beauty and the beast (jean cocteau, 1946)

I had mixed memories about this fantasy classic. I have never thought of myself as a Cocteau aficionado ... I tend to prefer more concrete narratives, if nothing else. I may have confused this with The Blood of a Poet, which is far more surreal. I had given Beauty and the Beast 7/10 at some point in the past, which I don’t recall. The point is, I wasn’t in the best frame for enjoying the movie.

Happily, my concerns were unfounded. The film begins with a brief prologue inviting us to approach the film as a child would. “I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's open sesame: ‘Once upon a time...’”. For whatever reason, I was able to pull a little of that childlike simplicity into my viewing, and it is an effective summons that allows an adult to experience this magical film on something resembling its own terms. It works because the magic world of The Beast is created out of technically simple but artistically profound elements. It isn’t just adults calling upon their childlike selves that can love the movie ... children as well are captivated by it.

Kids can latch onto the simplest aspects of the premise: the lowly sister who becomes a princess, the beast who loves on the inside, the magic that takes place whenever we are in The Beast’s realm. But the film is simultaneously for adults, who are entranced by the interplay between Beast and Belle. The Beast is outwardly monstrous, and at first he seems intent on verifying our first perception of him. Belle is virginal and giving, and at first she sees only the monster in The Beast. But she gradually sees what is inside The Beast. And, more importantly, she never gives in to who she is. Beauty and the Beast is not the story of a woman controlled by a man/beast. Belle is a living, breathing human character, who always tries to be the best person possible. She will act for others ... her plight comes because she wants to help her father ... but she makes her own decisions, with a clarity of mind that is impressive.

There is so much going on in Beauty and the Beast. The real world and the “beast” world look and feel different in surprisingly subtle ways. Jean Marais shows his personality in all his roles, making the connection between rogue and beast long before he turns into a prince. Josette Day blooms when wearing the gown The Beast gives her, but she maintains her individuality throughout. Everything, including the Beast World, is just close enough to reality to seem both familiar and magical.

Between the fairly standard narrative and the way magic is always close to reality, Beauty and the Beast connects with me in ways Blood of a Poet does not. I’m glad I re-evaluated this classic. #250 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

music friday: shout

I’ve been posting music videos on Facebook for my cousin, and he recently responded with a great old Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. Sister Rosetta was one of the first big gospel music stars, and her willingness to crossover to mainstream audiences meant she was a seminal rock-and-roller, which some thought wasn’t appropriate for gospel music. To my ear, her music was always gospel, no matter what she added (her guitar is always great, as you can see here):

The Isley Brothers had a hit in 1959 with one of the most durable songs in rock and roll, “Shout”. The fervor and call-and-response structure identified it as gospel, but they weren’t singing about the Lord. This was sex.

“Shout” has been a part of American music culture ever since, with perhaps its most famous appearance being with “Otis Day & The Knights” in Animal House:

And it still gets played today:

like a rolling stone

Dylan has written a lot of fuck-you songs over the years. This song begins, poking a stick at Miss Lonely, and then the chorus hits and we think, yes, I've been feeling like that for a long time, without a home, a complete unknown. And suddenly we no longer identify with the singer ... we realize he's singing about us. And we sing along on that chorus, asking ourselves and everyone else in the audience, how does it feel? I've felt a connection to the complete unknown since the first time I heard this song. It isn't masochism, it's just a recognition of community. When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. This isn't "Positively 4th Street" or "Idiot Wind" ... this is a national anthem.


don't throw back that ball, keep it

The baseball season is over for Giants fans, but I can still drag out a happy memory from 2002, a season that didn’t end well. It was the third year I had full season tickets, which meant I went to every home post-season game, including Game 4 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, which was played 14 years ago today, October 13, 2002. The Giants were up 2 games to 1 in the best-of-seven series. The Cards’ SS was a future Giants’ post-season hero, Edgar Renteria. The starting pitchers were Andy Benes for the Cardinals, in what was to be his final game as a major-leaguer, and Livan Hernandez for the Giants.

The Cardinals jumped on Livan for two runs in the first, and Benes held off the Giants until the sixth, when two straight walks sent him to the showers. J.T. Snow doubled off of reliever Rick White to tie the game, which is how it stood until the bottom of the 8th. White was still pitching, and in fact had retired six straight after Snow’s hit. There were two outs, with the dangerous Barry Bonds at the plate. You youngsters out there might find it hard to believe, but those of us who there during the latter part of Barry’s career won’t be surprised by what followed. Bonds had been walked 198 times during the regular season. He had been walked four times in five games in the NLDS against Atlanta. The Cardinals walked him seven times in the first three games of this series, and they walked him again in the 6th inning, when he scored after Snow doubled. So here in the bottom of the 8th of a tie game, two outs, no one on base, pitcher has retired six in a row ... and St. Louis manager Tony “The Genius” LaRussa walked Bonds intentionally.

Up came Benito Santiago. Benito had three hits including a homer in Game One, and two more hits in Game Three.

This happened next:

The Giants went on to win, 4-3, and won the series the next day, setting up the ill-fated World Series against the Angels. Benito Santiago was named Most Valuable Player of the NLCS.

the great escape (john sturges, 1963)

A perfect title for a movie that excels as escapist entertainment without offering anything more.

I feel like The Great Escape is remembered fondly by those who saw it on its release. It did well at the box office, and we watched it again mostly because both my wife and I recalled liking it long ago. It is very straightforward, constructed in an easy-to-understand manner, with an effective slow build until the actual escape (the film is too long at almost three hours, but once it gets there, it delivers). Whatever liberties are taken with the actual events, the downbeat ending is very much in tune with those events, and perhaps give The Great Escape slightly more resonance than other blockbusters. But it is a stretch to make too much of that resonance.

Bruce Eder thinks highly of The Great Escape:

John Sturges' The Great Escape could easily be the most under-appreciated movie of its genre and decade ... Beneath the fact-based heroics, the humor of many of the portrayals and Elmer Bernstein's rich, rousing score lay the elements of a classic tragedy. While ordinary viewers responded to the driving dramatic forces among the characters ... critics and scholars viewed the movie as an artless, empty blockbuster. They were looking for self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches in a story that required only a straightforward, unpretentious telling. The Great Escape expresses its depth and drama through action rather than ponderous dialogue, and in that sense, was probably too true to its subject for its own good, at least in terms of achieving critical respect.

Eder’s description of the film is accurate, but he concocts a straw-man critic that I don’t think exists. The Great Escape is far from artless, but who exactly needed “self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches”? Movies that emphasize action are not rejected by critics, who, as far as I know, hate “ponderous dialogue” as much as the next person. The Great Escape is what it wants and needs to be, and audiences respond to that. There is no need to “elevate” it beyond its clear virtues.

The “based on a true story” angle is about as close to real as it ever is. There was an escape. Americans were not an important part of that escape, but for box-office purposes, Steve McQueen and James Garner were signed up and given big parts. The most iconic scene in the film, McQueen’s chase on a motorcycle, never happened. McQueen asked for a motorcycle scene because he liked to ride. That no American tried to escape on a motorcycle is irrelevant ... it’s the best scene in the movie, the one people remember fifty years later.

The Great Escape is a fine adventure that holds your attention for nearly three hours. That is good enough. #807 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

the phantom carriage (victor sjöström, 1921)

I spent a lot of time in my formative years as a film major watching silent movies, and while I don’t see that many any longer, I don’t go running in the other direction when one turns up. Silent movies are often lovely to look at. The one thing that I usually find bothersome is the acting style that was prevalent at the time.

The Phantom Carriage was my first Swedish silent film, and that makes for a pretty small sample size. I can’t make any pronouncements about silent Swedes. But based on this example, not everyone was utilizing exaggerated body language and expressions. The acting in The Phantom Carriage is fairly naturalistic, not at all distracting to the modern audience. Sjöström also utilizes a variety of narrative tricks, most notably flashbacks piled on flashbacks, so of course I was confused part of the time. But, given the supernatural nature of the story, that was appropriate.

The phantom carriage of the title is driven by a servant of Death, and both the servant and the carriage are see-through, not of this world. If the special effects seem a bit amateurish today, they were likely quite impressive in 1921, and again, when the effects are a bit clunky, it merely adds to the supernatural feel. Since the cinematography is stellar, the look of the film never disappoints, even when the effects are lacking. “Lacking” is the wrong word ... it’s only lacking when compared to modern CGI, but The Phantom Carriage isn’t a highly-regarded film because of its special effects, it is highly-regarded because of its artful look at existence and morality.

You can easily see why Ingmar Bergman loved this film. Its influence is all over Bergman’s work. This is a good thing when it comes to the use of symbolism and stark photography. But I admit I thought The Phantom Carriage bogged down as it addressed the hoped-for rehabilitation of a drunk. It felt too much like a Message Picture, which is rarely my kind of movie.

Still, The Phantom Carriage works. Victor Sjöström not only directed, but also starred and wrote the screenplay. There is a confidence here that pushes aside most complaints.

#957 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

ash, the evil dead, s. clay wilson, and my wife

My wife doesn’t have a birthday. She has a Birthday Month. So I have to be on my toes all through October, not just on the 4th (which is what the rest of us would call her birthday).

Last night we settled in to watch TV. She wanted to start with Designated Survivor, the new, so-so- Kiefer Sutherland show. I was feeling a bit sad ... silly, really, but I wished we liked more of the same TV shows and movies. Designated Survivor may turn out to be a show we watch together, but it kind of gives “common ground” a bad name.

After that, we watched the season opener of Ash vs Evil Dead. This is more like it, I thought, I like this show a lot, which reveals my real definition of “shows we watch together”: something I like that she tolerates. Except she doesn’t tolerate Ash vs Evil Dead, she likes it, too. And she occasionally laughs, which if you know Robin, you know laughing at TV isn’t a regular occurrence. But it’s one of the reasons I love her so ... she’ll sit quietly as a comedy plays, then laugh at arguably the goriest show in TV history (gore isn’t inherently funny, but ridiculous, over-the-top gore is).

And if Season One was the Goriest Show of All Time, Season Two had an early scene that easily topped anything we’d seen before. And we laughed. I can’t find the scene on YouTube, which is probably just as well. The best I can do is this Season Two trailer, which was apparently too gory for Comic Con:

Later in the evening, we spent a few minutes chuckling over a couple of S. Clay Wilson drawings.

Now I ask you: what kind of moron would think he and his wife had few shared tastes, when she laughed at Evil Dead and S. Clay Wilson?

Yep, I’m a moron.

And my wife is the greatest.


music friday: bruce springsteen, born to run

Early in his autobiography, Bruce Springsteen writes:

In the beginning there was a great darkness upon the Earth. There was Christmas and your birthday but beyond that all was a black endless authoritarian void. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to look back upon, no future, no history. It was all a kid could do to make it to summer vacation.

Then, in a moment of light, blinding as a universe birthing a billion new suns, there was hope, sex, rhythm, excitement, possibility, a new way of seeing, of feeling, of thinking, of looking at your body, of combing your hair, of wearing your clothes, of moving and of living. There was a joyous demand made, a challenge, a way out of this dead-to-life world, this small-town grave with all the people I dearly loved and feared buried in it alongside of me.

He is describing the first time he saw Elvis Presley on TV. He was two weeks shy of his 7th birthday.

Born to Run allows us to see what drove Bruce from a very early age. We’ve heard the stories in bits and pieces over the years, but seeing them in one place, chronological, has a special impact. It turns out many of those stories he used to tell on stage about growing up were true. Bruce Springsteen was a misfit who found his calling in rock and roll music. And for many reasons, all of them discussed in this book, Bruce was the guy who did indeed make it. Writing about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame jam:

In 1964, millions of kids saw the Stones and the Beatles and decided, “That looks like fun.” Some of them went out and bought instruments. Some of them learned to play a little. Some got good enough to maybe join a local band. Some might have even made a demo tape. Some might have lucked out and gotten a record deal of some sort. A few of those might have sold some records and done some touring. A few of those might have had a small hit, a short career in music, and managed to eke out a modest living. A very few of those might have managed to make a life as a musician, and a very, very few might have had some continuing success that brought them fame, fortune and deep gratification, and tonight, one of those ended up standing behind Mick Jagger and George Harrison, a Stone and a Beatle.... I knew my talents and I knew I worked hard, but THESE, THESE WERE THE GODS, and I was, well ... one hardworking guitar man. I carried the journeyman in me for better or worse, a commonness, and I always would.

There is an undertone throughout the book that tells us Bruce knows for many of us in his audience, he is that god. And he never downplays the role his big ego played in his career. But it feels legitimate when he deflects such thoughts, standing up not for the gods, but for the journeymen.

Most of the pre-publication things I read focused on his fight against depression and anxiety. This does indeed take up a sizable portion of Born to Run, especially in the last third, when he finally stops and takes stock of where his life has gone. This is vital, crucial material ... knowing that our hero fights against the same problems we all do matters more than perhaps it should ... and Bruce pulls no punches in talking about his battles. He had promised us a real, warts-and-all picture of his life, and he delivers. In those sections, I was reminded of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, which described how debilitating life on the road became for her. You wonder how he was able to continue making music during those times.

And the music ... the book has three parts. The first takes us through his childhood, up until his first two albums have been released in 1973. The second section goes through the most vital artistic period of his career, from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love. The third and final section seems appetizing, kind of like watching the E Street Band play music from the “Other Band” years. But the final section is also the shortest. While we get several chapters about the making of Born to Run, while all of the subsequent albums through Tunnel of Love get detailed treatment, suddenly the book shifts. Part of this is the shift in his life ... once he pairs up with Patti, things are better, and as their three kids are born, life seems worth living in ways that perhaps hadn’t been true before that.

The third section, and the first chapter of that section, is called “Living Proof”, and begins with the birth of his first child. The next chapter is devoted to Patti, then to the firing of the E Street Band, LA riots, a marriage and a honeymoon, another child, and then, finally, comes “The Other Band”, which gets one short section in the “Going to the Chapel” chapter. He briefly names each of the band members, says of the subsequent tour “It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times.” That’s pretty much it. After the in-depth look at each of his albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town are barely mentioned. This is a period where, musically, we know too little, and I was looking forward to this part of the book, so I was disappointed to see it dismissed.

In fairness, much of that final section is about his depression. While he writes a bit more about albums like The Rising, none of his work of the last nearly thirty years gets too bogged down in details. The first two sections are so engrossing, the third becomes a bit of a letdown, at least in the discussion of music. And this might speak to his musical career ... while he has made some fine albums since Tunnel of Love, with a few classic songs, what makes him still excitingly relevant is the passion that remains in his live performances. He has inched closer to being a nostalgia act, except when you play with the fervor of Bruce and the E Street Band, you are caught up in something far greater than mere nostalgia.

He also has an interesting way of always finding the best in people. We learn that Danny Federici was a handful, but in the end, he played the organ with heart and that’s what mattered. His first manager famously screwed him over, but Bruce also insists that he believed in Bruce when no one else did. Even his father, with whom Bruce has the most complicated relationship, becomes a more sympathetic figure in the end. And when there are problems, Bruce often puts the blame on himself. His first marriage goes by in a flash, but he has nothing but good things to say about his wife, and puts all of the negativity on himself. As for Patti ... well, it reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own wife. He fucks up, she sets him on the right track, she doesn’t take shit but she is always there for him, and even when she is hard-headed it is in his best interest. If the first two thirds of the book are about reaching to the gods of rock and roll, much of the final third is about his wife the red-headed goddess and their three offspring. It isn’t dull, especially with the freak outs and therapy sessions and psych meds, but it’s as if the music takes a back seat.

And you know what? He deserves it. He gave so much of himself to rock and roll, in the process enriching the lives of so many of us. He’s earned a break.

Except he can’t help himself, so he keeps giving. As he says in “Darkness on the Edge of Town”,

Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town

He finally sees past the darkness, but he still has it in his bones.

Near the end, he tells about an operation he had not that long ago, a story that sums up the above. Over the years of giving the proverbial 110% on stage, he’d developed cervical disc problems. The surgery sounds scary, especially for a singer:

They knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked!

And his voice was fine, a few months later. But this is where it gets good. He heads back on tour “with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.”


There are a lot of woman-centered half-hour series on television these days, which is a welcome trend. Besides the ensemble productions like Girls and Orange Is the New Black (which actually runs for an hour), there’s Broad City and Lady Dynamite and One Mississippi and Better Things, and the subject of this post, the wonderful Fleabag. These shows don’t just feature women, they are created by women. Many of them seem at least partly autobiographical, although I don’t know how far down that road I’d want to go. Broad City is my favorite, but after a six-episode first season, Fleabag is running a close second.

Creator/writer/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the key to what makes Fleabag great, which given her multiple duties might seem obvious. I’m inclined to hail a new star, and ask where she has been all of our lives, but of course, she’s been around for a long time (she’s 31, and has been at this for a decade), even appearing in things I’ve seen, even if I don’t remember her (the second season of Broadchurch, Albert Nobbs). It’s her face that does it. Her unnamed character regularly breaks the fourth wall, which is a cliché by this point, but she makes it work because 1) she gives herself great dialogue, and most importantly 2) because of the wordless times when she stares at the camera and tells us everything we need by facial expressions. She sucks us in from the very first scene ... she is so engaging in a recognizably human way that we don’t just want to root for her, we want to be her.

That first scene also establishes the sexual frankness that is a running component of Fleabag:

Her eyes are fabulous, far more than mere windows into her soul. I want to give her eyes an Emmy.

This may all seem run of the mill in 2016, half Bridget Jones, half Sex and the City. Waller-Bridge’s character is like a blend of Abby and Ilana in Broad City, sexually adventurous but always thinking about what she is about to do. It’s a unique take, no matter how much you think you’ve seen it already.

While many of the half-hour shows today are mostly dramas that get labeled comedies because once in awhile you laugh, Fleabag is more obviously a comedy. Here, it’s not the jokes that sneak up on you, but instead the raw emotions. The final episode does not come out of nowhere ... looking back, you can easily see how it was set up. But when we see Waller-Bridge’s character deal with the consequences of her actions, it’s heartbreaking. And again, it’s Waller-Bridge who gets the lion’s share of the credit. She wrote the prize-winning one-woman play on which the series is based, she wrote all of the episodes of the series, she plays the lead role (I can’t remember, but she may be on screen for the entire six episodes). It’s one of the best accomplishments of this television season. A BBC Three show that ran during the summer, it can now be binged in its entirety on Amazon. A.