what i watched last week

Three movies, all of which were directed by people whose work I have found intriguing in the past.

Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956). Melville’s Army of Shadows came out in 1969 but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2006, which is a good short anecdote to demonstrate how Melville didn’t get enough respect during his career. Bob le Flambeur is difficult to place in film history, because it was/is many things. It’s a heist movie, albeit not the first. It often has the feel of a film noir. It was a big influence on the French New Wave, but it doesn’t really belong to that movement. Roger Duchesne is great in the title role ... he seems equally suave when he is flush and when he is broke. (“Flambeur” is variously translated as “gambler” and “high-roller”.) Isabelle Corey makes the viewer wonder just how old she is (in actual years, not old enough ... she was 17, or maybe 16, there are many versions ... in what she brings to her part, older than her years). The film is simple on the surface, but always suggests deeper meanings. In my mind, that’s a very French attribute. #829 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014). I liked Iñárritu’s debut, Amores Perros, quite a bit, and while his critical reputation seems to fluctuate, I’ve liked the others I’ve seen (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) without thinking they reached the heights of the first film. Birdman adds to that list, good-not-great, making me think that Amores Perros wasn’t great either, but just really good. Iñárritu helpfully includes a speech by Michael Keaton’s Riggan that preempts any criticism:

Let's read your fuckin' review. "Lacklustre..." That's just labels. Marginality... You kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That's a label. That's all labels. You just label everything. That's so fuckin' lazy... You just... You're a lazy fucker. You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don't, You know why? Because you can't see this thing if you don't have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge. ... There's nothing here about technique! There's nothing in here about structure! There's nothing in here about intentions! It's just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons... You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin' anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!

Well, pardon me! Still, the point is well-taken. I missed a couple of key items in the movie ... apparently it was a comedy, which I barely noticed, and it is driven in part by a parlor trick that makes the entire film look like it is one long take. What does it mean, that I didn’t even notice that trick? Was I so engrossed I didn’t notice things, or was I a lazy viewer? I think I know what Iñárritu would say. Winner of 4 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. #267 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 7/10.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chan-wook Park, 2005). Last film in the “Vengeance Trilogy”, which is a bit of a misnomer, since Park didn’t intend the films to be explicitly connected. The first of the films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, bombed, and I found it mostly style over substance. But the second film, Oldboy, was so good I might have a little more sympathy for the first one. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance comes closer in quality to Oldboy than to the earlier film. Stylistically, the film is consistent with the others ... it would be nearly impossible to ignore how beautiful it is to look at. Park plays around some with narrative chronology, but this time it works ... anyone who has seen Oz or Orange Is the New Black will quickly pick up on the way Park conveys bits and pieces of various characters who, like the titular character, spend time in prison. Lady Vengeance also is clearer than Mr. Vengeance in explicating its meaning (“Everyone make mistakes. But if you committed a sin, you have to make an atonement for that sin. ... Big Atonement for big sins. Small Atonement for small sins.”). Park does a great job of suggesting more violence than he actually shows ... we get the buildup, we get the aftermath, but usually don’t see what happens on the screen. (And what happens ... well, let’s just say a lot happens. A little doggy is shot point blank, a woman cuts off one of her fingers, there is torture and lots and lots and lots of screaming, terrified children.) It all culminates in a remarkable final half-hour or so when a group of victims of horrible crimes first confront the reality of their loss, then discuss what to do about their desire for vengeance, and then finally act on that desire. Remarkable, yet I admit I wasn’t sure of the tone ... was this cathartic, or just revenge porn? Whichever, Park exposes some raw feelings. Min-sik Choi, so good in Oldboy and I Saw the Devil, is his usual fine self here, but the real draw is Yeong-ae Lee as Lady Vengeance. She is allowed to steal the show, and she succeeds. Oldboy remains the standard, but Lady Vengeance stands on its own as a very good film. Oh, and unlike with Birdman, this time I got that it was partly a comedy. #652 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 8/10.

music friday: linda perry, pink, "what's up?", and sense8

In 1992, a San Francisco band called 4 Non Blondes released what would be their only album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! The second single from that album, released in 1993, was “What’s Up?” It was a hit, and the video for the song was very popular on MTV. When the dust had cleared, that one album by 4 Non Blondes had sold six million copies. Critical opinion of “What’s Up?” varies ... it makes lots of One Hit Wonders lists, and also makes lists of the worst songs of all time. It’s got a catchy sing-along chorus, and the lyrics are vague and hippie-like.

Now, I would have thought this song came and went, occasionally recalled by folks nostalgic for that time in the early-90s when they were teenagers and this was their anthem. People like Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, who was born in 1979 and was a big fan of the song and Linda Perry, who wrote it and sang it. Pink asked Perry to work on her second album, Perry offered up the song “Get This Party Started”, and the album, M!ssundaztood, eventually sold thirteen million copies. On tour, Pink would sing “What’s Up?”. I caught this the first time I saw her in concert in 2002, and then again when she played the Fillmore in 2006. After that show, I wrote:

Her audience was completely in love with her ... there were a lot of young girls there, young women as well, as is appropriate, and it was their show, they knew every song and sang every lyric. They even knew every word to 4 Non Blonde's "What's Up," which Pink claims as her own. No matter how corny the song, or Pink's delivery of the same, it's quite a moment when all those youngsters throw the peace sign in the air and sing "hey hey hey hey, what's going on?" In fact, it's this element of pop community that I like best about Pink concerts, it would seem, since I wrote about a singalong in my blog post about that earlier show four years ago.

What's odd is that Pink hooked up with Linda Perry for M!ssundaztood, and Perry wrote a lot of the songs for that album, when in fact Linda Perry had written the ultimate Pink song eight years before the two even met. So now Pink sings that song as if she's known it all her life, and based on the voices in the Fillmore who sang every word, her audience has known it all their lives as well, and it's a great pop moment that reflects the optimism of the young just as other Pink songs reflect their sadness. The song indeed no longer belongs to Linda Perry, it belongs to Pink and the fans who know and sing all the words.

Which brings us to the new Netflix TV series, Sense8. Briefly, Sense8 tells the story of eight strangers who have some kind of psychic/emotional link to each other (we’ve only watched four of the twelve first-season episodes, so I’m guessing this gets more clear as the show progresses). Near the end of the fourth episode, one of the eight drunkenly attempts to sing “What’s Up?” at a karaoke bar. All of the other Eight feel the song inside them, and it binds them together in a beautiful way that correctly identifies why “What’s Up?” works no matter how bad or irritating the song might be.

There wasn’t a dry eye at my house. Kinda makes me hate the song, but damn, does it work!

In a fascinating article on the series (“Sense8 and the Failure of Global Imagination”), Claire Light argues convincingly that the show offers “a beautiful vision, if you believe in universality”, but that “To put it plainly: Sense8’s depiction of life in non-western countries is built out of stereotypes ... The universality being promoted here is a universality of American ideas, American popular culture, American world views.... ‘Universing’ everything under an American idea — an American set of choices — is a contradiction in terms”. (“The Icelandic DJ in London puts on 4 Non Blondes’ hideous anthem ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ and infects the entire cluster with a dancing/singing jag.”)

And yet ... that hideous anthem, which did indeed come from America, approached the universal long before Sense8, and not just because young girls knew all the words at Pink concerts. “What’s Up?” hit #1 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Granted, this only disputes Light’s claim by half ... Africa and Asia and South America are missing from these charts. Her essay is very enlightening. But the pull of that “hideous anthem” somehow seems just right in this case.

Here are two more versions of the song. First, Linda Perry is joined by Pink for an acoustic version:

And finally, the version many think is the best, by He-Man:

throwback thursday, recent edition

Mass Shooting Tracker is a website that calls itself “the world's only crowdsourced mass shooting tracker”. They have an ongoing page with Mass Shootings in 2015. Yesterday alone there were four shootings in the USA. The one that got the most attention was the live-on-television shooting of two Virginia journalists. Three people died, and one was wounded. There was also a shooting in Minnesota that left four wounded, a shooting in Florida that left two dead and two wounded, and a shooting in Chicago that killed one and wounded three. These brought the total number of shootings in 2015 to 248.

You can go to the website and see lists for 2013 and 2014 as well, if you want to look back in honor of Throwback Thursday.