Edgar Ramirez. My recommendation: confine yourself to the second part, which is mostly the 1975 OPEC raid.
Carnival of Souls (1962)—Basically a kind of extended Twilight Zone episode complete with twist you see coming from miles, it's also creative, moody, and capable of unsettling imagery. Worth seeing.
Choke (2008)—I had some hopes for this Sam Rockwell vehicle, but it's awfully heavy-handed and obvious.
The Conjuring (2013)—Yeah, I thought this was a pretty fine haunted house picture, with some excellent shock cuts and images and just enough headlong momentum to ratchet the tension. I was never so scared I was sorry I went—the gold standard for horror—but I gasped a few times, and that's a few more times than I gasp at 95% of horror movies.
The Crow (1994)—Enjoyed a chance to look at this again though it is often a matter of surface over substance. Hard to judge what Brandon Lee might have been able to make of himself, and the editing tricksiness does not settle well. But he cuts a fine figure here and the Thrill Kill Kult cameo remains wonderful.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Iggy & the Stooges, "Death Trip" (1973)


Mythology time. There's an easy case to make for Raw Power as one of the great cursed smoldering monuments in rock 'n' roll, saturated in self-loathing, debilitating drug usage, disillusionment, and incompetent engineering. One more great band poised for a joint swan dive into the cement of an empty Los Angeles swimming pool. Even the titles point to troubles—"Search and Destroy," "Gimme Danger," and "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell" is how it starts. It ends on the loud, crunching, irresistible, semi-groove "Death Trip," which attacks with a squall that sets nerves on edge even after 30 minutes of this and continues for six more minutes. David Bowie had no idea how to record it in 1972, and Iggy Pop little better how to remix it in 1996. Ultimately neither version may serve the music, but they both serve the mood. What is essential to the Stooges survives well. It's only rock 'n' roll but they like it. None of the well-documented disadvantages diminish that. Indeed, many claim it as the best Stooges album. It's the rawest and most powerful, little question. But it's also occluded, dark, overshadowed by the suspicion that the intimations are all too authentic. It's not fun, and that is core to the set, full of rage and pain and yet for that a minimum of grandstanding. In the moment, by all accounts, they were just trying to make a hit album that seemed more elusive than ever and then go cop in peace. So it is efficiently executed and in many ways that's what counts. Iggy's word association games well up out of a state of near total distraction, the band verges on the pro forma but stays ahead of it because they're just too good, and the finish line is exhaustion and exhilaration. Etch that legend in stone.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moondance (1970)

(Previous attempts here and here.)

I have belabored the point about the first side of this album. Hearing "Old Old Woodstock" from Tupelo Honey recently, I realized I have surely oversold the whole thing. I mean, sweet God, Tupelo Honey is a masterpiece, and Blowin' Your Mind! and Astral Weeks. And the freakin' second side of Moondance. Nonetheless, it seems my platte hath troth and beachhead made. Oh the water, let it run all over me. This is five songs—"And it Stoned Me," "Moondance," "Crazy Love," "Caravan," and "Into the Mystic"—about birth, life, and the eternal, in totality as perfect as anything could ever hope to be. In them is found everything. Sometimes I wonder why I need anything else at all.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Please Kill Me (1997)

This is approximately exactly as advertised, an uncensored oral history of '70s New York punk-rock, reaching back for its origins to the Doors, Velvet Underground, and Stooges, and proceeding directly from there. The copious drug use and sexual practices account for the "uncensored" appellation, though in its totality few are spared the judgments of one another on account of discretion, so in that way it's kind of gossipy too—but always fascinating and there is likely plenty for many to learn. Me, I was surprised to encounter some of the people in the thick of it, such as Todd Rundgren, and to gain some proportionality of impact on my own heroes of the time, Lou Reed (huge), Iggy Pop (colossal), and David Bowie (marginal). It was good to see so much attention paid to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, though I could have done without so much on the Dead Boys. Talking Heads are all but missing in action, except for one glancing mention of yuppies, which just goes to show the rest of us ... something. Once again I am forced to consider the New York Dolls, who never meant much to me. Guess you had to be there—the shows sound awesome. My blind spot extends to Johnny Thunders as well, on whom there is a good deal here. He's one of the giants striding all through it. The Ramones also figure large, of course, and unfortunately many of their stories are sad ones. They should have been superstars, I still think that. Blondie gets treated nicely too, which surprised me given the approach to Talking Heads. Lots of voices are heard here, from the obscure to the famous, but a few are missing. I don't think there are any (or many anyway) quotes from Tom Verlaine. It's great on the cross-pollinating relations between New York and British punk-rock, funny and interesting to see the view from the inside as the whole thing is virtually carpetbagged out of New York by Malcolm McLaren after an inspiring visit, incidentally earning him a lion's share of credit for punk-rock, with the Sex Pistols (McLaren again), the Clash, and all the rest. They're here too, of course—but mostly only in appropriately marginalized roles. This one's fast and fun to read.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Gates of Heaven (1978)

USA, 85 minutes, documentary
Director/editor: Errol Morris
Photography: Ned Burgess

I had better note how strange it was to sit down to watch and write about Gates of Heaven, a documentary about pet cemeteries, within days of the death of a long-time pet cat. As I feared, the context tended to confirm my impression of the worst qualities of filmmaker Errol Morris, even here in my favorite film by him, his first. He can often come across as a shallow ironist, falling back continually on an unpleasant mocking element that curdles the best here. In many ways we are in David Byrne territory (before even David Byrne had arrived there), with an insulated and smug complacency that too often misses and obtrudes the point.

The themes Morris attempts to smother in jocularity often entirely resist that—themes of faith, love, responsibility, some of the most profound questions we ask. The result is hardly unflawed, a movie that appears to be having an argument with itself about something we don't understand, like a feuding couple at a dinner party. Yet, in terms of form and in terms of filmmaking strategy, it brought things to bear that we are still seeing released every month in new documentaries.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phoebe Snow, "Take Your Children Home" (1974)


In which I disclose both methodology and a base sentimentality that motivates me: One reason I never made it as a journalist was lack of an ability to stay on top of things and fix on what interests a wide or general (or even niche and specific) audience, which is mostly a matter of keeping up, which probably just means I'm lazy or a crank or both. But there you go. Instead of swimming the zeitgeist, I have to make long lists way far in advance and plod through them in order. Phoebe Snow's lovely "Take Your Children Home" made it to the list because in 2009 it became the unofficial theme song of the death of my cat Floyd—paralyzed me with sadness when shuffle suddenly began insisting on it. Phoebe Snow's death came in 2011, the last grace note in her own sad story of children found, lost, taken home. And now my time to write about this song has come in the same week that my cat Esme has died—Floyd's sister, who outlived him by more than four years to make it to 16 years old. My constant companion, and best friend in many ways. "Death has no mercy," as the Dead put it, and I feel that acutely right now. But I feel grace at work too, putting this song in my way. It's more playful than I'm letting on, a shambolic meditation on carousing, but I hear (or project) such a world of wisdom in the title phrase, rooted in the here and now but facing the eternal. Leaning into the eternal, actually. "Take your children home, I am one." Death as a matter of going home. So even as this song makes me appallingly sad ("children" being so vulnerable by definition), it comforts me too. I like to think that Floyd and Esme are safe at home now, where I took them.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Son of Danse Macabre (2012)

I appreciated Bryce Wilson's brave and bold idea of updating Stephen King's essential Danse Macabre, the critical history of horror published in 1981. Wilson, who among other things operates the noteworthy Things That Don't Suck blog, set himself to update King's volume for the developments in the genre over the past 30 and more years. It's fair to say those developments have been considerable, and in fact I still have some hope that King himself will get around to it. But Wilson's shot is certainly fine until then. He loves and understands the form, and he knows his stuff. I think he's strongest on film. It's where the passion comes through. On comic books and literature, I trust his judgments, but I sometimes get a feeling that some stones may have been left unturned. No matter. You can't always get to everything, and he's good enough (and probably young enough) that he could well develop the same authority there that he already has with movies (and TV). And I think it's a laudable exercise in itself any time someone takes on a history of any form that draws them. It forces research, and the reward is invaluable perspective, and it's almost always interesting writing. We'll see how that works out for Wilson in the fullness of time—I have my hopes. Meanwhile, though I disagreed with him on some matters, I thoroughly enjoyed his views on things, wide and narrow. When I was familiar with some of his areas of focus—Scream, The Blair Witch Project, and The Ring, most notably—I found him insightful, leading me to deeper appreciations of many elements. He has also become a go-to critical resource just like that. I came away from this with a little list of films to see and things to read, and I am already looking forward to them. If you know Danse Macabre you almost can't go wrong with Son of—even if, like most sequels, it's a few steps back of the original. In this neck of the woods, being a few steps back of Stephen King means you're doing pretty damned good.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

tu-plang (1996)

The first album by Australian band Regurgitator came in the mail the last time anyone was bothering to send me free albums in the mail, so that should give some idea how long that's been. I flipped for it in a big way—it was a curiosity and the band was a mystery (intriguing cover art, eccentric information in small font only in the booklet, this music) that went into high rotation for a couple of months. Hard to figure out who they were, or what this was. I still don't know much about Regurgitator, but I see on Wikipedia they've had a whole career and are reasonably popular even. In fact, this album itself went to #3 Down Under and even yielded a top 40 hit in "Kong Foo Sing," which may indeed be the best song here. In fairness, nothing seems to have dented any other English-speaking or European or any other charts anywhere, beyond New Zealand. Insert usual that's a shame, because there are plenty of reasons to like this, starting with the determined career suicide gesture of opening your debut album with a song called "I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am." That pushed me toward a disposition in its favor, and they delivered with these feverish mash-ups of hip-hop, drum-and-bass attack, screwy PiL vocals, heavy bottoms, surf-rock flourishes, and gratuitous obscenity as it pleases them. It's Stranglers-style mood pieces for people in bad moods, all lined up in neat rows. It's surprisingly listenable, and surprising in any number of ways, with constant, vicious hooks, a wealth of ways to use the studio and unusual instruments, and whatever, to insinuate itself continually. It's capable of a good deal of very pure heaviosity and even willful menace, which probably would have scared me when I was about 14, if I'd happened to wake up to it in the middle of the night and it was playing. But since I was already 40 by the time I actually heard it, I registered the vein and kept moving. It's a real pleasure, and I was happy to find it remains so. As heavy as it makes out, it's always cheeky, and the momentum rarely flags.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock" (1970)


Joni Mitchell was not actually at Woodstock, as either performer or attendee. Reports say she had already committed to a Dick Cavett TV appearance that weekend. But like so many she was obviously impressed by the scope of the event and in the aftermath wrote this song—which, in the US, became a #11 hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and then a #23 hit for Matthews' Southern Comfort. Joni Mitchell's version lives on the Ladies of the Canyon album, which took me some time to understand is actually one of her best. For "Woodstock"—which I judge about in the middle of the pack in terms of song quality on that album—she is in Joni at the piano keyboard mode, sounding pensive, resentful, and slightly adenoidal, as if crying recently (the next album Blue would serve up the largest portions of this). She's capable of pealing out with some big notes, but not always where you would expect them. I like how that undercuts the cosmic business and/or the triumphalism in the lyrics—"child of God," "stardust," "half a million strong," etc. The other element that sets this apart, of course, is the studio-bound production featuring multi-tracking of Mitchell on all the background vocals, which produces a weirdly beautiful and cerebral effect that at once personalizes and impersonalizes the song—more undercutting, as if afraid to actually commit to the vision (reflected as well in her increasing hesitation to play festival gigs). The various misgivings were more or less elided by the boys covering it, who happily (or willfully) failed to notice in favor of the rapturous notes. But gads this version by Joni Mitchell is lovely and alien. I think that's the main reason it's by far the most musically interesting of them.