music friday: 2017 and me

Everyone is offering up their Best-Of lists for the end of the year, so I'll try something similar for this week's Music Friday. I'm looking at the last 365 days rather than just 2017. According to Last.fm, four tracks are tied for the most played by me over the past year. Three of them make sense.

There's Van Morrison with "Brown Eyed Girl". Here he performs it in 1973:

And here's Bruce in 2014:

Next up is Dr. John the Night Tripper with "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya". When Dr. John's first album came out, it sounded like nothing I'd ever heard. It makes a lot more sense now.

Here comes Judy Collins with "Suzanne". I saw her for my first-ever concert back in 1967. In this video from 1976, she duets with the song's writer, Leonard Cohen:

Here's Randy Newman's "Suzanne" for comparison:

I said three of these songs made sense ... all of them from the 60s. Here's the one that surprised me, even though I apparently listened to it a lot over the past year: Ry Cooder's "Trouble, You Can't Fool Me", from his 1979 album Bop till You Drop. It was written by Frederick Knight and Aaron Varnell (Knight later wrote Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell").

 


the modern world, kaiser edition

I tried to refill a prescription on the Kaiser website for pickup tomorrow. I got an error message. Since I had to go to pick it up anyway, I figured I'd go down today and refill it. This morning, I got a text message from Kaiser: my refill was ready for pickup. I went, picked it up, and tried to refill another med I needed. They were out of stock, so they sent my refill order to a different Kaiser pharmacy nearby.
 
I walked over and waited. Suddenly, I got a text message: your refill is ready. Maybe 20 seconds later, my name popped up on the "your refill is ready" board. So the text message was faster than the notification system in the pharmacy.
 
To be honest, the true Modern World irritation was having to jump through hoops to get pseudoephedrine while I was there, but that's a different, never-ending story.

mad max fury road: black & chrome edition (george miller, 2016)

There's no denying it: I thought Mad Max: Fury Road was a great movie. I gave it 10/10, which I rarely do for new movies. I had gone to see it in the theater on opening night, which is another rarity for me, but hey, I was excited. This also explains why I was intrigued by the "Black & Chrome" version of the film.

Miller wanted Fury Road to be in black and white, but the studio wasn't paying all of that money for what would look like an "art film". Miller returned to his idea after Fury Road made a lot of money and won six Oscars. Now, you can get Blu-rays with both versions, which is how I ended up watching Black & Chrome.

I've already had my say about Fury Road, and I saw little to change my mind in this viewing, so I'll address the ways the B&W approach made a difference. It's Miller who said B&W is relegated to "art films", and he notes that he saturated Fury Road with colors partly to counteract the tendency for post-apocalyptic films to look drained of color. So what was going to be B&W became instead super-colored. Still, Miller claims Black & Chrome is his preferred version, which if nothing else makes this quite the unique "director's cut".

I have to admit, Black & Chrome did look more like an art film than did Fury Road. But the most noteworthy thing was that after ten or so minutes, I completely forgot I was looking at something different. The revved-up appeal of the movie overwhelmed my capacity to "see" the black-and-white, and only occasionally did I catch myself thinking "hey, this version is different". Yes, Furiosa was powerfully ominous, but she was powerful in the color version.

Fury Road is such a great movie that even a drastic step like removing the color only results in a different great movie. It doesn't detract from the original, but I'm not convinced Black & Chrome is the final word. I feel certain that if I were to show the movie to a newcomer, I'd use the color version. Once again, though, 10/10. (The original is #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.)

Here is a comparison of the two versions:

 


creature feature saturday: return of the fly (edward bernds, 1959)

No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.

But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.

There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.

And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.

Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.

But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.

 


music friday: led zeppelin, "in the light"

In his review of Physical Graffiti for Rolling Stone back in 1975, Jim Miller spent a lot of time on Jimmy Page, both his guitar playing and his producing/arranging:

The album's — and the band's — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire....

His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument's sonic vocabulary.

He has always exhibited a studio musician's knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record ...

A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects ... But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding "clean" timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant's contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum....

Thanks to Page's production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds.... Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound.....

Physical Graffiti testifies to Page's taste and Led Zeppelin's versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page.

Hey, I'm not here to argue ... all of the members of Led Zeppelin made important contributions, but as a listener who wasn't in the studio to see exactly how their records were made, I've always given extra credit to Page, for the reasons Miller mentions and more.

Miller didn't think "In the Light" quite worked.

"In the Light," one of the album's most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.

Even here, the only band member he mentions is Page, although John Paul Jones was the person most responsible for the sound ... his synthesizer dominates. Led Zeppelin never played "In the Light" in concert, supposedly because Jones didn't feel he could properly match the synth playing on stage. (Both Page and Plant performed the song in concerts outside of Led Zeppelin.)

Let's say Miller is right that "In the Light" is fragmentary. In that case, it might be perfect as accompaniment for a movie or TV scene. And in fact, that's what made me think of it for this post, because it plays during the final scene of Season One of David Fincher's Mindhunter, the interesting Netflix series with Jonathan Groff, the great Holt McCallany, and Anna Torv. Here is part of that scene (spoilers, for those who care). The song had begun at the beginning, with Jones' synth a perfect background for the action. It picked up again at the end of the scene, as you see here. Most of the time, I get frustrated when a song is hacked up to fit what is happening on the screen. But the missing middle of "In the Light" here disposes of Miller's complaint that the song is fragmentary. The editing makes it more fragmentary, of course, but it makes sense, because it's not just a track on an album, it's the soundtrack for what we're watching.

Here is the complete "In the Light":

A sampling of the comments on YouTube:

Devon Palmer: The editing and use of this song made mindhunters ending so disturbing it was amazing.

Brian Merriman: I don't generally applaud when watching tv, but couldn't help myself on this one. Ten minutes of brilliance the equal of anything on a small or large screen in recent memory.

TwisTr71: Best execution of music fitting a scene I have ever experienced


journey to italy (roberto rossellini,1954)

Journey to Italy is the title of the movie as I saw it, although the original Italian translates as "Voyage to Italy", and I've seen it listed both ways. In its day, it was butchered by censors in several countries ... the U.S. version was called "Strangers". There are many versions ... it originally ran 105 minutes, "Strangers" was edited to 80 minutes, and the one I watched, from Criterion, was 85 minutes. It was a flop at the box office, despite the fact it starred Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders (just a couple of years after he won an Oscar) and was directed by the highly-regarded Rossellini. The latter may have been part of the problem, since Rossellini was there at the beginning of the Italian neorealist movement, while Journey to Italy "imposes" Hollywood stars on the local culture.

Bergman and Sanders play a married couple who travel to Italy and realize it is the first time in their long marriage that they have been alone together. They also realize, or think they realize, that they don't like each other very much. Not a lot happens from a narrative standpoint, but the crumbling marriage accumulates in a way that mimics narrative. It is very influential ... some point to it as an early example of a "road movie" ... and you see elements of it in L'Avventura and Before Midnight (in the latter, Julie Delpy describes seeing it when she was a teenager). I don't think it's as good as either of those two. It looks great, and it's ironic seeing Sanders playing someone who is bored (his suicide note in 1972 read, in part, "I am leaving because I am bored"). (Sanders was famously frustrated with the making of the film ... he didn't care for the way Rossellini would only give the actors the script for the day, on the day of shooting.)

There are also some closeups of Bergman that are transcendent. Watching the movie, you can't help but think that the roots of the breakup of her marriage to Rossellini is reflected in the relationship between the husband and wife, but those closeups reveal a man in love with his wife. (It might play well with one of Godard's Anna Karina movies.)

Journey to Italy is now considered a classic of world cinema. I can't go that far, but for Bergman, for Sanders, for Pompeii, it's well worth seeing. #71 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time. 8/10.

 


hell or high water (david mackenzie, 2016)

I'm probably not going to give Hell or High Water the attention it deserves. I saw it more than a week ago, and have since been preoccupied with a medical procedure which is now thankfully over. I found much to like about the film, and I've read some interesting criticism, but the movie hasn't stuck in my mind, so this will be unfairly brief.

I was surprised to find out that Jeff Bridges received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Hell or High Water. Not that his performance wasn't worthy ... Bridges is one of our most consistently fine actors. But I thought he played the main character. That's just silly. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers are the clear leads. But I felt Bridges' presence throughout the film, and it was only in retrospect that I realized his was a supporting role.

That's not to belittle the performances of Pine and Foster, who are fine. But Bridges brings along the memories of the 80+ movies he has been in. We are familiar with him, he fits us like the proverbial glove. And that is appropriate here, when he plays a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement whose mind is sharp and whose detective skills are solid. Bridges is just there, we trust him, he doesn't have to chew the scenery (and there is some beautiful scenery here). Ben Foster has that covered.

Hell or High Water doesn't revitalize the Western, as some have claimed. It proves that there is still a market for a good film that falls into the Western genre, but it's kind of like Bridges' ranger: there's a lot to like, but it's ready for retirement.

Mackenzie doesn't overplay his hand. The banks are the bad guys here, but not as blatantly as in, say, Bonnie and Clyde. He barely takes a false step, which makes Hell or High Water easier to watch than other, more flamboyant, films. It doesn't reach the peaks, but it regularly comes close to the top. #371 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

 


colonoscopy and me

Every year, Kaiser sends out a FIT kit, "FIT" being an acronym for "fecal immunochemical test". You take a dump on a piece of paper, scrape a tiny amount of poop onto a brush, stick the brush into a tube, and mail it to Kaiser. They check it for blood, and if any shows up, they recommend a colonoscopy. I had a positive test several years ago, and did the preliminary procedures, but no one ever contacted me to actually get the colonoscopy. For many subsequent years, my tests were negative. Honestly, I think they just caught a hemorrhoid that one year.

Well, this year, it came back positive again, and my doctor put his foot down and said I was getting the colonoscopy done for sure.

Everyone said the same thing: the prep was far worse than the actual procedure. Many of you will have gone through this yourself, but for any rookies out there, this was my schedule:

Thursday: Thanksgiving.

Friday morning: Quit eating high fiber food.

Saturday night: Eat a small dinner, which will be my last solid food until the procedure was done.

Sunday morning: Drink 8 ounces of clear liquid every hour until I go to bed.

Sunday evening: Beginning at 6:00, drink half-a-gallon of colon cleanser, 8 ounces every 15-30 minutes. This stuff WORKS. I spent most of the next two hours sitting on the toilet. It doesn't help that our toilet is currently semi-broken, with the plumber coming to fix it on Tuesday. Go to bed whenever you want, but you're going to get up very early the next day, because ...

Monday morning: Get up at 4:30 and do another half gallon of colon cleanser. Finally, get to the hospital at 9:00 for a 9:30 procedure.

To be honest, nothing was as bad as I expected. The two sessions of constant shitting were completely water-oriented, if that makes sense, more like peeing out your butt. The cleanser, which supposedly tastes vile, seemed tolerable to me once I added the lemon-lime flavoring. I was gulping 8 ounces of liquid every 15 minutes ... well, I drink like that all the time. And it's not like this was the first time I sat on the toilet, reading a book. They sedate you for the actual procedure, so who knows what that was like ... I was in a zone.

FWIW, they found 7 polyps.

The best story comes last. On Sunday, my wife made a pumpkin pie, and today, when we got back from the hospital, I broke my fast with that delicious dessert.

As is so often the case, the anticipation for something far surpasses the actual event. I wrote about this once, in reference to Picasso's Guernica:

As we walked down the city streets to the Reina Sofia, my eyes filled with tears of joyous excitement. The work had brought me to tears before I'd even seen it! The "aura" seemed to have escaped from the painting itself and wafted its way onto the streets, where it compelled me with an insistent uniqueness.... As it turned out, the Guernican aura on the street was itself what I'd been waiting for; to be in the presence of great art mattered more than the art itself. The aura had taken over from its source.

Similarly, my colonoscopy was nothing compared to what I imagined it would be like.

That anticipation, though, ruined more than a week of my life. Not the colonoscopy, but the anticipation. Because I couldn't get the damn thing out of my mind, I lived in a stupor while I waited. If you read this blog, you experienced this. I posted on Friday the 17th. I posted on Friday the 24th. And that was it ... two posts in ten days, until this one, which hopefully marks the return of my brain.


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: