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the panic in needle park (jerry schatzberg, 1971)

Noteworthy for the appearances of many actors at or near the beginning of their film careers, starting with the leads, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who had worked in the theater. Both had minor roles in one film prior to The Panic in Needle Park ... they were effectively unknowns. Coppola used Pacino’s performance here to convince the studio to let him cast the actor as Michael Corleone. Richard Bright, soon to be known as Al Neri from the Godfather movies, is also here in one of his earliest movies, as are actors like Raúl Juliá, Joe Santos, and Paul Sorvino. The screenplay, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was their first. And it was only the second feature directed by Schatzberg, who was (and perhaps still is) known as a photographer who took the picture that became the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

So there’s a lot of talent from before they got famous (Winn may give the best performance ... she won Best Actress at Cannes ... but her last film was in 1978, so she never really “got famous”, she was just that person who was so good in Needle Park). And the talent shows. Pacino and Winn carry the movie. As was so often the case in the early years, Pacino reminds us of Bruce Springsteen at a similar age. Winn’s gradual descent into a junkie’s life is highly regarded to this day. All down the line, the cast feels carefully chosen to climb into the skins of their characters.

Care is also taken to make New York City look “real”. More important, care is taken to make the junkie life look “real”, with detailed sequences of fixing and shooting up, and plenty of junkies asking everyone they meet if they are carrying.

It is so careful, in fact, that it misses some of the messiness of these characters’ lives. Or rather, the messiness looks constructed. There is a distance in the filmmaking, despite the attempt to get in the audience’s faces. Pacino and Winn give convincing portrayals of junkies, but they never convinced me they weren’t performances, which goes against the realist feel of the film.

It is also a very dreary picture, which is perhaps appropriate given the subject matter, but there is none of the humor of the similar Sid and Nancy. That film had more than just junkies, which made their story more heartbreaking. But Pacino’s character is on heroin from the beginning, and Winn’s character is clearly headed down the same trail. The result is a movie that might be “good for us”, and might turn us away from drugs because there is nothing exciting about what we see, but I can’t help wanting more. I wish one of those extras playing junkies had tried to steal one of the movie cameras. It might have seemed spontaneous, and there is nothing spontaneous here.

The Panic in Needle Park is impressive. It is worth seeing for a variety of reasons. But it is far from great. 7/10.


music friday: return of the son of daily mix

This is from Daily Mix 6. Looks like it’s old-school country time!

Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’.” When I hear Hank Williams, I think of The Last Picture Show.

Patsy Cline, “I Fall to Pieces.” Her first #1 Country song.

The Carter Family, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” Old folk song that A.P. Carter turned into the song seemingly every artist covered.

Don Gibson, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Gibson wrote it, although Ray Charles is probably more in people’s minds today.

John Prine, “Lake Marie.” Bob Dylan’s favorite John Prine song. He has good taste.

Gram Parsons, “Sleepless Nights.” Recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. Emmylou Harris joins Gram on this one.

Wanda Jackson, “Nervous Breakdown.” Old Eddie Cochran song, recorded by Wanda with Jack White when she was in her 70s and still rocking.

Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” The first of Rodgers’ “Blue Yodels.” A great video.

Trio, “Telling Me Lies.” The best song from the Parton/Ronstadt/Harris grouping, and arguably Linda Ronstadt’s greatest moment.

The Everly Brothers, “T for Texas.” Yep, the Jimmie Rodgers song, from their late-60s album, Roots.


doctor strange (scott derrickson, 2016)

I was only a casual comic book reader as a kid. When we were sick, our dad would often stop at the store on his way home from work and get us a 7-Up and a comic. But I didn’t keep up, didn’t know much about them.

In 1970-71, though, I had my first chance to be a hippie, which meant I did a lot of psychedelic drugs. I’m relying on Wikipedia here, because of my aforementioned lack of knowledge about comics (by then, I’d discovered comix, but that’s for another discussion), and because, well, who remembers what we did when we took a lot of psychedelic drugs? I don’t know how we discovered the books, but somehow we became aware of Dr. Strange. Again using Wikipedia, I can state that Dr. Strange became its own comic book in June of 1968, beginning with Issue #169 (because it was a continuation of the Strange Tales series, which had introduced the Doctor in 1963). There were 15 issues of Dr. Strange, running through November of 1969, before Marvel took a different route, leaving Strange to pop up now and then, finally settling in for a long run in 1974. All of this comes from Wikipedia ... I lost track of Dr. Strange after those months as a hippie.

We bought all 15 issues of the late-60s Dr. Strange, and read them over and over. Funny thing is, I barely remember them now. When I was watching Doctor Strange, I realized I had little idea of what was to come, which was fine. The one thing I thought I remembered was that Strange wore a cape ... turns out I was thinking of the Cloak of Levitation, which eventually turns up in the movie.

This is a bit pointless, describing things I didn’t remember as if they had something to do with my experience watching Doctor Strange. But I did come to the movie with a bit more happy anticipation than I usually do for the Marvel movies, which I am not up to date on (I do watch a few of the Marvel TV series). I was willing to give the movie a chance, which I don’t always do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (OK, I liked Ant-Man a bit.) And yes, I liked it. I don’t know how it played with the Marvel fans, but it did make a shitload of money.

Much as is currently the case with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange had a casting controversy because Tilda Swinton, who played The Ancient One, is not Asian. In the comics, he is a Tibetan man ... Derrickson has a complicated explanation for why he wanted to avoid stereotypes, with the solution being to turn the character into a Celtic mystic played by Swinton. I admit this didn’t bother me, since Swinton is always so odd, she is sui generis no matter who she is playing.

The cast was good overall, although I was pleased to find that “Mads Mikkelsen admitted that with all the computer-generated imagery he got a bit lost on how to film his scenes”. He was great, of course, but when I watch these movies, I often wonder what it’s like to try and act in them.

I didn’t care about the mystic angles, which were likely my favorite parts in my hippie days, but neither did ruin things for me. It’s just a case of accepting the world created in the film, and they’ve done well with that here. I have no idea how it all fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn’t bother me when I’m watching Jessica Jones, so it’s OK here, as well. It gets in under two hours, is a good blend of CGI spectacle and solid, human acting. It’s not a waste of time, which is to say, it’s at least as good as Ant-Man. 7/10.


38

Today I will attend my 38th consecutive home Opening Day for the Giants. I went to 20 at Candlestick Park ... if I make it to the 2019 opener, I’ll have 20 at China Basin, as well.

Honestly, I don’t even know how this happened. I love baseball, but I’m not a big fan of the endless nostalgia that accompanies it ... no Field of Dreams for me. I can’t remember what inspired us to go to the 1980 opener. The Giants had a good 1978 season, but went back in the crapper in 1979. While I wouldn’t have known this at the time I bought my tickets for 1980, the team opened with six losses in seven games on the road. Something else I couldn’t know in advance: I broke my foot. And our seats were nosebleeds.

But the game was fun. The visiting Padres had two future Hall of Famers in Ozzie Smith and Dave Winfield. The Giants had one of their own in Willie McCovey. The Giants also had a few favorites: Darrell Evans, Jack Clark, Vida Blue. Vida went the distance, and the Giants won, 7-3. Like I say, it was fun, enough so that when the 1981 opener came around, I was there again. That game went 12 innings before the Giants lost, 4-1. 1981 was the awful year when the season was split in half. There was every reason to skip the 1982 opener. Yet for some reason, I made it to my third straight.

The Giants squeaked out a 3-2 win. More important was the rest of that season, for 1982 was a thriller that went down to the final weekend before the Giants finally fell. That season may have cemented my adult attachment to the game, and ensured I’d go to a lot more Opening Days.

But even then, I wasn’t thinking of a streak. Three times in a row is barely worth noticing. Truthfully, I can’t remember just when I realized I had something going. But eventually it happened, and Opening Day became a personal holiday. It’s hard to pick out the most memorable moments in the first 37 openers I’ve seen. There was 1999, the last opener at Candlestick, with homers by Marvin Benard, Barry Bonds, and Rich Aurilia. There was the flabbergasting first opener at the new park, when a journeyman named Kevin Elster, who had sat out the previous season, hit three home runs for the fucking Dodgers to lead the Giants to a loss. (They lost all five games on their first home stand, before rebounding and making the post-season.) There was 2002, when Barry Bonds sent us all home with a two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. And 2004, when Barry hit the 660th home run of his career, tying him with Willie Mays. In 2012, Matt Cain carried a perfect game into the 6th inning, when the opposing pitcher pushed a weak grounder into the outfield. He was the only base runner Cain allowed that day.

And last year, when the Giants overcame a four-run deficit against the Dodgers on their way to a big 12-6 victory.

Who knows what to expect today for Opener #38. I’ll make one prediction: if new coach Barry Bonds shows up in uniform, he will get the biggest ovation of the pre-game introductions.


20 years ago today: sleater-kinney, dig me out

Life-changing moments are often recognized only after the fact. The closest I ever came to a real life-changer was back in the winter of ‘72, when I realized in my heart that life could be summarized by Sisyphus as Camus described him in his famous essay. I whipped quickly from laughter to tears and back again, as I made a connection to that man pushing that rock for eternity. I try not to dismiss these kinds of moments in others (usually a religious awakening) because I had the same thing happen to me.

I think by the end of our first Bruce Springsteen concert in 1975 that we knew something had changed. It’s more obvious in retrospect, after 40+ years of concerts and albums and road trips, but there was something special enough about that first show that we came back for more. And more and more.

I did not know, on April 8, 1997, that Dig Me Out, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, would affect me in a similar fashion. Until that point I’d been aware of the band without giving myself over to them. Their previous album, Call the Doctor, had some impressive songs, with my favorite being “Good Things”, but I didn’t love it from start to finish. I liked the band enough to pick up Dig Me Out, though, albeit not on its release date ... I wasn’t hooked yet. I found that album to be more consistent than Call the Doctor, and there were so many great songs I could barely pick a favorite (if forced to decide, I’d go with “One More Hour”).

I saw them for the first time in August of ‘98, when they were still touring behind Dig Me Out. It might have been that night when I understood something special was going on. It wasn’t that they were an irresistible live force, at least not yet ... Corin let her voice make the statements, and what a voice it is, but she was fairly calm onstage. Carrie already had her rock star moves ... she was far and away the most charismatic. More important, they were loud in the classic punk manner, and the sound system was never sufficient, so it took years before I felt I could really appreciate their concerts.

But there was Janet Fucking Weiss. I’ve seen a few great drummers in my day ... Keith Moon was always my favorite, which is why I stopped thinking of the band as “The Who” after he died. Janet Weiss was knocking on the door of the great drummers. Often, the mix at S-K shows was bad enough that the drums were the easiest thing to hear, so I knew right away how great she was. And she had, and has, great drummer hair.

Since that night, I’ve never been able to hear their music without noticing how great she is. It was another step beyond fandom to something else.

They played a song or two from their upcoming album, The Hot Rock, but the Dig Me Out songs (six of them) made the biggest impression.

Something had happened between Sleater-Kinney and me. I saw them twice in 1999, twice in 2000, three times in 2002, and once a year between 2003 and 2006 (it helped that this Portland band played quite often in the Bay Area). By the time of their hiatus, I’d seen them a dozen times, and they fit the cliché of the artist who keeps getting better. They now had a confidence on stage (Carrie’s memoir showed how much that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t tell). Their unique sound combined three idiosyncratic talents, all remarkable, into a whole that was impossibly better than the parts. Corin’s astonishing vocals ... Carrie’s singular guitar work ... and Janet, the most traditional sounding of the group, she sounded like a Rock Drummer, except she was perhaps the greatest living Rock Drummer.

We know now how necessary their hiatus was. With the passing years, my hopes that they would return grew weaker. And, as I have said many times, I pined miserably because I knew at my age, I was unlikely to ever find another artist that would mean so much to me.

Which is another way of saying that they had changed my life. Not just because I missed them, but also because I thought they were irreplaceable. And I knew this in 2006, and in the following “hiatus” years, in a way I could never have imagined in 1997 when Dig Me Out was released.

So OK, it’s just a rock and roll band, and “life-changing” is a pretty big claim. Sisyphus changed my life. In music, Bruce Springsteen did the same. But Sleater-Kinney, great artists that they were and are, looked at the world with a pitiless eye, but also suggested a life worth living. It was rewarding to follow them. Life-changing? Maybe that goes too far. But they were a difference maker.

That the hiatus finally ended, that their new album was as good as what came before, that their concerts are better than what came before (I’ve seen them three times since the return) ... this is more miraculous than you might think. The world is full of artists who came back only to remind us of how good they used to be. Sleater-Kinney came back, and they were as good as they used to be.

And for me, it all started 20 years ago today, when Dig Me Out was released.

Here they are at 924 Gilman, a month-and-a-half after the album was released:

Here they are, post-hiatus:

And the best song from Dig Me Out:


music friday: beserkley chartbusters, vol. 1

Had dinner last night at Pizza Moda, and had a great conversation with owner Jeff Davis, who has been around the music business for many years. Jeff is a wonderful raconteur with plenty of stories about the biz, and this time the talk made its way to Jaan Uhelszki, the legendary rock critic who goes back to the days of Creem. Jeff and Jaan are friends, and Jaan is married to Matthew King Kaufman, who started Beserkley Records. This took me back to the label’s early anthology, Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1. Here we go. (Whenever possible, I’ve chosen the version that appeared on this particular album.)

Side One:

  1. Earth Quake, “Friday on My Mind.” Cover of the Easybeats’ song. We saw Earth Quake open for Lou Reed in 1974.
  2. Greg Kihn, “All the Right Reasons.” By the time Kaufman shut the label down, Kihn was the only artist still on the roster. He is probably the second-most famous person to record for them.
  3. The Rubinoos, “Gorilla.” They once filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Avril Lavigne. It was settled out of court.
  4. Jonathan Richman, “The New Teller.” More famous than Greg Kihn.
  5. Jonathan Richman, “Roadrunner.” Most famous song on the album.

Side Two:

  1. Earth Quake, “Tall Order for a Short Guy.” Cover of the Jonathan King song.
  2. Earth Quake, “Mr. Security.” They wrote this one themselves.
  3. Jonathan Richman, “Government Center.” We gotta lotta lotta hard work today.
  4. Jonathan Richman, “It Will Stand.” He did cover versions, too.
  5. Greg Kihn, “Mood Mood Number.” Turned up as the B-side to his cover of Bruce’s “For You.” Never turned up on YouTube, far as I can tell.
  6. Earth Quake, “(Sitting in the Middle of) Madness.” One last original.

Beserkley


film fatales #26: to walk invisible (sally wainwright, 2016)

Not sure how to tag this ... Wainwright made it for the BBC and it aired in the States on PBS, but it’s a film, not a series. She works in television, having given us the excellent series Happy Valley. As is often the case, To Walk Invisible has one person I’ve heard of (Jonathan Pryce) and a cast of excellent actors who are unknown to me (although a few of them were also in Happy Valley). One other similarity to that earlier series: To Walk Invisible takes place in Yorkshire, as did the series, and I can barely understand what people are saying (friends from South England once told me they needed subtitles to understand Happy Valley).

To Walk Invisible tells the story of the Brontë family in the late 1840s, when the sisters first published novels under male pseudonyms. (Pryce played their father.) Their tormented addict brother Branwell is also an important part of the story, although given the time constraints (it lasts two hours), he takes up perhaps too much time. In fact, To Walk Invisible might have benefitted from at least one more episode, as events feel rushed throughout.

The focus is almost entirely on the sisters’ lives. You’re left to fill in the narratives for Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on your own, which may be for the best, since I imagine anyone who wants to watch a story of the sisters will have already read the novels. To some extent, the novels come out of nowhere in To Walk Invisible, at least as specific individual works. The film shows how the sisters had to fight the sentiments of the time, reflected most clearly in their use of pseudonyms to hide their gender. And we are led to believe that they are excellent writers, especially Charlotte. But while their skills are made evident, and while their struggles to be recognized are a central theme of the movie, there is little reference to the fact that these weren’t just any novels, but were Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

In one respect, this is a good thing, because To Walk Invisible avoids the common fault of biographical stories that “explain” a book like Jane Eyre by showing examples of the author’s life that supposedly informed their creation, as if they lacked the imagination to come up with the work on their own. So we don’t get a scene of Charlotte seeing a woman in an attic. But it does seem odd that Charlotte could have been writing any old novel, given the lack of interest shown in the actual book she produced.

To Walk Invisible looks great, and sounds great if you can handle the accents. The acting is top-notch. There’s too much Branwell, and it’s too short overall. But as is, it’s a worthy accomplishment. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


legion, season one

On the one hand, it’s easy to describe Legion. It takes part in the Marvel X-Men universe, and is something of an origin story for “Legion”, a lesser-known X-Men character who is the son of Professor X. Legion, known as David Haller, was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was young, and his actions do little to dissuade us from that diagnosis. But it turns out he has mutant powers, which, since no one really understands them, leaves him extremely confused.

So far, this is simple. The cast is an interesting blend of people you know from various projects. Dan Stevens, who plays David, was Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. There’s Rachel Keller, who made a name for herself on the second season of Fargo, which, like Legion, comes from Noah Hawley. Jean Smart, who has been around for a long time, agreed to join the cast without knowing anything about it, because she loved working on Fargo so much. Aubrey Plaza is Aubrey Plaza, but there are so many parts to her character that she expands the definition of an Aubrey Plaza character. (And since I love Aubrey Plaza without ever actually watching her in anything other than talk shows, I’m glad she’s finally in something I like.) There’s Bill Irwin, who founded the Pickle Family Circus, and Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

All of this sounds quirky, but it doesn’t prepare you for what turns up on the screen. Because Hawley spends much of his time inside the head of David Haller, who, it is safe to say, is the ultimate in Unreliable Narrator, since he isn’t ever sure what’s happening in his head, or if it’s actually outside of his head. He can’t be reliable even if he wants to. Hawley dumps us in the middle of this ... he doesn’t really explain what’s going on with any clarity until the next-to-last episode of the season, which means we spend six episodes asking each other, “what the fuck?” Legion is as trippy as any show you’ve ever seen, and while there are good reasons for that, you have to allow yourself to be confused.

There is a lot of strong acting on the show ... if you’re expecting Matthew Crawley 2.0, you’re in for a surprise. And the look of the show perfectly matches the themes and the “reality” of this alternate world. It’s a pleasure to watch, even if/when you are clueless about what you are watching. And maybe it’s because I love Fargo the TV series so much, but I spent the entire season of Legion assuming that Noah Hawley knew what he was doing, so instead of my usual frustration at obscurity, I gave myself over to his vision.

I am nowhere near fluent in the X-Men universe, so I can say with confidence that such knowledge is not required to enjoy Legion. And if you don't like superhero sagas, trust me, this isn't like the ones you're familiar with. If you think the world has gone downhill since the 60s, when trippy visuals were the norm, you will love Legion. Just be warned that there are few shows as weird as this one. A-.