music friday: what I like

Came across an article that prompted me to head straight to Amazon to buy a book. The essence is in the title of the article: “The Gap Between What You Like and What You Say You Like”. I felt this connected to last week’s Music Friday post, wherein I used Last.fm, which tracks what I listen to, to see which tunes were my favorites of various randomly chosen artists. As I have noted in the past, Last.fm doesn’t lie ... I may say I like one thing, but it will tell you what I really listen to. This isn’t exactly like that ... I’m not listing my most-played songs. I just find it interesting what songs I play most by artists I like. So here I go again, ten songs, in each case featuring my most-played track by the artist in question.


after they’ve seen paree

It’s a story I’ve told before, but it is Throwback Thursday, after all.

My wife and I made our first trip to Europe in 1984. We stayed with Robin’s sister and her soon-to-be husband Peter in England ... I want to say they lived in Little Bookham, but I’m not sure. As I recall (I’m only going to say that once, but imagine I’ve said it before every sentence ... this was 32 years ago, after all), we quickly took off on a car trip. We were staying for three weeks, so time was tight. We drove down through France after taking the ferry (urp, barf), and crossed over into Andorra, which I probably didn’t know existed at the time. Then to Barcelona, where Peter had family ... he was a true European, English heritage but with time spent in Spain and France at least, conversant in several languages. While in Barcelona, we visited the Museu Fundacio Joan Miro, where Robin’s sister took the following photo, which recently turned up on Facebook:

miro 1984

I’m not sure what order we did things, but either going to or coming from France, we shopped in Andorra, which was duty-free. We also spent a night in the Pyrenees at a place Peter’s family owned ... there was a town named La Seu d’Urgell, perhaps it was there. On our way back through France, we spent one night in Meung, a small town on the Loire where I had the best birthday dinner of my life.

Back in England, Peter took me to Wimbledon. I always say I saw McEnroe and Connors at Wimbledon, which is technically true, although it was in different matches. Connors beat a fellow American, Lloyd Bourne, on Court One, after McEnroe had dispatched Australian Paul McNamee. I have long forgotten this, but McNamee actually took the third set in that match, making him the only player to do so against McEnroe in the entire tournament.

What brings all this to mind is a different sport. Euro 2016 is going on right now in France, and when we vacationed in 1984, the Euros were taking place, also in France. Wherever we went as we drove from England to Spain and back again, people were glued to their televisions. Spain made it to the finals, where they lost to France, 2-0. It was then that I discovered my first soccer hero, Michel Platini, who scored nine goals in the tournament (no one else scored more than three). What I knew about soccer in 1984 would barely fill an English teacup, but I have Platini to thank for getting me interested. (Here's a link to all of his goals: https://youtu.be/IU9S9oaa-AU

Platini was indeed one of the greatest soccer players of all time, and after his playing days, he went on to have a significant career in administration, spending eight years as President of UEFA. Sadly, not all stories end well ... he is currently banned for ethics corruption. Not to excuse him, but he was born at the wrong time ... it would seem that every soccer administrator today is steeped in corruption.

I retained a lot from that European trip. It was my first time in Spain (albeit we never got close to Andalucía ... that waited until 2000). When we went to Europe, I had just finished ten years in the factory. I guess it was a case of “How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?”, because within a couple of months, I had walked off the job, never to return.


winter light (ingmar bergman, 1963)

Earlier in the week, Charlie Bertsch posted a Facebook update about a movie he’d seen that inspired, as of this writing, more than 80 replies, and led to an essay by Charlie (“Consider The Lobster”) that extended his original thoughts. (I don’t think it matters what the movie was, and in fact Charlie didn’t tell us at first. It was The Lobster, if anyone cares.) It isn’t exactly true that his update and essay inspired this post, because I was going to watch and write about Winter Light already, but the two viewing experiences fit together nicely. Here is his original update (hopefully, he won’t mind my quoting it):

Charlie Bertsch just spent two hours watching a film that felt at least twice that long. It made him miserable, much of the time. He considered leaving before it was over on several occasions. And he could not bear the ending. Yet he would definitely consider it a worthwhile experience. Certainly, he won't soon forget the film or the discomfort that it caused him.

My first response was that life was too short for such “worthwhile” experiences. But the subsequent discussion, and the essay, makes me realize there was more going on than mere discomfort.

In his essay, Charlie introduces two major points. “For me,” he wrote, “becoming a true cinephile was inextricably bound up with learning to distinguish between the experience of watching films for the first time and the experience of processing them afterwards, whether in exchanges with friends or during second, third or fourth viewings.” I certainly appreciate the importance of post-viewing processing, but I am perhaps too much a child of Pauline “I Only Watch ‘Em Once” Kael to think extra viewings are mandatory. Still, I watch plenty of movies more than once (Winter Light included), and I often find my differing reactions useful. If, as I believe, Kael is partly arguing that our personal experiences while watching a movie (see Shoeshine) enter into our evaluations, then surely watching a movie in 2016 that I last saw in 1973 will be instructive, because I am not the same person.

Charlie takes it a bit further: “I need to be able to distance myself from them once the films are over if I want to produce an analysis that doesn’t merely expand upon that initial rooting interest.” If nothing else, this explains a lot of Charlie’s writing on film (and art in general). I want to believe it, and when I would function as, say, a teacher, I would break down a movie the same way I was trained to break down a poem. Having said that, I am often a victim of my initial rooting interest, so when I saw The Road Warrior when it came out, my response was largely to pick my jaw up off of the floor, and when I saw Fury Road, one reason I loved it was because my jaw ended up in that same place. There is a tension between my rooting and my later analysis, and I am not always as diligent as Charlie about making sure to distance myself at some point.

And so, Winter Light, the second film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Winter Light was Bergman’s favorite of his films, which is believable. I saw the first film in the trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, when I was a teenager, and was much taken with the “schizophrenic” main character. Truth be told, I romanticized her illness, the way misunderstood teenagers will do. I then saw the trilogy in the early-70s when I was a film major (and, truth be told, still a teenager, being 19 at the time). I still loved Through a Glass Darkly, but I thought Winter Light was boring and The Silence ... well, perhaps it gave me discomfort. I remember writing about it for a class, and summarizing that it was “Sick. Sick, sick, sick.” (I really have to see that one again.) Well, I finally returned to Winter Light more than 40 years later, and I think I understand why I was negative about it when I was 19, and why I liked it now that I’m 62.

But first, I need to reiterate that the movie hasn’t changed over those 40+ years, I have changed, and to the extent that my opinion of the film has also changed, I am a poster child for the importance of personal experiences being reflected in the art we take in.

Winter Light is right up my alley, as it would have been in 1973. A pastor is faced with an existential crisis, finding he has lost his faith. According to the IMDB, Bergman’s then wife said, “Yes, Ingmar, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s a dreary masterpiece.” She is correct, but I am no longer convinced, as I probably was in 1973, that dreary=bad. These kinds of crises are dreary as often as not.

I could have been that pastor. By 1973, I, too, had lost my faith, but I wasn’t troubled by this the way a pastor might have been. My great hero at that point (and still) was Dr. Rieux from Camus’ novel The Plague. Rieux confronts the silence of God, and while he may never have been a believer, God’s absence is still oddly present. The plague that attacks the small town in the novel requires a response, and Rieux does his job as a doctor, trying to fight the plague because that’s what you do. While Rieux (the narrator of the novel) refuses to call himself a hero, he acts heroically. He is a role model, in my mind. When I was 19, I had no time for an unbelieving pastor who spent all his time whining about his miseries. It was existentialism without heroism, and that might be closer to true existentialism, but I was 19 and I wanted heroes to look up to. Thus, I dismissed the pastor, and dismissed the film.

Now, though, I see the silliness of my notions of existential heroism. (I still believe in them, I just know they are silly.) I’ve also lived long enough to know I am more like that pastor than I am like Dr. Rieux. So as I watched Winter Light in 2016, I was much more sympathetic to his struggles. And with that sympathy, I became involved in the film in a way I hadn’t before. If in 1973 I thought the 81-minute film must have been more than two hours long, in 2016 I saw and admired the compact nature of those 81 minutes.

I still prefer Through a Glass Darkly ... I can’t lose all of my rooting interest. But Winter Light is a good movie in its own right. “God” help me, I think I’m going to have to watch The Silence again. #470 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time. 7/10.

(It seems that I am incapable of talking about Bergman without including this SCTV clip)

 


music friday

Where did this come from? I was listening to a great Spotify playlist from Sasha Frere-Jones, “Perfect Recordings”. I took ten tracks from shuffle play and checked the artists on my Last.fm page. This page tracks what I listen to, so if I enter, say, Sly and the Family Stone, it tells me that while “Everyday People” is the most-played song by the entire Last.fm community, my most-played track is “Sing a Simple Song”. Now, if you asked me what my favorite Sly song was, it wouldn’t be “Sing a Simple Song”. But there’s no debating the part where I apparently listen to that one more than others. So, here are ten songs, in each case featuring my most-played track by the artist in question. These are not necessarily the songs on Sasha's playlist. (For what it’s worth, “Kerosene” comes closest to being my favorite song of the artist.)


by request: the blue angel (josef von sternberg, 1930)

The film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, and the first in her long association with Sternberg. Sternberg claims she got the part because she acted bored during her screen test, thinking she wasn’t going to get the part, an attitude that was right in line with Sternberg’s idea for the character. The screen test exists, and you can see in the first 30 seconds that this woman has something special. She knows how to smoke a cigarette on camera, she is completely unfazed by her surroundings, it’s all acting but she makes it seem real. Dietrich was in her late-20s and had been in movies for a decade. Some of that early period shows up here ... while with Sternberg’s help, Dietrich later became the woman we know today, that transformation had yet to happen. She’s bulky, with thighs that could kill you (and you’d die happy). The plot may be foolish, but you can certainly understand why Emil Jannings’ aging professor would fall for her.

There are at least two versions ... German-language and English-language versions were filmed simultaneously. (It was the first talkie from Germany.) I saw the English version some years ago, and remember little except it seemed stilted next to the other. I’d say the attitude towards sex was matter-of-fact, and indeed, Dietrich as Lola Lola is a part of that. Except Lola/Dietrich has something special, she knows it, she uses it, and despite Jannings being the “star”, the film is Dietrich’s. There are glimpses of a Lola who cares a little bit for the professor, but in the end, he comes off as a momentary play thing. He, of course, thinks theirs is a romance for the ages.

The latter part of the movie goes by too quickly. The lead up to the professor’s downfall is gradual, but once Lola loses interest, it’s barely any time at all before the professor is in his clown makeup, as if he was trying out for Freaks.

The look of the film is straight out of German expressionism, while the use of sound is interesting to a modern audience without seeming quite right (which is just off-putting enough to add to the distortions of the visuals).

Ultimately, we return to The Blue Angel for Dietrich. It has a place in film history, but beyond that, you have a moderately intriguing movie with a Marlene Dietrich who captures the screen in her every scene. #499 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.


taste preferences, or, you are what you eat

I just finished a Facebook meme, The 80s Music Challenge, where once a day for a week I posted a favorite tune from the 1980s. With each post, I also nominated someone else to participate. I’ve found their subsequent posts to be fascinating. Most of them haven’t finished all seven tunes yet, but here is what we have so far. I have no idea exactly what we can learn from this, but it seems like a peek into the lives of these people.

The first person I nominated was my sister Sue. She said the 80s were known by her kids for “riding in the car with Mom” songs. She’s posted five tunes:

  • Huey Lewis and the News, “The Heart of Rock & Roll”
  • Wham!, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”
  • Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”
  • Taylor Dayne, “Don’t Rush Me”
  • Kenny Loggins, “Footloose”

Next, I nominated my old friend Marc:

  • Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Southern Cross”
  • U2, “I Will Follow”
  • U2, “With or Without You”
  • Bruce Springsteen, “The River”
  • Dire Straits (to be honest, I’m not sure which tune he chose)
  • George Harrison, “Got My Mind Set on You”

Then came a friend from way back, Barbara:

  • Electric Light Orchestra, “Calling America”
  • Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”

I tagged fellow Bruce fan Eileen:

  • The Go-Go’s, “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep)”
  • Dexys Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”
  • Steve Winwood, “Higher Love”
  • Van Halen, “Jump”

And Ray L:

  • Fischer-Z, “So Long”
  • Wall of Voodoo, “Back in Flesh”
  • Our Daughter’s Wedding, “Lawnchairs”
  • Public Image Ltd, “Careering”
  • Blancmange, “Living on the Ceiling”
  • Screaming Blue Messiahs, “I Wanna Be a Flintstone”
  • Jerry Harrison, “Rev It Up”

Don’t you feel like you know these people, just a little bit, after seeing their lists?

OK, here are the seven tunes I chose ... analyze this!

  • Cameo, “Word Up!”
  • Laurie Anderson, “O Superman (For Massenet)”
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message”
  • The Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed”
  • Eric B. and Rakin, “Paid in Full (Seven Minutes of Madness – The Coldcut Remix)
  • Pretenders, “Precious”
  • Bruce Springsteen, “Brilliant Disguise”

the greatest

In a post about honorifics, I wrote:

You know what I really find attractive? The honorific “Champ” when it’s given to a boxing champion. I love that no one is called “Champ” unless they have actually earned it. Even more, I like that you can never lose the title, as a referent if not literally. Even after you are no longer the literal champion, you remain “Champ”. So Muhammad Ali is “Champ” ... George Foreman is “Champ” ... they will never not be “Champ”.

I’ve heard this a lot in the last couple of days, as fighters from the past are interviewed about Ali. If they were ever champions in the literal sense, they are still called “Champ” today. I just heard Bob Ley call Larry Holmes “Champ” during an interview.

They are all “Champ”. But only one of them is called “The Greatest”.


ali

More than once, I’ve told stories about the year we lived on Telegraph Avenue. We’re talking 1974-75, and ... well, I wrote about it more than ten years ago, check out “Telegraph Avenue Anecdotes”.

On that post, I wrote:

There was other stuff that happened ... the night Ali beat Foreman, people celebrated in the street, and when Saigon fell/was liberated in '75, two different parades started up, one coming down Telegraph towards campus, the other coming downhill on Haste, and when the two parades, who couldn't see each other as we could from our window, met up at the corner of Telegraph and Haste, there was great fanfare.

In 2005, some 30 years after the fact, I seem to have my memories straight. But another decade has clouded my brain. When I heard that Muhammad Ali was on life support, I thought back on his importance, and remembered a Telegraph Avenue anecdote. But I remembered it wrong, confusing the two events mentioned above. So my most recent memory was that when Ali beat Foreman, two parades started up, and when they met, there was great fanfare.

I think there’s a reason why I combined the two memories into one. In 1975, the marchers were chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” It was a clear marker of a crucial moment in world history. In 1974, the revelers were shouting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” In its own way, that night was a crucial moment, as well. For Muhammad Ali transcended his sport.

I don’t know of a single person from the world of sports who was as important in the world outside of sports as was Muhammad Ali. This is why the phrase “Greatest Of All Time” should probably just be retired, because there is only one Greatest. The closest thing I can think of to Ali is Martina Navratilova, but whatever her impact on tennis, even a great like Martina takes a back seat to Ali.

I used to follow boxing. There is something about a big championship bout that entices and thrills. But then Ali got Parkinson’s. And as far as I know, no connection has ever been proven between Ali’s boxing career and the later development of Parkinson’s. But the damage was done, whether I can pinpoint a correlation or not. The three fights with Joe Frazier were enough on their own to destroy a man. The fights at the end of Ali’s career, when he could no longer float like a butterfly, put finished to what the Frazier fights had started.

I have great respect for the way Muhammad Ali kept on as his disease worsened. But whenever I saw him, and thought about the brilliant light of his early years, I knew I could no longer praise boxing.


music friday: the 1980s music challenge

I’m participating in a Facebook meme, The 80s Music Challenge (“Post a favorite 1980s tune for each of seven days. Nominate someone to do the same.”). Here are ten tunes, one for each year of the 1980s. I won’t list any tune that I used for my Challenge. (All quoted material from the inevitable Wikipedia.)

1980: Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks”. “It was the first certified gold rap song for Hip Hop, and the second certified gold 12 inch single in the history of music.”

1981: Black Flag, “Rise Above”.Damaged ... has been recognized as a punk classic and one of the most influential punk records ever made”.

1982: Pretenders, “My City Was Gone”. “It has been used as the opening theme 'bumper' for Rush Limbaugh's popular American talk radio program since 1984”.

1983: Cyndi Lauper, “Money Changes Everything”. “It has been released in over 27 variations across the world”.

1984: Ashford and Simpson, “Solid”. “In 2009, Ashford & Simpson remade the song in honor of President Barack Obama, calling it ‘Solid (As Barack)’.”

1985: The Cramps, “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog? “The album was dedicated to Ricky Nelson”.

1986: Public Image Ltd., “Rise”. “The song contains the phrase 'May The Road Rise With You', which is an old Irish blessing.”

1987: Los Lobos, “La Bamba”. “When the Los Lobos cover of Valens' version peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1987, Valens was retroactively credited with writing a No. 1 single.”

1988: Lucinda Williams, “Passionate Kisses”. “Carpenter's hit cover adheres closely in tempo, feel, and instrumentation to Williams' original recording similarly relying on the catchy guitar riff to anchor the record.”

1989: Bonnie Raitt, “Thing Called Love”.Nick of Time topped the Billboard 200 chart, selling five million copies, and won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year”.


what i watched last week

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009). I loved A Separation and The Past, the films Farhadi wrote and directed after About Elly, so my expectations were high. It didn’t quite reach the heights of those other films, but that’s not a dismissal, just a way of noting how great the others are. It suggests L’Avventura, if the characters in that movie actually cared about other people. When a key character disappears, you think you’ll see how “regular” people react to the unexpected loss of a friend. But Farhadi has a way of getting inside his characters, exposing them, helping us understand them even when they are acting poorly. To some extent, About Elly, like the Antonioni film, is less “about Elly” and more about the people who are left behind. What makes About Elly different is that we never lose track of Elly as a character ... she remains important, not just as something to thrust the narrative forward only to be gradually ignored, but as a real person. Antonioni’s movie is ironically titled ... the “adventure” isn’t really what the movie is about. About Elly, on the other hand, shows its hand in the title, without irony. #749 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Captain America: Civil War (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2016). This should really have its own post under “By Request”, since my wife wanted to go see it. But I’m behind on both my movie watching and my movie writing, so it will end up here, instead. This movie could have come out twenty years ago, for all the influence my opinion will have. Not that I have any influence, but Captain America: Civil War has been out for less than a month, and it has already grossed more than $1.1 Billion worldwide. These movies aren’t fool-proof, and it’s true that Civil War is a very good film of its type, but those people who spent that billion dollars don’t need me to tell them that. I don’t have a lot of knowledge when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ... it’s a sign of the importance Marvel has convinced us resides in its concept that I feel obliged to list the things I have seen (to be honest, I might have seen a couple of others ... these are the ones I remember): the movies Iron Man, The Avengers, Ant-Man, and now Captain America: Civil War, and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones. I like the movies I’ve seen without feeling like watching them a second time, while I’ve invested lots of time in those TV series, if only because there are so many episodes. For what it’s worth, my favorite MCU character is Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and even that isn’t enough to get me to watch the first Captain America movie, in which she plays a big part. Civil War was as good as the other movies I’ve seen, entertaining for most of its 2 1/2-hour running time, with some good acting from Robert Downey Jr., and an examination of the implications of superheroes that was good to see, if not nearly as important as the cool fight scenes. As I say, this can’t serve as a consumer guide ... one billion dollars makes light of such an idea ... but, as I did with the other MCU films I’ve watched, I’m saying 7/10.