film fatales #45 and #46: the ascent (larisa shepitko, 1977) and the spy who dumped me (susanna fogel, 2018)

Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.

The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.

I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)

This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.

The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday: 2011

Continuing with years I don't know enough about. There's an interesting interview in the latest Rolling Stone, "Monsters of Rock Criticism: Greil Marcus Interviews Robert Christgau". It features two eminent rock critics in their 70s who don't seem to have any trouble "keeping up". Obviously, I am neither Marcus nor Christgau, although I spent a lot of my life following in Greil's footsteps. At least in this list of ten, I've seen one artist in concert.

M83,"Midnight City". French electronic music. I'm just narrow-minded enough to dislike this just by the description. It's actually not that bad.

Lana Del Rey, "Video Games". This is better.

Tyler, The Creator, "Yonkers". This video is some dark shit.

PJ Harvey, "The Words That Maketh Murder". Rolling Stone called this "Fairly peppy for a PJ Harvey song about murder".

James Blake, "The Wilhelm Scream". I like the title.

Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Otis". I don't know what to do with this, which samples one of my all-time favorite tracks in a creative way, but it just makes me want to hear the original. We like what we grew up with, I guess ... I remember playing the Live in Europe version of "Try a Little Tenderness" for my mom, and she said it was all wrong because Otis didn't do it like Sinatra did.

Cass McCombs, "County Line". Born and raised in Concord, California, which is about 15 miles from where I grew up.

Wild Flag, "Romance". Well, I only saw one of these ten acts live, but Wild Flag make up for the absence of any others. I saw them three times, which is pretty good considering they only stuck around long enough to make one album. If anyone unfamiliar with the band wonders why I was so taken with them, I have two words: "Carrie" and "Janet".

The Weeknd, "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls". Since he came up earlier, might as well quote Christgau here: "If coming leaves your penis feeling that bad, fella, remember that they're not called narcotics for nothing".

Drake, "Marvin's Room". He started on Degrassi: The Next Generation. He's sold a zillion records. Yet when I think of Drake, I think of this:

Spotify playlist ... no Jay-Z on Spotify, so I've added Otis for an encore:

Here is my mom's version of "Try a Little Tenderness" ... my parents had many, many Sinatra albums when I was growing up, including Nice 'n' Easy:

My version of "Try a Little Tenderness" ... I got to go now, and I don't wanna go:


Plentitude. That’s what I love about popular music. That’s the reason I review all those albums. I review albums — really positive reviews — I know I’ll never hear again, ‘cause I’m just not going to have the time. But continuing to document that plentitude is what I’m in it for. You know, democracy. And democracy is seriously threatened at this moment. We’re both worried about it but we can’t. . . . Fuck, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

-- Robert Christgau, interviewed by Greil Marcus