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February 2017

what i've been reading

Martin Luther King edition:

There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two thirds water?" These are questions that must be asked.

-- Martin Luther King, 1967

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

-- Abraham Lincoln, 1838

Donald Trump ran one of the most divisive and prejudiced campaigns in modern history. He began his campaign by insulting Mexican immigrants, pledging to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and then spent a year and a half denigrating communities of color and normalizing bigotry. He called women ‘pigs’, stoked Islamophobia, and attacked a Gold Star family. He mocked a disabled reporter and appealed to people’s worst instincts.  I cannot in good conscience attend an inauguration that would celebrate this divisive approach to governance.

-- Barbara Lee, 2017

I was in Russia years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well – Moscow, the Moscow area did very well, very well. And I told many people, “Be careful, because you don’t wanna see yourself on television. Cameras all over the place.” ... I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way, believe me.

-- Donald Trump, 2017


phil dellio & scott woods, unshackled: the dustbin of donald trump

Maybe it takes two Canadians to place Donald Trump in perspective. Phil Dellio and Scott Woods worked on this book for more than a year, never expecting that by the time it was published, Trump would have actually won the election. The book works just as well with that surprise element, though, because they are trying to figure out Trump, not just as a person/politician, but as someone who is part of our cultural landscape.

Thus, the “chapters” examine cultural landmarks that connect to Trump, in order to understand all of us. They go from Sarah Palin to Elvis Presley, which all by itself makes a nice instant description of the parameters of President Donald Trump. There is a section with, in turn, Pat Buchanan, George Wallace, Barry Goldwater, and Joe McCarthy. The middle of the book is devoted to “early sightings in the movies, on TV, and between the covers”, which goes from Nashville (the movie) to Howard Beale, from Citizen Kane to the Manchurian Candidate, from Gordon Gekko to The Joker. These selections make sense the second you see the connections.

None of this would matter if the writing wasn’t up to the concept. So it is important how good that writing is. There is no attempt to identify who wrote what, but there is a smoothness to the style that keeps any seams from showing. Combine the pleasure of reading this writing with the seductive nature of the book’s structure (short chapters), and Unshackled becomes very hard to put down. You can’t resist the pull of “just one more chapter”.

In some ways, this book is very much of the moment. You might even think it’s a bit too late to be reading about the emergence of Trump as President. But it’s still soon enough to the election that everything seems fresh. And it works as an excellent snapshot of how this all seems to us as we prepare for Trump’s inauguration. For this reason, I think this book will make for interesting reading ten years from now, as a reminder of where we were in 2017. I not only recommend Unshackled, I suggest you read it ASAP.

(I suppose a disclosure is in order. I know both Phil and Scott, and am very kindly included in the acknowledgements.  It made my day to see my name in the same sentence as Rob Sheffield’s).


music friday: when i was a teenager

Here’s the Facebook meme:

List 10 albums that made a lasting impression on you as a TEENAGER, but only one per band/artist. Don't take too long and don't (over)think.

I came up with ten fairly quickly. The most obvious omissions, in retrospect, were Dylan and The Yardbirds. Anyway, here are my ten, in no particular order, with one selection from each (I turned 13 in 1966, so my choices come between that year and 1970, when I graduated from high school):

Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (“Embryonic Journey”)
The Beatles (White Album) (“Yer Blues”) (Hard to get Beatles on YouTube, so The Dirty Mac will have to suffice.)
Otis Redding, Live in Europe (“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now”)
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet (“Sympathy for the Devil”)
Judy Collins, In My Life (“Hard Lovin’ Loser”)
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks (“Madame George”)
The Steve Miller Band, Children of the Future (Side One)
The Velvet Underground and Nico (“Heroin”)
The Doors (“The End”)
Love, Da Capo (“7 and 7 Is”)


andrei rublev (andrei tarkovsky, 1966)

The day after the Golden Globes, Eileen Jones wrote a fired-up piece titled “Against Meryl Streep”, with the subtitle, “Meryl Streep’s speechifying at the Golden Globes was the worst thing to happen since Trump’s election.” Whatever you think of Jones (and she seems to have pissed off a lot of people), she does have a way with words:

“That I should live to see the day when Meryl Streep’s speechifying at a Hollywood awards show is admired as solemnly and discussed as fervently as Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a personal nightmare.”

“[S]he brought to the Golden Globes all the fiery rhetoric she used to play Margaret Thatcher in a recent admiring biopic”.

“She strikes me as about the worst possible spokesperson imaginable for the Left in an era of working-class rage”.

This inspired me to buy her book, Filmsuck, USA, which doesn’t disappoint. We disagree on the value of a lot of movies, but I find her writing smart and fun to read. She announces her intentions with the first sentence: “That loud sucking noise you hear is American cinema going down the drain.”

The book is devoted to American films, which she doesn’t think live up to their possibilities. She doesn’t talk much about foreign films, but she does talk about “art films”. “[W]e tend to rely on stupid premises like Art Film = Good Film. And when I say ‘we’ I mean ‘you’: I swing exactly the other way, being far more inclined to regard with suspicion any film selling heavy doses of ‘artistry’."

Now, I have no idea what Jones thinks of Andrei Rublev, or the work of Tarkovsky in general. It is clear from her writing that Jones has a vast knowledge of film, and that her interests reach beyond what you might suspect from the quotes I am cherry-picking here. (As one example, Jones, who teaches in the Film Department at Cal, teaches a course on the History of Avant-Garde Film.)

I mention all of this because I experienced something of a disconnect, watching Andrei Rublev after reading Jones on Rango (she loves Gore Verbinski), “David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the Audience That Loves This Kind of Crap”, and Peter Greenaway (“I can’t stand Greenaway films, can’t even stand to hear descriptions of Greenaway films.”) Here I was, settling in to a three-hour art-house classic, and I couldn’t get Eileen Jones out of my head.

Andrei Rublev survived. I’ve been afraid of his movies for years, only seeing one (Ivan’s Childhood a couple of years ago ... I liked it ... and I saw Solaris so long ago I don’t remember anything except I hated it). But I did what I could to put my concerns out of mind, and for the most part, it was a success.

Tarkovsky certainly wouldn’t have approved of my method of watching, but he did make it easy for me. Andrei Rublev comes in two parts, a total of eight segments, giving me many opportunities to stop for a bit and think about what I was seeing. (OK, at one point, I replied to an email I’d gotten from Jones.) The film gives the story of the title character, a famous 15th-century Russian painter. From what I can gather, the film doesn’t appear to be a stickler for accuracy about that life. Instead, Rublev stands in for people like him: artists, people of faith, members of communities. Tarkovsky isn’t didactic about his representation of the 15th century. He presents it to us, and leaves it to us to imagine how different life was then, at the tail end of the Middle Ages. The film looks beautiful ... the cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, worked with Tarkovsky on several films. I found the acting rather inscrutable, perhaps because my ear wasn’t clicking with the Russian. But the actors served well as visual representations of their characters.

The entire thing almost works like an 8-part miniseries, although that impression might be amplified by the way I watched it. Three hours at one time would have felt a bit much. If my piecemeal approach to watching the film is too impure for you, add a point to my rating. #26 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


what i've been reading

Fuck you, members of the media.

Fuck your constant pursuit of ratings, of quarterly profits, of giving this tinpot cumdumpster a platform with which he can influence a large part of our country

Fuck you for buying into the idea that racism should be afforded an equal platform with equality, for calling a Nazi anything other than a Nazi.

-- Chris Kluwe, “Fuck You, Donald Trump

 

Hugh Laurie, winning for his work in “The Night Manager,” joked that he assumed this would be the last Golden Globes because “I don’t mean to be gloomy. It’s just that it has Hollywood, Foreign and Press in the title. And I think to some Republicans, even Association is slightly sketchy.” The point about the press is taken, and taken with thanks, but this formulation — which Streep repeated and made worse by prefacing it to say “You, and all of us in this room, really belong to the most vilified segment of American society right now” — has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that some of the richest and most influential people in the world are victims.

-- Alyssa Rosenberg, “In the Trump era, artists can be Jimmy Fallon or Donald Glover. Choose wisely.

 

“Why can’t you give him the benefit of the doubt…,” [Kellyanne] Conway asked, to which, [Chris] Cuomo answered “because he’s making a disgusting gesture on video about Serge.”

-- Ken Meyer, “Conway Asks: Why Do You Believe What Trump Says ‘Rather Than What’s in His Heart?

 

If happiness comes when you find something you are good at, and then you do it, then I guess Preston Epps was a very happy man. After "Bongo Rock" hit #14 on the charts, Epps locked in with the following songs, in alphabetical order: "Baja Bongos," "Blue Bongo," "Bongo Bongo Bongo," "Bongo Hop," "Bongo in the Congo," "Bongo Party," "Bongo Shuffle," "Bongo, Bong, Bongo," "Bongola," "Bongos in Paradise," "Bongos in Pastel," "Gully Bongo," "Hully Gully Bongo," "Prest Bongos Under Glass," "Stormy Bongo," and "Surfin' Bongos." None of them made the charts, with the exception of "Bongo Bongo Bongo," which made it to #78.

-- Steven Rubio’s Online Life, January 9, 2009


road to morocco (david butler, 1942)

The third in the Road series starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. It turned up on TCM while I was channel surfing, and I have fond memories of it, so it was an easy decision to watch it.

Do the Road Movies need to be explained? Their peak was in the 1940s, when five of the seven movies were released, with the final picture coming in 1962, when Hope and Crosby were almost 60 and Lamour was reduced to a cameo. It’s hard to imagine many people under 50 seeking out comedies from the 40s that were very popular at the time but not considered “classics”, so my guess is there is a need to explain the series. All except the last involved Hope and Crosby stuck is some quandary, during which they’d cross paths with Lamour, with a battle for her heart ensuing. There were songs, Lamour wore sarongs in most of them, and the laughs were non-stop. The movies were ... how about “insouciant”? They were nonsensical, offering parodies of popular genres of the day. There were lots of ad-libs, with Hope often talking directly to the audience. As in Hope’s comedy act, there were plenty of topical references, one reason the films don’t hold up as well as some ... there was no attempt to be timeless. I guess the closest thing in more recent years would be the Naked Gun movies with Leslie Nielsen.

Road to Morocco is thought by some to be the best in the series. I certainly saw it many times on TV when I was a kid. It was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay (if the rumors are true, Crosby and especially Hope, or their writers, deserve a bit of credit for their ad-libs). It was named to the National Film Registry in 1996. Watching it again, I thought it fell a bit short of expectations, and in my memories, my favorite remains Road to Rio (admittedly a minority view).

There is a feeling that anything goes in the Road series. In Morocco, there’s a musical interlude with the three stars where each of their voices comes out of the mouths of others (so you’ve got Lamour with Hope’s voice, or Hope singing as Bing). There are talking camels. Anthony Quinn plays a desert sheik ... wait, that’s not so odd, the Mexico-born Quinn was famous throughout his career for filling whatever ethnicity a movie needed. A running gag in the series has Hope and Crosby playing “patty-cake” as a way to distract bad guys ... this time it backfires, the bad guys are expecting it, leading to the line, “That gag sure gets around”.

I don’t know ... I feel a fondness for the series, and re-watching Road to Morocco was enjoyable. I’m inclined to rate it higher than it probably deserves. 7/10.


love actually (richard curtis, 2003)

By the time Richard Curtis directed his first feature, Love Actually, he had established himself as someone who could be relied upon to deliver a certain kind of film. After a career in television, he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (an Oscar nominee), Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Love Actually is a bit like a Marvel superhero movie, in that there are so many characters and so many romantic permutations that the film runs 135 minutes and still doesn’t have time to give a full presentation of all those characters. In fact, you can find charts all over the Internet that offer visual representations of all the characters and their interactions.

Of course, a lot of characters means a lot of room for actors, and it almost seems like every living British actor in 2003 is in this movie. A sample: Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln of Walking Dead fame, Martin Freeman, and Rowan Atkinson. Not to mention Americans like Laura Linney and Billy Bob Thornton, and cameos by Claudia Schiffer, Ivana Miličević, January Jones, Elisha Cuthbert, Shannon Elizabeth, and Denise Richards. Some of these actors fare better than others ... I imagine everyone will have their favorites. I always love Bill Nighy, and Hugh Grant always makes it look easy (this time playing the Prime Minister!).

The film was a massive box office hit, returning almost $250 million at a cost of only $45 million. And it is easy to see why it is popular. It’s an epic rom-com, and if you don’t like one scene or character, there will always be another right around the corner. Curtis throws in just enough melancholy to take the edge off of the saccharine, and there are what feels like a dozen different endings, most of which are designed to bring a tear of happiness to your eye.

In short, just the kind of movie I don’t usually like. But Curtis won me over, and if I never felt like Love Actually was making any major statements about actual love, it rolled along pleasantly enough.

What is remarkable is the history of Love Actually since 2003. While it takes place in December, and Christmas is the background for some scenes, it’s not what you’d think of as a Christmas movie. Yet it has gradually become one of those movies people look forward to watching again every Christmas. Fivethiryeight, better known for political data analysis, ran an essay last month titled “The Definitive Analysis Of ‘Love Actually,’ The Greatest Christmas Movie Of Our Time”. I can almost see it, although I’d rather make a Xmas tradition of watching Die Hard.

It’s not just a fan favorite. Amazingly, it’s #328 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t List of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

It even inspired a recent Saturday Night Live skit:

Spoiler alert ... here’s the original:


music friday: happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

This blog turns 15 years old today.

I was 48 years old when I started.

The first music post (second post overall), from that first day on January 6, 2002, had a picture of Robin I called “The Cowgirl and the Cactus”, and a link to the Bruce Springsteen song, “Used Cars”. There was no apparent connection between Robin and the song.

Here is what I wrote on the occasion of the 14th birthday:

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”