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.