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October 2017

music friday: sweet soul music

It's the anniversary of Arthur Conley's death. He died 14 years ago today. He seems destined to always be remembered as a One-Hit Wonder, that hit being "Sweet Soul Music". Conley was taken under the wing of Otis Redding, who helped put together "Sweet Soul Music". He seemed to be an ideal mentor for Conley, but he died in a plane crash later that year. Conley career floundered. Ed Ward tells the story:

In the mid-'70s, Conley abruptly moved to London. That proved expensive, so the next stop was Brussels, which he found too hectic. He then headed to Amsterdam and changed his name to Lee Roberts. Nobody knew Lee Roberts, and at last Conley was able to live in peace with a secret he'd hidden - or thought he had - for his entire career - he was gay. But nobody in Holland cared.

"Sweet Soul Music" was "based" on a Sam Cooke tune, "Yeah Man" ... "based" as in a lawsuit resulted in Cooke's name being listed a co-composer.

The horn introduction borrows from the theme for The Magnificent Seven:

Here is Arthur singing his hit in 1967:

Finally, here's Bruce Springsteen, who has performed "Sweet Soul Music" many times. The video quality is poor, but the audio is fine, and this one is dear to my heart, because it's the only time I saw him play the song in concert. 1988:

 


the handmaiden (chan-wook park, 2016)

I got off to a mediocre start with Chan-wook Park. The first movie of his I saw, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I thought it was a mess made by a talented director. ("It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.") I've seen a lot more Korean horror movies since then, and I might think differently about that movie now. Anyway, next up was Oldboy, and color me impressed. ("While Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.") Finally, there was the third film in the "Vengeance Trilogy", Lady Vengeance, which was as gorgeous to look at as the others (if you can make it through the violence, that is) and found a way to bring the plot together with a remarkable ending.

None of this prepared me for The Handmaiden. It's gorgeous, and yes, there are some violent scenes, although nothing to match Oldboy. But so much is different. It's based on a novel, Fingersmith, by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Waters set her story in Victorian Britain ... Park moved the setting to Korea in the 1930s, when Korea was occupied by Japan. This adds depth to the film, although I admit I'm sure I missed much of it. Still, the relationship between Koreans and Japanese culture is shown clearly enough. The plot, which as far as I can tell sticks fairly closely to the novel, involves a con man trying to marry a rich woman for her money. I could say a lot more, but one of the great pleasures of The Handmaiden is following the twists and turns of the plot, so I'll just say that very little is as it seems. Even the manner in which the various twists unfold is elegant ... it's almost a spoiler to say that the twists exist, because Park takes his time getting to that part of his tale.

The film features a handful of fairly explicit sex/love scenes, and I'm of two minds about them. On the one hand, the scenes are lovely, and the actresses are quite beautiful. These are not what you might call "Game of Thrones" scenes, either, tossed in just for titillation. No, these scenes reveal both character and plot, and are, as they say, "integral" to the story. Nonetheless, more than one critic has accused Park of falling back on the male gaze to inform his work in those scenes. Park has argued that his film shows the damage the male gaze does to women, citing in particular scenes where one of the women reads books to groups of men. I'm not sure where I come down on this. They are used effectively, but I don't think Park totally escapes his desire to show hot women doing hot things with each other in a way that men would enjoy.

Still, there is much to like here, even to love. At times, it's like watching a Korean movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, and I mean that as a compliment. #399 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

 


bipolar disorder

The Kaiser website for patients offers an incredible amount of information, and makes it easy to get appointments, order prescription refills, email doctors, and the like. It's not very well designed, in my opinion, but if you wander around enough you'll usually find what you are looking for.

One page lists "Ongoing health conditions". Mine has nine items, which sounds worse than it is, since a few of them are related enough that I consider them one condition, not several. There aren't any real surprises on the page. I have high blood pressure, which has been true for decades, although it's under control. I've had asthma since I was a kid, although it's not a very serious case. There's the rather innocuously named "Allergic Rhinitis (Nose Congestion)", which on a daily basis is probably my #1 condition. I had headaches for as long as I could remember, until once an emergency room doctor looked up my nose and prescribed steroid nose spray. I've been taking that spray for almost 20 years now, and I haven't had a single headache. This is miraculous. (I am not symptom free, but when the occasional pain arrives, it's clearly sinus related, and the additional drug of choice becomes a decongestant. Which is thankfully simple, considering the various treatments I had tried over the years for my headaches: migraine medicine with ergotamine, acupuncture, having four wisdom teeth pulled, becoming addicted to caffeine for years on end.)

I have a history of "Renal Calculus", which sounds bizarre but which is just kidney stones. Perhaps the thing I have that frightens most people is a history of methicillin resistant staph aureus, better known as MRSA. It is kinda spooky if I think about it ... I've had two breakouts I can remember, one of which put me in the hospital for almost a week. I feel like a walking infection, and am always "under the weather", which I imagine is related to this somehow.

But none of these are the reasons for this blog post. What got me thinking was when I discovered that one of my listed ongoing health conditions is "Bipolar Disorder".

There it is, right on the page, spelled out and everything.

It was 2005 when I finally broke down and went to the doctor about my mental state. Kaiser has (had?) a system where you saw a psychologist if you wanted therapy, and a psychiatrist if you wanted meds. I wanted meds. I got some, and I got lucky ... the initial choice (Wellbutrin and Depakene) worked from the start (or it had a tremendous placebo effect). I've been taking those meds for a dozen years now ... I remember the doctor at the time telling me that it was possible I'd take them the rest of my life, and I should consider that before I decided to go in that direction.

That first meeting didn't take very long, and I only saw that doctor one more time. She moved to Spain, and I saw a second doctor a couple of times, but I haven't seen him for a few years now. The meds are just part of my pharmacy collection. When we met the first time, the doctor listened to me describe what made me feel bad, and then told me that there wasn't anything particularly special about my case. (It's funny, I somehow want to be special at a time like this, like I'm the only person who has my problems.) She then told me she wasn't much for labels, didn't like to use them, but everything I described fit into the general category of Bipolar II. (For a rather scary definition of Bipolar II, check out the Wikipedia page on the topic.)

I have tried to be honest about this over the years. There should be no shame attached to the disorder. About the only thing I hesitated to do was label myself ... it was as if being Bipolar was just a newly-fashionable disease, and I didn't want to seem like a bandwagon jumper. But eventually I realized it was just another thing, like having a history of MRSA.

And yet, when I saw it listed on my Kaiser page ... well, I was startled. I can remember a time when my pharmacy doctor told me the medical folks didn't have access to my psychiatry files. It was a privacy issue or something. I told her this seemed silly, since she knew every prescription I had (that's why I have a personal pharmacist), and she knew what they were for, so she didn't need access to files to know I took Wellbutrin and Depakene. Now, it's just listed as one of my "conditions".

That is probably appropriate. I guess after all these years, I can officially claim to be Bipolar ... II, that is. It's not a romantic thing, I assure you. Most of the time, it's not even worth bringing up. But that Kaiser page got me thinking.

 


by request: final girl (tyler shields, 2015)

This movie is a piece of junk that doesn't deserve much discussion. I was going to add the trailer, but even it is boring. It marks the directorial debut for Tyler Shields, better known for his work as a photographer ... he's the one who took the photo of Kathy Griffin holding up a severed head that looked like Donald Trump. Abigail Breslin stars, trying to show everyone she's grown up now. It cost $8 million to make, and didn't even make that small amount back, although it's hard to be sure, since it was barely released before going to On Demand. It looks evocative, and with that, I've paid it all the compliments I can muster. The title has no real relation to Carol J. Clover's landmark work.

What interests me more is why we watched it in the first place. As noted above, this was a request. I asked my wife if she wanted to watch a movie, and we began the arduous process of picking something to watch. It had to be something we agreed on. Since she knits constantly during the movie, subtitles are out, and in these instances, she prefers something she's either already seen or knows will be relatively mindless, since she won't be paying very close attention. She also does what I assume is pretty normal ... as we scroll through titles, she wants to know who is in the movie. She is unconcerned about critical acclaim or the lack of same.

We were going to end up watching a horror movie, and I guess Final Girl seemed OK, albeit we had low expectations. Of course, even those were not met. At one point, I said maybe she just didn't like good movies. Surprisingly, she agreed with me.

Now, I watch a lot of junk, like 50s monster movies and the like. But most of the time, I'm looking for the critical favorites. It's why I enjoy having a "By Request" on occasion, because it gets me out of my own preferences. And when that request turns into Final Girl, I'll say hey, it's only 84 minutes, how bad could it be? Also, in fairness, I really liked Get Out, which was another "let's watch a movie together" film.

But when I watch something like Final Girl, I worry that two people will never be able to compromise enough to pick a movie both will like. More often than not, you end up with the lowest common denominator. And I end up thinking that, no matter how badly I want to share a favorite like In the Mood for Love with the one I love, my biggest concern is that she won't like it. Better that she never sees it, than that I find out she doesn't love it.

Oh yeah, a rating. Final Girl: 3/10.


creature feature saturday: the haunted strangler (robert day, 1958)

Some years ago, Criterion put out a box set titled "Monsters and Madmen" that included four late-50s B-movies of no particular merit: The Atomic SubmarineFirst Man into SpaceCorridors of Blood, and The Haunted Strangler. While none of these movies are stinkers, neither do any of them rise above the level of Saturday afternoon watchability.

The latter two films on the above list star Boris Karloff, who was in his early-70s. He gives an excellent performance in The Haunted Strangler ... he is easily the best thing about the movie, as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. It's fun to see the "Jekyll" side ... you realize it's a rare thing to see Boris Karloff smiling and kindly. He pulls off both sides of his character, and shows a spry physicality that is impressive.

The movie also benefits from solid black-and-white cinematography and the usual B-movie short running time (in this case, 78 minutes). Even at that length, though, The Haunted Strangler is stretched out with mostly unnecessary footage of dance-hall girls doing their routines. The first half of the movie is a bit of a detective story a la Sherlock Holmes, before it moves into horror. It's never scary, but it is a bit gruesome at times.

I only bought this box set because it was a chance to revisit The Atomic Submarine, a favorite from my youth. And I'm glad I got that chance. But other than that nostalgic trip, there is no clear reason why these movies ended up on Criterion. Still, they released a couple of Michael Bay movies, so I suppose anything is possible. 6/10.

 


music friday: john fogerty with brad paisley

Three years ago I devoted a Music Friday to Creedence Clearwater Revival, highlighting their jam, "Keep on Chooglin'". I spent most of that post looking at the ways Creedence were different from other Bay Area bands more identified with the FM underground radio explosion of the late-60s. I described in passing just how prolific (and great) the band was in those days:

In 1969, Creedence released three albums. On those albums were tracks like “Born on the Bayou,” “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Lodi,” “Down on the Corner,” and “Fortunate Son”. All in one year. This wasn’t the Grateful Dead … this was a hit-making machine, cranking out one hit after another from the pen of John Fogerty. And they weren’t done. In 1970, there was Cosmo’s Factory (“Travelin’ Band,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”).

"Grapevine", of course, was a cover, and CCR did some great ones. Besides "Grapevine," there was "I Put a Spell on You", "Suzie Q", and "Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" on their debut album, and then later, "The Night Time Is the Right Time", "The Midnight Special", and others. It's a sign of their greatness as a band, and of Fogerty as a songwriter, that their covers are terrific, but the originals fit right in and match the quality of the classic songs they covered.

I guess I'm trying to say that I've underrated John Fogerty too often over the years. He is in the rock and roll pantheon. And many of his songs are frighteningly relevant to this day. The one that gets me every time is "Fortunate Son". Here he performs it with Brad Paisley, just last week:

He and Paisley also took on "Bad Moon Rising", which still carries a wallop.

I hope you got your things together
I hope you are quite prepared to die
Look's like we're in for nasty weather
One eye is taken for an eye
Oh don't go 'round tonight
It's bound to take your life
There's a bad moon on the rise
 

On a lighter note, the two attacked Paisley's "Alcohol", helping white people dance:

I'll finish with the band and one of their cheery numbers:

Just got home from Illinois lock the front door oh boy!
Got to sit down take a rest on the porch.
Imagination sets in pretty soon I'm singin'
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
 
There's a giant doing cartwheels, a statue wearin' high heels.
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.
A dinosaur Victrola list'ning to Buck Owens.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
 
Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Wond'rous apparition provided by magician.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
 
Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band.
Won't you take a ride on the flyin' spoon?
Doo doo doo.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.
 
Forward troubles Illinois, lock the front door oh boy!
Look at all the happy creatures dancing on the lawn.
Bother me tomorrow, today, I'll buy no sorrows.
Doo doo doo lookin' out my back door.

 

get out (jordan peele, 2017)

Prior to this film, Jordan Peele was known mainly for Key & Peele, the skit-comedy he worked on with Keegan-Michael Key. Get Out is only funny on the margins. It is, in fact, a horror film, and is Peele's first time in the director's chair. It tells the story of Chris, a black man with a white girlfriend who is going to her home to meet the family.

The horror mechanics help Get Out achieve a general popularity, and I suppose it could be treated as a simple genre enterprise. But that would be selling the film short. For Peele offers his story from a specific perspective, in this case, that of a black man in America. This adds a layer of satire to the genre conventions. But Peele wants to go deeper. He is using the horror genre to show us what life is like for black men. The horror comes not only from the science-fictiony story, but from the way Get Out exposes the undercurrents within which African-Americans must deal with that most dangerous of enemies, the white liberal.

Peele has said he was worried about the box office potential for Get Out. "I thought, ‘What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villain-ized with black people in the crowd? What if black people don’t want to see the movie because they don’t want to sit next to a white person while a black person is being victimized on-screen?’" His concerns were well-taken, but ultimately, Get Out was too good to be stopped. Made for under $5 million, Get Out grossed more than $250 million worldwide, and inspired countless Internet memes, arguably the primary way today to prove something has entered the public consciousness. 

Get Out also has one of the highest ratings on the critical compilation site, Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Only two of 289 reviewers gave the movie a negative review, and one of those was still 3 out of 5. (The one truly negative review came from Armond White, whose piece was titled, "Return of the Get-Whitey Movie".)

I'm reminded of what Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecure, said. "In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."

I was also struck by something that arrived today in my inbox. In her newsletter, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:

So often when we talk about diversity, we talk about it in terms of identification. People are starving to see themselves represented on the page and the screen; they’re desperate to hear their stories told. All of this is absolutely true, and it’s inexplicably dumb that the entertainment industry doesn’t seek to capitalize on the obvious market represented by this hunger. And representation can obviously have good, affirming effects on people who feel that their lives and their experiences are affirmed when they’re reflected back at them.

But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it the entire case for telling new and previously marginalized stories in mass culture. People who are already fulsomely represented also have a lot to gain by getting access to new stories. Pop culture is one window into the world around us, to places and to communities that may not be geographically proximate or readily accessible for other reasons. When you’re overwhelmed by your own thoughts or worries, it can be immensely valuable to immerse yourselves in dilemmas or perspectives that have nothing to do with our own, if only as a temporary relief.

There are times that this sort of curiosity can veer over into tourism, or into a pornography of someone else’s suffering. But that’s a case not against cross-cultural and cross-community inquisitiveness, but for more fizzy Asian and Asian American romances like “Crazy Rich Asians,” more epic love stories like “Exit West,” more experimental and deeply felt portraits like “Moonlight.” Pop culture should provide us all with recognition and escape. It can’t do that for everyone if all pop culture is the same.

When Issa Rae says she writes for her friends and family, she isn't saying she wants her audience limited to the people she writes for. She wants a place in the culture, but wants to make that space out of her own experiences, not those of others.

Get Out plays with the usual tropes of horror movies, but the subtext is practically the text. The essential horror of Get Out lies in the dangers for black Americans trying to maneuver their way through the dominant white culture.

Peele has said his title was inspired by an Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious:

The humor in the sketch lies in the ways white people are blind about the signs that a situation is dangerous. As Murphy says, if a house told him to get out, he'd get out. What makes Get Out so effective, though, is that even though Chris is well-aware of the realities in his situation, it takes him forever to get out, because it's hard even for Chris to realize how deep this evil goes. And once he falls into the "Sunken Place", it seems impossible to ever escape. At one point, Peele tweeted, "The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us."

Get Out refuses to be silent. 9/10.


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


music friday: solo lou reed in the 70s

I had a serious Lou Reed obsession in the 1970s. Saw him several times, the first being in late 1974 on the Sally Can't Dance tour (a show I wrote about here) ... I think the last time I saw him was in 1989. Some of this was lingering Velvets love. I'd been a fan of theirs since the first album, but I was 13 when it was released and living on the other coast, so my love of the band came from their records (and their infrequent appearances on FM radio), not because I lived the life or saw them in concert. My favorite of his 70s albums was Coney Island Baby. I had a homemade Coney Island Baby t-shirt ... my wife made it for me:

Coney island baby

When we were first married, we had a hand-me-down record player ... I think it only played mono, and the stylus was awful, so it probably ruined a lot of vinyl. I played Berlin over and over, then I played Rock and Roll Animal over and over ... after that, we might have finally gotten a good stereo. Once we started going to see his shows in earnest, I saw him a couple of times at Berkeley Community Theater (Rock and Roll Heart tour and New York tour), and a couple more times at the Old Waldorf, a showcase club where you could buy "dinner seats" and sit right up against the stage ... it was then that Robin decided Lou's hands looked like her grandfather's from Iowa. I especially liked the band that turns up on Take No Prisoners. I'm not a big fan of the album, but the band sounds like my memories of a Lou Concert. I never saw the Velvets, and I never saw the great band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders (although Fernando was in the band for several of the shows we saw), so I'm sure I missed the best, but that late-70s band as good.

Here are six Lou songs from the 70s. I'll give a special shoutout for the last three. "Coney Island Baby" remains my favorite Lou Reed Solo track ever, for the way his voice breaks at the end as he says "Man I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you." "Temporary Thing" feels like a lost classic to me ("Where's the number, where's the dime and where's the phone?"). And "Street Hassle" is his magnum opus ... even has an appearance by Bruce Springsteen.

You know, some people got no choice
And they can never find a voice
To talk with that they can even call their own
So the first thing that they see
That allows them the right to be
Why they follow it
You know, it's called bad luck