Monday, May 31, 2021

Blow the Man Down (2019)

Problems of categorizing: I picked this movie more or less out of a hat from a list of "movies to see" I cobbled together late last year out of best-of lists and recommendations on social media. The list is full of movies about which I know nothing or very little until I go to look at them. Sometimes I go in entirely blind, sometimes I check IMDb or even a review or two. In this case, I noted that IMDb classes Blow the Man Down as "comedy, drama, mystery" (again, I ask, is this alphabetical?) with an aggregate ranking of 6.4 (that's too low btw so I gave it a 7). Later, after I'd seen it, I looked up Glenn Kenny's review on where he mentions the comic aspects of the picture too. Look, yes, Blow the Man Down has some bits that are funny, but they are mostly there for the relief from a nicely constructed thriller, and welcome at that. The picture also asserts eccentric indie cred with a perversely effective Greek chorus of New England fishermen who jump in and start singing sea shanties (like the title song, which I used to associate only with Popeye but has definitely been growing on me for some time now). It's mainly a predicament movie, in which characters get themselves into one and it only seems to keep getting worse, the kind of movie you talk to in the privacy of your home. "That body is never going to fit into that cooler," I said at one point, for example. Or, at another: "Stop wasting time now. Go get that knife or there's going to be trouble with it later." Or: "Are you kidding me? You should not believe a word this person is saying." And, of course: "Oh, noo!" And so forth. I consider the impulse (which I would never indulge in a theater or with company, of course) a mark of a pretty good suspense film, so add that please to the categories for Blow the Man Down along with thriller. It's set in Maine—the New England accents may be variously strained or nonexistent from character to character, but that's all right. Two young women, barely of age, have lost their mother and the picture starts on the day of her funeral. The younger girl, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), deals with her grief and hatred of the small town by going out that night, getting drunk, and finding herself in a royal predicament. You'll have your own words of advice for her. I had mine. She didn't listen, of course, and she probably won't listen to you either. Things do not get better from there, as various unsavory secrets of the town start to emerge while Mary Beth and her older and more mature sister Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) are busy trying to get out of the predicament. I think the secret of Blow the Man Down (aside from the singing fishermen and worrisome predicament) is casting the older characters well. The town madam Enid, for example, is a first-rate turn from Margo Martindale, a ubiquitous figure of TV (The Americans, Dexter, The Good Wife, Justified, Mrs. America, and many others). She is quite terrifying here. Or Susie (June Squibb), a bawdy but kindly old lady who's been around the block. Squibb has too, in places like Alexander Payne pictures (Nebraska, About Schmidt). Blow the Man Down is not perfect but it's good enough to get me talking out loud with some urgency to the screen. And I have to think codirectors and cowriters Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy are two to keep an eye on.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

"They're Not Your Husband" (1973)

This is one of Raymond Carver's stories that Robert Altman adapted for the Short Cuts movie. It's quite recognizable as the couple, Earl and Doreen, are played memorably by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. The movie characters had some details that came from elsewhere, not necessarily Carver, but this is the one where Earl sees his wife, working as a waitress, being ogled and commented on by men who don't know he's her husband. The moment is more poignant in the movie the way Waits plays it with Buck Henry and Huey Lewis, and in the story Doreen is more grotesquely ugly. The story is full of great Carver touches—the waitressing work, Earl's unemployment, the uneasy marriage—but it's also a little harsh and verges on unpleasant in Earl's treatment of Doreen, which is not really comical at all except in sardonic ways. Earl is "between jobs" and has a couple of interviews in this story, which don't seem to pan out (but you never know). His days are empty. His pushy insistence that Doreen lose weight, buying a scale and making blunt remarks to her, and his obvious shame about her appearance, are not in the movie as much and it makes the story edgy and nervous. In a later scene Earl is more of a creep at the restaurant, trying to egg remarks about Doreen out of a man who's not inclined to talk to him. With another waitress he acts like he doesn't know Doreen. The final scene is a moment of withering humiliation. On balance Earl and Doreen seem largely benign but I get some sense Carver has it in for them somehow, Doreen for her looks (much like Earl, in fact) and Earl as a pathetic nebbish. In Carol Sklenicka's excellent biography, Raymond Carver, there's a great comment from one fellow writer and/or student along the way. He says Carver is writing about working-class characters but really they're all graduate students—that's what Carver knew. I see some of that here in Earl, scrounging for generic work, chronically poor, depending on a partner to support him, but capable of attacking a problem like weight loss systematically, buying the scale, keeping track of the numbers, and analyzing and mulling them over—and doing it all to right a very minor perceived wrong. This one sports another great story title too.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

Thursday, May 27, 2021

"Sweets to the Sweet" (1947)

How do you solve a problem like Robert Bloch (sung to the tune of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound of Music)? I mean, he has all the bona fides: corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft as a teen when he first started publishing, wrote the literary property behind Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, grew up in Milwaukee, published hundreds of stories in all the right places (from Weird Tales to Playboy), wrote scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and many others, and won enough awards to melt down and build a tank, if he were so inclined. The My Favorite Horror Story anthology, published in 2000, asked leading horror lights of the day to name and write an intro about [the title]. Bloch and Lovecraft were the only writers with two stories, and this story by Bloch was the choice of Stephen King. How can I argue with that? I can't. "Sweets to the Sweet" is not a bad story and even very good of a type. The main feature is its twist ending, which is hard to see coming because Bloch uses misdirection well (the misdirection is child abuse but apparently we are letting that pass because 1947 or something). But "Sweets to the Sweet" is also entirely typical of the problems of Bloch's stories, which is that if he can't scare you at least maybe he can make you laugh or if not that force a groan with some terrible pun. I’m addicted to brake fluid, but it’s OK because I can stop at any time. Let's not forget the jokey undercurrents about mothers in Psycho (Norman Bates: "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother")—that's Bloch as well as Hitchcock. "Sweets to the sweet"—well, you'll have to read this one to get that because I'm not going to give too much away. You may as well enjoy Bloch at about the best I've seen him while I complain about everything else. Instead, I'll give away "Catnip," a minor effort from the following year published in Weird Tales. Like a lot of his stuff, it feels like a hurry-up first draft never looked at again. All you really need to know about it is its dependence on hatred and fear of black cats and the old figure of speech, "Cat got your tongue?" to understand the arc and get the joke of this story about an unlikely bully and a witch. In Playboy in the early '60s, for another example, Bloch published a story called "The Traveling Salesman," which features the alleged actual traveling salesman from all the jokes I'm pretty sure nobody tells anymore, now more or less relics from the Johnny Carson era. This guy's life is hell because he has to go and act out every new traveling salesman joke that comes along. Hyuk-hyuk. It's not horror, it's a gag. In a lot of his stories Bloch comes across like a stand-up comic teetering on the verge of a bad flop sweat episode. He evokes the elements of horror—gore, mayhem, grotesqueries—but they're more like shtick on the way to the punchline. And if that don't work: What did one eye say to the other? Just between you and me, something smells. I understand the impulse to laugh at the whole horror game because, yes, it's all pretty silly when it comes down to it. These are just make-believe stories, of course! But uh the wise-guy routine sort of spoils the mood, and even if Bloch did hit a few twist endings pretty well—no small feat, I admit—I can't help feeling just a little bit taken by most of his stuff.

My Favorite Horror Story, ed. Mike Baker & Martin B. Greenberg (out of print)
When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth (out of print)
Listen to story online.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Forever in Love" (1993)


Big whooshy boojie-boy energy heralds the shift from onset and spinning head into love sweet love, no big step in these circumstances. The tempo continues strong with brisk lagging off-kilter stumblebum beats and the mood is sweetened somewhat. It snaps to attention when the anonymous associate director on set with the megaphone calls "Take it from the top" at 2:34. If this is the Chris Lowe album my CD metadata says it is, certainly Neil Tennant is on hand to lend support, vocals, perhaps even words and melodies, heard well here. Except for "One Thing Leads to Another" this might be the most typical Tennant in the Relentless set. Inspirational, recurring verse: "Forever in love / Were you ever in love?" Words to put in your head and ponder as the song swirls forward, falls back, swoops and dives, a whirlwind of beat and emotion (check the moaning dancer: "I feel it, I feel it, I feel it, I feel it, I feel it") making its way back to the question at hand. It's good to dance. Were you ever in love? This is not the only time they will do this, with the questions; gender studies are ahead in the next song but one. But stay in the moment, contemplate this one, simple enough. Were you ever in love? Work it through. Were you ever in love? Grok this. Really it's just more scenery to preoccupy the mind and spinning head in this gentle fantasy of an all-night dance rave, equivalent in meaning to the siren-like sound that elevates it and elevates again. Thoughts are there purely for your entertainment.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Old Wives' Tale (1908)

Here we have another novel and author from the Modern Library list I had never heard of—Arnold Bennett, who was both British and prolific. The Old Wives' Tale is pretty big, over 600 pages, and your basic pleasure, essentially a bourgeois family's multigenerational history, comparable to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, focusing on two sisters close in age but with very different fates. Or very different middles, as their fates are similar once they reunite. Their lives are ordinary. There are virtually no historical events here, beyond the grind toward the modern in technology and the capitalist economics that accompanied the 19th century into the 20th. Bennett is one of those writers who can create memorable characters and then let their lives spool out naturally. In a preface, he outlines his intention to tell the life stories of the anonymous middle-aged women all around him (and us). In a way focusing on ordinary women puts him way ahead of the curve. In another way he's just another white man taking advantage of his privilege to tell a story that belongs to others to tell. We have been learning since at least 1908 that people tell their own stories better. Yet even so Bennett is very good at the novel of social manners, once past a certain winding-up in the early going. The structure is a bit awkward, telling the parallel stories of the two sisters, who were separated late in adolescence, in separate sections. Bennett's heart seems closer to Constance, the elder, who is less beautiful, more conventional, and stayed where she was born in rural England. Sophia makes a bad marriage and ends up with a bad life on her own in Paris. Obviously it's the more adventurous and romantic of the two stories, but it goes second and often feels rushed. The reunion when they are both middle-aged, in the last quarter of the novel, is often poignant but also often feels mechanical. Bennett surprises with his insight and compassion, and then surprises again when he seems impatient and hurries through episodes. This is more a problem of the second half. The tempo of the first half, by contrast, especially the Constance chapters, feels almost perfect, stopping to dwell on significant events and then accelerating through time again. No one seemed to be talking about Arnold Bennett when I was in school, or if they were I didn't notice. In a way I can see why he faded, but for once I'm happy about the fuddy-duddy ways of the Modern Library list for putting this one in my way. Recommended for Jane Austen readers.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, May 21, 2021

Heat (1995)

USA, 170 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Mann
Photography: Dante Spinotti
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Editors: Pasquale Buba, William Goldenberg, Dov Hoenig, Tom Rolf
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Wes Studi, Natalie Portman, Dennis Haysbert, Hank Azaria, Danny Trejo, Henry Rollins, Tone Loc

I wasn't too surprised when Heat fell flat for me the last time I looked. I've always had mixed feelings about all its main points—jumbo-sized heist movie starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, written and directed by Michael Mann. De Niro and Pacino are great players, of course, even when they're not trying very hard, but they're better when they're trying. Are they trying here? Not in the good way. Several reviewers have noted that Pacino is shouting a lot again. De Niro retires into his soft-spoken cerebral manner like the accountant with funny glasses in Casino. We never forget his explosiveness but that's because we've seen it in all those other movies.

For his part, director and writer Michael Mann is as committed to the visuals as ever, with twinkling Los Angeles vistas providing magnificent backdrop for this tired old story of cops and robbers and how they are more alike than different, etc. The robbers, headed by De Niro, take down Big Scores that require meticulous planning. The cops, headed by Pacino, work a special detail dedicated to chasing down those who would commit Big Scores (with the budget to support the effort). It's all kind of like a Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV episode with extraordinarily impressive production values. Cinematic crimes like this require a lot of showing and much less telling, particularly in the planning stages. Mann's team of four editors, and no doubt Mann himself riding along with them, work out a lot of ways to cut these capers as they go down. They are often kinetically vivid and propulsive with spasms of violence and lots of shoot-'em-ups. But in this movie, which might have also have been called Long, they start to look alike by the time we arrive at the third hour.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

It's one thing to tell big immersive stories, but comic book narratives for decades now and increasingly TV shows too inevitably run into continuity problems. You want to have your cake and eat it too. You want the drama and gravitas of killing off an important character, for example, but you don't want to lose the character forever. And you don't have to! Haven't all the major DC and Marvel comic book franchises "erased their work and started over" numerous times now? Silver age DC used to solve this with the "Imaginary Tale" (and Marvel eventually followed with its "What If" series) but nobody liked this solution. Lately the vast reaches of outer space and potentially infinite "other" dimensions have offered another possibility. This Spider-Man treatment takes a page from the Green Lantern plot, in which it was eventually revealed that Hal Jordan is not the only Green Lantern, there is a virtual army of them across the universe, patrolling home planets and vulnerable to the color yellow (which—isn't green an amalgamation of yellow and blue?). Now we learn, in this dazzling animated feature of a few years ago, that Peter Parker is not the only Spider-Man but there is an army of Spider-Beings across parallel dimensions (full disclosure, I can't speak to any sources in comic books because I don't follow any comic book anymore, not even Spider-Man, an old favorite but from a long time ago). Into the Spider-Verse is here to yuk it up over an existential crisis across a widening dimensional gyre portal opened up thanks to the Kingpin (so massive his head appears to be mysteriously located on his sternum). There's a host of fancy web-slingin' and some nice coming-of-age notes too as a Black kid from Brooklyn, a new Spider-Man in an alternate dimension, assumes the mantle and learns the ropes, so to speak. It's quite entertaining, bursting at will into impossibly fast pinging comic book action, and also capable of some impressive psychedelic effects to suggest interdimensionality and such. There's also approximately one metric fuck-ton of wisecracking, random comic book graphic devices such as splashy sound effects words, a Stan Lee cameo (albeit animated and note not "reanimated" as he was still alive at the time this movie was made), and some ingenious reimagining of Spider-Things, including Great Depression noir, anime, and Warner Brothers cartoon versions. Example of wisecracking: Spider-Ham (the WB version, which attacks with a giant wooden mallet), near the end: "That's all, folks." Peter B. Parker: "Is he allowed to say that? Legally?" Ha-ha-ha. On the nose again! Sometimes I think the entire Marvel universe was derived from one performance by Robert Downey Jr., but let's not get started on the MCU. I'm not even sure exactly what I'm doing here. Everyone else has no doubt already made up their minds about this picture and the MCU franchise at large, not to mention specifically Spider-Man. You don't need me telling you Into the Spider-Verse is worth a look even if the continuity is obviously too much for newbies to fathom. It's like dropping into an episode in the middle of a TV series. Everything may seem intensely great but you obviously don't understand everything; much is over your head because you haven't done your hours and hours and hours of TV-watching homework. I say never mind how this one fits into the Spider-Man universe. Enjoy the psychedelics and another good nod to Black culture.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

One of the great problems of reading Mark Twain now is his casual use of the N-word and, by extension and even worse, his depictions of racism both explicit and implicit. I want to say this is a "boy's book," perhaps even YA in the parlance, but sadly I think it takes a bit of maturity to take it for what it is. I know in a way criticizing Twain is killing the messenger, but nonetheless he is delivering the message—racism exists—and delivering it in ways designed to normalize it from the 19th century on. I believe people still defend this book. Twain was born and raised in the slavery state of Missouri, and fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War (and deserted though likely not for reasons of conscience), so he comes by it honestly, but still. He was alarmingly racist himself—or benighted, if you like—and it is seen all over his writing. Sure, he may have been more enlightened in general than a majority of his peers. And he didn't hold white people in such high regard either. But certainly he can seem less enlightened to us now. There's some residual snips / snails / puppy dog tails charm to the boy's life stories in Tom Sawyer, Twain's first novel on his own. And I admit I felt a bit of a rock star presence in the first appearance of Huckleberry Finn, even if his novel, which is much better, is similarly aggravated by racism. Another objection, perhaps a stodgy one, is the kind of code of corruption by which Tom Sawyer lives. It's comical enough but at the moment looks too much like the way you get to you-know-who and his gang of 75 million. They're out there whitewashing harder than ever, as a matter of fact. Of course, perhaps the real problem here above all others is that the novel is clunky and obvious. Even the beloved whitewashing episode, which comes early, involves way too much explanation. Twain the writer is not always able to stay out of the way of the story. Even as this delivers us a number of wry observations and witty bon mots, it often leaves the story puttering in place. There are some nice ideas here, such as Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral out of curiosity. But then you have a noxious character like "Injun Joe" and a lot of unpleasant passages that are quite painfully ignorant about Native Americans. Twain's racism was hardly confined to Black Americans. In fact, except for all the N-words, that type of racism is mostly out of sight here—mostly. Unfortunately, Twain comes with the racism and the racism is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. For that reason, it's neither fish nor fowl. Too crude for children, and otherwise too lightweight, childish, dated, and/or offensive for everyone else. Alas.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Come On In (1998)

OK, this is a pretty strange one but it has its points. Mississippi native R.L. Burnside, a student (and neighbor) of Mississippi Fred McDowell, had some success as a bluesman earlier in his life but did not really come into his own until he was in his 70s in the 1990s. Though his roots were genuine his playing was primitive. He was treated a bit like a freak show during this heyday, signed by Fat Possum (something of a freak show label itself) and ultimately catching the eye of well-known freak show Jon Spencer in the mid-'90s, who liked the cut of Burnside's jib. Burnside toured with Spencer's Blues Explosion band (generally more loud than bluesy but somehow enthralling) and they recorded an album too, the controversial 1996 set A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, which asks the musical questions, is it blues or is it a joke? Are you a traditionalist or an anti-traditionalist? And what is the social purpose of the blues? Burnside's solo career from there continued in much the same vein, staying with Fat Possum until his death in 2005. Come On In is basically the first of many so-called remix albums as his health declined, a kind of formal statement of the strange mix of blues work and studio wonkery that became his legacy. Much of the wonkery was Fat Possum honcho Tom Rothrock, acting as producer himself in the studio as well as farming some of it out to folks like Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. The result has an effect like steampunk. Burnside's deep blues sensibility and instincts evoke a century of music which is then fragmented and stuffed into electronica beats, repetitions, and assaults. The contributing artists, including Burnside, never heard the final results until they were released. It's dirty. It's electronic. It's weird. Come On In opens with a 1:06 snippet of Burnside's "Been Mistreated" which operates in the context almost like an overture. The title song has three versions, fully a quarter of the album's 12 tracks. The Sopranos TV show made a couple of these tracks even more iconic, providing a useful context for their strange powers trucking with depravity: "It's Bad You Know" with its rumbling locomotive groove, Burnside's persistent laconic declaration ("it's bad you know"), and that smoky keyboard. And the purely constructed "Shuck Dub" is recognizable as a soothing soundtrack to mayhem. And so it goes here. I'm basically of the school that the experience of the blues should be raw and a little dirty, so for my purposes Burnside (and Rothrock) may have been the last real gasp of the vital 20th-century form.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Holiday (1938)

USA, 95 minutes
Director: George Cukor
Writers: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, Philip Barry
Photography: Franz Planer
Music: Sidney Cutner
Editors: Al Clark, Otto Meyer
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Lew Ayres, Henry Kolker, Binnie Barnes, Henry Daniell

Annals of screwball comedy: Holiday came out four months after Bringing Up Baby in 1938. They make interesting companion pieces—one obvious stop for double-feature programmers. Both have Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in starring roles with visible chemistry. Sometimes I think Grant brings all the chemistry necessary for anyone he played with because Hepburn is more of a peculiar and specific figure, as the mid-Atlantic accent attests (though it's true Grant sports the accent too). These two movies are distinguished more by the sensibilities of their directors. Bringing Up Baby is a Howard Hawks picture and shot through with his dry cynicism, all romance dialed way down for the sake of clarifying the absurdity, whereas Holiday, directed by George Cukor, is much closer to romantic comedy than screwball comedy perhaps because Cukor, a certain Hollywood titan on Andrew Sarris's "far side of paradise" (Gaslight, My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, etc., etc.), was more of a romantic than a screwball.

To be sure, both the screwball and much of the romantic elements are the weakest parts of Holiday, the better to focus on its quiet confidence in asserting self-fulfillment as our greatest aspiration over making a lot of money. It is completely audacious in its own way, particularly given its home in the Great Depression when making money was a natural concern for most and getting rich easy seemed like an obvious solution, if you could make it happen. In that way Holiday is more of a bohemian movie at its core, about the pursuit of freedom, self-expression, and happiness. It's a little corny for these sophisticates, a little painfully sincere, but it has a lot to do with what makes this strange gem work.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

"The Bishop of Hell" (1925)

Speaking of the conte cruel, Marjorie Bowen was one who trafficked regularly in the supernatural, when she wrote horror, but the stories I've seen always make the human comedy hurt a little too. I wrote previously about her Christmas story, "The Crown Derby Plate," which is practically a cozy, a ghost story to tell the kids in December, but even that has sharp edges. Bowen had a miserable childhood before winning success as a prolific writer of romances, mysteries, historical nonfiction, and more. I love the way the first-person narrator in "The Bishop of Hell" is so unnerved by his own story. "England, 1790," the story opens. "This is the most awful story that I know; I feel constrained to write down the facts as they ever abide with me, praying, as I do so, a merciful God to pardon my small share therein. God have mercy on us all!" Later in the story he mentions he was a lifelong nonbeliever until the events he narrates, but boy is he a believer now. He's inclined to beseech God at the virtual drop of a hat. Bowen tears into her classic horror tales ("Kecksies" and "Scoured Silk" are nearly as good) with acid details. The bishop of hell is one Hector Greatrix, louche, hedonist, and libertine, who lives only for his own pleasures. He enjoys things like borrowing money on the strength of his family name, gambling it all away, and never paying it back. I love that he is actually an ordained clergyman, as the younger son of a younger son. Mostly he is just a despicable villain. He steals the wife of a man who has helped him. They flee from London to the Continent and he keeps her only because she has an income. When that's not enough he turns her out to Italian dandies. She stays with him at first because she loves him and then only in the hope that he will do right by her. God have mercy on us all! He will never marry her because she slept with all those Italians. This cad comes to a wonderfully satisfying bad end (this is how it's done, Jane Rice!)—I mean he comes to a bad end on this plane because obviously, after taking his own life and all the assorted sins, he's going to Hell. Capitalized, a proper noun. God have mercy on us all! The spook show happens only in the very ending, as if to confirm the existence of Hell and Greatrix's consignment to it, but it's as ghastly and effective as the details we learn in the rest of the story. It's cunning of Bowen to make it all come out right morally because it is also license for her to go to town on the depravity, which she pursues almost with ferocious glee. She leaves our first-person narrator, and readers as well, wringing hands and calling to God. Grant us mercy!

Read story online.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Top 40

1. Ten City, "Suspicious" (4:43, 1989)
2. Kills, "I Put a Spell on You" (2:16)
3. Bob Dylan, "Moonshiner" (5:05, 1963)
4. Miley Cyrus, "Midnight Sky" (3:43)
5. John Prine, "I Remember Everything" (2:43)
6. Vagabon, "Water Me Down" (4:32)
7. KC & the Sunshine Band, "Get Down Tonight (Tom Moulton Mix)" (9:08, 1975)
8. Sleep, "Dopesmoker" (1:03:36, 1995)
9. Smashing Pumpkins, "Confessions of a Dopamine Addict" (3:13)
10. AJR, "Bang!" (2:50)
11. Pet Shop Boys, "Hit and Miss" (4:07, 1996)
12. Pet Shop Boys, "Screaming" (4:55, 1999)
13. Pet Shop Boys, "Searching for the Face of Jesus" (3:27, 2002)
14. Pet Shop Boys, "Between Two Islands" (5:11, 2002)
15. Pet Shop Boys, "We're the Pet Shop Boys" (4:55, 2017)
16. Pet Shop Boys, "Transparent" (3:52, 2004)
17. Pet Shop Boys, "The Resurrectionist" (3:09, 2006)
18. Pet Shop Boys, "Girls Don't Cry" (2:34, 2006)
19. Open Mike Eagle, "The Black Mirror Episode" (3:01)
20. Toots & the Maytals, "Just Brutal" (3:35)
21. Viktor Vaughn, "Vaudeville Villain" (2:31, 2003)
22. Robert Fripp, "Music for Quiet Moments 38 - Elegy Pt. I (Hannover, 15 Oct 2009)" (6:10)
23. Julien Baker, "Hardline" (3:51)
24. Tom Morello, Shea Diamond, Dan Reynolds, "Natural's Not in It" (3:18)
25. Gang of Four, "Natural's Not in It" (3:10, 1979)
26. ††† (Crosses), "The Beginning of the End" (4:34)
27. Empire of the Sun, "Walking on a Dream" (3:18, 2008)
28. Frank Zappa, "The Black Page #1" (1:57, 1978)
29. Brian Eno, "Over Fire Island" (1:51, 1975)
30. Miles Davis, "Black Satin" (5:15, 1972)
31. Cardi B, "Up" (2:36)
32. The Weeknd, "Save Your Tears" (3:35)
33. Saweetie feat. Doja Cat, "Best Friend" (2:35)
34. Pooh Shiesty feat. BIG30, "Neighbors" (2:51)
35. Dropkick Murphys, "Middle Finger" (2:35)
36. Gojira, "Born for One Thing" (4:20)
37. Kings of Leon, "Echoing" (3:37)
38. Serj Tankian, "Elasticity" (4:01)
39. Eve 6, "Black Nova" (3:27)
40. Vampire Weekend, "2021 (January 5th, to be exact)" (20:21)

tx: Billboard, Spin, Skip, Dean, random ... 15, cover of My Robot Friend (also available on Spotify but not Napster)

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Portishead's Dummy (2011)

This entry by R.J. Wheaton in the 33-1/3 series is nearly twice as long as most of them. At first it annoyed me a little because one of the best things about these books is their brevity. Longer than even a long album review they are still short enough to be over before you know it. I don't know much about Wheaton but he felt like a studio hand. That might have been the research, which is deep. He dissects the songs down to the second, calling attention to this at 0:12 and that at 1:21. There's a lot of information about the recording of this album, which was an intricate process, so eventually I made my peace with the length. Wheaton is not exactly prolix but he often seems to be thinking out loud, in sentence fragments, as if orienting himself. Then he sprints into description. But it's a hard album for most to write about—exotic, mysterious, alien, unique. Wheaton has the sense of it as a generational marker and sees himself square in the right place. His older (UK) brothers and sisters listened to The Stone Roses, Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, and Screamadelica. But perhaps Wheaton's best point about Portishead and Dummy has nothing to do with generations: "It is not music that we hear and say 'I want to be part of that'; instead: 'that music is part of me.'" I was 39 when Dummy came out and that's what I heard too. There's nothing else quite like Portishead. Wheaton's other great insight is what drives most of the book: "the album was built—built, not recorded" (his italics). There's a lot of good detail on the construction and a fair sense of the music, along with more glancing insights that can be surprising in their penetration. "[T]he music is only a pretext for the non-communication, the solitude, and the silence imposed by the sound volume," he writes, discussing the intimacies and alienations of live music. "Loud music makes us strangers to ourselves, intimates to others. It becomes a social lubricant." But I must say I am suspicious when these little books run to 100 or more footnotes and this one pushes toward 300. Goodness. Most of the time, as in this case, a bibliography should take care of it. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the album, and I learned it here, is that it was a big hit commercially, selling some 3.6 million units by 2011. So multiplatinum, yet it also flatters our indie underground impulses—win-win. This book's a good one for fans of the album and/or Portishead.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

Friday, May 07, 2021

The Act of Killing (2012)

UK / Denmark / Norway, 122 minutes, documentary
Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, Anonymous
Photography: Carlos Arango de Montis, Lars Skree, Anonymous
Editors: Nils Pagh Andersen, Charlotte Munch Bengtsen, Ariadna Fatjo-Vilas, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Mariko Montpetit
With: Anwar Congo, Haji Anif, Syamsul Arifin, Sakhyan Asmara

This documentary is based on historical events in 1960s Indonesia, when political convulsions led to an estimated 500,000 to 1 million citizens murdered for real or possible affiliations with the Communist Party. In The Act of Killing, shot mostly from 2005 to 2011, producer/directors Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn (with a third, anonymous Indonesian producer/director) tracked down the murderers who participated in the genocide, the ones actually doing the killing. Cultivated by rightwing politicos, they are comically egotistical self-styled gangsters. The producer/directors asked them to reenact the murders for the camera. And these murderers, who are as much creatures of 20th-century media as anyone anywhere, are perfectly happy to do so, acting like bigshots on the set as they relive the terrors they inflicted in a jovial "we're makin' a movie!" spirit.

I can't see past that. They speak of their crimes in detail, block them out and run them through, have notes for one another, talk about the influences they see in American films (The Godfather, etc., what did you think?). They do not appear to have spent a day in jail and now they are old, fat, and satisfied. I understand the movie is undermining them publicly, playing on their vanity and tricking them into showing themselves as monsters for the world to see, and I understand it took courage to do it. I could not deny that, and the very large number of "Anonymous" credits in the long roll at the end speaks to the dangers these filmmakers put themselves in. But I still can't make my peace with this movie.

Monday, May 03, 2021

The Lodge (2019)

The Lodge is a busy horror picture stuffed with ideas and tropes. The setting (large isolated building in a snowstorm) is self-consciously reminiscent of The Shining. The stepmother figure Grace (Riley Keough, American Honey—did you know she's Elvis Presley's granddaughter?) may or may not be evil but she was once a member of a Christian cult. The kids (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) may or may not be evil but their real mother (Alicia Silverstone, gone before you know it) has abandoned them, and Dad (Richard Armitage) is a clueless nebbish. It's Christmas. This family is wounded, fractured, attempting to heal. But the soundtrack alone tells us things do not bode well. The main source of tension is between the stepmother figure and the kids and tell me where you've heard that one before. But The Lodge does have a number of solid small-bore ideas. These kids barely know Grace and they are of an age (tweenish) to be capable of particular cruelty. Dad has left them alone there together because he has to work, planning to be back in a few days for the holiday. The kids coldly rebuff all Grace's overtures but she seems to understand and doesn't press too hard. That is, until the power goes out, everyone's things are missing, and the snowstorm just got worse. I liked the idea of having all their things stolen because it emphasizes how vulnerable they are, especially with the power outage and snowstorm and who is stealing their stuff and why? Even the refrigerator and cupboards are empty (though soup cans and crackers turn up later, no explanation). It bends the story more in supernatural directions, but unfortunately at this point cowriter Sergio Casci and cowriters/codirectors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz more or less lose the thread, turning obvious and predictable (that's what a dog is doing here, for example). Sometimes Grace and the kids move toward being allies, sometimes the kids appear to be playing a terrible joke, sometimes Grace appears to have gone psychotic. These things don't fit very well and I think maybe they should have picked one and worked it out from there. For a while I was enjoying these irrational aspects as the unexplainable is arguably horror's main stock in trade. Then it got to be too much, seesawing between haunted house ghost story and tale of monstrous children. Unfortunately, again, these things don't really fit. But the ideas as such can be good. Perhaps the best was when the kids decided—based on concrete detailed evidence we see for ourselves—that they have all died and are now in purgatory. They make the case for it, however impossible it may seem, but then more twists and turns undermine that and everything else. So the picture is a little disappointing in the end. You could probably make two or three decent shorts from it. Then you wouldn't have to strain to connect them. But who looks at shorts anymore, except maybe at film festivals? Are film festivals coming back?

Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Big Con (1940)

Although now it is as notable for being outdated as much as anything, David W. Maurer's study of the confidence racket remains as charming and engrossing as when it was published. As a linguistics professor by day, Maurer's fascination started with the lingo of con men. But the intricacies of the con job as such, as it existed during the Great Depression, are at least as fascinating, and down that road Maurer went, letting the rackets take priority over any study of the language. And why not? My copy, with introduction by Luc Sante, is classified as "crime / sociology." It's definitely an odd duck of a book. When I say it's outdated, that's merely in the mechanics of the operations as reported. Certainly the work of these "gentlemen" criminals goes on—consider the well-known African prince email scam. Back then (and perhaps now still), these tricksters were considered the upper crust in the underworld. What's outdated is the technology. One reliable ruse at that time, for example, the so-called "payoff," is built around race results that can be delayed long enough to get bets down in betting parlors on actual known winners. Or, more accurately, it's based on the believability of such a scenario. Maurer makes grifting seem more dignified and civilized than our last president did. He buys into the rationale that is common wisdom among con men, which is that you can't cheat an honest man. A lot of these cons specifically play on the existing avarice of the victim, or "mark" as he was known then (and still might be). I'm not so sure about that, but maybe that's because I'm not so sure my own avarice couldn't be excited into disaster, given the right circumstances. But Maurer is obviously comfortable with and even enjoys the company of these criminals, which enabled him to pump them for lots of interesting and entertaining information. The result is this tremendously readable book, a real page-turner in its way. The Big Con also served as a primary source for the movie The Sting, although Maurer had to take the producers to court to get the recognition. Note that Chapter 9, "The Con Man and His Lingo," is a glossary, because you're going to want to refer to it frequently.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.