game of thrones, season seven finale

For all the fighting that goes on between the various pretenders to the throne, one thing rises above all else: dragons. Daenerys has them. Finally, in "The Spoils of War", she unleashed her dragons, demonstrating that while there are many pretenders, there is only one Mother of Dragons.

There are many great series in this era of Peak TV, so many that even the critics have admitted they can't watch them all. There have always been great series that slipped through the cracks, but especially now, amidst so much competition, shows need something that makes them stand out. There are so many pretenders to the top of the list of Peak TV. But only one show has dragons: Game of Thrones.

Oh, there are other shows with fantastical beings. But the dragons of GoT have HBO money behind them, so they are more impressive than anyone else's. Well, money, and the talent behind the cameras that makes this a great show.

For six seasons, the dragons were anticipated more than they were seen in action. Just as winter was always coming, so, too, the dragons were always ready for action. The wait was almost unbearable. But for six seasons, GoT managed to give us enough spectacle, combined with wonderful acting and plots that were involving, albeit convoluted.

Game of Thrones has never lacked for great acting and impressive spectacle. But now that the dragons have shown their power on the battlefield, the series is rather like the Lannisters' army: after the "Loot Train Attack", there is very little to be done.

And so we get nonsense like the relationship between Sansa and Arya. Arya in particular acts in ways that don't match what we've learned about her. That the sisters worked together to defeated Littlefinger was fun, but it was also just an easy way to excuse the poor character development. "Oh, don't complain about Arya, things were happening that you didn't see." More than once I was reminded of The L Word, which regularly threw continuity to the winds so that characters could change, unbelievably, so new narratives would make sense in their moment.

This doesn't bother me as much as it usually does. As I told my son some years ago, half of the time I don't know what is going on, but the individual scenes win me over, and the big scenes are always worth it. My relationship to the overarching narratives of Game of Thrones is reflected in the opening credits. Each week, we move over a map intended to put the Houses in place, and apparently, these credits will change to reflect happenings in the plot. Honestly, though, I have never understood those credits. I don't recognize the Houses by the buildings on the map, I don't notice whatever changes might have happened ... the only things I get from the credits are that GoT has one of the all-time best theme songs, and that I am confused.

When I care about the characters, I have something to enjoy between the spectacular moments. But, for the main characters, I find myself caring less. Cersei is Cersei, Jon Snow is Jon Snow, Bran irritates the shit out of me. The palace intrigues are supposed to keep us going from week to week and season to season, but I'm mostly tired of them now. Which means the spectacle is, more than ever, what I like best.

This is a reductionist view of my responses to the show. I still love many of the characters. They just tend to be secondary characters: Bronn, Brienne of Tarth, Hodor RIP, The Hound, Olenna RIP. Some of my all-time favorite Game of Thrones scenes came when Brienne and Jaime traveled together. And I am not immune to the plot shenanigans.

But dragons. Now one of the dragons is a Bad Guy, which should be fun. But at this point, I don't really care who sits on the Iron Throne. I don't care that Khaleesi and Jon Snow finally did it ... those two have maybe half the intensity that Jon Snow had with Ygritte, who always told him he knew nothing.

Game of Thrones has rightfully secured its place as one of the central series of its time. I have rated it highly in the past. But I don't think it has ever been the best show on television, and Season Seven did nothing to change my opinion. Grade for "The Spoils of War": A+. Grade for Season Seven: A-.

And this making-of I found fascinating:

 


klute (alan j. pakula, 1971)

It's odd ... I've seen Klute before, but all I could remember of it (vaguely) was that it ended inside a building with hallways and offices. That turned out to be accurate enough, but if that's all there was to Klute, it wouldn't have been good enough to watch again. Because while Klute is a serviceable mystery thriller, serviceable is as good as the thriller gets. It's no better than a hundred others.

You'd think I'd remember Jane Fonda, because her performance not only carries the movie, but is one of the great acting jobs ever. Fonda has always struck me as an intelligent actress ... you can see her brain working. At her best, though, she makes that intelligence seem a natural part of the character she is playing. Sometimes, you'll see an actor trying so hard to stay on top of a role that the effort distracts from the result. Other times, an actor will bury themselves so deeply that all you get is emotion. But Fonda can convey intelligence and emotion at the same time, no more so than as Bree Daniels in Klute.

Bree is only confident when she's turning tricks. She is in control when she can make men do what she wants while making them think it's them who want it. But she herself wants more, as we learn in her therapy sessions. She isn't as sure of herself in the therapist's office as she is when she's working. And when the environment in which she works turns more dangerous than usual, her fear is rooted in the loss of control that implies.

The writing is good enough to earn an Oscar nomination (it lost to Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital, and I've had a soft spot for another runner-up from that year, Penelope Gilliatt's Sunday Bloody Sunday). (It's interesting that I described Glenda Jackson in the latter film by saying "her acting often suggests an intelligent woman" ... although later I noted that "Glenda Jackson in particular is always clearly acting … she’s very good at it, but she isn’t a 'natural' actress.") As I say, the script is fine, but it is at its best in making room for Fonda's work as Bree. The actual mystery is pretty mundane.

Alan Pakula doesn't help much, although this remains my favorite of his movies. He attaches his standard, spooky paranoia (The Parallax View), but is rather aimlessly arty when it's not necessary. Gordon Willis is his usual great self as cinematographer (for no reason, I blame Pakula for the arty stuff). His next movie was The Godfather.

I've gotten this far without mentioning Donald Sutherland, who after all plays the title character. He does an excellent, self-effacing job ... he stays out of Fonda's way, supports her the way Klute supports Bree.

But this is Jane Fonda's picture. She got the second of her seven Oscar nominations, and picked up her well-deserved first win, beating out, among others, the aforementioned Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday.

As for a rating, I was torn between a 9/10 to reflect Fonda's performance, and 7/10 to reflect the rest of the movie. Since I apparently already gave it 7/10 that forgotten time when I'd seen it before, and since I want to tip my cap to Jane Fonda, 8/10.

Karina Longworth's great podcast, "You Must Remember This", just finished a series on Fonda and Jean Seberg. This episode discusses Klute:

Jean and Jane

Here's a scene from Klute:

Fonda discussed her role on Inside the Actors Studio:

Finally, here's one of the most famous (and shortest) Oscar acceptance speeches of all time. People were worried she would "get political". She asked her father what she should say, and then she took his advice:




creature feature saturday double bill

Electronic Lover (Jesse Berger, 1966). Why do I bother? Every once in awhile I get the idea of watching some of the movies I'd seen on Creature Features on Saturday night when I was a kid. The problem is, I don't always pick the good movies from the array of choices (and they do exist). Electronic Lover is a sexploitation "nudie". but when I watched it for free on Amazon Prime, all of the nudity was edited out. (As a sign of how much nudity is in the movie, it runs 79 minutes but the Amazon version only lasts 60 minutes.) A sexploitation movie without the nudity pretty much has no reason for being, and I suppose I shouldn't rate this one too low since I saw an expurgated version. But trust me, it is so abysmal I'm positive the nudity wouldn't have helped. A crazed voyeur sends "Brother" out in the world with a hidden camera and watches the results from home. It is so cheap, it almost feels like an avant-garde film. Purely dreadful. 1/10.

Spies-a-Go-Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit) (James Landis, 1964). Another in the long line of Arch Hall movies. Arch Hall Sr. wanted to make movies, and after a couple of decades on the margins of the industry, in the 1960s Hall started cranking out what Wikipedia gently refers to as "some of the worst films ever made". The peak of his filmmaking was Eegah, in which he also starred alongside his son, Arch Hall Jr., and Richard "Jaws" Kiel in the title role. Junior appeared in many of his dad's movies ... he wanted to be a musician, so he'd play several songs, rather like Ricky Nelson in his family's TV show, except Junior didn't have much talent. Spies-a-Go-Go (titled Nasty Rabbit in the copy I saw) tells of a Soviet plot to release rabbits in the U.S. that have been infected with deadly bacteria. I think. The whole thing is played as a slapstick comedy ... bad slapstick comedy, although that probably wasn't intentional. Junior is a teen-idol rocker who is also an undercover spy. Oh, did I mention the rabbit occasionally talks to the audience ... he even gets the best lines (the IMDB only lists one "Memorable Quote", when the rabbit asks us, "I wonder if John Wayne had to go through this to get his start."). It's nowhere as good as it sounds. Richard Kiel pops in again for a cameo. Award-winning cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) turns up as "The Idiot", while his longtime friend Vilmos Zsigmond takes on the cinematography. (They teamed up more than once in the early days of their career, most "notably" when they were both behind the camera for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.) Finally, the legendary Liz Renay, who played Muffy St. Jacques in John Waters' Desperate Living, has a substantial role. I really wanted this to be "so bad it's good", but instead it's "so bad it's bad". Still, it's better than Electronic Lover, so 2/10.

But stop ... there's more trivia! In this clip from Spies-a-Go-Go, Junior sings a song accompanied by his band, which included Pat and Lolly Vegas, who later formed Redbone.

Here is Redbone's biggest hit:

And finally, for you youngsters who actually made it this far, a brief reminder of where you've heard that song before:

So there you have it: the connection between Spies-a-Go-Go and Guardians of the Galaxy is exposed!


music friday: 1977

These are the artists I saw in concert in 1977. There is one top of the line classic band, an all-time great who was past his peak, some personal favorites, and at least two opening acts that I thought sucked. These are in chronological order, with the earliest concerts at the beginning, and the acts at each show listed in order of appearance.

The Outlaws, "Green Grass and High Tides"

Santana, "Soul Sacrifice" (video taken from concert I attended)

Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Freebird" (video taken from concert I attended)

Peter Frampton, "Do You Feel Like We Do?" (video taken from concert I attended)

Judas Priest, "Diamonds and Rust"

Rick Derringer, "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo"

Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir" (audio taken from concert I attended)

Head East, "Show Me I'm Alive"

Robert Gordon and Link Wray, "I Sure Miss You"

J. Geils, the whole damn concert I attended

Air Supply, "Love and Other Bruises"

Rod Stewart, "Hot Legs"


film fatales #29: girlfriends (claudia weill, 1978)

In some ways, a perfect Film Fatale selection. Low budget, directed, written, and edited by women, the story of a 20-something photographer and her relationships, mostly with her women friends.

Girlfriends could be remade with Greta Gerwig and released today, and it would fit right in. Low budget, charismatic lead performance, character-driven. More than one writer has noted the similarities between Girlfriends and Frances Ha. Katherine Maheux called it "the best movie Noah Baumbach never made". And then there's the TV series Girls. Lena Dunham has admitted the influence:

[T]his movie feels like my oldest influence, yet I saw it for the first time less than a year ago. I was dragged (because I was tired, not skeptical) to a screening at 92Y by a friend well versed in lost classics who said this was truly my kind of movie. And she was right—from the first shot, I was transfixed. By the complex relationships, the subtlety, the odd comedy that was awkward long before awkward was cool. It was the 1970s of my mother’s youth, which I discuss in Tiny Furniture through her journal entries. Claudia was at the screening for a Q&A, and I found her stories and general manner (tough but sensitive; third woman admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; great effortless hair) really transfixing.

It's interesting that a film which feels very much of its time would have such resonance 40 years down the road, not for the evocative presentation of the late-70s, but because it feels fresh like the 2010s.

Weill and star Melanie Mayron have had careers based more in television than in movies. Weill, who also works in the theater, directed It's My Turn in 1980, and then moved to TV, where she worked on everything from Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life to the (perhaps inevitable) episode of Girls. Mayron is probably best-known for the four seasons she appeared on Thirtysomething, but she also moved on to directing for television (her IMDB page lists 50 different series she has worked on). She is especially busy on Jane the Virgin, where she has directed 11 episodes while appearing in ten of them as Jane's writing instructor.

You won't hear me complaining about the value of TV work over movies. Still, it would have been nice for Weill to get more opportunities to create features. But it's good that newer talents like Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are able to credit Girlfriends as an important marker for their own work. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


the eclipse and me

In the days before radio, baseball fans could keep up with the action for big events such as the World Series, in real time, by attending places that used giant scoreboards to update every play. You can read about these here: "Photography of Playography".

This was as good as it got, other than attending a game in person, until the advent of radio. The first major-league baseball game on the radio was in 1921, and radio reigned supreme for four decades, give or take. Radio was eventually supplanted by television, although the two co-exist to this day. (Those giant scoreboards have a modern-day approximation in the various apps that update games on the web and mobile devices using animation and vast statistical resources.)

Many of the earliest radio broadcasts were narrated by announcers who were not actually at the game. The announcer would read the game events as they came to him via telegraph and relate them to the listeners as if he was at the ballpark. These recreations were aided by sound effects, while the announcer would fill the time between pitches pretty much the same way they do today. Future president Ronald Reagan performed recreations in the 1930s.

Televised baseball, in its infancy, was a simple affair, with a limited number of cameras and no instant replay. This has evolved to what we get today, which features multiple viewings of each play, shots of kids in the crowd eating popcorn, and the like.

Growing up in the 60s, I had the chance to watch the American space program from the country's first man in space, Alan Shepard, to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. I can remember many times the networks would show animated simulations of what was happening in space, beyond the camera's eye.

Meanwhile, the astronauts themselves worked on countless simulated flights before the real thing took place. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe gets inside John Glenn's head as Glenn looked at the Earth from space.

He knew what it was going to look like in any case. He had seen it all in photographs taken from the satellites. It had all been flashed on the screens for him. Even the view had been simulated. Yes ... that's the way they said it would look ... Awe seemed to be demanded, but how could he express awe honestly? He had lived it all before the event. How could he explain that to anybody?

It was as if the simulation was real, and real was a poor substitute.

I slept through most of today's eclipse. My son took a couple of pictures, where if I looked close enough, I could see ... well, I'm not sure what I saw. It was very overcast in our neck of the woods. Fog rules over eclipses when you live a couple of miles from the coast. Our daughter's family drove up to Oregon, and I imagine her two sons will remember the trip.

Of course, it was practically impossible to avoid animated simulations of what the eclipse would be like, in the days before the event. My guess is that I'll remember this eclipse ... it's just that I'll remember those simulations. Or maybe I'll check out the instant replays on YouTube.


some came running (vincente minnelli, 1958)

It's easy to see why MGM would want to make this picture, from a novel by James Jones. Jones had previously written From Here to Eternity, which as a movie won 8 Oscars, including one for Frank Sinatra. MGM succeeded partially ... Some Came Running received five Oscar nominations, although it won none. Sinatra is very good here, but his role is far less showy than the Oscar-winning Maggio. But the movie did get three acting nominations, Best Actress Shirley MacLaine, Supporting Actor Arthur Kennedy, and Supporting Actress Martha Hyer.  (The actual winners were Susan Hayward, Burl Ives, and Wendy Hiller.) The women fare better than Kennedy, whose blustering performance didn't do much for me. MacLaine gets the showy role here, a woman with a heart of gold and not a lot going on in the old noggin. It's a stereotypical part, but MacLaine makes you believe in it, and makes you care about her. This was probably the best role in Martha Hyer's career, and she is great. Meanwhile, the film was made when Dean Martin was establishing himself as someone who, yes, could be a good actor. His next film was Rio Bravo.

Wikipedia calls Some Came Running a "crime film", which is pretty far-fetched. It's a melodrama about post-WWII America, and fairly astute about how difficult was the return from war (Sinatra's Dave Hirsh has just been released from the Army). But it's going too far to suggest this is the central theme of the film. What drives the narrative is class issues. Dave's brother Frank is a social climber who, along with his wife, looks down on Dave. Dave's own class status is somewhat fluid ... he's a veteran, although that doesn't seem to carry much weight in the small Indiana town that he returns to. MacLaine and Hyer lie on different ends of the ladder. MacLaine is a "loose woman", while Hyer is Gwen,  a teacher of creative writing who lives with her professor father. Gwen is a good fit for Dave, since Dave was once a novelist, although he hasn't written for a long time. MacLaine loves and looks up to Dave, Dave loves and to some extent looks up to Gwen, and Frank and his wife look down on everyone, although Frank also suffers because his wife comes from money.

I was reminded more than once of a favorite movie of mine, The Chase. That film also features a stratified society ... it even has Martha Hyer. But The Chase was way over the top ... Kael described it as the story of "a corrupt, blood-lusting Texas town in the mythical America of liberal sadomasochistic fantasies ... where people are motivated by dirty sex or big money, and you can tell which as soon as they say their first lines." Some Came Running is a "better" movie than The Chase. You never get the feeling that Vincente Minnelli is losing control. Better, sure, but The Chase is a lot more fun, and I like it enough that I've seen it several times. I can't imagine watching Some Came Running again. But watching it once was rewarding. #453 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (The Chase isn't on the list). 7/10.

 


orphan black series finale

I gave Season One of Orphan Black a B+, but I also singled out star Tatiana Maslany, giving her personally an A. If you managed to miss Orphan Black over the past four years, it's about a group of clones, with the trick being all of them are played by Maslany. I wrote:

There have been many multiple personality roles over the years: Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, Sally Field in Sybil, Toni Collette in United States of Tara. And all of those actresses won awards for their work. But Maslany has a different task here. She isn’t playing one person with multiple personalities, she is playing multiple people with one personality each. And she pulls it off magnificently....

It gets even more complicated at times. Maslany (who is Canadian) plays Sarah (who is British) pretending to be Beth (Canadian). Alison (Canadian soccer mom) pretends to be Sarah (British petty thief). Helena (Ukranian) pretends to be Sarah. In each case, you know who is behind the mask. It’s like watching Face/Off, with Maslany in both the Nic Cage and John Travolta roles. Most of the time, Maslany is portraying one character, and she inhabits each one. It’s not just the wigs or physical tics … it’s as if you’re watching seven different actresses.

I gave Season Two an A-, but I didn't like it as much. The plot became convoluted in ways that made me realize I mostly didn't care. But Maslany was so good, I couldn't get enough. Eventually, she got her Emmy ... the year she won, she beat out an impressive list of actresses (Claire Danes, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Keri Russell, and Robin Wright).

Orphan Black lasted five seasons, ending this past weekend. While I lost interest in the overall plot arc, I never quit watching the show, and for those who did get into the mythology of the clones, I suspect five seasons was just right. The finale itself was satisfying. Many worse shows have run for far more than five seasons ... kudos to Orphan Black both for making it through five years and for quitting while they were ahead.

Over the years, my obsession with Maslany's performance only grew. Everyone joked about how she should have won an Emmy for every clone she played (I think the number was 7 at the time). And it was impressive, especially when a combination of special effects trickery and the judicious use of doubles for Maslany allowed for more than one clone on the screen at the same time.

But what was truly remarkable was the way in which, as we got to know the various clones of the years, as they became clear individuals, Maslany's skills disappeared. People would say they forgot she was playing multiple roles, but it was bigger than that sounds. I have a tendency to wonder about the heights of actors, and I look it up while I'm watching. So I know that this actress is 5'7" and that actor is 5'10". I also know that Tatiana Maslany is 5'4". But I lost count of the number of times I'd see, say, Maslany-as-Sarah interacting with Maslany-as-Cosima and want to look up who was taller, the actress playing Sarah or the actress playing Cosima. I said Maslany's skills disappeared, but that's not quite accurate. What happened was she was so perfect in creating these various characters that you really did forget they were all her.

I imagine everyone had their favorite clone. Mine was Helena:

While looking back at Orphan Black, I can't help but think of another series I obsess about even more, Sense8. In Orphan Black, you have sisters connected by their clone status. The sensates of Sense8 are different, though. Their connection is psychic, for lack of a better word. And perhaps because they are all played by different actors, their scenes together are emotionally powerful in ways the "tricky" scenes of multiple Maslanys are not. It's mostly apples and oranges, though.

Ultimately, I think I had it right from the beginning. Grade for series: B+. Grade for Tatiana Maslany: A.

 


the maltese falcon (roy del ruth, 1931) and the maltese falcon (john huston, 1941)

I'd never had the chance to see the 1931 version. This is Pre-Code, and you can tell. People clearly sleep with each other ... del Ruth uses a clock to indicate the passage of time, letting us draw our own conclusions about why people are still around in the morning. Joel Cairo is more clearly homosexual than in Huston's version ... heck, so is Wilmer and probably Gutman. These things were significant enough that when Warner Brothers tried to re-release it in 1936  ("post-Code"), they were denied by the Production Code office, because the movie was no longer appropriate. (This prompted WB to film a new version, Satan Met a Lady, with Bette Davis.)

The 1931 Falcon is a much lighter affair than the better-known 1941 version. Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade is much more the skirt-chaser than Bogart. Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly is far less conniving than Mary Astor. It's a breezy film, with little to suggest that there was a classic hidden somewhere in the source material.

I've written before about the 1941 version, in my dissertation, and when I chose it as my 18th-favorite movie in our Fave Fifty project a few years ago. I wrote then:

John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, realized from the start that Dashiell Hammett’s novel, with its terse style and realistic dialogue, was as perfect a screenplay as any novel could be. Huston allows Sam Spade to emerge, as he does in the book, as a self-interested hero with more than a little of the sadist in him.

What is missing from this film version is the critique of Spade that Hammett offers. Hammett uses the third-person to allow the reader to “see” Spade; the reader is encouraged to evaluate Spade rather than identify with him. Huston changes this perspective by shooting the movie largely from Spade’s point of view: while in the novel, Hammett’s description of Spade as he beats Joel Cairo is oddly distancing, as if the reader were interrupting Spade as he slept, the movie, with Bogart’s face showing clear enjoyment as he roughs up Cairo, allows the audience to feel superior to Cairo and to join Spade in his pleasure. The audience’s identification with Spade turns actions that would otherwise seem cruel into positive actions.

Though noteworthy for its seeming faithfulness to the novel, Huston’s movie does eliminate a final scene that is remarkable for what it shows about the movie’s desire to remake Spade’s image. Hammett leaves the reader with a hero who, for all his seeming victories, has lost more than he has won, someone who has alienated his best friend and sent his true lover to jail, someone who will return to a sleazy affair he had never enjoyed. It is a downbeat ending in line with Hammett’s cynical mistrust of heroic individualism. Huston omits this final scene, with its implications of failure, ending his movie instead with the barred elevator doors closing on Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade walking down the steps, the faux falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”) in his hands. Spade has lost his lover, but he has solved the case and avenged his partner. By dispensing with Hammett’s final chapter, Huston is able to maintain the aura of invincibility that Bogart/Spade has carried with him throughout the movie, in direct opposition to Hammett’s more despairing conclusion.

I should note that the 1931 film is much closer to Hammett than I would have expected, at least in the dialogue, which like Huston's movie, lifts plenty of lines directly from the book. Having said that, there is a fairly large space between the 1931 movie and Hammett's novel, primarily in the performance of Ricardo Cortez. It's possible at this point we just can't see anyone but Bogart in the role. But Cortez's Spade lacks the sadism of Bogart/Hammett.

There are historical reasons to was the Roy del Ruth film ... if you like Pre-Code movies, you might like this, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the later classic version. But there are better Pre-Code movies, and there is most certainly a better Maltese Falcon. The 1941 version is #276 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 1931: 6/10. 1941: 10/10.