what i watched last week

We Are the Best! (Lucas Moodysson, 2013). This really belongs under the “By Request” banner, except I couldn’t actually remember who recommended it (hi, Rosalie!). “Charming” isn’t a word I normally associate with Punk, but this story, of young teenage girls in Stockholm in 1982 who identify with Punk, is charming above all else, even though it retains an affiliation with a movement that never wanted to charm. The three girls are outsiders, which in itself aligns them with punk. Bobo and Klara stumble onto the idea of forming a band, even though neither of them can play any instruments. They get access to a public rehearsal place that has a small drum set and an old bass guitar, and they are off, playing an awful racket while practicing their one and only song, “Hate the Sport”, which is both an ode to an oppressive gym teacher and a condemnation of all that is wrong in the global political world. (“Hate the sport! Hate, hate, hate the sport! People die and scream, but all you care about is your high-jump team! Children in Africa are dying, but you’re all about balls flying!”) Later they recruit a third, Hedvig, who has the advantage of actually being able to play guitar. The girls’ outsider status is magnified by the fact that by 1982, everyone tells them punk is dead. But they are locked into punk’s essence, as a culture and a musical genre that makes room for those dissatisfied by their condition. (That these middle-class girls actually have a decent life with decent families is both thankfully anti-clichéd, and true to life, since no one thinks well of their family when they are 13 years old.) The plot is ramshackle ... there is one live performance that evolves into Klara changing “Hate the Sport” into “Hate Västerås!” when their first gig, in Västerås, is poorly received (the crowd calls them communists, among other things). But the performances of the three girls are what makes the movie charming ... you could imagine any or all of them going on to greater things (it’s the first film for all three). I suspect everyone will have their favorite, but Mira Grosin as Klara gets my vote, perhaps unfairly, since the other two play more withdrawn characters while Klara is more explosive. #368 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014). It took awhile for me to lock into the film, but I enjoyed it once I gave myself over to it. It will remind you of any number of other movies and books. It’s The Big Lebowski as P.I., it’s The Long Goodbye with marijuana, it’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, it’s Cheech and Chong. It ambles along at its own pace. Joaquin Phoenix is amiably befuddled as the main character, and there are some fun cameos from a plethora of stars. Benicio Del Toro gives a reprise of his Samoan attorney from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If Inherent Vice isn’t quite as good as the things it emulates, at least Anderson shows good taste in choosing what to copy. #371 on the TSPDT 21st-century list. 7/10.

Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982). There was a Devo video once ... it might have been “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprise” ... during parts of the video, the band members were playing with a baby, and as I recall it, the baby didn’t look like it was having much fun. Fitzcarraldo was famously a movie where no one was having much fun. (I haven’t seen Burden of Dreams, so I’m going on hearsay.) Werner Herzog wanted to make a movie about an obsessed man trying to get a ship over a hill, and he did make that movie, but Herzog made sure that he also got a real ship over a real hill while the cameras rolled. Leaving aside stories about how insufferable Klaus Kinski was during the making of the film, I wanted to know the same thing I wondered about that baby in the Devo video: did all of those natives who Herzog used to make his movie have fun? What was it like to pretend to be slave labor in the movie, when “pretend” meant to actually do the labor? Everything is submerged to Herzog’s vision, and hooray for committed artists and all that, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that the natives eventually burned down the set. Meanwhile, the leisurely pace isn’t my cup of tea, but what’s worse is that Herzog denies us the payoff: we see the struggle to get the ship up the hill, and then suddenly, it’s on the other side going down the hill. I guess I wanted some of that leisurely pace to stick around for a bit so we could see the actual moment the ship crested. Nowhere near as good as Aguirre: The Wrath of God. #411 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

Memories of Murder (Joon-ho Bong, 2003). 7/10.


by request: memories of murder (joon-ho bong, 2003)

(Requested by Kasey Ellison.)

Another solid entry from Bong, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t know any longer why I continue to be surprised ... I’ve liked every one of Bong’s movies that I have seen, and each of them have refused to be held down to clear genre expectations. They are all different on the surface, as well ... I’ve seen four, and one was a monster movie, one was a mystery thriller driven by a mother’s love for her son, the third was an action sci-fi picture. And now there’s Memories of Murder, which came before the others. It’s a police procedural, a bit like the SVU version of Law & Order, although it more resembles the movie Zodiac. Bong is capable of anything.

Again, he smoothly blends genres. The local cops are, if not incompetent, at least crippled by the backwards nature of their small town department. They work like comic relief for much of the movie. A big-city detective from Seoul joins the case, and he accentuates the clumsiness of the local guys. But as the case progresses, his methods don’t work any better than his counterparts, and he gradually turns sadistic in his quest for truth. All of the policemen are so set on solving the mystery that their obsessions get in the way. Meanwhile, the body count of women sexually assaulted and murdered keeps rising. By the end, there is nothing funny ... it’s hard to even remember the comedy of the early sections.

Most of the film takes place in 1986. My knowledge of South Korea in 1986 is limited, so I have to rely on others. The general opinion seems to be that Memories of Murder does a good job of portraying life at that time. The military dictatorship was brutally oppressive, and this shows in contextual ways. When the call goes out for more forces to hunt down the murderer, the call is rejected because troops are needed to control a rebellion. Everyone assumes that the police torture innocent people, and indeed, questionable tactics are used by the “heroes” of the movie.

This is not a movie where you get to root for characters. What you want is for the mystery to be solved, and you understand the ways the police turn vicious as the case eats away at their insides. But there is no happy ending.

Thus far, Bong has demonstrated the ability to make very good movies, but for some reason, I wouldn’t put any of them in the “great” range just yet. He’s got time, of course, and he has yet to make a stinker. Even his American movie was good (Snowpiercer). Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next. #144 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century (it even sneaks in at #998 in the all-time list). 7/10.


music friday: capitola

Spent a couple of days at the ball park with my brother, which, combined with some friends who are spending the upcoming weekend in Santa Cruz, put me in the mind to devote this week’s Music Friday to music my brother and I listened to when we lived together in Capitola in 1970-71. This list will feature rather extravagant songs ... we didn’t usually spend a day listening to nothing but the classics, but those are what come to mind as I prepare this.

Pink Floyd, “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”. Marmalade, I like marmalade.

Dave Mason, “Look at You Look at Me”. I’ve written about this enough times by now. The second guitar solo is one of my all-time favorites, and emulates the psychedelic feel more than anything else. Since I did a lot of psychedelic drugs then, this becomes an easy pick.

Janis Joplin, “Kozmic Blues”. Actually, I don’t remember which of Janis’ work we listened to the most, so I’ll offer this one.

The Velvet Underground, “I Heard Her Call My Name”. If my memory is correct, my brother found White Light White Heat in a garbage bin.

Boz Scaggs, “Loan Me a Dime”. Another one I’ve already written about several times. This is all about Duane Allman. There was an AM radio station that played music in the FM “underground” format. It went off the air at 6:00 each evening, and “Loan Me a Dime” closed off the broadcast day each time. The original of this on Scaggs’ album had Duane down in the mix ... if I have the story right, later remixes put Duane front and center, which was nice for hearing his work, but arguably not nice for the music as a whole. I think the link is to the original mix, but honestly, I’m not always sure.

Van Morrison, “Cypress Avenue”. This could be any of Astral Weeks, Moondance, or His Band and the Street Choir. The link is to a version that turned up on a televised special, which we watched at the time.

Otis Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness”. The Live in Europe version. The link is to a performance from a similar date. Sorry about the advertising on the video, but it’s one of his most over-the-top performances on the song.


mr. president, or, what the fuck

Marc Maron is a lot of things, but the reason his name has been in the news the last week is because he is a podcaster. Well, a podcaster who managed to get President Obama as a guest. Maron’s podcast is called “WTF with Marc Maron”, and there is no mistaking what the “F” stands for ... Maron begins his podcasts by proclaiming, “How are ya, whatthefuckers, whatthefuckbuddies, whatthefuckeneers” ... you get the idea. He usually starts with general ruminations, and then gets to the week’s interview. He’s cranky and has a knack for getting guests to say things they might have kept to themselves in another context, but Maron mostly has guests he likes, and there is a friendliness to the show, even when it is biting.

How and why Obama ended up as his guest isn’t all that weird, at least not in 2015. What is true is that Maron’s fans hoped that he wouldn’t hold back just because his guest was the most powerful man in the world.

Maron records in his garage, and so his street was closed off, Secret Service took over the block, and the President made his way into the garage. Usually, a host tries to make his guest comfortable in the first few minutes, but it was the other way around this time ... you could hear a bit of nervousness in Maron’s voice (and why not), and it was Obama who began by looking at the stuff on the walls and commenting, as if it was just two guys hanging out.

Was Maron co-opted? Yes, and again, why not? What did people expect? I’ve often said that I’d have trouble being angry with any president, even the ones I hated most, if I had them over for dinner. I might think the man had been the source of war and destruction, but how could I bring that up? “Mr. President, could you pass the peas, and oh, by the way, you are a war criminal.” OK, I might have found it easy to do that if my guest was Dick Cheney. But at the dinner table, the president isn’t my enemy and I’m not a journalist. I like to think I’d offer my opinions honestly, but the truth is, if the conversation never rose above how good the pot roast was, I’d likely leave it at that.

So Maron led the conversation in some interesting directions, but he served mainly as a set-up man. Obama sounded more casual than usual, but the words coming out of his mouth were often rather boilerplate. He never admitted to anything new ... when Maron brought up the good old days of college, no one said the word “drugs” but there was a kind of frat-boy good-natured “drink and smoke” thread, and other than the most virulent anti-Obama listener, nothing about such topics was particularly illuminating. The conversation gave the illusion of being “true”, and Maron led Obama into areas where we got a glimpse of what it’s like to be President that felt very “behind the scenes”. But for the most part, in the context of just sitting in some guy’s garage, Obama portrayed his accomplishments as being evident. He also said he understands that some wish he had gone farther, but that as President, he has to confront the realities of our system, and accept that he’ll only be able to lead us incrementally.

Maron didn’t ask things like “how does it feel to kill innocent people”, and I can’t believe anyone thought that was even a possibility. In fact, this was the key to why Obama was there in the first place. He knew that however cranky Maron can get, he has a fundamentally good heart, and he would know how far he could go with the leader of the free world, just as I would if I were having the President over for dinner. Maron was dressed casually ... it’s a radio podcast, on one level that didn’t matter, but the pictures got out, and while Maron was clean, not a slob, he looked a lot different from Obama (who, as POTUS, must present casual as “rolled up my long sleeves”). It made a visual that suggested more dogged questions than Maron offered.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m knocking Maron’s performance, which was human and completely understandable. But if there was the slightest chance that Maron would actually bring up, say, the deaths of innocents, Obama would never have done the show in the first place. It was just another version of the President turning up on The Tonight Show. Maron was less fawning than most hosts, but he was always respectful, and Obama is excellent in those situations, seeming like a regular guy who got high in college, then like a really smart guy who rules the world, then like a father who dotes on his kids, and never saying anything that will get him in any trouble that didn’t already exist. He wasn’t going to say anything for which he’d have to later apologize for.

In the end, like so many hyped affairs, the lead-up was more exciting than the event itself. I’m glad Marc Maron got some attention, but I don’t think people in general will remember this six months from now.

WTF with Barack Obama


what i watched last week

The Love Goddesses (Saul J. Turell, 1965). I suppose I expected a sexploitation film, but instead I got a documentary about the history of sex in the cinema as represented by the leading women. It includes most people you’d think of (albeit with a bit of a Hollywood bias), and some of the older clips are pretty interesting. The narration makes fairly large claims that may or may not be true, relating social conditions to how women were shown on screen. It’s not that the points are invalid as much as they go by too fast (the film covers around 65 years in around 80 minutes). Every opportunity is taken to show nudity, which is pretty forward for 1965 ... most of it comes from silent films, along with a few from more recent European movies. There is no real attempt to explain exactly what each featured actress had that made them special ... it’s more “Liz Taylor was beautiful” and “Betty Grable was the girl next door” than anything deeper. Of course, a deeper approach would have required fewer actresses or a lot longer running time. It is odd that Shirley Temple and Hayley Mills are included ... they were important, particularly Temple, but more explanation is needed for why they are part of the love goddesses. All in all, it was an amiable look back and nothing more. Additional context comes from Turell’s biography. He was the head of Janus Films beginning in the mid-60s, one of the great distributors of “art films” and thus an important contributor to the film education of countless Americans. Turell was also the driving force behind the 60s TV series Silents Please, a half-hour show that offered classics from the silent era. I remember this show, even though I was only 7-8 when it was on. (My memory is there were reruns long past that time.) Finally, Turell won an Oscar for his short documentary on Paul Robeson. 6/10.

How to Survive a Plague (David France, 2012). Documentary about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. France draws a lot on archival footage of meetings, confrontations, and actions, telling a chronological story of events that are still fresh in our minds. The footage is raw ... it matches its subject matter, forcing the audience to confront the personal damage of the plague, much as ACT-UP did during its civil disobedience strategies. The title gives away the approach of the movie. France offers a blueprint for useful activism, and the film works as well as a primer in such action as it does as a heart-wrenching reminder of the recent past. #611 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Claire’s Knee (Eric Rohmer, 1970). A bunch of articulate people talk a lot. Nothing much happens, which only intensifies what little action there is. Rohmer creates suspense from conversation ... we know what is going through the characters’ minds, and thus we anticipate their actions (the anticipation is suspenseful). Our anticipations aren’t always right, which makes the characters seem complex. The interplay between Jean-Claude Brialy as a soon-to-be wed man and Aurora Cornu as a novelist is like a more mature version of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless, without the pop energy. They talk and talk, and as we listen we get a feel for what each person thinks of themselves. Brialy also has several conversations with two teenage girls who are the object of his ... let’s call it interest. Laura, played by Béatrice Romand, is by far the most interesting ... in fact, she’s the most interesting person in the movie. Claire, though, has a knee, which becomes identified with desire, suppressed either voluntarily or socially. Most of the suspense in the second part of the movie comes from waiting to see if the man will ever get to interact with that knee. It’s definitely a Your Mileage May Vary kind of movie. I found Brialy’s obsession (and his talking about that obsession) to be a sign of self-absorption, but others might find some deep philosophical material here. #544 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


music friday: there's a meeting here tonight

Yesterday, for a Facebook Throwback Thursday, I posted a video of Joe and Eddie singing “There’s a Meeting Here Tonight”, a song I loved when it came out in 1963. The only video anyone seems to have which shows Joe and Eddie “singing” the song (rather than just showing a 45 RPM record going around while we listen to the audio), from a movie called Hootenanny Hoot:

It’s an odd clip. Obviously, they are lip syncing, but that’s not unusual. What is weird is that Joe and Eddie were clearly filmed separately from the crowd scenes. Also, it is clear that if Joe and Eddie were actually in the same place as the audience, they would be the only black people in the room. And if there had actually been a Hootenanny concert featuring everyone who performs in the movie ... well, Joe and Eddie would still be the only black people in the room. Honestly, I’ve never seen the movie, but my guess is Joe and Eddie are the only people of color in the entire film.

I posted the video on Throwback Thursday because of a slight connection I have with the singers ... they met at a middle school in Berkeley that my mom and both of my kids attended.

This morning, the video exists within a disturbing context: the Charleston church shooting. In Hollywood, Joe and Eddie stopped by the hootenanny to sing their hit (after the place had been cleared of an audience of white people). In Charleston, a young white man entered a meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and started shooting. He murdered nine people.

I’ve got nothing. I don’t know what the connection is between the Joe and Eddie video and the atrocity in Charleston. I know that they connect in my mind in some unexplainable way. I know that when I was ten years old, I liked listening to that song. I lived in a town beyond segregated: it wasn’t that whites and blacks didn’t mix, it was that Antioch, California had no black people in 1963. Black people lived in the neighboring town of Pittsburg. I don’t know how that applies. I’ve got nothing. I know that this seems worse than other killings, not only because there were nine victims, but also because it took place in a church. But don’t be misled. Black people are murdered all over this country, in church and out. It always matters, it is always worse.

I've got nothing.

 

"At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."

-- Abraham Lincoln


nancy marchand

Television critic Alan Sepinwall has a tradition of revisiting a series every summer, watching and writing about one episode a week. This year, he has chosen Season One of The Sopranos. We’ve gotten through the first three episodes. I bring this up because it was on this date in 2000 that Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s mother Livia, died.

Here is the first time we meet Livia:

https://youtu.be/o45oIge8RzY