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what i watched last week

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009). I loved A Separation and The Past, the films Farhadi wrote and directed after About Elly, so my expectations were high. It didn’t quite reach the heights of those other films, but that’s not a dismissal, just a way of noting how great the others are. It suggests L’Avventura, if the characters in that movie actually cared about other people. When a key character disappears, you think you’ll see how “regular” people react to the unexpected loss of a friend. But Farhadi has a way of getting inside his characters, exposing them, helping us understand them even when they are acting poorly. To some extent, About Elly, like the Antonioni film, is less “about Elly” and more about the people who are left behind. What makes About Elly different is that we never lose track of Elly as a character ... she remains important, not just as something to thrust the narrative forward only to be gradually ignored, but as a real person. Antonioni’s movie is ironically titled ... the “adventure” isn’t really what the movie is about. About Elly, on the other hand, shows its hand in the title, without irony. #749 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016). This should really have its own post under “By Request”, since my wife wanted to go see it. But I’m behind on both my movie watching and my movie writing, so it will end up here, instead. This movie could have come out twenty years ago, for all the influence my opinion will have. Not that I have any influence, but Captain America: Civil War has been out for less than a month, and it has already grossed more than $1.1 Billion worldwide. These movies aren’t fool-proof, and it’s true that Civil War is a very good film of its type, but those people who spent that billion dollars don’t need me to tell them that. I don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... it’s a sign of the importance Marvel has convinced us resides in its concept that I feel obliged to list the things I have seen (to be honest, I might have seen a couple of others ... these are the ones I remember): the movies Iron Man, The Avengers, Ant-Man, and now Captain America: Civil War, and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones. I like the movies I’ve seen without feeling like watching them a second time, while I’ve invested lots of time in those TV series, if only because there are so many episodes. For what it’s worth, my favorite MCU character is Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and even that isn’t enough to get me to watch the first Captain America movie, in which she plays a big part. Civil War was as good as the other movies I’ve seen, entertaining for most of its 2 1/2-hour running time, with some good acting from Robert Downey Jr., and an examination of the implications of superheroes that was good to see, if not nearly as important as the cool fight scenes. As I say, this can’t serve as a consumer guide ... one billion dollars makes light of such an idea ... but, as I did with the other MCU films I’ve watched, I’m saying 7/10.


music friday: may 26, 1973

Things will be a bit quiet around here for a few days, as we go away for our long anniversary weekend. Here’s a quickie: the Top Ten songs from May 26, 1973 (the day we got married), with thanks to the Weekly Top 40 website.

10: Focus, “Hocus Pocus

9: Skylark, “Wildflower

8: Dobie Gray, “Drift Away

7: The Sweet, “Little Willy

6: Sylvia, “Pillow Talk

5: Stevie Wonder, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life

4: Dawn featuring Tony Orlando, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree

3: Elton John, “Daniel

2: Paul McCartney and Wings, “My Love

1: The Edgar Winter Group, “Frankenstein


43 years ago today

All of these have been posted before, but let’s put them in one place.

When Robin got home after our first kiss, she wrote herself this note:

first night

One of our earliest dates:

promnight

When we (i.e. Robin) planned the wedding, she had the following budget:

wedding money

The invitations:

Robin & Steven115

The script for the service:

ceremony

Standing around, waiting for my dad to get back from the bathroom so we could begin:

wedding

The ceremony, or close enough to count:

weddingcrowd

After the wedding, ready to go on our honeymoon:

post-wedding

The bill for the motel room:

honeymoon

Among the places we ate on our honeymoon was El Toro Bravo in Capitola:

el toro bravo


o lucky man! (lindsay anderson, 1973)

My first attempt at college life came in 1973-4, 2 1/2 years after I’d graduated from high school at the age of 16. I lasted three semesters, and was a film major. Until that point, I had no concrete learning about film. I knew what I liked (even then, it was Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather and Performance), but had no idea why. I didn’t have much of a sense of film history, and I definitely had no theory.

The history took care of itself. In those three semesters, I got a crash course, for the college I attended had the largest free film program in the country (ah, the wonder years before Prop. 13). We’d get a double-bill five nights a week, plus whatever we watched in my classes (most memorably, for better or worse, week after week of silent Ukrainian movies). It stuck with me, so even when, as a grad student in English, I would bitch and moan about the canon and the necessity to know old English literature, I was in good stead in film classes because I had the background most of the young undergrad whippersnappers lacked.

I would spent hours in the film section of the school library, reading as I stood. There was one book in particular ... I wish I could remember the name of it, it was an anthology of pieces on theory, it had a lot of material about Cinéma vérité, and whatever was current in the early 1970s world of film theory. In the meantime, of course, I was beginning my lifelong love affair with Pauline Kael, who offered a very different perspective.

Lindsay Anderson’s name came up a lot in those books. Anderson began as a critic, and helped create the Free Cinema movement. Anderson’s early years as a film maker were spent on documentary shorts, one of which, Thursday’s Children, won an Oscar. His first feature film, This Sporting Life, starred Richard Harris as a rugby player, and was very much a part of the “Kitchen Sink” dramas from England at the time. I read all about this in that college library, but often I was reading about movies I’d never seen. (I can recall a classmate who loved the movies of Preston Sturges. He could go on at length about their greatness. During one conversation, it came out that he’d never actually seen a Preston Sturges movie.)

So, I knew who Lindsay Anderson was. I have vague memories of seeing if.... when it came out, although that was before I was a film major and I knew nothing of Anderson. I never saw another Anderson film, but somewhere in there I caught This Sporting Life, which I remember liking quite a bit.

A few days ago, I finally saw O Lucky Man! It’s the second film in a trilogy (Malcolm McDowell plays the same character he played in if....). As many have noted, in the period between the first and second films in the trilogy, McDowell had starred in A Clockwork Orange, and it was hard to see him in O Lucky Man! without recalling Alex the droog. I can’t speak to 1973, but I can tell you that more than 40 years later, I watched O Lucky Man! and couldn’t get Alex out of my mind, even though the characters are very similar.

O Lucky Man! is full of innovative touches. Musician Alan Price wrote the music, and he and his band turn up throughout the movie as a kind of Greek chorus, performing their songs as commentary to the action. Many actors played multiple roles, and if you think I’m going to complain about a 27-year-old Helen Mirren turning up as more than one character, you don’t know me very well. The movie is expansive, creative, overflowing with ideas.

So why was I so bored? Perhaps it speaks well for O Lucky Man! that I stuck with it until the end of its 3+ hour running time (although I admit in the middle, I watched an episode of Outlander). But it felt episodic to me, and I was rarely taken with the episodes. There was some commentary about class, but it went over my head for the most part, when it wasn't so obvious it was beating that head into submission. I could usually see what Anderson was trying to accomplish, and someone who liked the film more than I did might say he did accomplish his intentions. But I rarely cared, and I admit I preferred Outlander. It’s unfair to a film to watch it in pieces, and I take the blame for that ... partly. But the reason I took a break is that the film wasn’t compelling enough to keep me watching.

If you appreciate artful fantasy, if you love Malcolm McDowell, if you just want to see what kinds of movies were being made in England during the great period of American movies in the 1967-1975 era, by all means, check out O Lucky Man! As for me, 5/10. #984 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Or, for a better way to spend your time contemplating the English films of the era, check out Nicolas Roeg's Performance (directed with Donald Cammell), Walkabout, and Don't Look Now.


the 100, season three finale

I posted this brief note on Facebook, but I should probably put it here, as well, for posterity's sake:

Tonight's season finale proved that the creators of The 100 know quite well how to properly send off a beloved character. If the send off we got tonight had occurred in, say, Episode 307, I'm guessing the uproar would have been reduced, or even absent. That those creators felt perfectly happy saving this send off for the finale, while participating in a trope that lost them a significant part of their viewership, is remarkably clueless at best.

I love The 100, and I loved most of the season finale. I really loved that send off. But it pisses me off the way it was mishandled. It's like a combination of when Tara died on Buffy, and when Friday Night Lights was derailed by that stupid murder subplot in Season Two. For many people, Episode 307 made The 100 beyond redemption. I'm still here, just as I stuck with Buffy until the end. But part of me wishes I'd just skipped all the episodes between 307 and the two-part finale.

I can't speak for the LGBT fans. I think it's obvious The 100 screwed up in falling into the Dead Lesbian Trope, and those fans are right to contest this.

But I don't want to exaggerate. I never wanted to quit watching. And I don't think artists should have to adjust their work to fit the desires of an audience. I also thank Jason Rothenberg for creating the character of Lexa in the first place. (I don't believe she was in the books.) Rothenberg finally seems to understand why the method of Lexa's death outraged so many. It's not about giving in to your audience, it's about understanding the place of your work in a broader social context. The 100 does not exist in a vacuum.

It's also true that I, too, am trying to tell Rothenberg how to write his show. I wanted Lexa to go out the way she did on the finale, not as Tara Part Two. The frustration I expressed on Facebook relates to that: Rothenberg had always planned to give Lexa/Clexa one last moment, and there is simply no good reason why that moment was displaced by the random gun shot. I understand that every character on The 100 is one scene away from dying (well, I doubt they'll ever kill off Clarke). I understand that Alycia Debnam-Carey was leaving for Fear the Walking Dead. I don't object to the decision to kill off Lexa. It's the way it was done that's the problem, and while I'm beyond happy that Clexa got their final moment, and that Lexa went out a badass, I would have been just as "happy" if it happened in Episode 307. Better put, the emotional damage of Lexa's death would have been tied directly to her final moments as a warrior and a lover, instead of being Just Another Dead Lesbian. Her death would have carried more dramatic weight within the context of the show.


music friday: beach boys, not pet sounds

Pet Sounds is generally considered the best album by The Beach Boys ... it is #1 on the Acclaimed Music list of the top albums of all time (they collate critical opinion). It has some of my favorite Beach Boys songs ... “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”. And the 50th anniversary of its initial release is upon us, meaning it’s getting a lot of attention, including a massive reissue.

But this post isn’t about Pet Sounds. To understand why, I’m going to talk about my childhood.

I’m going to rely once again on memory, that most fallible of tools. Much of the music I listened to in the early 1960s came from the records my older brother owned. Yes, the radio was the biggest influence, but when you just wanted to play records, he had a pretty large portable player, and he had what seemed at the time to be a LOT of records, both albums and 45s. The Rolling Stones were one of his favorites, perhaps his #1, and he was on them from the beginning. But he was six years older than I was, graduated from high school in 1964 and went off to college (when I was 11), and while he came back home for a bit a couple of years later (another story for another time), it was those years through the summer of 1964 that I associate most with the records of his teenage years. And he had what seemed like every Beach Boys album, because they were very popular, because they were California (although we were NorCal), I don’t know why. And The Beach Boys were there quite early ... their first album came out in 1962.

Looking at the covers for their first five albums (the best way to jog that fallible memory), I get the feeling he owned all of them. At least the covers look familiar. The fifth of those albums, Shut Down, Volume 2, was released in March of 1964 ... the next album, All Summer Long, came out in the summer of ‘64, and maybe by then he was already on his way to college, because that one doesn’t ring a bell.

What I’m trying to establish is that my brother’s collection was foremost in my experience of Beach Boys albums. Their hits still played on the radio after he left, but their albums quit showing up at our house.

By this time, I was tentatively beginning to buy my own albums, and The Beach Boys weren’t necessarily my favorites. I liked them, and “Good Vibrations” is probably my favorite of their songs. But my favorite band, outside of The Beatles, was The Yardbirds, and I remember buying Having a Rave Up with The Yardbirds. And Revolver. And, to be fair, Herman’s Hermits On Tour. The one Beach Boys album I bought was ... Beach Boys Concert, which came out in late 1964.

There are reasons why this album stands out. It was “recorded” just before Brian Wilson quit touring with the band ... since it was the only “live” album they released in their early years, it was the only place to hear the classic lineup of three Wilsons, Al Jardine, and Mike Love in a live setting. It featured several “non-Beach Boys” songs like “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena”, “Monster Mash”, “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”, and “Johnny B. Goode”.

And, unfortunately, it sounds like crap. I’m listening now to a remastered version, and it still sounds like crap. The biggest problem is the crowd noise, for this was the heyday of screaming fans. The recording of the band isn’t any good, either ... better than a bootleg, I don’t want to exaggerate, but if you only know the band from the time when Brian Wilson used the studio like a master, you’ll be startled by how thin it sounds.

Also, I didn’t know anything about doctoring live recordings when I was 11 years old, but it sure sounds obvious, now. Doesn’t really help, either.

There was an updated version released last year, called Live in Sacramento 1964, which utilizes all of the material recorded for the original album. I confess I don’t have the heart to listen to it at the moment ... I’m listening to Concert as I type this, and those 32 minutes are enough memories for one day.

Before I link to a couple of tracks, here’s the cover. It made a big impact on me at the time ... I had shirts that looked like the ones they are wearing on the cover:

I love how, just like I did above, they put scare quotes around “LIVE”.

These songs aren’t worth taking up lots of space, so I’ll skip the embed and just include a link. This is “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow”:

https://youtu.be/kyC2dO9VF6Q

Finally, just as a corrective to the “Pet Sounds Is the Greatest of All Time” narrative ... well, this has little to do with that album, but The Beach Boys cranked out a lot of albums in their first years: one in 1962, three in 1963, three in 1964, three in 1965. You know there’s going to be filler. But their filler was supremely awful. So when someone tells you The Beach Boys were great, nod your head in agreement, but then ask them if they’ve ever heard this one:

(May I add that the entire album is only 27 minutes long, and the above track takes up 3 1/2 of those minutes.)


jane the virgin: meta

met·a

adjective

US

 (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

Jane the Virgin is as self-referential as any series currently on TV.

Let’s start with the character Rogelio De La Vega ... I could start any number of places, but that’s as good as any. Rogelio is a top star in telenovelas. He is played by Jaime Camil, who is a top star in telenovelas. Telenovelas differ from soap operas because they are limited series, whereas soap operas can theoretically run forever. Jane the Virgin could run forever, but the telenovela trope is still utilized by having Rogelio star in various telenovelas of limited length. When we first meet Rogelio, it is in his role as the titular character in The Passions of Santos. Later, we learn he is the father of Jane (the virgin). He takes a role on Pasión Intergalactica, a “sci-fi telenovela”, returns to Passions of Santos, and currently stars in Tiago a Través del Tiempo, a time-travel telenovela. Meanwhile, Rogelio is a character on Jane the Virgin, which itself is a form of telenovela.

Or how about the character played by Anthony Mendez? He is known only as “The Narrator”, which is an exact description of what he does. The show’s creator, Jennie Snyder Urman, has said that “The narrator does have a connection to the narrative; the narrator is specific, and he is a person”. We have never found out his specific connection to the narrative, but he is a fan favorite, and for good reason. Whether it’s the dialogue, Mendez’ delivery, or a combination of both, The Narrator is one of the most delightful characters on television. And, on a show that defines “meta”, he is more meta than them all. His preliminary spiels make every “previously on” segment on other shows seem pedestrian, and they regularly include comments about how this or that plot development is “like a telenovela”.

One of my favorite meta-moments came in a late episode in Season Two, which just finished. Jane is getting married, and she wants to have the wedding at her home, but the house gets flooded and is thus unusable. Her father has the crew from Tiago a Través del Tiempo build a mock-up for Jane’s house, so realistic looking that it could be the actual set the program uses. Later, we see the three Villanueva women sitting on the porch, as they so often do. They hear music, and when they follow the sound, they find Charo with her guitar, testing the acoustics for the yard. (Charo, we are told, is Rogelio’s third-best friend in all the world ... Rogelio is shown as pretty goofy most of the time, but in the world of Jane the Virgin, he really is a big telenovela star, and it makes sense that he’d be friends with Charo.) The women decide to go inside for some tea, which also seems very mundane. Until one of them points out that they are on a set, and there is no running water. The set and the house are interchangeable ... until they aren’t. (And, of course, “the house” is merely “a set” for the show Jane the Virgin.)

The meta moves are endless. Here’s one more, and I promise I’ll shut up about it: Jane’s professor tells her about The Bechdel Test, and the rest of the episode makes explicit connections between the test and the series in front of us. (The Narrator makes several references to this.)

There is more going on than just inside jokes. The telenovela structure allows for plot shenanigans that would be unacceptable otherwise. Something outrageous occurs (they play around with twins a lot, for instance), we start to roll our eyes, but then The Narrator says something like, “OMG! This is just like a telenovela!”, and somehow, everything is better. The integration of Latino culture, in particular the Spanish language, is fascinating. (Kathryn VanArendonk discusses this with sharp intelligence: “Jane’s bilingual dialogue has become a familiar, overlooked element of the series. It’s so commonplace to the show’s identity and tone that it’s easy to forget how fundamental bilingualism is to the [sic] its culture, relationships, and underlying DNA.”) There is great acting all over the place, starting with Gina Rodriguez as Jane, along with Camil and Mendez. Urman embraces the telenovela genre, but she is not limited by it ... the show’s core comes from the realistic portrait of family relationships. Even the guest cameos are fun ... Charo, of course (she loses her job as entertainer at the wedding to Rogelio’s other third-best friend, Bruno Mars, but she still turns up at the wedding ... as a bridesmaid!), but even someone like Britney Spears:

I think there are reasons why Jane the Virgin doesn’t get as much acclaim as it deserves. It’s not the usual anti-hero blood fest we see so often on HBO. (It’s on the CW, which used to mean “blah” to me, until I started watching The 100.) It’s got women at its center, even if it doesn’t always pass The Bechdel Test. Still, critics in general love it, none more than Maureen Ryan, who calls it the best show on TV. (Don’t follow that link unless you are caught up ... she discusses the season finale in some detail.)

 

Here are some other times I wrote about Jane the Virgin:

Season One Break

Season One Finale


arroz and me

We went to a Mexican restaurant tonight that I had never eaten at. I decided to have the carne asada without rice on the side. When the waiter took my order, I said, "carne asada, sin arroz". I pronounced the latter word "ah-ROW", as is the custom in that part of Spain where my family is from.

"Sin arroz?", the waiter asked, only he pronounced the word "ah-ROZE", as is the custom in most everywhere except Andalucía. 

This example of an Andalusian accent was first pointed out to me in the late-80s, when I used the same pronunciation for the same word in a Spanish class, and the teacher informed me that my family was from Southern Spain. He knew this because I had an accent, which was news to me.

Nice to know that the tradition continues to this day.


music friday: winterland, 1978

On this date in 1978, we saw The Patti Smith Group at Winterland, with Greg Kihn and The Readymades as openers.

Two days before the show, Patti was on the Tom Snyder show:

(Snyder was one of the best late-night hosts for engaging popular musicians, esp. punks.)

The Readymades seemed to open every show we went to in those days, at least when it wasn’t Pearl Harbor and the Explosions. Their singer was Jonathan Postal, who has had an interesting career as a photographer. It was The Readymades who headlined a show around 1980, maybe at the Longbranch, can’t remember ... I was going to see a shrink at the time, paying, I don’t know, $25/session or something like that. I went to see The Readymades for $5, slammed around in the pit, and walked out feeling great. The next time I visited the shrink was my last ... I told him I got more of my money’s worth at The Readymades show.

Greg Kihn wrote about his band’s performance on his blog a few years ago: “On This Date in Greg Kihn Band History – Winterland Ballroom”. This was a few years before their big hits, “The Breakup Song” and “Jeopardy”. Here they are performing one of their fave numbers of the time, “Sorry” ... this is from Winterland, New Year’s Eve 1976.

Smith was touring behind her third album, Easter, which included her biggest hit, “Because the Night”. It was the second of the four times we’ve seen her, the first coming in early 1976 (you can hear that show on YouTube). The biggest surprise of the night came when she sang this one: