Previous month:
August 2011
Next month:
October 2011

the only concrete question

I decided that if one gave way once, there was no reason to stop. It seems that history has shown that I was right; nowadays it’s a free-for-all in killing. They are all carried away by a fury of killing and cannot do otherwise. …

[M]eanwhile, at least as far as I was concerned, I would refuse ever to concede a single argument, a single one, to this disgusting butchery. …

For a long time I have been ashamed, mortally ashamed, of having been – even at a distance, even with the best will in the world – a murderer in my turn. With time I have simply noticed that even those who are better than the rest cannot avoid killing or letting others be killed because it is in the logic of how they live and we cannot make a gesture in this world without taking the risk of bringing death. Yes, I have continued to feel ashamed, and I learned that we are all in the plague, and I have lost my peace of mind. I am still looking for it today, trying to understand all of them and not to be the mortal enemy of anybody. All I know is that one must do one’s best not to be a plague victim and this is the only thing that can give us hope of peace, or, failing that, a good death. …

All I can say is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims – and as far as possible one must refuse to be on the side of the pestilence. …

Can one be a saint without God: that is the only concrete question that I know today.

-- Albert Camus, The Plague

#48: sid and nancy (alex cox, 1986)

(This is the third of 50 pieces I’ll post here over the next several months. They originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Alex Cox and his team do something very interesting here: telling “the” story of punk by offering up a love story. Sid and Nancy often falls short in accurately depicting “what happened” … you can’t come to this movie to find out why punk rose out of the ashes of English culture, or what Johnny Rotten was really like, or where Malcolm McLaren came from. Perhaps for these reasons, the movie doesn’t really hit its stride until the post-Pistols period, when Sid and Nancy have moved to New York. But the title isn’t The Roots of Punk, it’s Sid and Nancy (and the working title was Love Kills). Which isn’t to say the movie is not about punk; it is, but it insists on its own definitions.

It has always seemed to me both unfortunate and probably inevitable that the icon of punk is not Johnny Rotten, the smart, class-obsessed malcontent whose outrage was heartfelt but also thoughtful. No, Sid Vicious, in many ways a cartoon version of punk, is the icon. I would argue, then, that one of the great achievements of Sid and Nancy is that it continues the foregrounding of “Sid Punk” over “Johnny Punk" but redefines “Sid Punk” into something half romantic and half junkie. Punk is reduced to the love between two kindred souls, which isn’t how we normally think of punk. And that refusal to go along with the norm is itself a nice punk move.

Sid and Nancy also confronts the nihilism that some attach to punk. As I and others have noted, when Johnny Rotten said “NO!” with passion, his passion was ultimately a “YES!” The stupider interpretation, though, never gets further than the negation. Sid and Nancy rubs our noses in what that negation means: the lives of these two junkies is pathetic, unappealing, and miserable, and leads to death.

That the film nonetheless maintains a true feeling of romance between its protagonists is remarkable in this context. And I can’t say enough about the greatness of the performances of Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb, who make that romance palpable.



Comments this time spent as much time talking about the Sex Pistols as about the movie. A couple of people said they didn’t like the film when it came out, but might check it out again now that I’d promoted its excellence.


google+, three months in

Despite what you may have heard, Google+ still exists. No, it’s not Facebook, but for some, that might be a selling point rather than an entry on the debit side. Facebook seems to like G+, since they are scrambling to add services to FB that emulate G+. Meanwhile, Google is busy adding things, as well, which I’ll mention at the end of this post.

Personally, I haven’t seen a big growth in the number of G+ users with whom I interact. Most of the people I know who are interested have joined, and most of them are still around and reasonably active. I still see posts that say, in essence, “I still don’t know what this is or why I am here,” and yesterday, I saw my first “I never should have joined, bye” post. Most of my online friends, even those who use Google+, still assume their primary audience is on Facebook, so photos and the like get posted far more often at FB.

The majority of posts I see are still from geeks and techies. My family doesn’t show up very often. I do see a lot of posts from people I “know” but don’t really know. There are also a lot of posts that consist of links to other works by the poster (I’m guilty of this, myself). In short, amongst the people I know, there hasn’t been much growth over the last couple of months. (Of course, I have no idea what is going on in private and semi-private posts, which is something to keep in mind when you see G+ evaluated by the number of posts … no one knows how much is happening out of the public eye.)

Me, I find myself checking G+ before I check Facebook or Twitter. When there is breaking news of some sort, Twitter is always my first choice, but I use FB pretty much just to keep in touch with all the people I know who aren’t on G+. Yes, that’s a lot of people, but give Google time.

As for what Google is up to, the biggest news is that Google+ is out of beta. Well, I’ve used the wrong terminology. Up to now, G+ has been in “field trial”, and now it is in “beta”. Whatever … the key point is that anyone can now sign up for Google+. Invitations are no longer needed. Beyond that, Google has been working hard on Hangouts, the multi-user chat function in G+. They’ve added collaborative features, and for the first time, you can participate in Hangouts with your phone. The latter has been a point of contention for my son since the day he signed up, so he’ll be happy to see this new feature. Unfortunately, it requires a better version of Android than is currently available for the Sprint Epic 4G, so we’ll have to wait still longer to try this out.

Right now, Google+ feels kinda like Blu-Ray. Those of us who are dedicated to it consider it part of our daily lives, and we tend to forget that much of the world doesn’t care.

what i watched last week

One thing I realized while spending six months watching my fifty favorite movies is … well, I like old movies, for one thing, which leads to the main point. I tend to watch movies out of chronological order. I don’t rush out to watch the latest movies, which isn’t to say there are no good ones. I’m just describing my viewing habits. So last week’s “what i watched” featured one movie from 1957, one from 1972, one from 1974, and one from 2005. And I didn’t even watch those in chronological order; the 1957 film was the last I watched.

This means I have to create my own context. I can apply what I know about film history, and, if I remember when the film came out, I can call on personal experience (i.e. my untrustworthy memories). But this is a scattershot approach.

And it occurred to me that this isn’t limited to movies. In the era of near-complete “every song ever recorded, whenever and wherever you want to hear it,” the entire history of recorded music ends up on shuffle play. I have playlists that provide some order, and occasionally I’ll latch onto a new album, like Wire Flag’s debut. But for the most part, I’m listening to music out of its chronological context. Which is old news, but I hadn’t previously thought about how I do the same thing with movies.

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009). I didn’t much like the only other Haneke film I’d seen (The Piano Teacher), but this one sucked me right in. The open-ended nature of the mystery plot, and the way the film can be connected to historical events or seen as relevant to the current era, could seem like a cop-out, with Haneke doing everything he can to whet our appetite for some concrete resolution. But it’s not; this really is a case where the filmmaker wants the audience to work things out for themselves. Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle was on target when he wrote, “In a sense, this is the film M. Night Shyamalan has been trying and failing to make for the past 10 years: There is evil lurking in a seemingly idyllic village, and that evil dwells within. But instead of using the metaphor of space invaders or a frightening epidemic to get this across, Haneke rejects metaphors and tackles the notion head on.” #117 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942). World War II comedy that was extremely audacious for its time (and flopped with audiences and critics). M*A*S*H was an artifact of the Vietnam War that deflected its anti-war ideology by situating the action in Korea. To Be or Not to Be was a comedy about Nazis in Poland, made during the time when the real-life Nazis were in Poland, released soon after Pearl Harbor, with a leading actress who had just died in a plane crash. That’s a lot of baggage, and it’s understandable it didn’t succeed on its initial release. Now, it is considered a classic American comedy, but it still draws a lot of its power from the historical context. It’s funny, but not hilarious; it’s easy to admire it, yet you don’t always laugh. As a big Jack Benny fan, I especially enjoyed him here. He doesn’t exactly stretch his acting chops … some of the funniest moments in the movie come when Benny, dressed up as a Nazi, does his standard double-takes or walks across the screen in his inimitable way. #73 on the TSPDT list of the Top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


I have little to say. I didn’t watch them, and haven’t seen most of the winners. I wish Emmy Rossum had gotten something for Shameless (even a nomination would have been nice). I’m glad Christina Hendricks was there. And it was great that Margo Martindale won for Justified.

That’s what I would take away from the awards: those of you who play catch-up a year later by renting TV series should do yourself a favor and latch onto Justified (there have been two seasons, the second, with Martindale, isn’t out yet, I imagine, but you can watch Season One while you wait) and Lights Out (I don’t think this got any nominations, and it’s already been cancelled, but that means you can have a Lights Out Marathon Weekend and watch all 13 episodes).

#49: tomorrow never dies (roger spottiswoode, 1997)

(This is the second of 50 pieces I’ll post here over the next several months. They originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

I’m cheating a bit here, and it’s only my second entry. I’ve chosen Tomorrow Never Dies, even though it’s not anywhere near my favorite Bond movie (that would probably be From Russia with Love). Tomorrow Never Dies is decent enough, arguably Pierce Brosnan’s best 007 film. But it’s on this list because I was always going to have a James Bond movie, and because I wanted to write about Michelle Yeoh.

As others have noted, Yeoh would have made a great Jane Bond. There is often talk of mixing up the series, maybe have a black Bond, or a gay Bond, or an anything-but-Bond Bond. If they had the guts to give us a female Malaysian Bond, that would be mixing it up. Yeoh’s greatness is evident in Tomorrow Never Dies, which coughs and wheezes its way through most scenes in which she is absent. She doesn’t get to do her own stunts this time (Jackie Chan famously let her do her own stunts in his movies), but she does do her own fighting, and honestly, she looks more realistic as an ass-kicker than Brosnan does.

The problem is that while Yeoh is what makes this a special Bond film, her presence also reminds us of Hong Kong films like Yes, Madam and The Heroic Trio that make better use of her talents. To say nothing of the Jackie Chan film Police Story 3: Super Cop, which includes a Yeoh-on-motorcycle stunt that tops even the exciting motorcycle chase in Tomorrow Never Dies. Even the best this Bond film has to offer tends to remind you of something better.

So, if you don’t like cheating, imagine that I’ve made From Russia with Love my choice for #49. And dream of a world where Michelle Yeoh got to play 007.

(I should add that the director, Roger Spottiswoode, also directed my choice for #50. He did a better job on that one. With apologies to fans of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, this will be Spottiswoode’s last appearance on my list.)




The comments for this one centered around the fact that most of the people didn’t actually care for James Bond movies. One commenter wondered how this could be one of my favorite films if the actress is better in other movies. I promised she would show up again later on the list.


music friday: the tymes, “so much in love”

I fully expect my brother to tell me I’ve got some of the memories wrong, because memories are always wrong, and one or both of us will have turned what really happened into something else. One certain fact is that my brother, six years older than I, had a lot more records (albums and 45s) than I did, and pretty much without exception, what he liked, I liked (I’m not so sure about Bobby Rydell, though).

My memory is that he had the first album by the R&B/doo-wop group The Tymes. It was called So Much in Love, which was also the name of the first single from the album. “So Much in Love” pushed Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” out of the #1 slot on the singles charts … it lasted one week, and was bumped by Little Stevie Wonder’s first hit. (“So Much in Love” has another family connection: my sister put it on a Spotify playlist she created for me.) The So Much in Love album contained two more hits, “Wonderful! Wonderful!” and “Somewhere”. “Wonderful! Wonderful!” was a remake of the first hit by Johnny Mathis, an enormously popular singer of the time. It’s appropriate that The Tymes covered Mathis, since their lead singer, George Williams, so clearly patterned his vocal style on Mathis.

My memories of this album (I was ten years old when it came out) are pleasant ones. The hits were lovely, and for some reason, I liked the name of the group. Nowadays, I think of The Tymes and their hits as good examples of Beach Music, although I had no idea what Beach Music was back then (I’m not even sure the term existed yet). I also think of them as late doo-wop, but I notice that AMG omits that reference, so maybe I’m wrong (they list the group as Soul, Pop-Soul, Beach, and Early R&B).

Like so many vocal groups from that period, The Tymes turn up on public television occasionally during pledge drives, when PBS shows doo-wop concerts where the old groups, usually without many of the original members, sing their hits. I prefer to remember them from their heyday, though, and since there weren’t a lot of videos back then, audio YouTube clips will have to suffice. “So Much in Love”:

And “Wonderful! Wonderful!”:

the lure of the canon

Souciant is running a new piece I’ve written about the Facebook Fifty Films group:

The Lure of the Canon

Thanks to all the folks at Souciant, in particular Charlie Bertsch for another fine editing job, and to everyone in our Facebook group, especially Phil Dellio and Jeff Pike, my partners in crime for the project. Yesterday I posted the first of my essays from that group here; the next 49 will turn up over the next few months.

#50: under fire (roger spottiswoode, 1983)

(This is the first of 50 pieces I’ll post here over the next several months. They originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

These lists are intended to reflect our 50 favorite movies rather than the 50 best movies. I am aware that there is no difference between “favorite” and “best” for some people. My guess is I’ll have more fave-not-best films at the bottom of my list, and more best-and-fave films near the top. I might love Re-Animator, but I’m incapable of making it #1. #49, maybe.

Under Fire could just as easily be called "Under the Radar,” for all the attention it has gotten over the years. The director, Roger Spottiswoode, broke in as an editor for Sam Peckinpah and later directed a James Bond movie. The leads were played by Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman, with Ed Harris and Jean-Louis Trintignant in support. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith was nominated for an Oscar, and the writer, Ron Shelton, went on to make Bull Durham. It got positive reviews from Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael.

But its domestic gross was under $6 million, it is not on anyone’s Best Ever lists, and it lacks even the kind of cult status that keeps a movie in the spotlight.

In short, the perfect movie to start my Top 50 list. Among the reasons it is a favorite of mine: I love Gene Hackman, everyone in the cast is excellent, it’s a movie about adults, it presents a realistic-enough look at Nicaragua in 1979, and it raises interesting points about the role of journalists. It also includes a scene that prefigures Ron Shelton’s later work in movies about sports. A young rebel is admired for his skills at grenade throwing. He signs a baseball and asks Cassidy’s character to take it back to the U.S. to give to major-league pitcher Dennis Martinez, a fellow Nicaraguan who is beloved in his native country. He puts on a Baltimore Orioles cap (Martinez played many years for the O’s); later, he fires a grenade at the opposition, after which he says they should tell Martinez that the rebel’s curve ball is better and that he has a good scroogy.

Under Fire also demonstrates how even a liberal American film can’t escape some of our underlying beliefs. While the film is sympathetic towards the Sandinistas, the plot revolves around the actions of the American journalists, who are necessary parts of the hoped-for revolution. The political assumption is that natives can’t create a successful revolution without the help of the Americans; the box-office assumption is that Americans won’t pay to see a movie about Central American revolutionaries without putting American heroes at the center of the film. Given that the movie flopped, that latter assumption would seem to have been rendered pointless.


There weren’t a lot of comments for this one … I’m not sure many people had seen it. Under the radar, indeed. This marked the first appearance of my “favorite vs. best” quandary, which no one else suffered from.


steven’s spotify top 20

The new list went up yesterday, so this is a day old, I guess.

Steven’s Top List: 9-12-11

Here are the top five:

5. “When You Took Your Love from Me” by O.V. Wright (this former #1 has been on the list 4 of 5 times)

4. “Tic-Tac-Toe” by Booker T. & the MG’s (first time for Booker)

3. “I Don’t Want to Be Hurt Anymore” by James Carr (first for Carr, as well)

2. “All Strung Out Over You” by The Chambers Brothers ( third first-timer)

And the #1 track of the week (OK, there’s something in the Spotify system … these guys are also making their first appearance):