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...."