Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Last Dance (2000)

So, yeah, this is helping to answer my questions about the end of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either)—not bad, but maybe a little tired. As it happens, this is also a milestone in the series, the 50th book, so perhaps McBain was unusually up for it. The main case is a pretty good tale of murder for greed. Fat Ollie Weeks has more than ever become a character of interest, and generally that's for the good. He represents an adroit balance of loathsome and fascinating. Lots of nice touches here such as some misdirection about Houston, Texas, or the Broadway-style panache of a stage show producer and his minions. I'm not sure I hear the same hum and crackle of earlier titles, but it's still plenty serviceable as a procedural thriller. Multiple bodies are involved, the cruelty is wanton but comes in a variety of styles. I love the feeling of Isola as an alternative universe New York City that somehow exists with New York City in this world, though little is said (that I've seen or recall) about New York in detail. Steve Carella feels a little tired or exhausted. They all do, a little, those left. I was particularly happy to see Law & Order referenced, as I was curious about his take. It seems to be a favorite of at least two characters, the longstanding Bert Kling and his love interest, a highly accomplished African-American surgeon liaison with the police, Sharyn Cooke. One of the detectives is shot and injured. But that and the Kling thread do feel a little pro forma. So overall maybe a B+ for this one, upped a notch simply for making it to 50 in reasonably good style.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rolling Stones, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (1968)

June 15, 1968, #3

There are times I'm pretty sure this is the greatest rock 'n' roll song ever made. There are other times when it only seems overplayed and trite—the penalty for loving a song too much and too well perhaps, though to date it remains resilient enough to stage occasional pulsating comebacks every few years. Part of the reason I like it so well I'm sure is that it came of the Beggars Banquet sessions, an album that takes regular turns for me as favorite Rolling Stones album (trading off generally with Sticky Fingers and Out of Our Heads, though others butt in as well now and then). Why "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was not released on the album is anybody's guess, as far as I know. I'm willing to take the mythologizing route at this point and make the extravagant claims: It's too big to be contained on an album. It is an album. It rewired our brains and forced us to redefine the very concept of what an album is, etc. Yes, I know. But there is a tremendous amount packed into this three and a half minutes. It's the kind of song with the power to inspire one to sweeping statements. That impossible trebly crashing guitar, that stomping back beat, the way it finds a space that logically belongs to somebody else a long time ago and puts its stamp all over it, Grade AAA prime rock 'n' roll. It glides, it soars, it struts and preens. Can't take your eyes off it. Older than rock 'n' roll. Older than the 20th century. But work the focus and there it is again: the Stones, Mick Jagger a-leaping about the place, cranking out the mocking, jeering, irresistible sounds of bitter envy and revelry. For better and for worse. And in sickness and health too, for that matter. In other words, and to get right to the point, "Jumpin' Jack Flash is a gas gas gas."

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814)

In many ways I find I approach Jane Austen novels much like mystery stories. Where the latter has a murder or other crime, the former will have a marriage. There is always a plucky, handsome, and most sensible heroine—in this case one Fanny Price, an impoverished niece of a "great" family—and one or two or three prospects, at least one of whom will turn into some variety of rat. The pleasure for me is all in the subtleties of character, which Austen is so good at conceiving situations to show. Good people turn out to be something less than good, and bad people can mend their ways, so it's never clear where things are headed, except generally toward the sacred altar of betrothal. The most interesting character for me in this one is a Miss Mary Crawford, who is lively and spirited and seems capable of an interesting development. Unfortunately (and I think unfairly) she turns out to be something of a villain, doing things I don't think fit with her character as I understand it. Now and then the judgments (of the author? the characters?) are blurred and distorted and hard to read—antiquated, I guess. The way "theater" is routinely deplored as corrupting, for example, and indeed shown to be so. That seemed on the wrong side of ridiculous to me, and I particularly thought Miss Crawford's skepticism about religion was sharp, apt, and well-placed. But I think it is also intended to make her villainous. Thus, alas, I run somewhat afoul of what I believe are Miss Austen's own biases and morality. I am altogether just a little cockeyed to her judgments here. But honestly that's part of the engrossing appeal for me of her work. These are generally well made worlds she has left us, and it's fascinating to feel through the moral labyrinths to find how one is aligned. The resolutions reached in Mansfield Park may feel off to me, but I'm sure many find them by and large satisfying. But I don't. I would like to speak up again for Miss Crawford, and gently remonstrate against the felicity of first cousins marrying. But there you have it. Now I'm trying to write like Jane Austen. She casts that strong of a spell. Mansfield Park is not as good as her gold standard Pride and Prejudice but it's plenty fine.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Sonatine (1993)

Japan, 94 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Takeshi Kitano
Photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu Katsumura, Susumu Terajima, Ren Osugi, Tonbo Zushi, Ken'ichi Yajima, Eiji Minakata

There are at least two other movies named Sonatine. One is a 1984 Canadian feature described on as "Two teenaged friends have separate difficult experiences that make the girls seriously consider suicide." The other is a French short described on its Facebook page as "A once successful actress has taken refuge at her sister's home. Her presence triggers deep-seated feelings that lead to a tragic outcome." It is also the name of a piece for piano by classical composer Maurice Ravel. Try looking up the word and you soon arrive at "sonatina," defined as follows: "As a musical term, sonatina has no single strict definition; it is rather a title applied by the composer to a piece that is in basic sonata form, but is shorter, lighter in character, or more elementary technically than a typical sonata."

Pursuing: Sonata, according to Wikipedia, "literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata, a piece sung." And so, as best I can tell, we have arrived at the fiction writer's shibboleth, "show, don't tell," with some overlying implication of insubstantiality, in terms of what the intriguing title is intended to convey. As much as anything Sonatine works like a musical piece—not to mention that it also contains wonderful music. Director, writer, and editor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano has created a befuddling movie that sits quietly and observes—observes contemporary (for 1993) Japanese yakuza gangster life, and more particularly observes the existential crisis of one specific mid-level chief, Aniki Murakawa (played by Kitano, which makes him a four-tools moviemaker at least).

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Eric Burdon & the Animals, "See See Rider" (1966)

Oct. 1, 1966, #10

Eric Burdon & the Animals had to go to the back of a long line in terms of getting their bite at this song, written by Ma Rainey in 1924 and recorded over the decades by LaVern Baker, Wee Bea Booze, Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Peggy Lee, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Sonny Til & the Orioles, and Chuck Willis (who had a #12 pop hit with it in 1957 as "C.C. Rider"). It is so old it has sprouted a garden of alternative titles: "See See Rider Blues," "Easy Rider," "C.C. Rider." The theme is old too: look out for the faithless sexual wanton woman, aka "easy rider," 'cos she's wrecking marriages. Everything else is a play on that—the "C.C.," for example, is said to stand for "country circuit" preachers, who carried the good word and that old time religion on horseback from town to town. Nevertheless, not understanding any of that, I liked the Animals version so much that for many years I kept reflexively including it on short lists of my favorite songs, remembering the giddy heights it sent me to whenever it came leaping out of the radio, too infrequently. I love the surging, high-stepping thrust of it, the headlong tempo, the ballsy confidence. The band is in great form. The Animals were initially my favorite of the British Invasion bands of the time (after the Beatles, always after the Beatles). "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" was my first exposure, but it wasn't long before I caught up with the shivery-good "House of the Rising Sun" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." "See See Rider" is a strong point in a strong run, which also included "It's My Life," "Don't Bring Me Down," "When I Was Young," and I stuck around even for the San Francisco-addled period, which I still enjoy too, and beyond.