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what i watched last week

Some of these are briefer than usual ... lots going on at the moment.

Night Will Fall (André Singer, 2014). It's unfair to complain that movies with footage of the concentration camps have become less effective as time passes. You can watch such footage a thousand times and still find it revolting. But at this point, filmmakers must come up with a new focus or get lost among the many similar films. For Night Will Fall, the angle is a lost film from the 40s, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, that uses footage shot by servicemen, much of which we have never seen before. We also learn about the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock in the making of the film, and how the British government decided it wouldn't do to rile up the German people in the post-war period. Singer does what he can to blend this together, but to some extent, it feels like two films, one of lost footage and another of a lost film. Hitchcock emphasizes to the filmmakers how to use creativity to convince the audience what they are seeing is real, which is an interesting point on its own. 7/10. It's probably too obvious, but a companion film would be Night and Fog.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). Well-made in a cultured British way, never too stodgy, with an interesting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch at its center. It does a decent job of making code-breaking entertaining, and if it fudges on facts, well, don't all of these movies do that? The one area where the film might be "too cultured" is in its presentation of Alan Turing's homosexuality. We hear a lot about it, but you get the feeling the filmmakers thought it would be too much to show Turing actually having sex. #908 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10. I haven't seen it, but the best matchup would be The Theory of Everything.

Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012). Tom Cruise in heroic mode. Not as much action as you might expect ... Cruise plays a kind of super detective. But I suppose there is enough action to please most folks; it grossed $218 million worldwide. Top special effect goes to Rosamund Pike's boobs ... apparently she was pregnant during the making of the film, and about halfway through the movie, her character, a lawyer, turns up in a cleavage-baring outfit which is so startling it becomes distracting. 6/10. For a better Tom Cruise action movie, try Minority Report.

The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011). Yet another top-notch documentary located in Chicago from James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself). It sounds like it will be one of those movies that is good for you, but one thing that makes James' movies so strong is that he works hard to give us characters of depth about whom we care a lot. He also effectively balances the bleak with the hopeful, for the most part without seeming too much the Pollyanna. Here, he focuses on three "Violence Interrupters" who intervene in real-time street disputes, hoping (and often succeeding) to prevent murders. We also get to know a few of those street people. We care about them all. #494 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 9/10. Might as well watch Hoop Dreams again while you're at it.

The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe, 2014). Absent any particular context, this movie, Russell Crowe's directing debut in which he also stars, would be a reasonably enjoyable story of a man looking for his presumably-dead sons after World War I. Crowe the director is kind to Crowe the actor ... the actor doesn't need a lot of help, he's one of our best screen actors, but the director makes sure the actor is featured in lots of heart-warming moments. However, there is context, most fervently stated by Andrew O'Hehir, whose review is titled "What Armenian genocide? 'The Water Diviner,' Russell Crowe’s disgraceful Turkish fantasy". ("If I made a film set in Germany or France or Poland in the 1940s that made no reference to the fate of Europe’s Jewish population in those years – if I appeared unaware that there ever were Jews in Europe, let alone what had become of them – how would that look?") O'Hehir hits the spot by pointing out you could watch The Water Diviner as a plain story of family and war, without considering the Armenians, if you didn't already know about their genocide, because they are absent from the film. You get Australians and Brits and Turks (one of whom is played by Ukrainian Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko), but the Armenians aren't considered important enough to the story being told, so they are left out. (For further reading, look at "Directors Slam Russell Crowe’s ‘Water Diviner’ Over Armenian Genocide Denial (Guest Blog)".) 5/10.

music friday, the podcast

Earlier this week, I took part in a podcast with Scott Woods and Phil Dellio. The topic, at least at the beginning, was Robert Christgau's memoir, Going Into the City. I've listened to a little more than half of it, and so far, I've managed to avoid saying anything too stupid, for which I thank Scott, the host and editor of the podcast. It's fun to hang out with those two, who have been friends for a zillion years. As I said to my son, I was like the visitor from another planet, aka Berkeley. If, after listening to all 120 minutes, you still haven't had enough, Scott included a link at the bottom to an interview he did with me back in 2006, which amazes me ... both that he thought I'd be an interesting interviewee back in the day, and that almost a decade later, he's still kind enough to include me in these things.

Robert Christgau: He Needs Us, We Need Him (podcast)

For this week's video, a couple of versions of a song that is featured in the podcast. First, the "original", The Wild Tchoupitoulas with "Indian Red":


And here they are at Mardi Gras 2015:




the americans, season three finale preview

Today, Sonia Saraiya wrote an interesting piece on The Americans, which is finishing its third season tonight. It addresses a topic that is near to my heart: why is it that "no one" watches The Americans, even though it has been called by some the best show on TV? My wife and I are the only people we know who watch it (usually, when I say something like this, friends pop out of the woodwork talking about how they are watching, too, so I apologize in advance if I've missed you here). Its ratings are shaky enough that you never know from one season to the next if FX will renew it, but since it's a show that still has a lot of story to tell, and since it hasn't lost any steam creatively (Saraiya calls Season Three the best yet), it would be a shame if it was shut down. (It has been renewed for a fourth season.)

Saraiya struck a nerve with me because she gets right to what I find to be arguably the most interesting thing about a very interesting show: that no one watches it. We all have shows like this ... just yesterday on Facebook, my sister linked to an article titled, "'Call the Midwife' Is the Most Feminist & Socially Conscious Show You're Not Watching". The author of that piece, Sabienna Bowman, has no difficulty finding reasons to praise Call the Midwife, and if many of those reasons seem less artistic than socially progressive, people who prefer series they can "agree with" will understand Bowman's claims (and, to be sure, she also draws attention to the artistic excellence of the show). What makes Saraiya's piece different is that she does as good a job as Bowman of describing what raises the series to the higher levels, but the point of her argument is that nevertheless, The Americans is less than great as a viewing experience.

It’s a good show—sometimes even a great show. The season ending Wednesday evening is to my mind the series’ best yet—one where some of the most carefully laid secrets from as far back as the first few episodes are beginning to unravel.... It’s a very well-crafted show missing some ineffable je ne sais quoi—the “zsa zsa zsu,” as Carrie calls the spark of chemistry she feels with Berger, in “Sex And The City.” “The Americans” is charismatic for some, but it’s not alchemically watchable—it’s not must-see TV. It’s something else....

A lot of shows about death and mayhem may be populated with nothing but embodiments of grim despair, but they will still make an effort to be funny—“Breaking Bad,” one of the most violent and upsetting shows I’ve watched, was still a sardonic, starkly humorous show. “The Americans” can’t quite manage that. It’s hard for a show to find humor when it benefits the protagonists to keep everyone as miserable as possible.

Which is another part of the show’s essence. There’s no one to root for in “The Americans” ... 

This is the beauty of “The Americans,” too. It’s a hard show to love, but in some ways, that’s the point. None of this, the show seems to say, gesturing at the world in 1983, is particularly easy. It’s a reminder of the worst part of humanity, and a memento of a terrible time in history—when a pointless struggle between two ideas of nationhood killed thousands of people and ruined the lives of many more. It’s all real, and still upsettingly relevant.

There are "feel good" shows, and it's easy to see why they might be popular. But nothing feels good about The Americans. There is no one to root for, because the central characters, the ones who in another show we would expect to identify with, are Soviet spies who commit horrible acts in the name of ideology. We could root for the U.S. spies, except despite the central characters being hard to like, our instincts as viewers are to at least hope that those characters survive ... like when we root for the anti-hero to emerge victorious. And the U.S. spies are no better from a moral standpoint than the Soviets.

As Saraiya concludes,

[W]hat I struggle with in particular is the show’s lack of hope, in the midst of so much horror. I respect the hopelessness—it’s valid, it’s rational, and given how we know the Cold War is going to end, for the Jennings family, it’s inevitable. But it’s hard for me to live with that, for hours or weeks or years at a time. My distance from the show is a defense mechanism; a way of holding out hope for my future, as yet unwritten.

I sense the same thing, although my taste preferences gravitate towards art that represents hopelessness. I don't feel a need to distance myself. Having said that, it's hard to think of another show that makes me as anxious as does The Americans. A show about spies will necessarily include tense scenes where the spies are close to being caught in the act. There are multiple such scenes in every episode of The Americans. You're on the edge of your seat, even if you aren't "rooting" for the characters. And this feeling is relentless ... it's built into the series.

Saraiya is right: The Americans lacks hope. Nothing is going to work out well in the end, and we in the audience know this. The Americans has leading characters who are hard to like (even though the acting is great), it regularly features scenes that are excruciatingly tense, the moral compass of the characters is not easy to love ... of course no one wants to watch it.

Ultimately, Saraiya's essay helps me understand what has puzzled me for three seasons. For most people, it's not enough that a TV series is excellent, if the excellence is designed to make the audience feel bad. I stand by my position that The Americans is one of the best shows on TV. But I don't blame you for ignoring it.

live at the apollo

The title of this post refers to the classic James Brown album from 1962. It also refers to a book in the 33 1/3 series, this one written by Douglas Wolk, about that album.

Wolk weaves a detailed analysis of Brown and the album with a narrative describing world events at the time the album was recorded. The concert occurred during the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk works at tying Brown's combustible live show with the potential for fireworks happening out the walls of the Apollo, just two days after Kennedy had given a speech to the nation about the crisis:

"It's getting a little cold outside," he declares, and there's a rustling of assent. (It was: the weather on the night of October 24 was nasty, in the mid-to-upper 30s Fahrenheit in Harlem. Brown's staff had gone out and handed complimentary cups of coffee to people waiting in the long line outside the Apollo, making sure they were in a good mood when they got inside.) But then he adds: "I wonder do you know what I'm talkin' about? I said it's gettin' a little cold outside." That's a nudge. He's not talking about the weather. He's talking about the chill everyone in the room has been feeling for the last two days. But that's outside; this is inside the temple of Apollo, where the famous flames burn.

It's an interesting approach, and I do remember my ten-year-old self, aware that something was going on, looking at every plane that flew by wondering if it was from Russia. So sure, missiles were on everyone's minds. But for the most part, I found these sections of the book mostly digressions, and I would get antsy for Wolk to return directly to the album.

Which is where rewards are to be found, for Wolk does a terrific job. He has clearly listened to Live at the Apollo many times, and more carefully than most of us, I suspect.

Turning up "I Love You Yes I Do" as loud as it can go is also a good way to admire the amazing recording quality of Live at the Apollo. You can make out the cries in the crowd, and bits of the Famous Flames' off-mic backing vocals; you can also hear a little squeak right before each beat. Perhaps the drum kit had a squeaky hi-hat, or the organ had a squeaky speaker?

The majority of the book, as with the album, is "Lost Someone". It is to Wolk's credit that reading his writing on "Lost Someone", you want to immediately put the song on. (OK, I pretty much always want to put that song on.)

I can't quote the whole book ... you really need to read it, listening to Brown all the while. But I can't resist a bit more:

[W]hen he recorded LATA, he knew he was being recorded, and he held back, so he wouldn't overload the microphone and get distortion all over the recording, because theyn Syd Nathan would never let him put it out. Live at the Apollo, my friends -- Live at the Apollo is the sound of James Brown holding back. ...

James Brown has been singing "Lost Someone" for almost eleven minutes. Time has bent and suspended under the week's incredible gravity.

Wolk makes a point ... maybe it's one everybody already knew, but it hadn't occurred to me before. Live at the Apollo is one of the greatest albums ever made, a crucial part of the history of James Brown. Yet it comes before the period when Brown changed music, when he had his biggest impact. I might play "Lost Someone" once a day until I die, but in the end, it's just a stunning performance. But with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" as a marker, funk becomes king. There are hints of that future in Live at the Apollo, but only hints.

There are thousands of records that bear James Brown's influence, and a lot of them even namedrop him, but almost all of them take off from his 1965-1974 funk period. You can scarcely hear the echoes of the massively popular Apollo in the music of anyone other than James Brown himself.

music friday: debts to critics

Been thinking about rock critics, Robert Christgau in particular, for an upcoming project, and it seemed like a good time to post something here about those thoughts.

I'll get to Xgau in a bit, but I should start with a few others. The most influential rock critic to me was Greil Marcus. I've read him pretty much since he started writing. When I was a factory worker, his Mystery Train intrigued me enough that when I finally got to Cal as an undergrad, I wrote an American Studies major because that's what he'd done when he had been at Cal. Later, I had the pleasure of a period when he and I were both teaching in related departments, with offices around the corner from each other, giving me a chance to pick his brain.

He is also part of a line that led, if I can be presumptuous, to me, drawing attention to the ways we are influenced by those who came before. Pauline Kael is my biggest influence, and she was an influence on Marcus, as well. Knowing some of the professors at Cal that he had admired, I found myself taking courses from them and, when possible, having them on various committees I needed in grad school.

I once wrote, soon after the deaths of Kael and one of those Berkeley professors, the wonderful Michael Rogin:

Cultural critics like Pauline Kael and Michael Rogin are rare, but their influence is long lasting. We miss them when they are gone, but one can state with assurance (and without resorting to New Age mysticism) that in important ways, they aren't really gone at all. Their work lives on, and by "their work," I don't mean only the words they published. I mean that one day, a young scholar named Greil Marcus took a course from a professor named Rogin, he read a book by a critic named Pauline Kael, and the next thing you know, he was writing books of his own. I mean that one day, a young factory worker named Steven Rubio read one of those books Greil Marcus wrote, and with sudden (and unusual) clarity, knew the direction his life would necessarily take, and down the road, he was writing and teaching himself. I can think of no greater tribute to our late mentors, Kael and Rogin, than that I might just once provide inspiration for the next generation.

Robert Christgau was not that person for me. He was New York, Marcus was Berkeley. But I've been reading him almost as long as I've read Marcus. And the line of influences is complex, like in the case of Ann Powers, who I met when we were in grad school together. I admire her work tremendously. Over the course of her wide-ranging career, she found herself working with Christgau, and they were a great match. These connections often work their way into our souls indirectly, so when Ann wrote a truly beautiful essay, "As I Get Old", for an anthology of essays in honor of Christgau, she never mentioned The Dean, yet you could feel his presence all the same.

Before I finally return to Christgau, a sidebar re: Lester Bangs. It's funny, I loved his writing, but I never thought of him as an influence on myself, nor did I ever try to emulate his writing (a problem I have with many other writers). But when he died, it broke my heart all the same, and when I want to re-read some great writing on music, his pieces on Astral Weeks, and the death of Elvis, are never far from my mind. Meanwhile, those influences still turn up in interesting places. Last Sunday, long-time film critic Mick LaSalle responded to a question about any former film critics who had influenced by writing, "I think one critic did influence me, not in terms of style, but in terms of showing me how much freedom you can allow yourself, how personal you can be, how you can more or less write like you're just talking to people. That’s Lester Bangs."

When I think of Robert Christgau, I don't usually think of the alleged purpose of his Consumer Guide, although I have a tendency to buy any album that gets an "A" from The Dean. What amazes me is how he can stuff so much into so few sentences. He was a master of the Twitter form before Twitter was invented. Take his Guide from June 1988, which included a review of a Joan Jett album that I've been quoting ever since:

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS: Up Your Alley (Epic) Jesus I wish she was just a little bit better than she actually is, and by closing side one with the cover exacta "Tulane" and "I Wanna Be Your Dog," she comes this close to convincing me she's made the leap. But though nobody else male or female puts out such a reliable brand of hard rock, lean and mean and pretension-free, and though being female gives her an edge in a quintessentially male subgenre, not since her start-up has she made something special of her populist instincts. It's almost as if that's the idea. B PLUS

Or, from the same guide, an example of the aforementioned ability to squeeze a lot into a little space:

HAIRSPRAY (MCA) Conceived by collector John Waters rather than some marketing strategist, this is a party record that doubles as proof of a sensibility, refurbishing the pre-Beatles '60s not by polishing girl-group touchstones but by mining the middle of the r&b charts. Dance mania rools, from the swinging popcult ecumenicism of Ray Bryant's "Madison Time" to the "Squish squish" backup of Gene & Wendell's "The Roach." The plot-advancing "Town Without Pity" doesn't quite fit, but by sticking Little Peggy March's "I Wish I Were a Princess" in between the funky-girl touchstone "You'll Lose a Good Thing" and the protosoulful "Nothing Takes the Place of You," Waters points up both its objective laughability and its seriousness in the mind of the behearer. This is camp at its best--giving the ridiculous its due because the ridiculous makes life worth struggling for. A MINUS

Having said all of this, I'd be lying if I claimed I was never clued in to something new-to-me when reading Christgau. Here are a couple off the top of my head.

Have Moicy! ("[T]hirteen homemade, chalky, fit-for-78 songs that renew the concept of American folk music as a bizarre apotheosis of the post-hippie estate. No losers, though--just loadsa laffs, a few tears, some death, some shit, a hamburger, spaghetti, world travel, crime, etc. A+")


I knew Al Green, but Christgau helped me appreciate Al Green. ("Al Green's Greatest Hits [Hi, 1975] Green is less open and imaginative than Sam Cooke and less painfully word-wise than Smokey Robinson, but he belongs in their company, that of two of the half dozen prime geniuses of soul. His musical monomania substitutes Memphis for James Brown's Macon, and the consistency of his albums is matched only by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. But because he spins his music out over an area not much larger than a hankie, the albums also translate beautifully to a greatest hits format, and this is flawless. For those who refuse to believe the LPs contain hidden treasure and don't care that the singles 'all sound the same.' And for those, like me, who can go both ways with him. A")


And it wouldn't be a post about Xgau without one of these, reviewing a PJ Harvey album. ("Rid of Me [Indigo, 1993] Never mind sexual--if snatches like 'Make me gag,' 'Lick my injuries,' and 'Rub 'til it bleeds' aren't genital per se, I'm a dirty old man. And if the cold raw meat of her guitar isn't yowling for phallic equality, I'm Robert Bly, which is probably the same thing. She wants that cock--a specific one, it would seem, attached to a full-fledged, nonobjectified male human being, or maybe an array or succession of cocks, it's hard to tell. But when she gets pissed off, which given the habits of male human beings happens all the time, she thinks it would be simpler just to posit or grow or strap on or cut off a cock of her own. After which it's bend-over-Casanova and every man for him or herself. A")


thursday right now

What's the opposite of Throwback Thursday?

Today I sat down to watch a soccer match on my TV. The entire process was a mini-demonstration of life in the USA in 2015.

First, there was the fact that I was able to watch the match without resorting to illegal foreign-based streaming. It was a quarter-final match in the UEFA Europa League, which is the second-level European club tournament. It lacks the prestige of its big brother, the Champions League, which is the best club competition in the world. The opponents for the match were Sevilla, a good Andalusian team that exists in the shadow of the great teams from Spain, and Zenit St. Petersburg, probably the best club team in Russia. These are fine clubs, but they lack the glamour of the more famous participants in the Champions League. In short, this is the kind of match that would never have been shown on American TV in the good old days.

Now, though, it was on ESPN Deportes. (Trivia note: the color commentator was Giovanni Savarese, who actually played four games for the San Jose Earthquakes.) At this point, we enter the zone of First World Problems. We're not talking malnutrition or disease ... we're talking about watching soccer on TV. Anyway, in our neck of the woods, Comcast offers ESPN Deportes, but only in a standard-definition version. Better than nothing, to be sure. But, just as the Europa League is forgotten compared to the big boys of the Champions League, ESPN Deportes isn't a prestige channel, at least not in the Bay Area. So there is no real SD feed ... they just take the HD feed and lop off the edges. The result is the occasional pass that goes off-screen. It's annoying, knowing the picture is being framed for an aspect ratio you can't see.

But this is 2015. Since the match is on ESPN, it is also available via WatchESPN, a web-and-smartphone app that shows lots of ESPN programming. Like, for instance, the ESPN Deportes offering of Sevilla-Zenit. And it's in HD, which means you can see those guys on the edges of the screen.

But this means I'm watching on my 6" phone screen, or on my computer.

Luckily, there's Chromecast. I open it on my phone, the open the WatchESPN app, select Sevilla-Zenit, and tell the phone to cast the match to my TV, which has a Chromecast plugin. Voila! I'm watching the match in HD on my TV with the proper screen ratio.

To summarize: a match that in the past wouldn't be televised in America is shown on an ESPN affiliate, and I watch it on my phone which sends the broadcast to my TV.

Ah, technology in 2015. There is one problem. Live sports and Twitter go hand-in-hand nowadays, but I couldn't keep track of Twitter and the match at the same time, because the trip from ESPN to phone to TV has a bit of a delay. Twitter is more immediate, meaning if a goal is scored, Twitter would tell me about it before it happened on my TV.

See? First World Problems.

Postscript: It was a fine match, with Sevilla putting together a furious second-half comeback for a 2-1 victory in the first leg of two.