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the death of mr. lazarescu (cristi puiu, 2005)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is perfectly named, as we spend two-and-a-half hours watching the title character's health decline. He is shuttled from one hospital emergency room to another, and if we weren't aware that we are watching his death, we might find dark humor in the events. At least one trailer presents the film as if it were a comedy:

Yes, it's easy to make a short trailer that suggests it's a very funny movie, and yes, there are moments when you will laugh. It's not a particularly sad movie. But it is always about the drawn out death of a man, and the ways in which he is constantly ignored (and in which he becomes increasingly incoherent) are less funny as the movie progresses.

Many people have noted the similarities between this film and Frederick Wiseman's documentary work, in particular Hospital. Lazarescu certainly looks like a documentary, but it doesn't hide the reality of its fictional nature. This is a carefully constructed movie with excellent writing and acting ... it's a heightened reality that removes the random feel of cinéma vérité. Because Puiu takes his time with each scene, and because the film takes place in a modified version of real time, you might think it needs an editor. But while it's long, nothing needs to be cut. We need every minute to learn about Mr. Lazarescu, and he deserves our patient attention as we watch him die.

Puiu is sympathetic to his characters, even when we wish they would act differently. No one acts out of malice. But events conspire to make it hard to act decently. It is Mr. Lazarescu's misfortune to discover how sick he is the same night that there is a huge pileup on a local freeway. Wherever he goes, the hospital is already full.

There is a running joke about his drinking. Each person he encounters sniffs his breath and assumes his ailments are based on his alcohol consumption. True or not, at the point in which we enter his life, the drinking is irrelevant. He needs to have tests done, he needs to be operated on, immediately. But people are stuck on his drinking, stuck on trying to explain his situation rather than dealing it with. The various doctors and nurses do what they can for him, but the see him as a lost cause. Which he is, physically, but whatever makes a person a person is also failing, and people are too busy to notice.

There's a catch-22 situation when the doctors decide he needs brain surgery. They can't operate without his consent, and he has reached the stage of babbling. The nurse who takes him to the various hospitals tells the doctors Mr. Lazarescu is incompetent, but the doctors, fearing lawsuits, won't operate. The nurse is told to drive around until he becomes comatose, then come back to the hospital and they will drill into his head. Mr. Lazarescu is all of us when our lives butt up against bureaucracy. And the irony (and, yes, humor) is that he only gets attention when he is unable to speak.

While the movie is specifically Romanian (it is generally considered as the beginning of the Romanian New Wave), we can all recognize the situations. As Puiu said, "This is not a Romanian tale, but a tale from Romania." I have only seen one other movie from that New Wave, but it is one of my very favorite films: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which made my list of fifty favorite films a few years back. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu isn't quite that good, but based on these two films, the Romanian New Wave would appear to be rich for discovery. #452 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #20 on the TSPDT 21st century list.

 


music friday: 2001

Missy Elliott, "Get Ur Freak On". Finished #1 in the Pazz and Jop singles poll that year.

The Strokes, "Last Nite". Tom Petty's "American Girl" is the world's best Byrds rip ... I guess this is The Byrds, one step removed.

Kylie Minogue, "Can't Get You Out of My Head". Besides the expected Australia and New Zealand, this went to #1 in every European country except Finland. No word on why Finland was a hold out.

Pulp, "The Trees". Part of a two-sided hit with "Sunrise". Not sure why I find this amazing, but Jarvis Cocker is 54 years old.

Lucinda Williams, "Essence". The definition of a critics' fave (as long as you ignore G. Marcus). We've seen her four times and have never been sorry, but for me, her best album remains the self-titled one from 1988.

Roots Manuva, "Witness (1 Hope)". Never heard this one before.

Mary J. Blige, "Family Affair". Don't need no hateration. Video is a great performance from Letterman.

Jimmy Eat World, "The Middle". Christgau: "Jimmy Eat World are who Blink-182 want to be when they grow up."

R.E.M., "Imitation of Life". It says something about my taste that I often try to find videos of the artists playing live, instead of just linking to "Official Videos".

The Gossip, "Hott Date". Saw them headline in February of that year, after seeing them open for S-K (they were one of the best opening acts I ever saw).

Spotify playlist:


a matter of life and death (michael powell and emeric pressburger, 1946)

My brain isn't working, I'm tired more often than usual, so I watch something like this and get myself to write about it for a week. Which is especially odd because I liked it quite a lot. So, in lieu of my writing an actual brief review, some random comments so I can move on.

The overall production is just stunning. There is a real vision behind it, and it doesn't look like anything else. There are two basic sites, one of which is Earth and the other of which is probably Heaven. Heaven is in black and white ... it's a lovely black and white, not drab, but it's interesting that the color exists on Earth and not in the promised land. The most quoted line in the movie is when Conductor 71, something of a guide/angel, goes to Earth, appreciates the colors, and remarks, "One is starved for Technicolor up there." The movie is a fantasy that doesn't always play like a fantasy ... David Niven's character jumps out of a plane without a parachute, seems to survive, battles with the powers in Heaven who want him to be dead as was planned ... you know you're watching a fantasy, but he also has a brain injury that requires surgery, and there's a suggestion that the entire movie after he jumps out of the plane is him in his head as he is being operated on.

The key to grounding this is the romance between Niven and Kim Hunter as an American radio operator who "meets" him on the radio as he talks to her prior to his leap. Hunter is very believable ... you believe she fell in love with a voice, and you can definitely see why Niven's character fell in love with her. This was Hunter's first starring role, leading to a strong subsequent career ... an Oscar for Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and a Daytime Emmy for the soap opera The Edge of Night, along with important appearances in the first three Planet of the Apes movies.

But really, it's the look of A Matter of Life and Death that lifts it above the norm. It needs to be seen to be believed. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: 2000

It's been an odd week ... my wife has been away, I've turned totally hermit. This is my first post since last Music Friday. No commentary here, just video links and a Spotify playlist.

OutKast, "Ms. Jackson".

Eminem, "Stan".

Aaliyah, "Try Again".

Radiohead,  "Idioteque".

PJ Harvey, "This Mess We're In". For people who can't get enough Thom Yorke.

D'Angelo, "Untitled (How Does It Feel?)".

Boards of Canada, "In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country".

Nelly, "Country Grammar". Donald Trump, let me in now.

Madonna, "Don't Tell Me".

Sleater-Kinney, "You're No Rock n' Roll Fun". Saw them twice in 2000, #4 and #5 overall.

Spotify playlist (no Aaliyah):

 


on aretha

"Respect" hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart on June 3, 1967. My memory, like most Boomers, is that Top 40 radio was very democratic ... you could hear just about anything on the radio, if you didn't like one song you'd surely like the next one. The artists who filled the top 10 of that chart reflected this: The Young Rascals, The Happenings, Engelbert Humperdink, The Mamas and the Papas, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Supremes, Arthur Conley, Jefferson Airplane, and The Temptations. Popular acts with popular hits ... OK, I had to look up The Happenings ... and I'm not here to say they didn't have an impact as that summer began (The Summer of Love), even if, in Tom Donahue's infamous words, "AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves". No one was a more dedicated listener to FM "Underground" Radio than I was, starting the fall of 1967. But Top 40 was still what drove us, as high-school teenagers. When you went cruising, it was with The Wolfman on the car radio, not Tom Donahue.

Soul music was all over the charts. Joining The Supremes, Arthur Conley, and The Temptations on the Hot 100 that week were acts like The Marvelettes, James and Bobby Purify, The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick, Booker T.  & the MG's, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Otis & Carla, Brenton Wood, Lou Rawls, James Brown and the Famous Flames, Ray Charles, Otis Redding (solo), The 5th Dimension, Toussaint McCall, King Curtis, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, The Bar-Kays, Esther Phillips, and The Staple Singers.

There was a lot of good music then. I'm not being nostalgic ... there is a lot of good music now, too, there always is. But I want to place "Respect" in the context of its time.

But with all that good music, "Respect" stood out. And that isn't to dismiss the other hits ... songs like "Groovin'" and "Sweet Soul Music" and "Somebody to Love" are still part of my regular listening.

Wesley Morris got it right:

Depending on the house you grew up in and how old you are, “Respect” is probably a song you learned early. The spelling lesson toward the end helps. So do the turret blasts of “sock it to me” that show up here and there. But, really, the reason you learn “Respect” is the way “Respect” is sung. Redding made it a burning plea. Ms. Franklin turned the plea into the most empowering popular recording ever made.

You couldn't not sing along. Although I admit, Aretha's voice was intimidating ... you knew you couldn't keep up with her. So we'd sing backup: "Whoo! Whoo!" "Just a little bit!" "Re-re-re-re Re-re-re-re SPECT!" And, of course, "Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me!"

 

[U]nlike any other soul icon except the gospelized Al Green, Franklin managed to outlive her own heyday. Somehow, some way, she made stylistic adjustments on her own terms. While no longer a chart-topping sure shot, she scored her hits and kept up with the times. She had become the queen of pop.

Robert Christgau, "Robert Christgau on Aretha, the Genius Behind a Voice Unlike Any Other"

Aretha is quoted about being at odds with her father with her support for Angela Davis. One can only imagine that he was afraid Aretha was wading in deep and troubled waters by publicly offering financial support to a self-identified communist and symbol of the radical Black Power movement, but Aretha doubles down: "Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I've been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I'm going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people — they've made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that help our people."

dream hampton, "'Black People Will Be Free': How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit"

Aretha sang across generations of discord, bringing harmony and life to everyday aspects of Black American life. While she sang to us all, she most often sang to the Black woman and so you can imagine her songs drifting in and out of the kitchens, warehouses, backs of buses, churches, her songs sitting on the lips of scores of sisters who sang or hummed tunes of love and respect, heartbreak and strength to each other, creating a choir of black pride, love, sexuality and femininity inside of songs that would not only spur confidence, but an endless loop of voices....

In the wake of her legacy, she leaves a mark on the continuing tradition of the American black woman as storyteller and truth-teller; as someone relegated to the margins of American society and, therefore, often able to see a bigger picture of who we actually are and have the capacity and obligation to become. In the absence of justice, there is often art to guide us to our better selves, and so for decades there was Aretha, and her voice, which during our darkest, weakest, happiest and hardest times consistently reached out and said: through the storm and through the night, take my hand.

Tre Johnson, "Aretha and Black America’s Two Biggest Moments"

Because lots of major pop stars now have great, big voices, maybe it’s easy to forget that most Americans had never heard anything quite as dependably great and shockingly big as Ms. Franklin’s. The reason we have watched “Showtime at the Apollo” or “American Idol” or “The Voice” is out of some desperate hope that somebody walks out there and sounds like Aretha. She established a standard for artistic vocal excellence, and it will outlast us all.

Wesley Morris, "Aretha Franklin Had Power. Did We Truly Respect It?"

Everything popular music needs to be is there in Franklin's songs, whether she wrote them or claimed them through phrasing and diction that no other singer could fully imitate (though virtually all, it seems, have tried). Her art defined the political moment that soul music served, but she herself cannot be understood through one narrative. Here are a few of the qualities she embodied: grace and gutbucket emotion; political fervor and deep personal desire; musical expertise and improvisatorial curiosity; humor, rhythm, sexiness, reserve. The spirit. The flesh.

Ann Powers, "Aretha Franklin Was America's Truest Voice"

 

 

 


yellow submarine (george dunning, 1968)

It was fun to revisit Yellow Submarine after so many years. I can remember sitting through it twice in one day during its first release, and it has kept most of its charm to this day.

The plot is a bit of fluff designed to work as many Beatles songs as possible into the movie, and as such, it seems a bit harsh to criticize it for what it was, is, and always will be. Nonetheless, that's the part that doesn't really recall my fondest memories, and when the film is sluggish, that's usually the reason. But the animation is wonderful, and the music, as expected, is the best thing about the movie.

The animation takes a kitchen sink approach, filled with a variety of styles. This work is so lovely, you might miss the fact that it is fairly simple compared to what we get from animation today. "Limited animation" is something I associate with cheap Saturday morning cartoons from Hanna-Barbera, but here, what appears atop the backgrounds is so inventive that you never find yourself thinking of Yogi Bear or Huckleberry Hound. As is perhaps inevitable, many of the songs come across like the music videos that became popular later. Two setpieces in particular are outstanding: "Eleanor Rigby" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". The latter in particular marvels in its use of rotoscoping. In the use of setpieces, Yellow Submarine is reminiscent of Fantasia.

The music is just as good, even though the soundtrack album has always largely been dismissed. With reason ... that album features two old Beatles tracks and a lot of George Martin's background music for the movie. Because of this, the four new songs get lost in the shuffle, and that's too bad. Paul's "All Together Now" is a trifle, but John's "Hey Bulldog" packs some bite, especially musically. The surprise champion here is George, who contributed two songs, one of which, "It's All Too Much", is among the best he ever put out.

Yellow Submarine is far more than mere nostalgia. If it ran another ten minutes, it would have overstayed its welcome, but as is, it is a welcome addition to the Beatles film output, even if they had little to do with it. It doesn't reach the heights of A Hard Day's Night, but it is a solid #2 among their movies.

 


two directors

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964). We can't ignore what we bring to the table. My admiration for the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer grows from his masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I put at #15 on the 50 Favorite Films list I did some years back. I've looked forward to seeing his other movies, but I've mostly been disappointed. Neither Vampyr, his first movie after Joan of Arc and his first talkie, nor Ordet, his penultimate feature (Gertrud was the last) did much for me. So I didn't know what to expect as I settled in to Gertrud. I could imagine the style of the film, but whether I liked it or not was up for grabs.

It turns out I liked it quite a bit. Based on a play, a fact Dreyer makes little attempt to disguise, Gertrud is a talky examination of the place of love in life, centered on a woman in her mid-30s who realizes the love has gone out of her marriage. She makes attempts to find new love, or to rekindle old loves, but eventually she appreciates that the kind of love she seeks is not forthcoming from any man. The ending is not sad, but perhaps bittersweet. Dreyer films this with very long takes ... there are fewer than 90 shots in the two-hour movie. Some may find the style to be too off-putting, but I was sucked in, and it seemed appropriate to the material. While the conversations between the characters are quite intimate, their bodies do not reflect this. The characters are constantly looking off into space as they talk ... rarely does anyone look at the person to whom they are speaking. The words tell us of a desired intimacy ... the eyes tell us that intimacy may never happen. (In a coda, with Gertrud as a much older woman, the people are finally looking at each other as they talk.)

Nina Pens Rode, who plays Gertrud, has gotten much praise for her performance, but I confess I found her unconvincing. If you disagree, you will surely find Gertrud to be a classic, and many will share your view (it is #83 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). She didn't ruin the movie for me ... in my own personal canon, this falls short of Joan of Arc (as most movies do) but I found it far better than the other Dreyers I have seen.

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2013). I came to Enemy is a much different manner than I did for Gertrud. My wife selected it off of Netflix ... I'm not sure why, it has Jake Gyllenhaal, maybe she likes him, mostly she picks movie she can knit to. I knew nothing of the movie, so I settled in, clueless about what was to come (which is usually how I like it). It is safe to say I didn't like Enemy. It got decent reviews ... Peter Hartlaub did a fine job of describing it as "what might happen if someone let Terrence Malick make a 'Twilight Zone' episode, with a quick rewrite by David Cronenberg." The clue for me may lie in that description, since I am not a fan of Malick and I run hot and cold on Cronenberg. Gyllenhaal has a double role as two men who look identical, and he got praise for his work here, although I felt it was nowhere near as good as J.K. Simmons in Counterpart. Villeneuve creates an ominous atmosphere, but for me, the movie went nowhere, even as I could tell something was being attempted. I lost patience, and I wasn't convinced by what Hartlaub called "an occasional cameo from an apropos-of-nothing giant spider." I didn't roll my eyes very often, but I was always on the verge. It was only after the film ended and I looked it up to see what others thought that I found out who the director was. The first film of his I saw was Incendies, which I found quite powerful. Later came Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival, all of which I liked, if not as much as I liked Incendies, still enough to make me want to keep my eye on Villeneuve. All of which makes me wonder what I might have made of Enemy if I knew in advance that it was by a director I liked. When I watched Gertrud, I was ready to compare it to an all-time classic on the one hand, and a couple of not-so-classics on the other. I wanted to give Dreyer a chance, though, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I liked the movie. If I had known I was about to see a movie by Villeneuve, I would have started off anticipating a good movie. But I didn't have that extra push that comes from looking forward to a film by a favored director, and for me, it fell far short even before I knew who directed it. Meanwhile, there are plenty of "what Enemy means" videos on YouTube if you are so inclined after watching it.




music friday: 1998

Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone". An obvious cheat ... the video is from 1966, the famous "Judas" version. The concert was officially released in 1998. Play fucking loud, indeed.

Madonna, "Ray of Light". At 40, she reinvents herself again, and makes arguably her best album in a decade that isn't called The Immaculate Collection.

Lauryn Hill, "Doo Wop (That Thing)". Her first post-Fugees solo album turned out to be her one and only studio album (so far).

Neutral Milk Hotel, "Holland, 1945". Their second album turned out the be their last studio album (so far). Jeff Mangum has gone on to other things, none of which includes a solo studio album.

Lucinda Williams, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". There are some divas on this list ... Madonna and Cher come to mind. Lucinda Williams is the anti-diva: she drips authenticity.

OutKast, "Rosa Parks". OutKast had a tremendous series of albums to start their career. This song got them sued by Rosa Parks.

Air, "All I Need". The opposite of OutKast, Air's first album was their best. I'm just making this up, I have nothing to say about this band.

Brandy and Monica, "The Boy Is Mine". Brandy is Snoop Dogg's cousin. Monica released an album, All Eyez on Me, with the same title as a Tupac album.

Cher, "Believe". I told you there were divas on this list. She's the only who was in her 50s at the time. This wasn't the first time Auto-Tune raised its head, but it's the one we remember.

Massive Attack, "Teardrop". A.K.A. " Theme from House".

Spotify playlist: