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February 2011
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what i watched last week

A Serious Man. I’ve never been able to figure out if my opinion of the Coen brothers fluctuates, or if they are just erratic filmmakers. I loved Fargo, didn’t love Miller’s Crossing, and everything else falls in the middle. They’ve made some memorable movies … on the other hand, the only reason I know I saw Burn After Reading is because I wrote about it on this blog. A Serious Man is more excruciating than hilarious, the Book of Job as a comedy. I like how the hero keeps claiming he didn’t do anything. If you don’t do anything in the world of this movie, terrible things will happen. Of course, if you do something, terrible things will happen, as well. I can’t speak to the veracity of the film’s recreation of Jewish suburban life in 1967, but the odd blend of assimilation and the retention of Jewish culture is interesting, and feels accurate. The most remarkable thing for me was the performance of Michael Stuhlbarg. I thought I hadn’t seen him before … his resume includes guest spots on a few TV shows, but that was about it. But he does such a great job of occupying his character here, that I most certainly didn’t realize he is also Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire. Nicely done. #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. As I suggested a few weeks ago, John Cassavetes was less self-indulgent than he was indulgent of his actors. His films make room for groups of people … even in A Woman Under the Influence, which is so closely identified with Gena Rowlands, had Peter Falk and a host of minor characters. The minor characters abound in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but this film focuses more on a single character than others of Cassavetes’ movies. I saw the shorter, edited version, which is Cassavetes’ final word on the film. Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo Vittelli is a more obvious stand-in for Cassavetes than I expected … that’s not usually his game. Vittelli just wants to put on his show but is harassed by money men … remind you of anyone? Gazzara is predictably excellent (why doesn’t his name come up when the great actors are discussed?), and I liked this one about as much as I liked any Cassavetes film, which means 7/10. #344 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list.

The Big Lebowski. It’s a Coen Brothers festival (or maybe a Ben Gazzara festival … he turns up in this one, too). It is probably impossible to see a cult movie like this for the first time, a dozen years after its release, without your viewing being influenced by the cult, but yes, it’s true … I had never seen The Big Lebowski. There are probably two kinds of people in the world, those who would give The Big Lebowski 10/10 and those who have never seen it. (Now that I think of it, that’s probably the definition of a cult favorite.) So I apologize to both kinds of people, because now I’ve seen it, and I’m not giving it 10/10. The film shambles along amiably, the acting is excellent, there are funny scenes, and there is some dialogue worthy of being quoted as long as people watch movies. I can’t exactly respond to all of this with a big “so what,” but the parts are greater than the sum. The film it most reminds me of is Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye (a connection the Coens are happy to acknowledge), with Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe a match for The Dude. Marlowe’s oft-repeated assertion that “it’s OK with me” could easily come from the mouth of the Dude. But The Dude as a character goes nowhere … he’s the same at the end as at the beginning, which is of course largely the point of the Dude in the first place. He doesn’t like having his rug pissed on, but mostly because it shakes up his genial lifestyle, and he would have been happy to just steal a new rug and get on with bowling. Altman’s Marlowe, on the other hand, finally reaches a point where it isn’t OK with him. Altman’s Marlowe, rather like Walter in Lebowski, has a code that cuts deeper than “I Abide,” so he is forced to finally accept that the world not only isn’t how he wants it to be, but that he must act upon that knowledge. The Dude just smokes a joint, drinks a White Russian, bowls, and abides. It’s an appealing way to live, but it’s not a 10/10. #390 on the TSPDT Top 1000. 7/10, a good rating that will likely be seen as an insult by the cultists. (For those who would point to the iconic performance of Jeff Bridges, which is indeed a career role for an actor who is invariably good, I’d just add that the best performance does not in itself make a movie great. If that were the case, The Contender, where Bridges inhabits the role of a U.S. President and matches any such performance in movie history, would be a great movie, when in fact it’s a piece of shit.)

Morocco. An important movie in the history of film, with a couple of iconic moments, Marlene Dietrich, and a co-star who is even prettier than she is in Gary Cooper. It doesn’t add up to much … the story is silly, the dialogue in this early talkie is stilted, and there are endless scenes of legionnaires marching. None of this matters when Dietrich sings about selling her apples, or, in the film’s most famous moment, when she kisses another woman on the lips while wearing a men’s tuxedo. Equally iconic, but much sillier, is the ending, where Dietrich takes off her high heels and runs onto the vast sands of Morocco to follow her legionnaire. As my wife said, if she were serious, Dietrich would have brought a goat along. #631 on the Top 1000 list. 7/10.


bradley manning

Glenn Greenwald:

Let's review Manning's detention over the last nine straight months:  23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he's allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards' inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards' full view. …

The entire Manning controversy has received substantial media attention.  It's being carried out by the military of which Barack Obama is the Commander-in-Chief.  Yes, the Greatest Moral Leader of Our Lifetime and Nobel Peace Prize winner is well aware of what's being done and obviously has been for quite some time.  It is his administration which is obsessed with destroying and deterring any remnants of whistle-blowing and breaches of the secrecy regime behind which the National Security and Surveillance States function. …

[J]ust fathom the contrived, shrieking uproar from opportunistic Democratic politicians and their loyalists if it had been George Bush and Dick Cheney -- on U.S. soil -- subjecting a whistle-blowing member of the U.S. military to these repressive conditions without being convicted of anything, charging him with a capital offense that statutorily carries the death penalty, and then forcing him to remain nude every night and stand naked for inspection outside his cell.


music friday: judy collins, “hard lovin’ loser”

I have spoken often of my first rock concert (Chuck Berry, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and the Steve Miller Blues Band at the Fillmore in the Summer of Love), but that wasn't my first-ever concert. That honor belongs to Judy Collins, who I saw earlier that year with my brother, 44 years ago today at the Berkeley Community Theater.

Collins was touring behind her sixth album, In My Life. With that album, she was moving away from her folk roots, covering Dylan and the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman, Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill. The album had a distinct sound … it wasn’t just Collins and her guitar or piano (Joshua Rifkin was the producer). It’s easy to see now why I liked this music so much at the time. Collins’ voice was beautiful, the arrangements were appealing, the song selection intriguing. If now, in my dotage, I am less interested in a beautiful voice, well, sometimes I’m wrong. I’m reminded of Dylan’s liner notes for Joan Baez in Concert, Vol. 2 … yes, I’m aware that sounds odd, but in those notes Dylan wrote memorably about kinds of beauty. He talked about how when he was young (of course, he was young when he wrote these words), he sang “like a demon child,” and how he would accept beauty “only ‘f it was ugly.” He then relates a story of Baez telling him about parts of her own childhood that were sometimes ugly, and as she spoke, he realized the sounds her voice produced, beautiful as they were, might be based in something he'd recognize … “Yuh oughta listen t’ her voice.”

Judy Collins had a beautiful voice, and, to my ear, she made a few fine albums in the late 60s (In My Life, Wildflowers, and Who Knows Where the Time Goes). I’m content to have Judy Collins as my first concert.

Here come the videos. First, this week’s song, “Hard Lovin’ Loser,” a Richard Fariña song that I remember being funny in concert. On record, the song is dominated by a harpsichord, which was funny in its own way on a 1966 “folk” album.

Here she sings the same song along with the Smothers Brothers:

The Richard and Mimi Fariña original (no harpsichord in this one ... Mimi, of course, was Joan Baez's sister):

Might as well toss this in, the song Steven Stills wrote about Collins:

And last, a song from her folk period that I’ve always liked, “Twelve Gates to the City,” a Rev. Gary Davis song from her second album in 1962:


no, i haven’t seen it

I just finished watching a movie that I had never seen before. This fact might surprise some of you (you’ll have to wait for “what i watched this week” to find out what movie it is). It got me thinking once again about popular movies I have missed, for one reason or another. And so, with the help of MovieLens, here are Ten Movies Steven Has Never Seen That Are Pretty Darned Popular:

  • Dances with Wolves
  • Schindler’s List
  • Aladdin
  • Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
  • Mission: Impossible
  • The Lion King
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • Mrs. Doubtfire
  • Dumb & Dumber
  • The Mask

A couple of things are obvious. I haven’t seen many Disney animated musicals (those are all Disneys, aren’t they?), and I’ve missed a lot of Jim Carrey movies.

Usually when I do this, I also include a list of Movies Steven Has Seen That Hardly Anyone Else Has Discovered. So:

  • Carefree
  • Next Stop, Greenwich Village
  • Close-Up
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness
  • The Beaches of Agnes
  • Il Posto
  • Fires on the Plain
  • Shanghai Express
  • City on Fire
  • Paid in Full

These are movies of varying quality … they aren’t on the list because I loved them, but because I saw them but not many others have done the same. If I had to recommend one movie from that list, it would be Fires on the Plain (also known as Nobi), which I believe is one of the true classics of the cinema.


instant gratification

A friend posted a note on Facebook that he was enjoying a CD he had found randomly at a store after years of trying to hunt it down. The first two comments read as follows:

Commenter X: Love those moments. It's like finding treasure.

My friend: Absolutely. And they're especially welcome in the internet age, when instant gratification seems to rule.

It so happens that as I read the above, I was listening to Lucinda Williams’ new album, Blessed. As far as I can figure out, Blessed is not scheduled for official release for another ten days, yet here I am, listening and enjoying. And I’m not using illegal means … the album is already featured on at least two streaming music systems (Rhapsody, and MOG, the latter of which I am using right now via my Roku box). It’s hard to imagine more instant gratification than listening to music before it has been released, and, of course, this often happens in the Internet age … “streaming music” didn’t exist before the Internet.

I admit I’m perhaps reading more into my friend’s statements than are actually there. As I see it, the underlying concept is that the “internet age” leads us to desire “instant gratification.” There’s a chicken-or-egg thing going on … do we desire instant gratification and use the Internet to get it, or do the specific realities of the Internet lead us to desire instant gratification? I read the above comment as reflecting the latter. Me, I think the idea that instant gratification rules in the Internet era is putting the onus on technology for giving us what we’ve always desired.

When I was growing up, the minute a new Beatles album was released, I wanted to rush to the record store and buy it. OK, I didn’t have that much money, so I wouldn’t buy it right away, but I’d devour everything that was played on the radio, and if a friend had the album, we’d listen together. I wanted that music NOW. In the Internet era, it is indeed easier to get something NOW, but the desire for instant gratification precedes the Internet. Instant gratification doesn’t “rule” in the Internet age, other than being easier to satisfy.

If my friend had found that stray CD when it was released, many years ago, I suspect he would have greedily and happily devoured it as soon as possible. In fact, now that he has the CD, he is “excitedly listening” to it. The delay between desire and acquisition certainly adds to his enjoyment, but the delay is largely artificial: he couldn’t find the CD for several years, not because he wanted to savor the delay, but because he wasn’t able to feed his desire for instant gratification. Now that he has the CD, he’s listening.

Furthermore, in the Internet era, it is easier than ever to hunt down the music that in the past proved elusive. We haven’t quite reached the stage when every song ever recorded is available at any time and in any place, but we’re getting there. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found a long-lost piece of music via the Internet. In such cases, the Internet isn’t about instant gratification … instead, it’s about finally fulfilling a seemingly endless need.

In the Internet era, we can more easily feed a desire for instant gratification. We can also more easily feed the spaces left by things we have wanted for a long time. Being able to finally listen to a CD you’ve long desired is a treasured moment, no question. Such joys can make an average day into something special. But there is no need to cap off your joy with a shot at “the internet age, when instant gratification seems to rule.” The pleasure of the treasured moment should be enough, whether it comes from that CD you finally tracked down in a brick-and-mortar store, or from the streaming audio of a yet-to-be-released album, grabbed from the Internet.