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what i watched last week

The Messenger. It’s an actor’s picture, in that the style seems to be to set the camera in place for long takes that offer plenty of insight into the characters. It wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t finely drawn, if the writing wasn’t strong, if the actors weren’t up to the challenge. For the most part, it works very well. The setup is heart-wrenching … soldiers go to people’s homes to tell them their loved ones have died in action. But the emotions the movie induces never feel cheap; nothing feels as if its only purpose was to make you teary-eyed. We’re allowed to react emotionally on our own terms. 8/10.

The Who Live at the Coliseum 1969. Not really a movie, this is an “extra” on the disc of the band’s 1977 Kilburn concert that takes up an entire disc of its own. The video quality is poor, the sound muddy, but it barely matters as you watch the Live-at-Leeds era Who in concert. The varying technical quality of the material means even this extra has extras: the main version is slightly over an hour and features everything from “Tattoo” to “My Generation,” while an extras-to-the-extras segment includes the entire performance of Tommy (which was new then), along with the complete version of “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” What a band they were in their day. Pete Townshend and John Entwistle switch roles like two midfielders who know each other’s moves by heart … sometimes they take on their traditional roles, at other times Townshend’s guitar joins the rhythm section while Entwistle’s bass becomes the lead instrument (most famously on “My Generation”). Entwistle is the least showy member of the band, so I suppose he gets ignored when people talk about the group, but my lord, he’s a masterful bass player. If those two are midfielders, then Roger Daltrey is the donkey center forward who scores the goals created by his teammates. And Moonie? He’s the unpredictable number 10, maybe Paul Gascoigne, and my favorite rock and roll drummer of all time. In 1969 he was still at the height of his considerable powers, as delightful to watch as he was to listen to. I can never get enough of Keith Moon at his best, which he is here. 9/10.

Inside Deep Throat. The day I watched this movie, I read a piece on Breathless that wonders if the film could still affect audiences (“Whether "Breathless" can have much impact on viewers who've never seen it before — especially without an accompanying history seminar — isn't a question I can answer. Every technical innovation it introduced now seems utterly familiar …”). Deep Throat strikes me as existing in a similar place … in a time when porn theaters are mostly gone, but porn itself is instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection, it must be difficult for younger audiences to understand America in 1972, when Deep Throat was released. This documentary addresses that issue, and I suppose it serves as a decent primer on the times, the movie, and its impact. But it’s rather shoddy and not particularly interesting … kinda like an old porn movie. 6/10.

random friday, 1980 edition: the dead kennedys, “california über alles”

“California Über Alles” was initially released in 1979, as the first single from the Dead Kennedys. It was redone for their debut album, Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables, in 1980, which is why it shows up here. Sometime between ‘79 and ‘80 the DKs seem to have sped up … the two versions of the song are essentially the same, but the earlier one is 27 seconds longer, while the later one speeds by. I saw them in late 1979 when they opened for The Clash … Jello Biafra ended up in the crowd, after which he was pretty much naked, his clothes being ripped off by the rabid fans.

This was not a subtle band. Hell, their name was The Dead Kennedys. Their song titles often gave away the plot as well: “Kill the Poor,” “Let’s Lynch the Landlord,” “Too Drunk to Fuck,” “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” “M.T.V. – Get Off the Air,” “Chickenshit Conformist” … ah, the memories. In early 1980, they appeared at a local music awards show to sing “California Über Alles” … they stopped a few seconds in and switched to “Pull My Strings,” where they made fun of “New Wave” and Jello got the audience to sing along with the chorus, “Is my cock big enough, is my brain small enough, for you to make me a star?”

This was the context in which Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables was released. The album cover showed police cars burning; the first track was “Kill the Poor” (“Jane Fonda on the screen today, convinced the liberals it's okay. So let's get dressed and dance away the night while they kill kill kill kill kill the poor!”). And kicking off Side Two was “California Über Alles.” Today, the song seems ham-handed, like a lot of DK songs, although purposeful in its lack of subtlety. It also seems prescient in odd ways. At the time, Jerry Brown was governor of California, and he is the target of the song’s wrath. The assumption of the song was that Brown would eventually become President, at which time he could implement his evil plans. Of course, his presidential bids fell short … but in 2010, he’s running for Governor again!

As was often the case in their songs, liberals were just as likely to be reviled as conservatives:

Zen fascists will control you
100% natural
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Close your eyes, can't happen here
Big Bro' on white horse is near
The hippies won't come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay!

At the song’s end, as people are led to camps and then to deadly showers, the poison gas is organic.

A year later, with Reagan in the White House, they reworked the song once again, with much of the song being played in the style of lounge jazz, titling this version “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now”:

I am Emperor Ronald Reagan
Born again with fascist cravings
Still, you made me president …

Die on our brand new poison gas
El Salvador or Afghanistan
Making money for President Reagan
And all the friends of President Reagan!

Jello Biafra is the key figure in the Dead Kennedys … without him, it’s hard to imagine the band (although there have been variations of the DKs with other singers, including, for a time, Brandon Cruz from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father). Biafra contributed most of the lyrics, and he was the front man in their stage show. He’s not much of a singer … his later career has been largely in spoken-word … meanwhile, the band cranked out superlative hardcore punk. Still, when you think of the excesses of the Dead Kennedys, good and bad, you’re usually thinking of Jello.

Here’s the album version of “California Über Alles” with some silly graphics:

Here’s a live version from the Fab Mab in 1979:

And here they are working in the studio on “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now”:

the world cup is almost here

Even America seems to be noticing, partly because ESPN is promoting it fairly extensively, partly because people think the U.S. has a chance to make a good showing. I’ve decided to return to my World Cup Blog, as a way to remove the inevitable soccer posts for those who don’t care. I didn’t get many readers in 2006, but it was nice to have a place to hang out, and I still have the blog … the address will be the same for 2010:

I’ll have some build-up posts in the next couple of weeks. For now, I’ll repost the last entry from 2006, as a way to remind us of what’s in store:

A critical faculty is a terrible thing. When I was eleven there were no bad films, just films that I didn’t want to see, there was no bad food, just Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and there were no bad books — everything I read was great. Then suddenly, I woke up in the morning and all that had changed. How could my sister not hear that David Cassidy was not in the same class as Black Sabbath? Why on earth would my English teacher think that The History of Mr Polly was better than Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie? And from that moment on, enjoyment has been a much more elusive quality.

— Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower, inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame, twice English Footballer of the Year, holder of 56 caps for Northern Ireland

lost and 24, over at last

For a variety of reasons, we didn’t get around to watching the finales of these shows until tonight, and everyone has already had their say, so I won’t have much to add. Lost went out as it went in, IMO … almost every episode was intriguing, inspiring plenty of online water-cooler talk the next day, but I never cared about it once the water-cooler was unplugged. I never missed an episode, liked it most of the time, but now that it’s over, I won’t miss it.

A common way to discuss Lost is to divide fans between those who like the puzzles and those who think it was about the characters. I don’t know that I favored one side over the other, but I will note that the finale was dissatisfying to me in terms of the puzzles it did/didn’t solve, and I didn’t care about most of the characters, so the “let’s all take a curtain call” aspect of the finale didn’t get to me.

24 offers a useful contrast. It was always about blowing stuff up, and watching Jack Bauer kick ass, yet the final scene between Jack and Chloe carried far more emotional resonance than any of the final “couples” scenes on Lost. This wasn’t the first time characters on 24 elicited a strong emotional response … who can forget the sad death of Edgar Stiles? A lot of this had to do with the cranked-up speed of 24 … it banged you on the head until you responded, so of course you got emotional … nonetheless, if Lost was about characters, then so was 24, and I liked the characters on 24 a lot more. The villains of 24, in particular, kicked the Smoke Monster’s ass.

Whatever … it probably just comes down to the fact that Jack Shephard was one of my least-favorite characters on Lost, so the finale wasn’t for me. I watched both shows, I enjoyed both shows, and both shows are historically important, coming in the era when television series caught up with audiences who could handle “difficult.” But I don’t anticipate thinking much about these shows now that they are gone. There is always room for solid series that keep our attention, but there’s a lot of space between those shows and the ones in the pantheon.

37 years

post-wedding It’s our 37th anniversary today. We were 19 years old when we got married. That’s too young. Yet here we are, still together. Any time you do something for 37 years, people assume you are an expert, but I don’t have any words of wisdom. We’ve made it this long because Robin stuck with me, even when it wasn’t easy. She’s never made it hard for me … having her as my wife is the easiest and best thing that ever happened to me.

We’re not doing anything special this year. I don’t know why … we usually go away for the weekend, but we’ve haven’t been as regular the last few years (last year, for instance, we went to Spain instead). We’re going to Chez Panisse next Monday night, but tonight, for all I know, we’ll end up watching Lost. It’s not really all that odd … it’s not like we’ve fallen out of love. But I think people expect us to gush … I’ve been known to do so on occasion … and maybe it’s not a year for gushing. Maybe it’s like this:

on flair

It’s a bit difficult to surf the Internet when you haven’t yet seen the finales of Lost and 24. You avoid Facebook and Twitter, you avoid sites devoted to television, you read a lot of web sites with your hands over your eyes. Gives me a chance to do some of that old-fashioned stuff, like read books and watch movies. But I do come across some writing that interests me without my worrying spoilers will ensue.

Brian Phillips’ piece today on José Mourinho offers insights into the battle between “results” and “flair” on the soccer field that I wished I’d written myself. A taste follows, although you should read the whole thing:

Mourinho’s teams have a way of making their victories look tautological—they perform actions from which winning results, therefore they win …

Normally, flair in soccer is something that players display and that gives us pleasure, if we like that sort of thing, in the moment we see it exhibited. … We’re babies laughing at peek-a-boo. We see it, it thrills us, we cheer.

“[F]lair” is clearly not Mourinho’s preferred quality in constructing a squad. His teams aren’t passive rock, and they aren’t exactly boring, but they’re disciplined and powerful in a way that just about precludes flair’s transgressiveness. Flair inspires a joy that’s based on your brain lighting up with two contradictory signals, he can’t possibly get away with that and he is getting away with it. It means flouting probability, and Mourinho’s teams wouldn’t be the foolproof gambling systems they were if they encouraged flouting probability.

And yet. Mourinho himself, in his everyday public behavior, does cross lines and startle people. His press conferences are little left-hand etudes in he shouldn’t be getting away with that, but more often than not, he does. … Rooting for him feels like rooting for flair—a more complicated and troubling version of the exhilaration of rooting for it in a player, but a version of the same thing. As a result, his teams often feel more exciting than their play makes them; you see them as freewheeling and dangerous, even though what’s really happening is that they’re taking on the extraneous qualities of Mourinho’s media narrative. And because it’s only the replication of a media narrative that you’re perceiving, it’s really a kind of anti-flair. Rather than a spontaneous reaction to spontaneous brilliance, your response to it is a sort of judgment forced on the game from a parallel mental universe. It makes the game itself seem slightly unreal.

Mourinho comes across as a rather dashing figure, I’d say. If you watched and listened to him during interviews, and you assumed his teams would play in his image, then you’d picture rather dashing teams … teams with flair. He has individuals on his teams that rise to the occasion and provide the dashing moment, but I think Phillips is right … in some weird way, his teams are a simulacrum of dashing.

what i watched last week

A Little Princess. Alfonso Cuarón directed one of my very favorite movies (Y tu mamá también) and the only Harry Potter film I liked. This isn’t as good as those, but it has its moments. Cuarón manages to make the “real” world seem almost as fantastical as the world little Sara creates in her storytelling, but the differences between the two worlds are instructive: her stories are all fantasy, the movie features a subtle magic realism where the magic sneaks up on you. I’d probably like this better if I liked Liesel Matthews’s performance better; she doesn’t insist too hard on being ingratiating a la Shirley Temple, but neither does she come up with something to fill the absence of Temple. 7/10.

Children of Men. I watched this again because I used it in my spring class. We also read the book (first time for me). I have a lot of papers to grade which look at the differences between book and movie, but one sign of the film’s strengths is that I forgot all of that stuff while I was watching it. You can’t keep your eyes of the screen. Cuarón creates a believable world and populates it with characters who fit into that world … there aren’t any false moments. #44 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

what i seem to have learned in four years

As the World Cup approaches, I’m getting my old Cup blog ready to return, and it’s interesting to re-read the things I wrote … by the time WC ‘06 ended, I think I’d established what I liked, what I didn’t like, and, for better or worse, the limitations of my knowledge of the game.

I know more than I did then, although I’m still barely past being a beginner. The one area where I feel more confident is tactics. This is largely due to an essential book, Inverting the Pyramid, by Jonathan Wilson. Lately, I’ve also discovered a very intelligent website, Zonal Marking, which is like an advanced course taught by protégés of Wilson. I’m not sure I belong in an advanced class … I’m still in grade school … but I’m trying, and today’s Champions League final offers a good example.

I had a rooting interest … I wanted Inter Milan to win … but I also knew that Inter can be pretty boring if you aren’t rooting for them. They play the kind of soccer I complained about a lot in 2006. They play modern tactics, allowing the opponent plenty of ball possession, which was once thought to be ill-conceived, for how could you score if you didn’t have the ball? What Inter does, under manager Jose Mourinho, is work as a team to create an impenetrable defense, with the opposition free to get the ball 2/3 of the way  up the field, but closing the door before they reach a danger zone. This in itself is what leads them to seem boring, but Mourinho isn’t usually interested in a scoreless draw. He pulls the opposition forward, which leaves space in the back which can be exploited via counter attacks. It is an attacking strategy based in defense. And, to be fair, it can be boring. Now, though, I recognize it for what it is, and see how it is working (or not). It is perhaps more chess game than sporting event at times, but at least I can appreciate it more.

It can also lead to wonderful goals, which is why this particular match will look good on the highlight reel. Goals happen quickly when you counter attack, and they often feature incisive individual play. Mourinho’s Inter play a team-oriented game, but they wouldn’t be successful without the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito on attack. Milito’s second goal, in particular, was artful. So yes, there were long periods where Bayern knocked on the door without getting past the porch in front of the house, but the sudden nature of Inter’s goals made it worthwhile.

I guess what I’m saying is I may be ready for more tactical matches in World Cup 2010. Or maybe not … like I say, in today’s match, I had a rooting interest, but if I didn’t, I might have cursed Inter for soaking up energy. Three weeks from now, we’ll know.