Back in 1970-71, my brother and I lived in a little apartment in Capitola, California. We didn’t have a phone, and of course, this was long before the days of cell phones. So no one could call us, and if we wanted to make a call, we walked down the street to a motel that had a pay phone in its parking lot.
Now, Robin and I have several phones. There’s her phone, and my phone. She has a couple of work phones. We have two phones we don’t use (one we have never used).
Thursday, my phone quit charging. Friday, I took it to the shop and was told the charging mechanics inside were broken, and that I’d need a replacement, which was covered by the insurance our son always convinces us to get. Friday night, I did a web chat, after which I was told a new phone (not exact, but equivalent) would be on its way that day, with an ETA of Monday.
Within half an hour, I got an email telling me my replacement phone was on backorder, and there would be a 3-7 day delay before they sent my phone.
So, no phone. I have a tablet, and I have that leftover from the dinosaur era, a big-ass desktop computer (on which I am typing this post). But no phone. No text messages while I am out and about. No camera for quick pix. No Google Maps telling me where to go, step by step.
On February 17 of 1967, three bands started a three-night stand at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. February 17 was a month after the Human Be-In, and came just a few months before the “Summer of Love”.
Opening was the Canned Heat Blues Band, later shortened to Canned Heat. They were a couple of months from recording what would be their first album release. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer, and at Woodstock two years later. The band’s “classic” lineup was 4/5 full when they played the Fillmore (a new drummer arrived late in the year). Here they are at Monterey Pop:
Next up was The Mothers, who I believe by that point had changed their name to The Mothers of Invention. Their first album, Freak Out!, came out in the summer of 1966. From the start, they were different from pretty much anything you’d heard before. It’s hard to hear the Mothers now, after decades of experiencing Frank Zappa ... his later work colors his beginnings. But he certainly seemed to come out of nowhere at the time. Listen to the first track from their first album, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy”.
The headline act was starting their second week at the Fillmore, having headlined the week before (Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker filled out the bill). The Blues Project were an East Coast band with two albums under their belts ... although it wasn’t apparent in February of ‘67, they were falling apart ... they, too, played Monterey, but one key member, the legendary Al Kooper, had already left the band. (Kooper deserves a post of his own, or you can read one of his memoirs ... he is Rock and Roll Royalty if for no other reason than that he played organ on “Like a Rolling Stone”.)
I’m not sure what people would make of The Blues Project now. Their recorded legacy is quite slim. The debut, Live at the Cafe Au Go Go, had only one original song alongside covers by everyone from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry to Donovan. The follow-up, Projections, was their best, with Kooper and others contributing songs. But after Kooper left, a third album was rushed out that included outtakes, live tracks, and studio tracks with audience overdubs.
Here is perhaps their most famous track, “Flute Thing”, at Monterey (Kooper wrote it, but he’s not with the band ... he was in Monterey, though, you can see him at the end of this video, at 9:53):
If I made a list now that included Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Canned Heat, and The Blues Project, I’d guess The Blues Project would be the least well-known. But they headlined over those other acts for a week and a half at the Fillmore.
Here’s the poster for the show, done by Wes Wilson:
It’s time to get over my belief that I don’t care for the Coen Brothers. I keep telling myself this, because I don’t think The Big Lebowski is the greatest film ever made, because I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing, because ... hell, I forget all the reasons. But Hail, Caesar! is the fifth movie by the brothers that I’ve given at least an 8/10 rating. So clearly I like a lot of their work.
I don’t know why Hail, Caesar! appealed to me, for it had some of the same things I usually complain about with the Coens. They preen over the notion that they know more than we do, and too often their movies turn into “spot the reference”. But there was some real love for movies here, almost resembling joy, and when that occurs, I’m glad the writer/directors are smart. Unless you have seen as many movies as the Coens, you won’t come close to getting every reference here, but I think you can enjoy the movie even if you don’t spot a single one.
Because Hail, Caesar! takes place at a movie studio, there is a legitimate reason for showing different kinds of movies being made. The dance number, “No Dames!”, is a particular delight, with Channing Tatum showing off his dance moves in a role that “resembles” Gene Kelly. (There is a lot of “resembling” going on ... Tilda Swinton plays twin columnists that are some odd combination of Hedda Hopper, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby, Scarlett Johansson “is” Esther Williams, and George Clooney is ... well, he’s a blend of too many to count, Charlton Heston is probably closest.) The plot is less important than it seems. Manohla Dargis gets it right when she says the film “at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic, and dramatic scenes.”
Just in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, they also toss in a bunch of screenwriters who turn to Communism (the film takes place in the early-50s). They brag about how they sneak lefty propaganda into their films, and their mentor is “Professor Marcuse” who “is” Herbert Marcuse. At the beginning of the movie, Clooney is in costume for a film, Hail, Caesar!, that looks a lot like Ben-Hur. He is kidnapped by the writers, and later returns to the studio, where he shoots the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! in the movie Hail, Caesar! At which point you realize Clooney has been wearing his Roman costume the whole movie.
Hail, Caesar! is amiable and moves along with ease. I have yet to see a Coens film that matched Fargo, but Hail, Caesar! is one of their better ones. Oh, and it’s Oscar nomination is for Production Design.
Site master Bill Georgaris, who does this as a labor of love, details several changes to the methodology used to compile the list. Honestly, I don’t understand them, but I trust that Bill has a reasonable system, and it is fun to follow those 1000 films (and try in vain to see them all). He notes that the changes result is realignment, rather than a complete overturning of the past. One result is that more recent films have a better chance of improving their position on the list. (At one point a few years ago, he added a Top 250 films of the 21st century list, because too many movies were left out of the more tradition-bound original list. Since then, he has expanded that list to also include 1000 films. I wonder how these changes will affect the relationship between the two lists.)
You can read much of this information on the site, but to summarize the highlights ...
The top ten films are the same, but in slightly different order:
1. Citizen Kane (1) 2. Vertigo (2) 3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (3) 4. The Rules of the Game (5) 5. Tokyo Story (4) 6. 8½ (7) 7. The Godfather (6) 8. Sunrise (8) 9. The Searchers (10) 10. The Seven Samurai (9)
The biggest leap since last year was by Brokeback Mountain, which went from #718 to #323. The highest first-timer was Hunger, at #726. The biggest fall was Ashes of Time, which went from #686 to off the list.
Over on the I Check Movies site, I find that I have seen 624 of the top 1000 movies (actually 1012 due to multiple-part works). This puts me at #687 on the list of ICM users who have submitted their viewing history to the site. Here are the top 10 ranked films on the TSPDT list that I haven’t seen ... call this the “Goals for 2017” list:
There is no absolute fail safe. ... What you have on the other side of the equation is the undoubted large numbers of lives saved and sickness averted through the prevention of these diseases. ... Vaccines are becoming a victim of their own success. We don’t see these diseases, therefore we don’t fear them. ... Complacency is the big enemy against vaccination.
Scientists who are hired to promote industry agendas are shills. Fortunately, they are the exception. One of the key values of science is truthfulness. This makes it possible to create an edifice of reliable data that new discoveries build on. And truthfulness is a way of being, of creating trust with others. Researchers are acutely aware of the possibility of being later proved wrong, and of great unanswered questions. It instills in them a kind of humility. My geologist father embraced evidence of the movement of continental plates in the 1970s, in spite of having written a book on mountain-building based on an earlier theory. New tools permit us to see astonishing images, taking us down to the atomic level, as well as so many light years distant that we approach beginning of this universe. It excites a humbling sense of wonder.
[M]y artist of my life is Beyoncé. And this album to me, the Lemonade album, is just so monumental. Beyoncé, it’s so monumental. And so well thought out, and so beautiful and soul-baring and we all got to see another side to you that you don’t always let us see. And we appreciate that. And all us artists here adore you. You are our light.
-- Adele, on winning Album of the Year at the Grammys
My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable. I feel it’s vital that we learn from the past and recognize our tendencies to repeat our mistakes.
-- Beyoncé, winner of Best Urban Contemporary Album
If there are Republican elected officials who are worried about any of this, now is the time to speak - and more importantly act. History doesn't only judge harshly the bad leaders, but those who stand by as enablers with their silence and tacit support. I think many American voters are worried, deeply worried about the course this country is now taking. I do not believe that the majority of citizens root for instability, corruption or incompetence. Either the Administration will change and evolve (and if the past is prologue I wouldn't bet the gas money on it) or there will be a reckoning. And the voters could speak their displeasure in very broad terms.
In early 1961, CBS needed a show to quickly fill a time slot left open by a failed series hosted by Jackie Gleason. The new show was called Way Out ... CBS had The Twilight Zone running at the time ... it consisted of half-hour episodes peeking into fantasy and sci-fi tales. The host was Roald Dahl, later famous for, among other things, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl would introduce each episode, similar to what Rod Serling was doing on Twilight Zone. (Boris Karloff filled this function with Thriller, as did Alfred Hitchcock on his series.)
The first episode of Way Out, “William and Mary”, based on a story by Dahl, tells of a man with terminal cancer who agrees to an experiment where his brain is connected to an artificial heart after his death. It works ... the man also retains one eye so he can see. He sends a note to his widowed wife, explaining what has happened. She takes him home with her, and proceeds to flaunt actions in front of him that he disapproved of when he was alive.
Reviews were good. Ratings were OK on the coasts, not so much in the rest of the country. Way Out was cancelled after 14 episodes.
There was one episode of Way Out that has stuck with me for 55+ years. This is where I offer my usual caveats about the limitations of memory. We’re talking about an episode of a short-lived television show that aired in 1961 (June 30 for the episode in question). We’re talking a time long before On Demand and video recorders and the Internet. Unless a show was very popular (I Love Lucy, for instance), reruns weren’t always shown. It is likely that the only time anyone was able to watch that episode was the night that it aired.
So, to place myself in the time period, on June 30, 1961, I was 8 years old, having turned 8 ten days earlier. It would have been near the beginning of summer vacation between 3rd and 4th grade. I was, in short, very young. I’m surprised my parents let me stay up to watch Way Out, which aired Friday nights at 9:30 ... perhaps this was because it was summer vacation.
The episode was called “Side Show”. There were a few actors that remain at least a little familiar: Myron McCormick, who was in what seemed like every TV series back then (he died in 1962); Murray Hamilton, a “hey, it’s that guy” playing a character named Harold Potter (J.K. Rowling wouldn’t be born for another four years ... hmmm, this would make a good plot on a fantasy series); Doris Roberts, then in her mid-30s, who 35 years later would begin a long run as a regular on Everybody Loves Raymond. The plot is about a carnival act run by McCormick that features an “electronic woman”, who seems normal except she has a light bulb where her head should be.
Reading that now, I think, “this would have worked better as a radio drama”, where the ludicrous image of the light bulb head wouldn’t be actual, but only a fantasy of my mind. But the truth is, the only thing about that episode I have remembered since I was 8 years old is that damn light bulb. It haunted me at the time. In later years, the memory of it haunted me. And in more recent times, it still gnaws at my mind, because it was still one of the few things that were unavailable for re-visiting. There was a copy in some TV museum on the East Coast, and a few of the other episodes turned up on YouTube, but “Side Show” remained only a memory.
Until I was looking for something else on YouTube last night and found out that a year or so ago, someone had added a few Way Out episodes. Including “Side Show”.
It’s a weird thing, revisiting a past that has been just beyond your reach for decades.
I was surprised there was an actual plot to the episode. Because all I’d remembered was the light bulb.
I try, but usually fail, to come to a movie cold, with no plot spoilers. In the case of The Lobster, I actually pulled it off. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and that it had disturbed my friend Charlie very much. (He eventually wrote a piece about it, “Consider the Lobster”.)
Halfway through the movie, I had to pause and go to Facebook, where I wrote the following:
"We all dance by ourselves. That's why we only play electronic music."
Just reached the halfway point of The Lobster. All I knew about it going in was that Charlie Bertsch was very disturbed by it. I didn't realize it was a comedy.
If I’d read up on the film in advance, I would have found that The Lobster was “a black-hearted flat-affect comedy” (Sheila O’Malley), “wickedly funny” (Guy Lodge), a “terrifically twisted satire” (Peter Travers), and an “absurdist romantic tragicomedy” (Stephanie Zacharek). But it was nice being surprised, nice to realize that while The Lobster thinks it is serious, it is also intentionally funny.
I was reminded of other things I’d liked or hated. For the latter, there was Kevin Smith’s Tusk, which disturbed me so much I never wrote about it (madman gradually turns a human into a walrus ... 5/10). The title of The Lobster comes from one of the essential plot points: single people have 45 days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing (the main character, played by Colin Ferrell, chooses a lobster, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”
I was also reminded of the TV series Black Mirror, which I like very much. Like The Lobster, Black Mirror shows dystopian versions of the near future, laced in many cases with sly humor. The TV series is an anthology with standalone episodes, but all revolve to a greater or lesser extent on the technology of our lives, futurized just enough to differentiate slightly from the present. It’s a standard trick of dystopias, to create a world recognizably related to our own.
The performances in The Lobster are designed to throw us off ever so slightly. There’s Colin Farrell, except he doesn’t quite look like Colin Farrell, he’s a bit dumpy (he gained 40 pounds for the part) and decidedly un-sexy. Léa Seydoux may be incapable of un-sexiness (although the same might be said of Farrell before this part), but there is a hard-nosed bad-assery to her here that comes not from action scenes as much as from the determined look on her face, daring you to underestimate her. And Ben Whishaw has established great versatility in his previous roles, so you never know what to expect from him. (He also shares with Seydoux a 007 connection: she was a Bond Girl in Spectre, he is the most recent Q ... another actress from the film, Rachel Weisz, adds a trivia-answer 007 connection as well, since she is married to Daniel Craig.) Suffice to say, everything is a bit off in The Lobster, so when you realize things are actually very off, that realization sneaks up on you.
So no, I wasn’t disturbed by The Lobster, perhaps because while I was aware Lanthimos had a larger theme in mind, I never connected with it, whatever it was. I just took in the pleasures of the film. I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of my favorite actresses, Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) and Ashley Jensen (Extras, Catastrophe). I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Lobster fun, or say I wanted to watch it again. But for the most part, the fun was what appealed to me. 7/10.
Tomás Summers Sandoval had a post today about sax solos, which ties in with the trivia note that it was on this date in 1956 that Little Richard recorded “Long Tall Sally”. Tomás didn’t include any Little Richard in his list of five top rock sax solos, but I’ve always connected saxophone solos to Little Richard. Elvis had Scotty Moore guitar solos, Chuck Berry had his own licks, Jerry Lee Lewis pounded the piano keyboard, but Richard, despite his own piano-playing skills, always seemed to find room for a sax solo on the break.
Lee Allen was the sax man on most of Little Richard’s early hits, including “Long Tall Sally”. This song was the follow-up to the cataclysmic “Tutti Frutti”, quite simply one of the greatest records of all time. There was a story to choosing “Long Tall Sally”, according to Rolling Stone:
"Long Tall Sally" was aimed squarely at pop singer Pat Boone. "The white radio stations wouldn't play Richard's version of 'Tutti Frutti' and made Boone's cover Number One," recalled [Robert “Bumps”] Blackwell. "So we decided to up the tempo on the follow-up and get the lyrics going so fast that Boone wouldn't be able to get his mouth together to do it!" Recorded at J&M Studios in New Orleans, "Long Tall Sally" was Little Richard's biggest hit. Unfazed, Boone also recorded "Long Tall Sally," taking it to Number Eight.
While the lyrics to “Long Tall Sally” are stripped to their essence, full of sexual innuendo, they are not as nonsensical as “Tutti Frutti”s (the seeming nonsense of that first hit being key to its wonder). But in both cases, and in many of Richard’s greatest hits, it’s the performance that drives it over the top. I often used “Tutti Frutti” as a teaching tool when we would work on poetry in a class. We would read the lyrics, which aren’t much on the page (“A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” is admittedly silly), then listen to the recording, which is world-changing (“A WOP BOP A LOO BOP A LOP BAM BOOM!”). The song’s lyrics require the music to complete the art. (In this case, after 60 years, there is still some disagreement about exactly how to transcribe those lyrics, which only matters if you are treating it like poetry on the page.)
This lip-syncing rendition of the song in Don’t Knock the Rock is a great way to experience the record. (The sax player is pretending to play Lee Allen’s solo, but it’s actually Grady Gaines, who was in Richard’s touring band, as far as I can tell. I also love that the band has FOUR sax players!)
Here is Pat Boone’s version ... don’t blame me, I’m only the messenger:
(I’m sorry. Please take a moment to collect yourselves after that.)
Not every cover version sucked. Little Richard was to Paul McCartney as Elvis was to John Lennon: primary influences on monumental artists. Oh, and Ringo Fucking Starr:
And finally, a more recent use of “Long Tall Sally” in popular culture (I say “recent”, but this is 1987):
It is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.... I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre.
Ironically, this “theory” of the unknowable “meaning of Chow” was proven wrong in a connecting essay by a friend, Jillian Sandell, whose writing on John Woo was so on target she heard from Woo, who said it was one of the best things he had read about his work (she managed to get an interview with Woo out of this exchange). My disconnect was personal, not universal.
In my own essay, I argued that without the cultural context of growing up Chinese, I ended up focusing on more surface tendencies, on things I could fetishize, like his mouth (“Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.”)
I’ve watched a lot of Chow Yun-Fat movies since then, and a lot of John Woo films, as well. And a lot of Hong Kong movies ... while my passions have dimmed somewhat, throughout most of the 90s, I obsessed about the movies, seeking them out wherever I could (I once went into a Chinese video store where no one spoke English, pointed at a picture of Chow, and said, “I want his movies!”). Gradually their popularity in the States grew ... one repertory theatre in Berkeley showed HK double-bills every Thursday night. But for me, The Killer is where it started.
I was at the video store, and I saw a life-size cardboard cutout advertising The Killer. I no longer remember the details, but it was so striking that I knew I had to rent it. Thus, The Killer stands as the movie that introduced me to Hong Kong films, especially of the urban action genre.
I once showed The Killer to my students in an introductory class at Cal. I had many Asian students in the class, and I remember one of them telling me that their parents were pissed off, that they didn’t pay all that money to send their kid to Cal only to have them watch trashy HK movies. I was surprised, since I thought of The Killer as an art film.
There are John Woo movies I like more than I like The Killer. Hard-Boiled is the standard, Bullet in the Head an over-the-top favorite (OK, all of these movies are over-the-top), A Better Tomorrow solidified the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre’s popularity. Not to mention Woo’s films in other genres, like Once a Thief and Red Cliff. But The Killer will always be first.
The Killer excels in the staging of action scenes, of course, but what marked this film, and many others in the genre, is the relationship between the male leads. Sandell wrote:
[T]his homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons.
And, describing the final shootout where cop and assassin join forces:
[T]hey do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.
I was pleased to find that The Killer holds up well. I'm still astonished both by the violence and the emotionalism, but my reaction is much as it was in the past. The movie doesn’t seem sillier now. It is quite the same. #635 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.
2017 is shaping up to be a watershed year for public protest, including many musical expressions of dissent. On the progressive side, the strongest of these messages are coming from within communities of resistance, as they always have. Voices lifted in the moment of protest, sometimes individual but often communal, resonate through history. They may belong to famous individuals, but it's not in the nature of the pop that Lady Gaga has made her métier to cultivate them.
There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media, not just the pollsters, the majority of the media to attack a duly elected President in the second week of his term ... That's how unhealthy the situation is and until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, 'fake news.'
The pure essence of any revelation can be obtained not only in the core of the examination but in the rigorous application of these principles that we do so cherish even though we go our separate ways.
-- Professor Irwin Corey, the World's Foremost Authority