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what i watched last week

Once again, a reminder that beginning today, three of us on Facebook will be counting down our 50 favorite films. I’ll be posting on Mondays and Thursday … at least, that’s the idea. If you would like to read our posts and group comments, and hopefully add your own two cents worth, just ask and I’ll add you to the group.

Under Fire. Here’s a hint: Under Fire is my #50. Check it out on Facebook. 9/10.

Still Walking. In the early years of our marriage, I would try to explain to my wife how my family worked. There were always pleasantries, even good times, when the siblings would gather together at our parents’ house … when we were kids, my friends always liked my parents, they made a good impression. But, I would tell my wife, there was always a subtext to everything in regard to my parents. She thought I was being melodramatic. But after awhile, she noticed that often, after a family visit, the siblings would meet at one of our houses and perform a post-mortem on what had happened. And as we worked through the subtext, my wife came to realize I wasn’t being melodramatic, I was telling the truth. The family in Still Walking reminds me of my own family. Writer/Director Hirokazu Koreeda rejects melodrama … everything in his movie is low-key, people rarely say exactly what they mean, and the audience is left to peel the layers and find the subtext. The film isn’t quite as obscure as I’m making it appear, and the subtext occasionally rises to the surface. But for the most part, Koreeda just places the family in front of us and lets us discover for ourselves, kinda like my wife did back in the day. 8/10.

Blow-Up. Moralistic film with an excess of symbols and a terrific sequence midway through that makes everything else tolerable. It’s never a surprise when I side with Pauline Kael against the critical masses, but she had this one pegged. Antonioni’s travelogue of “Swinging London” is judgmental as only a sourpuss can be. Sex is seen, not as enjoyable, but as empty and soulless. Drugs are seen, not as enjoyable, but as empty and soulless. Rock and roll is seen, not as enjoyable, but as empty and soulless. Ah, but the central scene that gives the film its title, where David Hemmings’ photographer turns detective. It’s a priceless sequence on its own, and doesn’t need sophomoric analysis of symbols to warrant the tag of greatness. As Kael noted in response to those who foregrounded the symbolic, “I thought the hero did rather well in uncovering the murder.” Most critics would probably find her statement shallow. #207 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They Top 1000 list. 7/10.

Down from the Mountain. Concert film brings together the musicians who did the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s an amiable show with just enough backstage footage (we learn that Emmylou Harris carried a pager with her that did nothing but update her on baseball scores). The performances are variable but never less than fine. 7/10.


big love series finale

Over the years, I grew to hate Bill Henrickson. His single-minded zealotry, his my-way-or-the-highway vision of life, and, perhaps worst of all, the way he translated that vision into something he believed was saving all men and women, even though everything he touched turned to shit, all of this made him into someone I didn’t care for.

My favorite parts of the show throughout its run came when the focus was on the sister wives. They were interesting and complex characters, capable of change (even Nikki, one of the most petty characters in TV history, completely nailed by Chloë Sevigny, who ruled pretty much every scene she was in, made baby steps at the end).

The point is, I wanted Bill to finally be confronted with the ways his self-righteousness harmed those he loved. And the ending wasn’t what I hoped for. As is often the case, Alan Sepinwall said it before me, and I can only tip my cap and say he speaks for me:

[T]he Henrickson women do seem very happy in this moment [the closing scene], but all I could think was, “Bill made this possible by dying.” Because a living, breathing, preaching Bill Henrickson had been shown pretty clearly over five seasons of “Big Love” to be an utter cancer to his family: myopic and petulant and manipulative and self-righteous and constantly causing pain, large and small, to the three women who had chosen to be his wives. That they've all finally come into their own and learned to co-exist peacefully without the usual tension and jealousy is something that only could have happened once Bill left the picture.

Ultimately, I found Big Love to be a sporadically good series, and I did stick with it to the end, which says something. In that, it was a lot like Six Feet Under, another HBO series that reached many highs but was inconsistent. I felt Six Feet Under’s highs were loftier than Big Love’s. So I’ll give Big Love a final grade of either a high B or a low B+, and admit I don’t really expect to miss it now that it’s gone.


music friday: the yardbirds, “stroll on”

The Yardbirds were my favorite group during their 60s heyday. I didn’t know that they would be famous as the band with Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page … I mean, I knew those guys were in the band, and as they moved on (Cream, Beck’s solo act, and Led Zep), I understood something of this historic nature of the group. But they were my favorites because they played lots of fast songs, because Beck in particular at the time was a dazzling guitarist, and … well, I don’t have any other reasons. As much as I loved them (and still love them), they don’t inspire many big stories from me. I had all of their American albums, I played them all the time, and that’s about the end of that story.

But the other day I watched Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and it was clear what song was going to be featured on Music Friday. First, here is the Yardbirds’ appearance in that film:

While there are certain things I like very much about Blow-Up, I’m not a fan of its snooty attitude towards the pop culture of swingin’ London. This clip offers an example. The band plays, the audience responds … no, that’s not the word, they aren’t responding, that’s the point. They just stare blankly at the stage. One couple near the back dances in a disinterested fashion. Antonioni isn’t saying The Yardbirds suck … no, they are artists. What he is saying is that the audience is jaded, unreceptive, disconnected. There is no sense that rock and roll is fun music. And then, when Beck’s amp becomes too much trouble, and he breaks his guitar and tosses the fretboard into the crowd, only then do they go bonkers with vicious excitement. The artifacts of the performance are all that interest them.

The irony is that this clip will carry a resonance in the music world far beyond that of Blow-Up itself. The three great guitarists who moved through the band were rarely together. Clapton came first, and Beck replaced him … they never played together. Page joined when Beck was still in the band, but they recorded only one single before Beck left the band, leaving Page as the only guitarist. So when both Page and Beck turn up in Blow-Up, it’s an historic moment in rock music history. And this is indeed ironic: the audience in the film, so bored, so passive, isn’t just watching some anonymous band, they are watching the Beck-Page Yardbirds!

Here are some more Yardbirds videos. First, “Train Kept A-Rollin’,” which first appeared on the American album Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds. As you can hear, it’s pretty much the same song as “Stroll On,” with a few different lyrics. This is the Jeff Beck version of the band:

Here is the post-Beck, Jimmy Page Yardbirds doing the same song:

Here is the only official Yardbirds release with both Beck and Page, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”:

Beck and Page did work together on at least one other track, though, “Beck’s Bolero,” accredited to Beck as a solo artist. You want a supergroup? Beck and Page on guitar, future Led Zepper John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Keith Moon on drums:

And finally, an example of the Jeff Beck Yardbirds that shows what I loved about the band (i.e. Beck played guitar like no one else was doing), “What Do You Want”:


you’re going to hate me for this, but …

The Elo rating system was created to compare chess players. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it works, but I think I get it at the most basic level. When you win a chess match, you get a few points and move up the table of chess players. If you lose, you also lose a few points. If it’s a draw, everything’s about the same. The Elo rankings are based on how well you perform relative to expectations. In practice, this means if you are the 100th-best player in the world and you beat the 25,000th-best player, you won’t get many points, but if you are the 1000th-best player and you beat the 500th-best player, you’ll get lots of points.

Like I say, I’ve probably butchered this explanation, but that’s how it seems to me. It has been applied to many other games that have wins and losses. I think it is used as part of the complex BCS rating for college football, and there are unofficial uses for everything from baseball to online role-playing games.

Well, the fine folks at the indispensible Baseball-Reference.com website have decided to apply Elo to baseball players. Of course, there are no precise “wins” and “losses” for individual players, but that turns out to be easily rectified. At the MLB EloRater page, you are given two players and asked to decide who is better. Your vote is considered a win for the guy you choose, and a loss for the guy who don’t choose. The Elo Ratings are immediately recalculated, and you are given two more players to compare.

It sounds a bit pointless … well, it is, I guess … and it’s not clear at first exactly what your votes “mean.” But the design of the damn thing is pretty much perfect for creating a time-wasting addiction. You get two players, you vote for one or the other, and a new pairing appears. You think “oh, just one more,” you vote, new pairing, one of the players is a favorite of yours, you vote, new pairing, you think “oh, just one more,” and the next thing you know, you’ve wasted an hour.

And that’s why you’re going to hate me, at least if you are a baseball fan. Because one day, maybe not now, but one day, you’re going to go to the EloRater page, you’ll vote once or twice to see how it works, and an hour later you’ll wonder why you’ve wasted all that time.

And you can just breeze through the pairings, or you can get all serious and think deeply about who you will vote for. For instance, right now I am looking at a battle between Jonathan Papelbon and James Shields. They are both active … Papelbon has one more major-league year under his belt … Papelbon has made several All-Star teams and leads Shields in several important categories. But … Papelbon is a relief pitcher, Shields is a starter, which means Shields has pitched almost three times as many innings as Papelbon. So you have to ask yourself, are 365 innings of relief work at a very high level worth more than 978 innings of work at a pretty high level.

And as soon as you vote, another battle appears … in my case, I just got John Clapp vs. Ival Goodman, and I admit I’ve never heard of either of them. Luckily, you are provided with a set of key stats to help you make your decision (I went with Goodman).

See you in an hour. (Bob Allen or Glenn Beckert?)


it never ends

It’s been a few years now since Barry Bonds played for the Giants, but some sportswriters are still stuck on autopilot when it comes to the Barry Hatred. The latest is Gene Wojciechowski at ESPN.com, who blames Bonds for the Giants long-awaited World Series victory.

Yes, I said “blames.” It is a typical Bonds screed, one which reminds me of Gregg Pearlman’s classic, “The Sun Glinted Off His Jewelry As He Homered to Win the Game.” Only Barry haters would see a World Championship and look not to praise the victors but rather to assign blame. Yes, that’s right … Wojciechowski doesn’t credit Bonds for the title (which would be silly, since he wasn’t on the team), but instead blames Bonds for the title.

The opening to his column ascribes the Giants’ success to Barry’s absence: “Barry Bonds helped the San Francisco Giants win the World Series last season. And he could help them win it again this season. How? Because he's not a Giant anymore.” In a fine example of post hoc ergo propter hoc, Wojciechowski takes the events of 2010 and assigns blame for them on events from before 2010, because they came afterwards and if B occurs after A, then of course A caused B. Using this logic, we can finally understand that the reason the Giants won the World Series in 2010 is because Ted Kennedy died in 2009.

Wojciechowski does a good job in his piece describing the positive clubhouse vibes of the current Giants. The evidence on that point is clear, as the players are always telling us. And it is true that the Giants, despised across the country during the Bonds era (in part because of the Bonds-hating that the media loved so much), actually became lovable to even non-Giants fans last season. But Wojciechowski isn’t really interested in telling us how lovable the team is … he merely uses today’s lovability as evidence for his case against Bonds, “a dark cloud in the clubhouse,” “an entire storm system of scowls and controversy” with “a depressing aura.” The next time Barry shows up at China Basin to the cheers of 40,000 fans, I’m sure Gene will take notice and remind the world of what amoral creeps we are.


if they move, kill 'em! steven, jeff & phil count down their favorite films

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am taking part in a Facebook project, the title of which is also the title of this post. “Jeff” is Jeff Pike, whose blog, “Can’t Explain,” covers more than just movies, and is smart and enjoyably readable. “Phil” is Phil Dellio, who is (I hope I get this right) a teacher, a music critic, an author, and a baseball fan. They’re slumming a bit in hanging out with me, but I appreciate the invite, and hope to have some fun with this.

The way it works, or at least the way it is planned, is that each of us will post twice a week to the Facebook group dedicated to this project, which means we’ll finish in six months, give or take, since we’re doing 50 films each. The whole thing begins next Monday, March 21. If you are interested, let me know and I will add you to the group (you’ll need to be on Facebook, of course). I think the posts will just show up in your regular FB news feed, but I may be wrong about that … it seemed to work that way for Phil and Scott Woods’ recent Top 100 Favorite Songs project.

I’d love to get a variety of people in the group, because the comments section will hopefully be where the real action takes place. So, drop me an email or a direct message on Facebook (is that what they are called?) and we’ll get you in the group.


what i watched last week

I’m going to be part of a new project on Facebook that I wanted to mention here. I’ve written on several occasions recently about Phil & Scott’s Top 100, where Phil Dellio and Scott Woods walked us through their 100 favorite songs, beginning at #100 and working their way to #1. Phil still has the itch, and so, beginning next Monday, he, along with myself and Jeff Pike (among other things, Jeff, like Phil and Scott, are occasional commenters on this blog), will be counting down our 50 favorite films. This will all happen on a Facebook Group … I’m not entirely sure what they are, but they work (the music list was via a FB group). So, if you are on Facebook and would like to be a part of this, let me know and we can add you to the group. Scott and Phil felt that the comments were what made their music lists especially worthwhile, so the more people reading and the more people commenting, the better. The group hasn’t been officially created yet, so I’ll post a reminder when it finally exists, which will be before March 21, since that is when we will begin. My weekly “what i watched last week” posts here will continue, of course, but for the next six months or so, “what i watched” will include 50 of my favorites. Meanwhile:

The Producers. It’s interesting just how ugly this film is, visually. However Mel Brooks might have developed as a director, in this, his first film at the helm, his skills haven’t caught up to his writing. This is especially unfortunate in the case of Zero Mostel, who is such an overpowering presence he’s like a 3-D actor even if he’s far away … Brooks constantly sticks Mostel in close-ups, and they do him no favors. There are funny bits here and there, although too often you can imagine how much funnier they probably seemed when they were first thought up (Brooks’ movies tend to make for great trailers, because you get the cream in three minutes without having to sit through the rest). Oddly enough, the one time the staging works is for the “Springtime for Hitler” production number. Brooks draws on our memories of show-stopping musicals of the past, and offers a pastiche that is funny, vulgar, and appealing all at the same time. That the song is a paean to the greatness of Hitler only makes it better/worse. In 1968, such content was still shocking, but in this context, it only shows how mild the central plot of “creative accounting” is. #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

On the Town. An exhausting musical that never stops to breathe, except for a mid-film “ballet” that makes one welcome the return of the frenetic pace of the rest of the movie. That might sound like a fun movie, and in fact, On the Town is considered a classic by many (it’s #551 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list). So your mileage may vary, but me, I didn’t mean “exhausting” in a positive sense. It only runs 98 minutes, but it has just as many musical numbers as longer films, so it comes off as overstuffed. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a movie with both Gene Kelly AND Ann Miller would beat us to death with exuberant energy. A little of Miller goes a long way, and I’ve always been an Astaire man. 6/10.


an idiot abroad, season finale

Or series finale, it’s hard to tell … a second season is rumored to be coming.

My opinion of An Idiot Abroad never really changed from the first episode, after which I wrote, “[Karl] Pilkington doesn’t seem like an idiot at all in this show. He most definitely seems like a fish out of water, and he has a willingness to blurt out whatever is in his head. But as often as not, I found myself empathizing with him, because I knew I’d be the same.” Over the course of the season, Ricky Gervais became more and more annoying … he no longer seemed like Ricky Gervais playing a rude version of “Ricky Gervais,” he just seemed like a rude person who took real joy out of tormenting his “friend.” Also, the show was a bit of a one-trick pony: send Karl off to a wonder of the world, put him through unexpected-to-him tortuous side trips, and listen to him complain. The entire season would work well as a Greatest Hits package, with the best bits from each episode blended into one. Still, every episode had plenty to recommend it, and for all his complaining, Karl does indeed seem, as I said before, “oddly heroic.”

Highlights: the Great Wall of China, which Karl says is only an alright wall. Mexico, where Karl spends his entire visit trying to find the Mexican Jumping Beans of his childhood memories. Best of all may have been Petra in Jordan. Before he goes to Jordan, he explains that he wouldn’t want to live in the great ruin, but rather would prefer to live in a cave across from Petra. His logic is that if he lived in Petra and he looked out the window, all he’d see is a boring cave. But if he lived in that boring cave, then when he looked out from his cave, he’d see a Wonder of the World. And sure enough, at the end of the episode, when Karl is sitting in his cave looking at Petra, you can see what he means.


music friday: otis redding, “i've been loving you too long”

I’m grading papers, and don’t have the time that Otis deserves, but I’ve written about him many times in the past, so I can just plagiarize myself. A little more than a year ago, “That’s How Strong My Love Is” was the Random Friday selection, and there I wrote:

I can never talk about Otis Redding without emphasizing this fact: when he died, Otis Redding was 26 years old. He sang with the enthusiasm of youth, but he had the soul of a much older man, and that came out in his singing as well. It is pretty much impossible to listen to him and believe he never saw 27.

My favorite Otis song changed over the years. For a long time it was “Try a Little Tenderness” in its many live versions. Live in Europe was where I first caught up to it. It built from a tender beginning to a frenetic, audience-pleasing conclusion, and it always got me going. Funny thing is, I think my mom understood his version more than I did. “Try a Little Tenderness” was a favorite song of hers … I think Sinatra’s version on Nice ‘n’ Easy was the one that got played in our house. One time, I asked/encouraged/forced her to listen to Redding’s version from Live in Europe. When it was over, she pointed out that the super-charged ending had nothing to do with the concept embodied in the song’s title. Nowadays, I think she might have been right.

And so, if you asked me now what my favorite Otis Redding song is, I would choose “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” It kills in the live versions, but the original studio version kills, as well. And while Aretha might have given us the definitive word on Otis’s “Respect,” no one can match him on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (if you want an example of excess, go to Ike and Tina’s blowjob version).

Here is the original:

Here is the most famous live version, from Monterey Pop (you get "Satisfaction" as a bonus):

“This is the Love Crowd, right? We all love each other, don’t we? Am I right? Let me hear ya say yeah!”

If you really have a burning desire to see Ike and Tina slurp their way through the song, here it is:

And, because I’ve got to get the taste of that out of my mouth, and because even if my mom was right, she was wrong, here’s “Try a Little Tenderness” by the greatest soul singer of them all:

Postscript:

One of the saddest lines on any recording is at the end of Otis at Monterey, when he has blown everyone away and finished off with “Tenderness.” “I got to go now,” he says, “and I don’t want to go.” Six months later, he was dead. The only comparable moment comes on “Mountain Jam,” released on the Allman Brothers album Eat a Peach. Duane introduces the band, and as the track fades out, you hear him say “I’m Duane Allman, thank you.” When that album came out, Duane was already dead.


only love can break your heart

Phil Dellio and Scott Woods are nearing the end of their fascinating and entertaining Facebook group, “Phil & Scott’s Top 100s.” Phil explained the thing at the beginning:

Very shortly, my old co-author Scott Woods and I will begin counting down our 100 favourite songs here on Facebook. This’ll be the fourth time since 1989 that I’ve done this: first when I used to do a show on CIUT, then in Radio On a couple of years later, again on CKLN five years ago, and now we’re hopping on the social networking bandwagon for a revisit. We’ll each be posting once a day for the next three-plus months. [Emphasis added.]

I didn’t add the emphasis because of the British spelling, although Phil and Scott are Canadians and that informs their choices to an extent. No, I emphasized favorite because I’ve always accepted, even promoted, the difference between “best” and “favorite.” You might define “best” as “favorite,” and I wouldn’t argue with you … canon construction is, to a large extent, built on the consensus favorites of “experts,” who then hide behind claims of inherent value while pretending their lists don’t just tell us what they like. While I like to pretend I am anti-canon, the truth is I’m a bit of a fence straddler. I once taught a survey course American literature, and I managed to get The Wire in the syllabus, but I also included The Great Gatsby.

This has been brought home to me as I watched Scott and Phil’s lists grow. Basically, I forgot early on that this was a list of their favorites. I marveled at their bravery for including songs from flexi-discs, stuff I had never heard of, and just plain oddities (Scott put a Tracey Ullman song at #3). And what I realized about myself is that, even if I made the ground rules, and even if I created a list of favorites, my list would be bound by certain unspoken rules about the canon. I mean, I would include “Respect” by Aretha Franklin in any case, but I would also feel obliged to include it, even if I was the one person on earth who didn’t appreciate its greatness. My list, in other words, would be much less idiosyncratic than the lists Phil and Scott have offered, and would as a result also be a lot more boring.

Phil just posted his #1 song … Scott’s will follow, tomorrow I expect. Phil’s #1 song is “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young. Now, if I had a list, Neil Young would appear on it. I couldn’t imagine a list without Neil Young (canonical, after all). My choice for which Neil Young song to choose, though, would be personal … it would be my favorite Neil Young song. So on the one hand, I would feel obliged to include Neil Young, but on the other hand, I’d feel I had a free hand in choosing which song to put on the list.

Phil’s explanation of his choice reflects the impact the song has had on him personally. He mentions how long he has been in love with the music of Neil Young. He talks about searching high and low for cover versions of the song in question. He notes that After the Gold Rush is his favorite album of all time. And he talks about the importance of melody in his idea of great music.

These are all explanations, but they grow out of the selection. That is, first Phil chose “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as his #1 song, because it was his favorite and this was a list of favorites, and only then did he try to explain why it belonged where he placed it. (Obviously, I’m making assumptions here that may not be accurate.)

I wish I could do the same. I, too, would eventually get around to explaining my choice, but first, I’d have to go through a long process of deciding what should be #1 … and “should be” is probably the key phrase, since there is no “should be” in “favorite.” But I can’t help myself. So first, I’d decide that Neil Young belonged somewhere on my list … not #1 in my case, but certainly in the upper half. Then I’d choose the song based on cultural importance, if I had something to say about it, and yes, finally, how much I actually liked the song. I don’t know what the most culturally important work of Neil Young’s career might be … perhaps Rust Never Sleeps, when he emerged as one of the few boomer rock artists to come to terms with punk. If I had to choose something where I have an anecdote, I might choose Rust Never Sleeps as well, since my wife and I are in the audience for the film version. Once I got around to what I liked, though, when I finally focused on what was my equivalent of Phil’s love of melodies, I would know that whichever Neil Young song I picked, it would have to include lots of long, noisy guitar solos. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is my favorite early Young album because it has two such songs … After the Gold Rush only had the fairly short solos in “Southern Man.” I love all of Zuma, which has “Cortez the Killer” (and I still remember an article about Lou Reed from around that time where Lou, another favorite guitar player of mine, said he loved Zuma and that Neil Young was a great guitarist). In the end, I suppose I’d go with “Like a Hurricane,” although why that and not “Cortez” or “Cowgirl in the Sand” is unclear.

What is clear is that I would worry myself sick trying to balance all the elements that would lead me to choose “Like a Hurricane” (or whatever) for my list. But a part of me believes you should be able to list your 100 favorite songs in about 20 minutes, that that concept of “favorite” refuses to allow for too much over-thinking.

I’m not saying Phil and Scott haven’t thought about their choices … if you read the comments they include with every choice, you can see the passion, but you can also see the thought processes. But it seems to me they are picking favorites and then explaining, where I would explain and then pick favorites. I like their method a lot, and I’ll miss the Facebook group when they are done.

And what would be my #1 song? “One Night” by Elvis from the ‘68 Special. I don’t have to over-think that one … it’s been my #1 for a long time. I guess I’ve already done my thinking in that case.