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stranger things, season one

This Netflix series comes from The Duffer Brothers, whose previous work I haven’t seen. In fact, I’m not familiar with too many of the people connected to the show, including the many child actors who play prominent roles. Cara Buono, who featured in a season of Mad Men, has a fairly minor role, and Matthew Modine’s character is important even though he doesn’t make too many appearances. Yet Stranger Things feels quite familiar nonetheless, despite the title suggesting otherwise, because it wears its influences on its sleeves, in plain sight. The series, which takes place in a Midwestern town in the 1980s, borrows from Spielberg’s suburban movies and plays homage to many other movie and TV artifacts of that era. Someone even made a half-hour video noting what they claim is every single reference in the entire season:

Appropriately, the one actor who is easily recognizable is Winona Ryder, who in the 80s starred in films like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Ryder was a point of contention in our house ... while my wife and I are both fans of the actor, she thought Ryder was unconvincing as a mom on the edge after her son disappears. I felt that Ryder’s quirky performance fit the character, and it is the kind of role that invites awards, for what that’s worth.

Like the best Spielberg movies with kids, Stranger Things does a wonderful job of presenting life from a kid’s perspective. There is no condescension, just an acceptance that kids see things their own way. The kids are far from perfect ... their silly squabbles are there for all to see ... but their loyalty is there, as well. It’s not just the kids whose perspective we get ... Winona Ryder’s mom, creeping into near madness, has her own definite way of seeing, and it is among the strongest parts of the show (my wife would probably not agree). My favorite part of the entire series is the Ouija-board she makes out of lights that she puts on her wall. You see, she is convinced her missing son is somehow inside her walls, trying to communicate with her:

Stranger Things is full of ominous paranoia and a hearty nostalgia for the period it recreates. It has its ups and down, but then, I never expect cheesy sci-fi horror to be perfect ... I just expect it to be fun. Stranger Things is fun.


zazie dans le métro (louis malle, 1960)

I am not up to date on my Louis Malle. I saw a couple of his art-house successes without actually remembering them. When I was a kid, I saw Viva Maria! at the local theater. And I am a big fan of Atlantic City, especially Burt Lancaster, speaking one of my all-time favorite movie lines: “The Atlantic Ocean was something, then. Yes, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”

Zazie dans le métro is very much of a piece with other French New Wave movies of the time, and serves as a good reminder that Malle was a part of that movement, albeit more peripheral than central. This is certainly his most New Wave-ish film, at least within my limited knowledge of his work. The location shooting in Paris, the jump cuts and generally carefree tone, the use of actors who, to me at least, were lesser known (most notably young Catherine Demongeot in the title role), all give Zazie an off-the-cuff feel. Even Philippe Noiret, who eventually became known worldwide, was at the beginning of his career in this movie.

The film’s tone marks it off from what an American version might look like. Zazie is an eleven-year-old girl spending a weekend in Paris with her uncle, and she wastes no time getting into trouble. It’s a time-honored tradition on sitcoms to focus on a young rapscallion who is full of life but ultimately lovable, but Zazie is pretty much a brat, more like Junior the Mean Widdle Kid than Arnold from The Facts of Life. She may not be intentionally harmful, but she is aware beyond her years of what grownups want to do with her, and she’s not having it. She’s the perfect character for the New Wave style, anarchic, and the action is filmed like a cartoon rather than a realistic movie. She’s The Road Runner, and everyone else is The Coyote.

The film runs out of steam eventually, even though it’s only 93 minutes, but Demongeot is admittedly irresistible ... more than once, she reminded me of my grandson. Remarkably, it is not on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 8/10.


music friday: jovana babovic, dig me out

I’ve read maybe half-a-dozen books in the 33 1/3 series, short volumes about individual albums. There was Nicholas Rombes on the first album by the Ramones, Gina Arnold on Exile in Guyville, and perhaps the best, Douglas Wolk on James Brown Live at the Apollo. Each author takes a different approach, which seems to be encouraged ... there’s no real template I can see. A lot of time is spent placing the works in their cultural context. Arnold does a track-by-track comparison of the Liz Phair album and Exile on Main St., but that’s not the main thing in general.

Jovana Babovic is an historian with a clear love for Sleater-Kinney. She goes far afield from a track-by-track approach ... in fact, she never comes close. Instead, she places riot grrrl within the history of rock and roll music, shows how the women who created the music in that genre were battling against long-held prejudices against women in rock, and then explains how Sleater-Kinney grew out of that milieu, tying them specifically to the Pacific Northwest. She shows how the band drew power from that community, but also how they couldn’t be confined to those roots.

She talks about the making of Dig Me Out, which took eight days during a miserable snow storm, pointing out that they were able to create the album under those conditions because they were prepared (this reminded me of Rombes noting that The Ramones were able to make their first album so cheaply because they rehearsed before they ever hit the studio). Once S-K hit the road, touring behind the album, they confronted the condescending sexism of the sound guys, who never understood that these women knew what they were doing. And a key moment in the book comes when S-K are opening for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and a fan of the headliners is giving Corin some shit. “We just want to say that we’re not here to fuck the band; we are the band.”

One question I have had through the close to 20 years I’ve been a fan of Sleater-Kinney is why they have so many middle-aged guys among their admirers. I once wrote, “Sleater-Kinney are a 21st-century version of classic rock. Their most obvious roots are in punk via riot grrrl, but the less obvious roots are reflected in the bands they cover in concert: Creedence, Bruce Springsteen, Jefferson Airplane, Richard Thompson, even Danzig. The Woods sounded like Blue Cheer meets Led Zep; drummer Janet Weiss plays like a cross of Keith Moon and John Bonham.” Their music reflects the tastes of a lot of middle-aged men. What Babovic reminds us, again and again, is that the music is made by women, and that while these women want to reach out to the largest audience possible, they will never do this at the expense of their demand that what women do in rock music is not just relevant, but crucial. (Babovic quotes Weiss about those middle-aged men: "We always joked that Corin had these intellectual 50-year-old men who wore glasses and looked like college professors. ... She really had a type -- these guys always stood on her side and they were Corin's special, intellectual fans.")

I don’t know which of their eight albums is my favorite ... probably Dig Me Out or The Woods. But I remember in the earlier days, when a question often arose, are you a Call the Doctor person or a Dig Me Out person? It was never close, in my book ... most obviously, Dig Me Out is when Janet Weiss joined the band, and “my” Sleater-Kinney always includes Janet. I can say that I very much enjoyed revisiting the album through the lens of Jovana Babovic.

Here are my favorite tracks from Dig Me Out:

Dig Me Out”. The video, from 2015, has everything that is great about a Sleater-Kinney concert. Corin’s unstoppable vocals, Carrie dripping charisma and playing her idiosyncratic guitar lines, Janet Fucking Weiss of the Great Drummer Hair showing why she is the best.

One More Hour”. Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in their catalog, and in the running for best breakup song ever. Oh, you’ve got the darkest eyes.

Turn It On”. The video is from CBGB’s in 1997, a show written about in the book.”On top of that, there were rats everywhere.... ‘It was just gross and just-don’t-touch-anything,’ Tucker said. ‘But it was also a very rock ‘n’ roll club.’”

Words and Guitar”. As much a statement of purpose as “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” from the previous album. The email list for S-K fans I was on was named after this song. “Take take the noise in my head, C'mon and turn turn it up, I wanna turn turn you on, I play it all i play it all, I play it words + guitar!”

Little Babies”. I’ve never been quite sure what this song is about, but it is their greatest sing-along. “Dum dum dee dee dee dum dum dee dum do, All the little babies go oh oh i want to.” I could add that Janet is great on this one, but I could say that for every song they recorded once she joined the band.

Not What You Want”. Like the Stones’ “Rip This Joint”, this is S-K blasting through a song at breakneck speed ... as Corin sings, “80, 95, maybe more!” As such, my favorite S-K blitz song, at least until a couple of years later, when Janet had her greatest moment in “Youth Decay”. (That song has my favorite Sleater-Kinney lyric ever, one that could be my motto: “I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house.”) The video is from Portland, 2006 ... after that show, they took off for a decade.

Bonus: here’s the last time we saw them do “Youth Decay” live, San Francisco, 2015:


hope's a burden or it sets you free

A friend of mine turns 51 today. She’s not a big fan of public exposure on the internet, so she’ll remain nameless here, but pretty much everyone reading this knows who I mean.

We met more than 20 years ago ... we can never remember exactly when it was, but at this point, we can at least say “more than 20 years” and know we’re being accurate. We were in grad school together, we taught together, for one year we were about the only ones of our buddies still teaching at Cal. My wife and I took her to see our hometown where we grew up, met, and got married. Later, we stayed with her parents and she showed us some of the things she remembered from her childhood.

I wasn’t looking for a best friend ... I’m one of the lucky people whose wife of 43+ years is also my best friend ... but there has never been anything second-rate about my friendship with the birthday girl, she has always been there for me, as I hope I have been for her.

Due partly to unforeseen circumstances, she’s moving out of the Bay Area temporarily, the first time she has done this since we met. She is, in fact, driving to her new home today, on her birthday, with her beloved partner of many years. They take care of each other ... it’s a great thing to see ... this new experience will likely be very good for them both.

I have to admit, though ... I already miss her. Her birthday especially reminds me of the past ... between she and her partner and me and my wife, we always made sure to spend a night together on our birthdays, four times a year.

If there is a cultural artifact that bonds us, it might be Sleater-Kinney. Together we’ve seen them fourteen times since 1998. I find myself listening to S-K, thinking of her, trying to pick just the right song to include here. But most of their goodbye songs (and they have some great ones) feel final, and are filled with the problems that led to goodbye. My friend and I have never had those kind of problems, so as much as I’d like to post something like “Good Things” (“Why do good things never wanna stay, Some things you lose some things you give away”) or “One More Hour” (“I know it’s so hard for you to say goodbye”), the totality of those songs is much darker than how I feel. Yesterday, I sent her an email with a link to the following video, which I hope was the right choice as they travel to the desert. “There are no cities, no cities to love. It's not the city, it's the weather we love! ... It's not the weather, it's the people we love!”

And one more: the last song we saw Sleater-Kinney perform (so far), May 3, 2015:

My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day.