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September 2017

by request/film fatales #31: spielberg (susan lacy, 2017)

A friend pointed out that if a documentary about Steven Spielberg makes it into the Film Fatales category, there may be something wrong with the selection process.

There is a lot to like here. The interviews are interesting and, at times, revealing ... Lacy has made a career out of interviews, she's great. And Spielberg is one of my favorite directors. I've always liked Close Encounters the most of all his movies, and I love that it's a "personal" blockbuster. Something like Star Wars is only personal to the extent it reflects George Lucas' connection to the movies of his youth, but Close Encounters is "about" Spielberg.

The film is also long enough that Lacy can cover most of Spielberg's career, from stuff he made as a kid to Bridge of Spies. And we hear from enough different people ... fellow directors, crew members, critics ... that you get a good sense of what it is like on a Spielberg set (while he can seemingly picture and entire movie in his mind, he is also open to suggestions from co-workers).

It really is a solid overview of Spielberg's career, with the interview format (and Lacy's skills, and Spielberg's willingness to go the extra step in his participation) working well to attach Spielberg-as-person to Spielberg-as-artist. I'm convinced now that Close Encounters was not Spielberg's only "personal" movie.

With all of this, I feel I'm being picky to note that despite Lacy's proclamations that she didn't intend to make a lovefest, Spielberg doesn't always stand on the better side of hagiography. Lacy seems to know this. As Greg Braxton noted, "The tone of the documentary is primarily positive — it is clear that Lacy is a huge admirer of Spielberg’s work. ... Lacy acknowledged that some viewers and observers of Spielberg may find fault with the tone of the documentary. 'I am proud of the film,' Lacy said. 'Now I’m just nervous on how people will react. I know there will be those who will feel I wasn’t critical enough. But, hopefully, people will get past that.'" Braxton then adds a telling anecdote: "What matters most to her is Spielberg’s stamp of approval. When he called and said he loved it, 'I felt myself shaking. I was in tears and said, ‘You have to know what this conversation means to me.’"

I certainly sympathize. I am a big fan of his movies, and I don't know that I'd have the whatever to be anything other than praiseworthy in his presence. But I think that admiration detracts some from Spielberg. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

 


by request/film fatales #30: wonder woman (patty jenkins, 2017)

I realized when watching Wonder Woman that I knew very little about the character, beyond the "Wonder Woman!" song in the TV show. I also hadn't thought about any useful contextual things. The one thing that occurred to me as I watched was, why is Captain Kirk in this movie? It really didn't need a man in the role. Chris Pine was OK, and given his character was unnecessary, they did a decent job of making sure he never took over the action or the movie from Wonder Woman.
 
The casting of Gal Gadot was somewhat controversial, although the real controversy revolved around the way Wonder Woman was presented. Did she need to wear such a revealing outfit? I barely noticed, to be honest ... she didn't seem much different than Chris Hemsworth as Thor.
 
A lot of attention was paid to Gadot's thighs ... perhaps because it was easier to single out one body part than to discuss her as a complete human. In one brief moment, Wonder Woman's thigh jiggled, and this set off a complicated discussion about the importance of that jiggle. One Tumblr user spoke for many:

There were absolutely NO eye candy shots of Diana. There were Amazons with ageing skin and crows feet and not ONE of them wore armor that was a glorified corset. When Diana did the superhero landing, her thigh jiggled onscreen.

Did you hear me? HER FUCKING THIGH JIGGLED. Wonder Woman’s thigh jiggled on a 20-foot tall screen in front of everyone.

Because she wasn’t there to make men drool. She wasn’t there to be sexy and alluring and flirt her way to victory, and that means she has big, muscular thighs, and when they absorb the impact of a superhero landing, they jiggle, and.that’s.WONDERFUL.

Or, as Zoe Williams wrote, "Yes, she is sort of naked a lot of the time, but this isn’t objectification so much as a cultural reset: having thighs, actual thighs you can kick things with, not thighs that look like arms, is a feminist act."

What I liked about Gadot was her believability ... much as I love characters like Buffy and Starbuck, it was good to see a woman who actually looked like she could kick butt. More than that, I thought intelligence showed on her face ... unlike some amateur actors, she didn't look like a deer in the headlights. She underplayed the humor, which I found perfect. She made me inclined to like the movie. I admit to being surprised. I didn't expect anything from her. My mistake.
 
And I'm happy for Patty Jenkins, whose career is a microcosm of the difficulties women are up against. Her first feature had an Oscar-winning performance from Charlize Theron. It had a budget of $8 million and grossed $60 million worldwide. Jenkins didn't direct another feature until Wonder Woman, 14 years later. (In fairness, she worked a lot in television, and her work was highly-regarded.) Now she's on track to direct the Wonder Woman sequel. 7/10.
 
(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)
 




the full blackboard

This is a story I think I've told many times, but I can't find any reference to it on this blog, where I've been writing since 2002, so maybe I haven't told the story as often as I thought. It also took place long enough ago that I can't really remember the context, i.e. where and when it took place. But I think it's worth telling, so I've dive in, even with the holes in my memory.

It took place in a classroom. I can't recall if I was a junior college student or if I was a university teacher, which means I can't remember if it was the 1970s or the 1990s or even later. And I can't remember if I had power in the classroom (teacher) or little power (student). And those things matter to the story, but again, not enough for me to shut up. I can say that I do think it happened when I was teaching at Cal, emphasis on "think".

The classroom discussion was about the participation of women in the classroom, or rather, the over-participation of men. This was a hot topic at one time ... sadly, I imagine it's still a topic, but it would be nice to think otherwise. As a teacher in a small, discussion-oriented class, we were taught to be inclusive when calling on students, and to beware of habits we might have that unconsciously tipped the balance of men and women speakers. In this case, at some point I realized that men (me included, of course) were dominating the discussion. So I had an idea (and this is one reason I suspect I was a teacher, because a student doesn't ordinarily get to make the kind of suggestion I'm going to describe). I decided all of the men should leave the classroom ... I forget how long, 10 minutes, 15 ... which would give the women a chance to discuss the topic without the men dominating everything. And so the men went outside for awhile while the women stayed in the room. I recall a couple of the male students were pissed off ... they didn't dominate discussions, the whole notion was ridiculous, and if women didn't want to speak up, you can't force them to do so.

After the allotted time, us guys returned to the classroom. One look at the blackboards (for there were more than one) told us everything we needed to know.

Every blackboard in the room was covered with writing.


the dreamers (bernardo bertolucci, 2003)

I love Eva Green so much from Penny Dreadful that I assumed I've seen her in lots of movies, but in fact, The Dreamers, which was her film debut, is only the second one I've seen (Casino Royale being the other). When the movie was released, it was noteworthy as the latest film from Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci. Until the film was complete, at which point the resemblance to Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was evident. Most of the film takes place indoors, with people hanging out naked, having sex, with enough explicit shots to result in an NC-17 rating. Even now, the nudity seems to be on the edge, featuring not just full frontal but closeups of genitalia. For the first, but not the last time, Eva Green's sexuality smolders on the screen.

Yet some punches were pulled. The Dreamers is a story of 1968, with two Parisians, twins (Theo and Isabelle), and an American (Matthew, played by Michael Pitt) Most of the physical interaction is between Pitt and Green. The film hints at an incestual relationship between the twins, but a possible sexual relationship between the two men is only subtext. Bertolucci decided not to film scenes from the script that made that relationship more explicit, and given the openness of the presentation of the three, that decision is odd.

The three young people are infatuated with film, and viewers with a deep knowledge of film history will enjoy the references to that history. Asked if she is from Paris, Isabelle announces, "I entered this world on the Champs-Elysées, 1959. La trottoir du Champs Elysées. And do you know what my very first words were? New York Herald Tribune! New York Herald Tribune!" Non-film buffs may be confused ... Eva Green is clearly not nine years old. But Bertolucci is quoting from Godard's Breathless, and to make his point more clear (and to help the non-buffs), he tosses in a brief clip of Jean Seberg in that movie selling that paper. These connections pop up throughout the film ... the twins like to play trivia games that require knowledge of film trivia. There are probably too many of those clips of other movies ... we get the point ... but the connections are meaningful, showing how the twins (and Matthew) are engulfed in film, perhaps at the expense of the "real" world.

The trivia games also connect to the sexual currents in the film. If you don't know the trivia, you have to perform some act. The first time we see this, Isabelle makes Theo masturbate in front of the other two to a photo of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. Later, Theo makes Matthew and Isabelle have sex while he watches. The construct (film trivia, then sex) is odd, but the sexual freedoms of the three are so natural that we believe in them. There is no denying the erotic power, but Bertolucci takes it further, and his actors are perfect. In particular, much of the nudity is almost commonplace, co-existing with the erotic.

The irony is that all of this takes place in Paris in 1968, when revolution was in the air. Theo and Isabelle are half-hearted participants ... they'd rather watch movies. Matthew is like an American in one of Henry James' novels, seemingly innocent. The three of them live in the house of the twins' parents. One of the best scenes comes when the parents, who have been on holiday, turn up and find a completely messy house and three naked people sleeping together. The parents leave.

Of course, the innocent American must be abandoned in the end. Theo and Isabelle leave him to return to revolution. It is at this time, if we haven't already figured it out, that we realize the twins are playing at revolution, that, in fact, Bertolucci is only playing at revolution. Paris 1968 is a prop ... you wouldn't go to The Dreamers to learn about that time.

The Dreamers is as good as its spiritual parent, Last Tango, if just a bit below The Conformist. And I love Eva Green even more after seeing it. #989 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

This scene, in which Isabelle extends the "Name That Film" game to sculptures, includes one of the film's most remarkable images:



 


creature feature saturday: genocide/war of the insects (kazui nihonmatsu, 1968)

Ozu. Mizoguchi. Takashi Miike. Takeshi Kitano. Kurosawa. Hou Hsiao-hsien. These are some of the great names in cinema, and all of them had films distributed by the Japanese studio Shochiku. It is no surprise that Criterion released a four-film set called "When Horror Came to Shochiku." What is surprising is that Shochiku actually made four horror films. The Criterion site tells us:

In 1967 and 1968, the company created four certifiably batty, low-budget fantasies, tales haunted by watery ghosts, plagued by angry insects, and stalked by aliens—including one in the form of a giant chicken-lizard. Shochiku’s outrageous and oozy horror period shows a studio leaping into the unknown, even if only for one brief, bloody moment.

I watched Genocide from this set, "Genocide" being the title used by Criterion. That sounds like an art film. The original title translates to War of the Insects, and that sounds like a Creature Feature, which is why it ended up here. I seriously doubt that any Creature Feature show in the 60s would show a film called "Genocide", but "War of the Insects" fits right in.

I give director Kazui Nihonmatsu credit for his kitchen sink approach to his subject matter. The movie features hydrogen bombs (the kind that commonly turned up in Japanese horror of the time), Communists, American military officers presented in the worst possible light, an evil scientist who survived the Nazi concentration camps, a black American soldier who, when he goes crazy, visualizes stock footage of fighting in Vietnam, a hero who is cheating on his pregnant wife, and, of course, killer insects. Nihonmatsu stuffs all of this into 84 minutes (only 5 minutes longer than Booty Call), and "stuffs" is the right word, because there isn't time to delve into any of this in depth. There are general themes that run throughout the picture: Americans are powerful but concerned only for themselves, nuclear bombs are bad, and you probably shouldn't cheat on your wife.

The movie begins and ends with footage of a nuclear weapon exploding. At the start of the film, we are told, "The moment mankind harnessed the power of the atom, he immediately began to fear it." At the end, the Americans have set off another bomb, for the simple reason that they don't want it to fall into the wrong ("Communist") hands. Meanwhile, the evil scientist wants to wipe out humanity with her killer insects because in the camps, she saw what people could do to others.

And let's not forget the psychedelic scene where a man under the spell of the insects says they are singing to him, "The Earth doesn't belong to human beings alone. We don't care if mankind destroys itself with nuclear weapons, but we refuse to let you take us with you. Destroy the human race! Genocide! Exterminate all humans!"

All in 84 minutes.

It's a bit much. The special effects mostly suck, the plot is mostly nonsensical, yet it grabs your attention for those 84 minutes. It's the kind of movie that seems worse when you look back on it, but it was OK as I watched it. 6/10.

 


the rock and roll hall of fame nominees

The nominees for the 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced. Sister Rosetta Tharpe stands atop all the others, so of course, she's 15th in the fan ballots as I type this (The Meters are last), with about 1/8th the number of votes as Bon Jovi. I'd also vote for The Meters and LL Cool J ... they are also down on the fan vote list. I accept the inevitability of Radiohead, even though I don't care for them. I suppose I'd vote for Nina Simone, but not with the same enthusiasm I have for Sister Rosetta. Bon Jovi is running away with the early fan voting.

Last.fm keeps track of everything I listen to on streaming services (not including things like YouTube), and has done this since 2005. It often provides a reality check by showing me what I actually listen to, rather than what I like to say I listen to. I checked the 19 HoF nominees to see which ones I listened to the most over the years. The top five are:

The Moody Blues 
Nina Simone 
The Meters
Dire Straits
Radiohead

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who I say is the #1 nominee this year? She's 18th out of 19, with 5 listens in the past 12 years. In fairness, I usually listen to her on YouTube. (Last place is Judas Priest, who I have listened to 3 times since 2005. For reasons unknown to me, the nominee I have listened to the most times in 2017 is The Zombies.)

If I had one vote, Sister Rosetta would get it. Here's a documentary about her:

The Meters have always been a favorite of mine, for their records under their own names, of course, but also their work as the house band for Allen Toussaint. They also appeared on one of the greatest one-shot albums of all time, The Wild Tchoupitoulas. And Ziggy Modeliste is one of the handful of best drummers in history. Here they are with "It Ain't No Use":

LL Cool J was only 17 when his first album came out (it was great). Five years later, he topped it with Mama Said Knock You Out. The greatest hits album, All World, answers any questions you might have. Here's "Mama Said Knock You Out":

My other two selections are outside of my personal canon, but I think they belong in a Hall of Fame. Nina Simone is iconic for more than her music, but her music stands on its own.

Finally, there's Radiohead. I'm of the Nick Hornby school re: this band. But "Creep" is magnificent ... all by itself, that song belongs in the Hall of Fame. And Radiohead is definitely a case of my own taste preferences being mostly irrelevant. They belong.

As for the rest of the nominees:

In my youth, I listened to a lot of Moody Blues. I'm not that young anymore. Dire Straits was a breath of fresh air when they came out, but that didn't last long. Most of the rest are largely uninteresting to me, which doesn't mean much ... I could be missing something good. The Cars were a nice band with some fine singles that made for a solid Greatest Hits album, but I don't see them as any more than that. I saw the J. Geils Band many times back in the 70s and 80s, and was never sorry, but they aren't Hall of Famers.

A Facebook group of Christgau fans has a poll going, and the top five are The Meters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The MC5, LL Cool J, and The Cars. (Thanks to some cheaters, Warren Zevon actually came in third.) The Moody Blues are in last place, with only one vote (The Meters have 56).

Finally, Stephen Thomas Erlewine has some predictions over on Pitchfork. He thinks the "definites" are Radiohead, Eurythmics, Moody Blues, and Nina Simone. He lists nine acts "on the bubble", and says if he had to guess, Dire Straits would make it.


zabriskie point (michelangelo antonioni, 1970)

I once listed L'Avventura as my 17th-favorite movie of all time. I did not think as highly of L'Eclisse, and didn't think much at all of Red DesertBlow-Up was OK, and it was different than the famous trilogy, but I would never put it on a list of favorites. So I ask myself whenever I think about Antonioni, what exactly do I think makes L'Avventura better than the rest? And I don't think I've ever come up with a proper answer. The closest I've come is when I wrote, "L’Avventura’s greatness lies in part in the way the emptiness is ultimate rather than complete. Claudia’s journey takes us from a place of hope to one of pitiful acceptance, and that journey is key to L’Avventura. In the other films in the trilogy, the emptiness is there from the start; it is complete, and there is no journey."

Zabriskie Point looks like L'Avventura, once you get past the use of color. When Mark and Daria wander around the desert, they are photographed as mere specks in the vastness of nature, which is very much like the earlier film.

L'avventura

Zabriskie

So yes, Zabriskie Point is lovely to look at. But really, so what? There is no real attempt in the film to provide characterizations for anyone, no attempt at a coherent plot, no attempt, for that matter, at making any coherent points at all. The movie wanders around, and then one character dies and the other character imagines things blowing up. That's it. Antonioni shows contempt for America, contempt for young people in America, contempt for political people in America ... yep, he sure does hate America. But he never offers any reason for this hatred.

And hatred is too emotional a word, for Zabriskie Point is as drained of emotion as the desert is of water.

Antonioni doesn't even bother to cast actors in the main roles who can convey depth. The legend is that a casting director spotted the non-actor Mark Frechette and told Antonioni, "He's 20 and he hates", which was good enough for the Maestro. Daria Halprin has had an interesting life, but she's no actress, although she at least offers something approaching screen presence, unlike her co-star. (She did end up in a comments thread about the movie Revolution, in which she played herself. It's one of my all-time favorite comments threads, because the star of Revolution, Louise "Today" Malone", turned up!)

Antonioni made Zabriskie Point because an American studio was chasing the youth market, and hoped the director of Blow-Up could deliver. He didn't. At one point, Mark states that while he is ready to die for the revolution, he doesn't intend to die of boredom. He'll want to avoid Zabriskie Point, in that case. (In fairness, lots of people would say the same thing about L'Avventura.) David Thomson, who thinks it's a bad movie but who also loves the movie, thinks the ending "could stand alone -- it should -- as a magnificent short film", later adding, "we can believe that Antonioni could hardly speak or direct a word of English. But baby, when he blows the house up, you get the message. The film was a commercial disaster that began the ruin of MGM - truly, art is a wonderful thing." #958 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 5/10.

The big finale:

And a famous appearance by Halprin and Frechette on U.S. television: 

 


the last vacation post

Before our vacation fades completely into memory, here are the Top Ten Things to Remember About the Vacation:

10. Time Zones.

9. Sprint. Turns out unlimited roaming data and text is part of our normal plan. Turns out that's pretty cool.

8. Fanta Limón and jamón, as always.

7. Churros con chocolate. Breakfast of champions.

6. Ice cream after every dinner in Nerja. Robin settled on Choco Blanco, I usually went for Choco Naranja.

5. Ayo's.

4. We love to eat Mexican food at Juan's Place.

Juan's place

3. Estepona. We sat down at his desk, and I said my grandparents were from Estepona. Before I could continue, he interjected, "Hawaii". Apparently all those stories about the migration of the Andalusians to Hawaii are true!

2. Norwegian Air.

Norwegian

And the #1 highlight of our trip: Robin drives us from Málaga to Ronda in the middle of the night, via Transylvania.

Because some things are worth repeating, here is the view from our balcony in Nerja at 9:38 in the morning:

Nerja balcony morning


by request: the straight story (david lynch, 1999)

How time flies. It has been several years now since two friends and I created a group on Facebook wherein we listed our 50 favorite films over the course of a few months. I have tried subsequently to watch all of the films my friends chose that I hadn't seen, and with The Straight Story, I am almost completely caught up with the picks of Phil Dellio (still missing Comfort and Joy and 2/3 of the Apu Trilogy). Phil had The Straight Story at #41, and it's worth quoting a bit from his comments on the film:

If it weren’t for three films--well, two films and a TV project--the career of David Lynch would be pretty much without interest for me. I’ll give a pass to The Elephant Man ... I probably need to watch it a second time. So what do I like? On one hand, the two most obvious candidates--Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks--and on the other, the least obvious, which would be this. I can’t think of a more anomalous movie in any-one’s filmography than The Straight Story within Lynch’s. ... I find it as disconnected from Blue Velvet as Neil Young’s Trans was from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

I like this in part because to some extent, it matches my own feelings about David Lynch. Not in the details ... I'm not a fan of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks ... but in the sense that Lynch interests other people far more than he interests me. My take on Lynch is perhaps best stated in my comments on Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, which I liked more than I liked Mulholland Dr.: "Others will prefer their voyeuristic trash with a classier tone; they are welcome to go watch David Lynch movies."

I differ most strongly with Phil on The Elephant Man, which I think is far and away Lynch's best movie. But until The Straight Story, I found myself rating every David Lynch movie I saw (other than The Elephant Man) with the cursed 6/10 ... I didn't much like them, but I respected his ability to make films the way he wants to, with no regard for someone like me.

The Straight Story gets its title from the main character, Alvin Straight, on whose life the film is based. But it's also a perfect title for a movie that is indeed told to us in as straightforward a manner as anything Lynch has done. Lynch gets a terrific performance from Richard Farnsworth, who was dying when the film was made (this is his last movie). Alvin Straight's story is odd, no question: he decides to visit a brother who lives some distance away, and makes the journey on a John Deere lawnmower tractor. Along the way, Alvin meets up with various folks, some with odd stories of their own, others just good old solid Americans. Surprisingly, Lynch doesn't try to turn this into another story about the dark hidden secrets of the American psyche. Instead, he seems understanding of how these people live their lives, and there is very little mocking in the film.

It's a slow movie ... well, it's about a man traveling a long distance while riding a lawnmower, which kind of forces a slowness to things. But it never veers towards boredom, mostly because Farnsworth is so good, never seeming bored himself. It's a winning film.

I still think The Elephant Man is the best Lynch movie I've seen, but like Phil, perhaps I need to watch it again. In the meantime, The Straight Story is very good, a rare Lynch film I'd watch again with pleasure. #1000 (I guess something had to be on the bottom) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.