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:

film fatales #42: bombshell: the hedy lamarr story (alexandra dean, 2017)

This is something of a Dual Film Fatale entry, given that it's a documentary about Hedy Lamarr directed by a woman.

I was looking forward to a film showing how Lamarr's work as in inventor was buried underneath her image as a great screen beauty. And that topic is always in the background. But much more of the film than I expected is devoted to Lamarr's career as an actress. And that career is not the most interesting thing about Lamarr. I wanted a movie about an inventor who was also an actress, but what I got was a movie about an actress who was also an inventor.

Obviously, the two go hand in hand. And the time spent on her acting career does establish a setting whereby Lamarr's intelligence might be ignored. Dean is kind enough to avoid much analysis of Lamarr's acting ... her fame came from her beauty, not because she was a great thespian.

I'm wondering if they spend relatively little time on her inventions because they weren't as engrossing for the audience than just showing pictures and clips of her in her prime. I don't want to press this point too much ... Dean does not ignore the inventor in favor of the beauty ... but it's the inventions that make this story more than just another tale of a Hollywood goddess.

Nonetheless, Lamarr's life story is a fascinating one, and a documentary is the way to go. The information is here. Lamarr was as smart as she was beautiful.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

the 100, season 5 finale

Do I need to point out that spoilers are coming?

Showrunner Jason Rothenberg tweeted last night, "RIP Earth!" But of course ...

Anthology shows are popular these days, series that start anew with each season (Fargo) or even with each episode (Black Mirror). That this happens during a golden age of series with long plot arcs is interesting ... I'm not going to offer an explanation, it may be mere coincidence. The 100 has a very long arc, one which gives particular power to its characters ... no one is the same as they were at the beginning. It's not just a case of growth ... at least, it's one step forward, two steps back. At times, it feels like no one learns anything, as people keep making the same mistakes. That adds an element of realism to the show, and supplies a lot of emotion for the audience as their favorites take those steps forward, only to inevitably fall backwards once again.

Those steps forward give hope ... to the characters, to the audience. But that backwards movement? As Rothenberg once said, "Remember, you signed up for a post apocalyptic nightmare. Don’t be surprised if that’s what we give you." The 100 is among the bleakest shows I've ever watched, and I watch a lot of them. That bleakness makes us wary when something good happens, because we don't expect it to last. And, on The 100, it never does.

How do you convince an audience to keep watching? Some hardcore fans won't be happy until goodness finally arrives (for many, that means Clarke and Bellamy getting together romantically at last ... "Bellarke"). Yet they remain, watching season after season, no matter how frustrated they get. Perhaps Clarke and Bellamy are lucky that their friendship grows deeper while the kind of love represented by Bellarke remains stubbornly unrealized. Most of the best, most favored couplings on the show over the years end badly.

About the only thing you can say that sounds at least a little positive is that people survive. But even that is an issue. One thing The 100 does well is coming back to dialogue from the past, dialogue that changes meaning with different context. In Season Two, Commander Lexa says to Clarke, "You think our ways are harsh, but it is how we survive." Clarke replies, "Maybe life should be about more than just surviving. Don't we deserve better than that?" In Season Three, in the most controversial episode the show has turned out, Lexa, dying just after she and Clarke consummated their love, says, "You were right, Clarke. Life is about more than just surviving." In the first part of this season's two-part finale, Clarke tells Madi, "Madi, this is how we survive," to which Madi, now the Commander, replies, "It may be, but life should be about more than just surviving."

This is the crucial quote from the series, because on a basic level, survival is what matters. It begins with the post-apocalyptic remnants of humankind on the verge of extinction, and after five seasons, this situation remains. (As Bellamy says to Clarke in the finale, "We're deciding the fate of the human race. Again.") But The 100 also insists on being about more than just survival.

And hope? Season Four ended with a six-year fast-forward ... it wasn't hopeful, but it promised a break from the past, a way to combine the arc of the plot with the potential benefits of starting anew. It turns out Season Four was a trial run. At the end of Season Five, we've gone forward 125 years. And did I mention, RIP Earth? But a new planet has been found, and the last shot of the season is indeed hopeful. Rothenberg has solved the problem of a series running too long by effectively rebooting it, not by making the show again in 20 years, but by drastically changing things now so that nothing can be the same.

And yet ... I remain wary when something good happens. I fear that these oh-so-human characters will repeat past mistakes. I'll need to see it before I believe it. I can't wait for Season Six.

by request: welcome home, roxy carmichael (jim abrahams, 1990)

Winona Ryder usually makes a movie better just by her presence. A movie like A Scanner Darkly is great on its own, but Ryder fits right in. Heathers wouldn't be nearly as fun without Ryder. She can't rescue a truly awful movie ... nothing could save Alien Resurrection. But more than once, she has been the best thing about a middling film, like Girl, Interrupted (which, admittedly, had a remarkable cast beyond just Ryder, including Angelina Jolie, who won an Oscar).

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael is Winona Ryder's movie. Without her, we've got an afternoon special. Perhaps this is no surprise ... Karen Leigh Hopkins, who wrote the screenplay (her first), later was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for a TV movie, What Girls Learn, and still later won a Humanitas Prize for co-writing a TV movie, Searching for David's Heart. Director Jim Abrahams is more surprising ... once the "A" in ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, who gave us Airplane!, Police Squad!, and the great Top Secret!).  Roxy might seem a departure, even a career change, but Abrahams next two films as director were Hot Shots! and Hot Shots! Part Deux. So let's just say Roxy Carmichael was an anomaly in the career of Abrahams.

The movie really does have a stock after school special setup. Winona plays Dinky Bossetti, an adopted teenager in the Midwest who is misunderstood by everyone. She finds a confidant in a school guidance counselor played by Laila Robins, which leads to the following scene, where the counselor responds to Dinky's outpouring about herself by suggesting, "What do you say we comb your hair?" (Shades of Molly Ringwald giving Ally Sheedy a makeover in The Breakfast Club.)

It's the reversal of what happens to Ryder's character in Heathers ... she starts out looking clean-cut, but ends the movie like this:

Winona heathers messy

Of course, there's something resembling a happy ending in Roxy Carmichael, as Dinky (and her new boyfriend) learns to accept herself.

Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael isn't as awful as my description suggests. The small-town setting walks a proper tightrope between real and parody, the cast is fine, the movie is over in 95 minutes. And Winona Ryder makes every scene she is in worthwhile (and she is in almost every scene). But the movie hits some of the wrong buttons for me ... I have certain emotional requirements when it comes to rebellious teenagers, and they don't involve combing the heroine's hair. My recommendation is to watch Heathers again. Or, if you want to revisit the heyday of ZAZ, watch Top Secret!.

creature feature: the day of the triffids (steve sekely and freddie francis, 1963)

This would be a case of a classic mess, if it was a classic. Instead, it's just a mess, one of those movies where the story of its making is far more interesting than what ends up on the screen.

It's based on a popular book by John Wyndham (who also wrote the book on which Village of the Damned is based ... that movie is far better than this one). I have memories of reading this as a kid, and then seeing the movie on TV, back when I'd watch anything Creature Featurish. The plot features monster trees that eat people (the Venus flytrap is trotted out as scientific evidence such a thing is possible), and it turns out it wasn't easy making monster trees very scary. They move slowly, and, well, they're trees. The basic concept, of a world on the verge of apocalypse, can be intriguing, as we have seen from dozens of movies over the years. This particular execution of the concept, though, is anything but intriguing. It looks cheap (especially on the washed-out print I saw), and there's not much effort to crank out a low-budget classic ... nope, it's just cheap. While I don't really remember the book, the movie is apparently a dumber, more monster-oriented version of the original story, which doesn't help. Howard Keel is the lead ... Keel made his name in 1950s musicals like Show Boat, Calamity Jane, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He doesn't get to sing here. In fairness, he isn't bad in Triffids, it's just hard to care. There's no one else of note in the cast, although my wife thought the female lead, French actress Nicole Maurey, looked familiar (a perusal of her filmography gave no indication of why this would be, unless my wife spent a lot of time in her childhood watching Secret of the Incas).

Whatever budget existed apparently ran out before they had finished the film, although "finished" may be an exaggeration ... when they were done, they had a movie that was less than an hour long. So back they went, with a different director (Francis), two new actors (Janette Scott and Keiron Moore, listed in the credits as appearing "By Special Arrangement", whatever that means), and a new subplot taking place in a lighthouse that, other than being a place where the triffids are attacking, is completely unconnected to the rest of the movie. The result was a movie that lasted 93 minutes, which was long enough to be released.

I admit I found unfortunate humor in a few scenes where people, blinded by the arrival of the triffids (don't ask), wander around tripping over things. Mostly I just kept wishing I was watching Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) ... there is no connection beyond being English sci-fi from the 1960s, but I love the Quatermass film ... I often wish I was watching it.

There are stories about a possible restoration of the movie, which would make it look better but which would still be stupid. There was a BBC TV adaptation in the early 80s that is supposed to be better, and another TV version a few years ago, neither of which I've seen. One thing I can say with authority is that the 1963 film version isn't worth your time.

what i watched

The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960). An entertaining version of the H.G. Wells story, with Oscar-winning special effects that don't look too bad in 2018. The recreation of turn of the century London is fun, with an entertaining group of That Guys (Alan "Mr. Ed" Young, Sebastian "Mr. French" Cabot, Tom "Vertigo" Helmore, and the ever-present Whit Bissell, who  also appeared in a 1978 TV-movie version, as well as the TV series The Time Tunnel) and Rod Taylor in the lead. The scene of Taylor traveling forward in time is well-done ... he ends up in the year 802,701! There he meets up with an age-inappropriate Yvette Mimieux (she was 17 when filming began, Taylor was 30), and romance ensues. Life in the future is split between the Eloi, who wander around in a daze, and the Morlocks, who eat the Eloi. Once the Morlocks make their appearance, things fall apart a bit ... the costumes are a bit too much in the spirit of man-as-ape, albeit after radiation. There's what passes for a happy ending. The Time Machine isn't quite worth hunting down, but it's enjoyable if you come across it. It's better than the 2002 remake.

Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016). A standard biopic that does decent justice to the characters. Most of the changes to the real story are minor and forgivable. The film occasionally falls into White Savior mode, but not enough to ruin the movie. The three stars (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe) are all good, and since biopics stand or fall on the performances, they make an OK movie into something special. Of course it's inspirational, if that's your cup of tea. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, it lost to Moonlight, which is more than appropriate, Moonlight being a much better film. (Both of those films feature Mahershala Ali, who won an Oscar for Moonlight.) Hidden Figures will satisfy people who like biopics, and isn't too bad for the rest of us, either.

music friday: 1997

Joe Posnanski got an entire blog post from a tweet that asked, "What are your favorite opening lines in songs?"

Radiohead, "Paranoid Android". "Please could you stop the noise?"

Cornershop, "Brimful of Asha". "There's dancing behind movie scenes."

Missy Elliott, "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)". "Me I'm supa fly, supa dupa fly."

Sleater-Kinney, "One More Hour". "In one more hour I will be gone."

Erykah Badu, "Tyrone". "I'm gettin' tired of your shit."

Blur, "Song 2". "Woo-hoo!"

Daft Punk, "Around the World". "Around the world."

The Notorious B.I.G., "Hypnotize". "Hah, sicker than your average Poppa twist cabbage off instinct."

Natalie Imbruglia, "Torn". "I thought I saw a man brought to life."

Björk, "All Is Full of Love". "You'll be given love."

ron dellums and me

I woke up in the middle of the night to pee ... I'm 65, I do that several times every night. Being a modern guy, I checked Twitter while I was up, and saw that my cousin had tweeted that Ron Dellums had died. He noted that there was no confirmation anywhere but social media ... I took a few minutes to check for myself, saw nothing to corroborate the news, went back to bed, and turned the local news station on my radio. I fell back to sleep without hearing any more about the Congressman.

Over the past several years, I have extremely vivid dreams, several a night (waking up to pee means I go back to sleep and another dream kicks in). I usually don't know I'm dreaming until the last seconds when I wake up. In this dream, I was at a ballgame and saw the actor Erik Todd Dellums, Ron's son. I asked him if the news about his father was true, and Erik told me a long story about how his dad was fine, these stories get started, you know how it is. I was relieved, and headed back home. At that moment, I woke up to the radio reporting that Ron Dellums had indeed passed away.

People's Park

In 1969, I was living in Antioch, California, a suburb-in-name-only of San Francisco that was close as the crow flies to the big city, but far away in any useful description. I had spent my entire life in this factory town, and until my senior year of high school, there were no black people in Antioch. If you were black, you lived in Pittsburg, right next to Antioch. My parents were politically moderate. During the People's Park battles of 1969, KQED, the local PBS (then NET) station, televised some Berkeley City Council meetings. There was one councilman in particular who got my attention. As I recall, he spoke passionately on behalf of the people being attacked by the police. My parents thought he was dreadful, which only made me like him more. He was a 33-year-old ex-Marine named Ron Dellums.

Dedication of a sculpture

It would have been in the late 70s/early 80s. A friend who was a sculptor had some work installed at the Macarthur BART station. At the unveiling, Ron Dellums, by then our representative in the House, came to say a few words. I had moved to Berkeley in 1974, and was proud to be able to vote for Ron every two years. I brought my movie camera to that event to take some footage, and when I saw the Congressman, I went over to express thanks for the work he was doing in Washington. Looking like a random guy with a movie camera didn't appeal to the Secret Service guys, who closed in on me immediately, which freaked me out enough that I still remember the incident. As I recall, Ron instructed them to let me through so I could shake his hand.

Taking a leak

It was 1988. I was in my first semester as a grad student at Cal. Congressman Dellums was visiting campus ... this was during the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign. I went to take a leak ... Old Blues will know where I mean, the bathroom off of Lower Sproul by the bookstore. I don't remember who entered first, but at some point, I realized that standing at a nearby urinal was Ron Dellums. Ron, I said, I'm so proud to have you representing me, and I respect your opinions. Tell me why I should vote for Dukakis. 

Ron, an admitted Socialist in the Democratic Party, began a conversation littered with good cussing ... no big deal, except I remember being naive enough to think, hey, the Congressman says fuck! His argument was pretty basic, Dukakis wasn't any good, but he was better than Bush, we gotta get the Republicans out of the White House. (Two years later, Dellums was one of 54 congress members who sued Bush's actions building the military presence in the Middle East, a case that became known as Dellums v. Bush.) We left the restroom together and were joined by his Secret Service men. It happened that Ron and I were headed in the same direction, so we walked up campus together as he made the case for Dukakis. He could be quite persuasive, although I was, then and now, pigheaded and so I never was convinced to vote for Dukakis. But it was a memorable few minutes for me, as the Congressman took some time to talk to a friendly constituent about an important issue.

Ron Dellums' "son"

There was this guy, a friend of a friend, who would come by our house and visit for a bit, usually looking for a couple of bucks. He was a raggedy fellow, but friendly, and we would talk for awhile. His story, as he told it, was that Ron Dellums was his father. He said he was told this by his mother, and that everyone "knew" this was true because he looked so much like Ron. Understand that Ron Dellums was a handsome man who got more distinguished looking the older he got, and that my friend, god love him, was not the handsomest man alive. Nor did he look a bit like Ron Dellums. But he was convinced that one day, Ron would admit the connection, and he would be set for life. While it was kind of loony, I loved the idea that being Ron Dellums' son was something to aspire to.

Those are my anecdotes. Dellums remained in the House from 1971 to 1998 ... every two years, we'd vote him back in. There was something called The Dellums Machine ... don't know if it amounted to anything, but during elections, we'd always get a flier on the front door on election days with Ron's endorsements. After he left the House, he was replaced by Barbara Lee, who is still going strong, having been our representative for the last 20 years. It's nice to have a representative doing you proud, and here in Berkeley, that's been the case in the House for almost 40 years. Dellums was around so long, he was able to take advantage of seniority rules to get some important roles, even serving for a while as Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. He went into lobbying, which I admit was disappointing, and later became Mayor of Oakland, which by all accounts wasn't the highlight of his career. To me, he'll always be the first person I was glad to vote for, and the only politician who would spend time talking to a guy he met at a urinal.

Ron dellums

miami vice (michael mann, 2006)

I am not a big fan of the movies of Michael Mann. I was a fan of his 1980s TV shows, Miami Vice and especially Crime Story with the great Dennis Farina. But the Mann movies I've seen mostly leave me feeling "meh". I did like The Insider, but the rest all fall into the "OK but nothing more" category. The film version of Miami Vice isn't any better or worse than Ali or Collateral ... I'm not sorry I've seen them, but I don't have a desire to see them again. The cast is interesting, but most of them are buried ... there are three main characters, played by Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li, and for once the woman is more than just a trinket. But I didn't notice Justin Theroux until the movie was half over, John Hawkes barely had any screen time, Naomie Harris was a trinket except near the end. Some of the other characters were cast by good That Guys like Ciarán Hinds, John Ortiz, and Dominic Lombardozzi, plus there was Elizabeth Rodriguez of Orange Is the New Black.

The movie looks great, as Mann's films usually do. And the look is what matters ... I doubt Mann gave much of a shit about the confusing plot. The result was a movie that was better to look at than to think about. #646 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Matt Zoller Seitz is a favorite critic of mine, because while he likes stuff I don't care for, he is brilliant at explaining why he finds greatness where I find emptiness. After watching Miami Vice, I tweeted, "Just watched the movie version of Miami Vice, and I kept thinking to myself, I bet liked this movie." He replied, "Loved it." He also reminded me of one of his excellent video essays (he is a master of these), "Zen Pulp", on Michael Mann. I highly recommend following that link for a smart, detailed response to Miami Vice and other Mann works.


music friday: 1996

The Prodigy, "Firestarter". Kim Deal got a songwriting credit for this.

Blackstreet, "No Diggity". Ended a 14-week run of "Macarena" atop the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Fugees, "Ready or Not". Barack Obama's favorite song, was #1 in Iceland.

Patti Smith, "Summer Cannibals". Video directed by Robert Frank.

Jay-Z, "Dead Presidents". Jay-Z's first charting single.

Fiona Apple, "Criminal". Won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Performance.

Iris DeMent, "Wasteland of the Free". Living in the wasteland of the free, where the poor have now become the enemy.

Busta Rhymes, "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check". Chuck D gave him his name.

Erykah Badu, "On and On". Won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

Beck, "Where It's At". I got two turntables and a microphone.

Here's a favorite 1996 song of mine that happens to also have a great video. Check out that backwards dancing!

No Jay-Z on this Spotify playlist.