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what i watched last week

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). It came highly recommended by my daughter. It was popular with critics, and it was a big hit at the box office. It features talented actresses kicking butt in a genre usually reserved for men. And there are several set pieces that are sure to be long remembered when people think back on classic comedy scenes. All of which is my way of saying you probably liked this movie quite a bit. Me, I don’t get these comedies. I laughed once in awhile, and enjoyed the acting. But it went on too long, it turned mushy at the end, and … well, really, the only thing that matters is that I don’t get these kinds of movies. So YMMV, but 6/10.

Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970). One of those movies I manage to watch every few years; each viewing is accompanied by a change of mind about the film. The first time I saw it, back when it was released, I played music, and I remember thinking I never wanted to play rock and roll again, because the music was clearly evil. A few years later, I went through a phase where I loved cinéma vérité, perhaps a bit too uncritically, and while I can’t remember specifically, I think I liked Gimme Shelter a lot during that period. Since then, my opinion changes depending how I feel at the time about 1) cinéma vérité and 2) Altamont. Watching it a few days ago, I found the film to be as expertly constructed as Top Gun. The conclusion, which we all know is coming, seems inevitable from the start of the movie, and everything that follows is designed to lead us to that inevitability, which lends a feeling of dread to the film. The film makers have an advantage that Top Gun’s auteurs did not: what they show us “really happened”, so it’s harder to accuse them of manipulation. It’s there, though, in an extreme form. Whatever their intentions before the movie was made, in the editing room they clearly decided this was a film about The End of the Sixties, and they chose footage to augment that theme.

I obsess about this movie so much that it gets a second paragraph! I was taken this time around with the ferocity of “Sympathy for the Devil” once the Stones restart it after yet another violent fracas. All during the Altamont footage, we see musicians trying to call on the power of their charisma to direct the crowd in a more peaceful direction (Marty Balin excepted … he puts his body where his mouth is, and ends up being knocked cold). Jagger and the Stones do the same thing, but it’s not working. They start “Sympathy” and everything goes to shit in the crowd. They stop, and Mick notes that every time they play that song, weird stuff happens. Then, they start the song all over again! It’s a terrifyingly audacious move. The version that follows is as good as any you’ll ever hear. Jagger seems to be trying to draw all of the crowd’s energy into himself, which is impossible by itself … that he attempts this by casting himself as Lucifer just makes it all the more remarkable. It doesn’t work, of course, and soon afterwards, during “Under My Thumb”, one of the Angels kills a man with a gun who is perilously close to the stage when he pulls the weapon out. There are multiple ironies in the song selection. For one, it was (is?) a longtime myth that the Stones were playing “Sympathy” when the murder happened … folks seemed to like that story. “Under My Thumb”, meanwhile, is another of the many examples of rock musicians using domination of women as a metaphor for class struggle. The irony lies in the presence of the Angels, who drip contempt for the pansy rock stars on the stage, and who have an us vs. them feel to them. In the context of the song, the Stones and the audience are the high class women, and the Angels are the men who put those women in their place.

Third paragraph! (I sometimes worry that these weekly movie posts keep me from writing longer pieces about films.) Gimme Shelter demonstrates the silliness of a rating system. The last time I saw it, I gave it 7/10. On Netflix, I’ve given it 5/5. While I was watching it this time, I was thinking 10/10. But when I made the connection to Top Gun (3/10), I wondered why I hated that movie so much for being manipulative, yet was about to reward Gimme Shelter even as I saw through it’s very different method of manipulation. So … 9/10. #706 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 Movies of All Time.

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011). I really wondered how they could make that book into a movie, but it works out just fine. It may get some details wrong, but it presents the basic paradigm shift in baseball to a more statistically-minded form of analytics while still being entertaining, even for a non-fan. Brad Pitt has a lot to do with that … he is effortless in his movie-star mode. The film is too cruel to the old school (represented here by scouts and A’s manager Art Howe), never acknowledging that the best success comes not from replacing the old with the new, but by taking the best parts of the old and blending them with the best parts of the new. In Moneyball-the-movie, stats rool and scouts drool. It’s not that simple. Still, as a validation of a particular way of looking at the world of baseball, Moneyball works. And it has a gratuitous joke played at Brian Sabean’s expense. 7/10.


#37: from here to eternity (fred zinnemann, 1953)

(This is the 14th of 50 pieces that 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.)

The key to From Here to Eternity, for me, is the acting, or rather, the casting and the subsequent acting. Five different actors from the film got Oscar nominations, and every one was deserved. Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed were cast against type, which is often good for an Oscar nomination even if the acting is poor. But in this case, it worked. Kerr’s image as a proper British lady offered an interesting subtext to her role as a military wife with a bad marriage and a roving eye, and her love scenes smoldered. Reed’s wholesome image helped make her “dance partner” seem acceptable to the censors, and she used it to effectively reveal the woman underneath the prostitute.

Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra was great in his career-saving role as Maggio (no, the story from The Godfather isn’t really true, but this is the movie that supposedly inspired the horse’s head). And Montgomery Clift brought his usual bruised intensity to his role … he made hard-headedness seem somehow sensitive.

Best of all is Burt Lancaster. I admit he is a favorite of mine, and I always admired his willingness to stretch, to take on different roles. His skills don’t always match what his roles require, though, so Lancaster has been miscast in more movies than I can count. But when he’s properly cast, there is no one more dynamic. Here, he is an athletic man of action, a Sergeant who understands his men and his superiors, and knows how to work them all effectively. He’s fine in his quieter moments, when he’s romancing Kerr or getting drunk with Clift, but it’s when he swings into action that we see Lancaster at his very best. He jumps into a scene the way violence shows up in a Scorsese film … you aren’t expecting it, and suddenly, there it is. Two men start a fight in a bar. Lancaster, who has been sitting back nursing a beer, leaps between them and takes command of the situation. When the Pearl Harbor attack occurs and everyone is running around like lunatics, it’s Lancaster who jumps onto a pool table and starts giving orders. It’s thrilling in ways that other action stars of his era could only dream of achieving.

 

Not much in the way of comments for this one. One person mentioned that they had read the book and couldn’t imagine how anyone could get it all into a movie. The most interesting thing since this was first posted is that we went to Hawaii and visited “The Beach”.


pauline kael: a life in the dark

I’ve finished Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline Kael.

Kellow was inspired by her work, and he’s an astute critic of same, so this isn’t a hatchet job. You get a good feel for why she was “Pauline Kael”. She could be incredibly supportive of rising talents (film makers and writers), but you didn’t want to get on her bad side. If she loved you and then fell out of love, it was worse than if she’d never loved you at all. All of us who bristled at the notion of “Paulettes” but still wanted to be one might change our minds after reading this book. To be a Paulette was to be insecure about your status. Easier to just admire her from a distance.

I can’t say I learned any key new insights about her writing. Kellow does well in showing what Kael did, what made it different and important, and why she ended up influencing all who came after her, whether or not they liked her work. But I mostly knew that stuff already. He has a good sense of which of her pieces were the most important, although at times, he seems content to just quote her. He’s willing to address her blind spots, and he helps us understand why she became so addicted to superlatives (as I interpret it, it’s related to her stance about never seeing a movie more than once, and about how she tried to write about a movie as soon as possible after seeing it … she wanted to write while the feelings the movie inspired were still fresh, and we’re always more ready to say “greatest ever” in those first hours, before distance gives us a more measured approach). He nonetheless reminds us that those superlatives were easy for others to criticize. In her later years as a critic, movies became something different than they were for her in the heady post-Bonnie and Clyde years, but Kellow shows us how it wasn’t that movies passed Kael by as much as movies let her down. And we get a real feel for how her physical frailties as her Parkinson’s worsened were especially trying for someone who had spent her whole life trying to be in charge.

There are two stories that struck me as particularly damaging. I had heard the rumor long ago that her negative review of Ryan’s Daughter made David Lean so depressed he didn’t make a movie for more than a decade, but this really hits home in the book, partly because by the time it turns up, we’re already aware of Kael’s capacity for hurting others, and partly because she didn’t just attack the movie in print, but also to his face (in fairness, it was in a group of critics, and she wasn’t the only one).

More serious is the story of the writing of “Raising Kane”, her controversial take on the classic film whereby she argued that Welles was far from the sole, or even largest, contributor to its success (she championed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz). Kellow explains that Kael became aware of the research of a UCLA film professor that worked along a similar path to her own. She convinced the professor to work with her (she already had a contract to write about Kane) and split the money. She gave him just under $400, never managed to finalize a contract with him, wrote her essay (which became part of a book), used a lot of the professor’s research, and never mentioned him anywhere in the final product. About the only positive thing I could take from this is that Kael had to take 100% of the attacks that came her way in the wake of the book’s controversies.

We needed a Kael biography, and this is a good one. Reading it, you get the context to her career, which will be especially helpful to future generations who might read her criticism and want to know more about where it came from. I don’t think any less of her, now that I know what a shit she could be … it’s not like I didn’t suspect it already. Perhaps the final word comes from her daughter, Gina, who declined to participate in the book. She comes across as a very sympathetic character … it wasn’t easy having Pauline Kael for a mom. Kellow quotes her in his concluding chapter, from the speech she gave at Kael’s memorial tribute:

My mother had tremendous empathy and compassion, though how to comfort, soothe, or console was a mystery that eluded her. Pauline tried to make me aware of people’s needs and she taught me to be considerate of other people’s feelings. But when Pauline spoke to someone about their work as if it had been produced by a third party, it had repercussions. There was fallout. In my youth, I watched what she left, unaware, in her wake: flickering glimpses of crushed illusions, mounting insecurities, desolation. … She truly believed that what she did was for everyone else’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects. She refused any consideration of that possibility and she denied any motivations or personal needs.... This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice. She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.

Kellow concludes with his own, final take on Kael’s legacy:

Pauline’s great victory was that, like a visionary novelist, she widened the scope of her art—she redefined the possibilities of how a critic could think, and how a critic’s work might benefit the art form itself. …

We should be grateful that once she found her subject, she never deserted it, never grew bored with it—the trap that awaits nearly every critic. Her almost childlike optimism about the screen’s possibilities, even her unsuccessful time in Hollywood, was an attempt to draw herself closer to her subject. She lived her entire life the way so many of us do only for a brief time as college students, staying up all night in coffee shops with our ragged copies of Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor, reading and debating, unable, yet, to imagine that we could ever grow weary of the world of books and music and movies and ideas.


music friday: bohemian love pad

Thirty years ago today, I went to a Pat Benatar concert and left before the headliner hit the stage.

I’ve never been a fan of Benatar. I only went to the show because the opening act was David Johansen. He played, the crowd didn’t like him, he finished his set, I went home.

I want to say Johansen was touring behind his album Here Comes the Night, but I might have my dates wrong. Whatever … I just wanted an excuse to play “Bohemian Love Pad”, which begins like this:

You know the cockroach traffic in here
It's got me drinkin' too much beer
But it ain't any worse than any major town
Broken records all over the floor
Who could ask for anything more?
Sent someone out to score and I'm gonna
Love you baby and
Drivin' you crazy
Is all I want to do
You act so bad
You drive me mad
You make-a me bad
In my Bohemian love pad
Oh baby, I love you so!

Might as well play around with Spotify. Here’s the lead track from that album, “She Loves Strangers”.

http://open.spotify.com/track/5mxnJH0JehcpUKDNhLyhxl

And what the heck … here’s the Dolls in 1973, doing “Pills” and “Trash”. The audio isn’t synced right, but that’s OK, the band sounds out of tune, anyway. And you get to hear David ask “How do you call your lover boy?” in German!


when in doubt, just quote tim goodman

In “No Laughing Matter -- Drama is Still King of the Small Screen”, Goodman praises Boardwalk Empire (“every episode ends with you wanting more – immediately”), Homeland (“one of the brightest lights in the freshman crop”), Sons of Anarchy (“delivers viscerally to an adoring audience”), The Walking Dead (“it’s about survival and what costs come from that. And yes, it’s about zombies.”), Boss (aw shit, am I finally gonna have to get Starz?), and Dexter (“trying – so far successfully – to prove that there’s more in the tank, that America’s favorite serial killer can tackle the meaning of faith in new and interesting ways”).

The real kicker is this:

These are all superb series – and all of them are currently on the air – a collective testament to the ongoing greatness of the televised drama. The feeling that this drama Renaissance is showing no signs of recession is only magnified when you realize just what isn’t currently on the air – Mad Men on AMC, Game of Thrones and Treme on HBO, Shameless and The Borgias on Showtime, and Justified on FX. That’s an embarrassment of riches which doesn’t even include the pending arrival of Luck on HBO and House of Lies on Showtime, two series with a lot of heat.


#38: in the mood for love (wong kar-wai, 2000)

(This is the 13th of 50 pieces that 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.)

Some films require a larger suspension of disbelief than others. In the Mood for Love may be one such film. The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye.

In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

Cheung and Leung give exquisitely moderated performances. Wong asks for subtlety, and they supply it. They are perfectly in tune … they are gradually falling in love, but they can’t bring themselves to take the leap, because they don’t want to be like their cheating spouses. So we get lots of meaningful glances, and the dialogue is appropriately sparse, forcing us to read the faces of Leung and Cheung for clues (and they are so good, the clues are there).

The word “atmospheric” was made for Wong, who creates a world of cigarette smoke, rain, and cheongsams (Cheung wears a different one in every scene). As is usual, he effectively integrates music into his film, with the added quirkiness (also typical for Wong) of using Nat King Cole singing a song in Spanish (“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás”) in a Chinese movie set in 1962 Hong Kong.

Wong Kar-wai is one of the finest directors working today. His films are a mixed bag, but In the Mood for Love is his best. It’s the easiest one to recommend to someone new to his films, because it is perhaps his most traditional. But that means you haven’t really entered fully into Wong’s film vision, because you haven't seen his more unusual work.

 

Comments were limited to a brief discussion of Wong Kar-wai and which of his movies we hadn’t seen. Happily, Jeff Pike eventually saw In the Mood for Love for the first time, and liked it (“very nice!” is how he put it).


hope solo goes dancing

I blame it all on Jennifer Doyle, who has a great blog, From a Left Wing: Soccer & Sports Polemics. She has written a lot lately about Hope Solo’s appearances on Dancing with the Stars. I don’t watch the show (not a value judgment … I can’t say if it’s good or bad since I’ve never seen it), and don’t really understand the rules. But this season, when Hope Solo became a celebrity contestant and Doyle started writing about it, I found myself checking each week to see if Solo and her partner are still in the contest. I still don’t watch the show. That’s not what has my attention. It’s the way Doyle has me thinking about Solo that matters:

An athlete like Solo will have such a different relation to her body than most of the women who appear on the program. Her movement is rooted in years of practice - it has a physical economy. How she knows where her center of gravity is, how she turns a foot, or claims the space around her - this is all developed through a body keyed to a purpose - that purpose being the opposite of feminine comportment. She is agile - a goalkeeper is usually the most athletic, most agile player on a team. But she is solid: she is not a bowl of cream, a cloud, a feather - to cite the language used by the judges to describe those dancers who successfully perform ballroom grace. …

Her appearance on Dancing with the Stars seems to be of a piece with a multi-platform attack on the public consciousness, in which USWNT players appear in contexts that embrace their athleticism - that, in fact, treat them as athletes without, however, losing sight of the interest-value that attends to almost all female athletes. By which I don't mean their femininity - but rather the way that the image of the female athletes surfaces gender itself as a thing.

I pointed out this SF Gate blog post to Doyle because it seemed to come at the issue from an oddball angle that couldn’t easily be dismissed: “Is Dancing with the Stars Fixed Against Hope Solo?

It all adds up to my own oddball angle, wherein I look for the results of a show I don’t watch, not because I care about the show (or I would watch it), but because I now have a stake in how Hope Solo fares on that show.


what i watched last week

Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010). I’m not going to reveal any of the narrative of this movie; if you ever watch it, you deserve to come to it cold, as I did (I had no idea beforehand what it was about). The film can be taken in a number of different ways … you might find the protagonists charming (lead Nev Schulman has screen charisma) or you might find them obnoxious in an old-school frat boy manner. You might find the story engrossing … you might find it misleading … you might think it is both. I think most people will ultimately find the movie untrustworthy, although that is not a value judgment, just a comment. Me, I thought it was all of those things, charming and obnoxious, engrossing and misleading, certainly not to be trusted. Yet a beautiful character emerges in the film’s final half hour, and while I’m not going to tell you which person it is, I think you’ll know who I mean if you see the movie. I know I haven’t said anything concrete here, but in this case, that is appropriate. And it’s only 87 minutes, so even if you don’t like it, you won’t have wasted too much time. 7/10.

Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994). Phil Dellio had this at #21 on his Facebook list. I’m a big fan of Zwigoff’s Ghost World, and I'm old enough to have been reading Zap Comix when they first came out, so it is to be expected that I’d like Crumb (even if my favorite underground comic artist was S. Clay Wilson). What I liked best about the film was the insight it gave into the creative forces that drive Crumb’s art. And it allowed Deirdre English to present a reasoned critique of Crumb (she is far less pompous than Robert Hughes, who speaks in Crumb’s favor), although I admit that “Joe Blow” is one of my very favorite Crumbs, and while English makes a good case against it, I wasn’t convinced. The problem with the film is also what makes it fascinating: Crumb’s family, in particular his brothers, Charles and Maxon. Charles Crumb is an intriguing person with serious emotional problems (we’re told at the end of the film that he committed suicide a year after doing his interviews for the movie). He provides depth to the portrait of his brother, giving a sense of what R. Crumb escaped from with his art. But I’m not convinced he really wanted to be a part of the movie, which gives an unpleasant sheen of exploitation to the project. 8/10.


welcome to my world

Yesterday, some friends took my wife and I to the Winchester Mystery House. If you have never heard of this place, Sarah Winchester, whose husband’s family was the Winchesters of rifle fame, moved to a farm near San Jose and began constant building, which went on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, until her death 38 years later. There are various suggestions as to why she did this, most involving a visit to a psychic who said she needed to build constantly in order to stay alive (it had something to do with the death of her husband and child, and perhaps the deaths of those who were killed by the family rifles).

If you have to build constantly, you’re going to have to come up with make-work to fill the time, and Winchester seemed to believe she could ward off the spirits or something if she gave the house bizarre features. There are doors that open onto brick walls, a chimney that ends just before reaching the ceiling (thus ensuring that any connecting fireplace, when used, would send smoke into the room with the incomplete chimney), dozens of staircases, hundreds of stairs, ten thousand window panes, and more than 150 rooms. The pathway from one room to another was often twisted … you might have to walk up a flight of stairs with half a dozen turns, meaning it took forever just to get one floor higher.

At one point during our tour, I asked my friend if he could point in the general direction of the place where our tour had begun. He waved his arm and told me it was over there … I asked if he was sure, and he said no. That, I told him, is how the world appears to me every day.

The confusions of the Winchester Mystery House are hard-wired into my system. I never know quite where I am. If I do know, it’s always a matter of memory, remembering when I had been at that place in the past. It is never because I know West from East, or where Place X is relative to Place Y. Oftentimes, when we are driving in the car, we’ll go past some place I know and I’ll exclaim, “Hey, I know that place, I didn’t realize it was here”.

So, if you want to know how the world appears to Steven Rubio, visit the Winchester Mystery House. When you are about halfway through your tour, try to reconstruct where you’ve been, and where you are relative to where you started. When you can’t perform this task, you’ll know the world as I see it.

Relevant postscript: for a variety of reasons, after the tour, we ended up eating Ethiopian food at some obscure restaurant we found via Google Maps. When it was time to drive home, we got in the car, and I cranked up Google Maps so it could tell us how to get to the freeway. I read the directions aloud, and then the GPS “lady” told us where to go. My wife began driving, and I began yelling, telling her she was going the wrong way. Our friends agreed with my wife, but I was sure of myself. Ten seconds of driving showed I was the one who didn’t know where we were going. My wife looked at me and said, “Even when you’ve got the GPS in your hand, you don’t know where you are.”

It’s my new motto. Steven Rubio: he doesn’t know where he is.