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watching television

Jonathan Sterne has an excellent piece on Flow, “Formatted to Fit Your Screen”, that examines the difference between how we watch television, and how we talk about watching television:

For most of the medium’s history, watching television meant watching a television, a sensibility still well-established in practical reason and everyday conversation. But of course, this is no longer the case. We now live in an in-between moment, when it is possible for educated and thoughtful people to spend many hours of their lives watching television shows and yet not think of themselves as watching television.

Jonathan doesn’t spend much time here talking about specific content. He addresses the changing ways we watch television, suggesting many areas fruitful for further analysis. About YouTube, he writes, “what inside the text ontologically separates shorts made for YouTube from television shorts on YouTube?”

Besides enjoying the article and learning much from it, I also, as always, found myself thinking about it in relation to my own television watching (or better, my own writing about television). My friend Charlie often notes that my analysis of texts relies a lot on interpretations of narrative. I am, you could say, a rather old-fashioned literary critic, perhaps best exemplified by my dissertation, where I took texts (hard-boiled detective novels) that were so lacking in traditional, canonical literary value that it was assumed I’d take some kind of cultural approach to the works. Instead, I treated them like any other piece of literature, even devoting an entire chapter to a close reading of Mickey Spillane.

Similarly, Jonathan’s piece, looking at television as a technology, as a format, as a cultural institution, gets at important angles that I tend to neglect when I say “boy, Emmy Rossum sure is good in Shameless.”

Obviously, the way I watch television now is different from how I watched it in 1962. I have my big-screen TV, which is always my first choice for TV viewing. The Blu-ray player is connected to the TV, and Blu-ray is my preferred medium for watching. If it’s a TV show that my wife and I both watch, and it’s not particularly interesting in a visual or audio sense (think House), I’ll watch downstairs on “her” TV, which is a smaller HDTV with no external speakers. When we spend time in bed at the end of the day “winding down” (what she does … I’ve still got a couple of hours in me), instead of reading a book less taxing than whatever scholarly text I’m taking on, I’ll watch an old TV series on my Kindle Fire (right now, I’m in the middle of Season Two of Brotherhood, a Showtime series I missed out on). When we went to Hawaii last fall (pre-Kindle Fire), I passed the time watching Season One of Battlestar Galactica on my smartphone. And, like everyone else, I spend a lot of time watching videos online. (I’d detail my 1962 viewing habits for comparison, but they were pretty standard: one TV for a family of 7, three broadcast networks to choose from, B&W, with an antenna atop the house to get the stations.)

The point here is that I don’t often talk about the technology or the format, and I spend less time doing cultural analysis than I might expect from myself. No, I talk about the writing and the acting. I focus on showrunners, because they are the most influential people these days (if I define “influential” by thinking only of creative talent). I accept that certain genres do nothing for me. But I don’t generally address the “conditions of production and circulation” that Jonathan discusses in his essay. The closest I come is when I talk about the different levels of freedom allowed to pay cable, basic cable, and broadcast networks. But even then, I come at the topic mostly through narrative … I’m a verbose version of those warnings before shows. There usually aren’t any for broadcast TV, basic cable shows like Sons of Anarchy get Viewer Discretion Advised announcements along with details like “contains disturbing violence and sexual situation”, and pay cable gets “contains extreme violence” (HBO) and “nudity, nudity, and more nudity” (Showtime). Steven Rubio’s Online Life tells you how they manage to fit that violence and nudity (or lack of same) into a series.

Beyond my apparently ingrained need to see things through the narrative lens, what it comes down to is that, despite my academic background, my writing on television resembles TV critics like Alan Sepinwall, Mo Ryan, or Tim Goodman more than it does academics who study communications. While I’ve had a few pieces in academic anthologies, the most common place to find my published writing on television is via Smart Pop Books, where I had half-a-dozen essays in the last several years.

Perhaps this all relates to this blog’s guiding quote from Pauline Kael, “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.” When you read my thoughts on television, what you’re really getting is my memoirs. That leaves a lot of room for substantial analysis of the kind you can find at places like Flow on a regular basis. I read a lot of that kind of analysis, and hand out the +1’s and Likes as often as anyone. But the things that inspire me to write a blog post tend to be the ones where I get to write about myself.

Meanwhile, you really need to read Jonathan’s essay. Take my word for it.

what i watched last week

Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960). This week’s Creature Feature is arguably the most interesting movie I watched all week. I say that, even though I had trouble staying awake (which is appropriate, since Creature Features used to be on in the wee hours, and I frequently fell asleep while watching).

For starters, there are a bunch of different versions, and I’m almost certain the one I watched this week is not the one I grew up watching. The Italian original (La maschera del demonio) is unseen in the States, far as I know. Bava did an English-language version, dubbed, although the leads are English. This was called The Mask of Satan, and is the version I have on DVD. When Bava sold the film to American International Pictures, they re-dubbed it and changed the musical score, calling it Black Sunday. For TV, some other editing was done; this is the version I assume I watched as a kid. Finally (I think), there’s another version called La maschera del demonio that mixes the two soundtracks. Whew!

This was the first feature where Mario Bava got a director’s credit. He directed for another 20 years, and his films had a very distinctive look. He began as a cinematographer (following in the footsteps of his father), and maintained that distinctive look once he became a director by doing the camerawork for most of his films (usually uncredited). They tend to be style-over-substance, probably for the best when filming something like Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs starring Fabian.

There are unforgettable images in Black Sunday, most notably in the opening scene, when Barbara Steele has a mask with nails inside hammered onto her face. That kind of thing sticks with a kid, ya know? Truthfully, the entire picture is full of beautiful imagery (those of us who love Barbara Steele’s unusual look would include her as part of that imagery). Of course, the plot is largely incoherent. The basics are easy enough to follow: a woman burned as a witch comes back two centuries later to get revenge. But you don’t get the feeling Bava cares much about how the narrative gets from one place to another; he just wants it to look good, and he succeeds.

Still, I think this is probably the reason why I fell asleep when I was a kid, and why I fought to keep awake this time around. There’s the gruesome opening, there’s the atmospheric visuals, there’s Barbara Steele … many films have none of these things, so I’m not complaining. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that Black Sunday is kinda boring. It is definitely worth seeing once, and then perhaps watching it every few years once you’ve forgotten just how slow it is. There is an artist at work here, and that’s not often the case with these Creature Features. #738 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (Next week’s Creature Feature: Burn, Witch, Burn, an early-60s British film with Janet Blair.)

Cul-de-sac (Roman Polanski, 1966). This is not the Creature Feature of the week, although an adventurous programmer might slip it in when the bosses weren’t looking. (Polanski’s next two films, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby, wouldn’t need such subterfuge.) Polanski seems to be having his version of fun in Cul-de-sac, which isn’t to say it’s a flat-out comedy. It’s a hodgepodge of things, crossing genres, taking chances, never settling for just one thing when four could do just as well. I found the film easier to admire than to like. It’s a bit like what Straw Dogs would look like if Antonioni directed it as a comedy. Donald Pleasence plays Dustin Hoffman, Françoise Dorléac plays Susan George, and Lionel Stander plays the villagers. Of course, the roles are flipped in more than one way; Stander is American and Pleasence is English, for one thing, and both fill fairly stereotypical roles relative to their respective countries. Dorléac reminds us that while her sister Catherine Deneuve may have been The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Dorléac was arguably the most beautiful woman in the family. Plus, she was good at comedy. #938 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 7/10.

The Last Metro (François Truffaut, 1980). In 1980, Catherine Deneuve was still in her Most Beautiful Woman in the World phase (it lasted a couple of decades), which may have somewhat hidden the fact that she was a fine actress. Her work in The Last Metro won her the French equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress (the film itself won ten César Awards including Deneuve’s, a record that has never been surpassed). The Last Metro is rather odd, in that it’s not very odd at all. It’s a thriller that downplays the thrills and a romance that sneaks up on you … the film that takes place during the Nazi occupation of France, but the slowly-emerging romantic triangle is what seems to interest Truffaut more than anything. (Some critics noted the film’s humor, although since I am humorless, I missed this.) Somehow it all works out. It’s not up to the standards of his finest work, but then, there aren’t many movies up to the standard of Jules and Jim. 8/10.

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007). The blank look that sits constantly on the face of the film’s central character, a skateboarding teenager named Alex, is a perfect expression of the guarded way teenagers often present themselves to the world. Alex has a secret, and the adults have no idea, because they don’t see the variations in his blank demeanor. (Alex’s teenage friends, on the other hand, know something is up.) There isn’t much else to Paranoid Park, though. Once again, Van Sant is simultaneously showy and lo-fi, and it doesn’t add up to much. At least he avoids the judgmental problems of Elephant. Van Sant’s willingness to try different projects is admirable, but for me, at least, the results are hit and miss. Paranoid Park is in the middle. #134 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 6/10. For radically different takes from my own, see Manohla Dargis (here), Kim Nicolini (here), and Amy Taubin’s interview with Van Sant (here).

Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989). I avoided this movie for more than 20 years because I thought I’d hate it. Well, I didn’t hate it … I even liked the first half. Robin Williams gives (for him) a controlled performance, and it’s fun to see actors like Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, and Josh Charles at the starts of their careers. But the film took a melodramatic turn as it progressed, and I lost interest. There’s a love story that doesn’t get enough screen time to justify its presence. Worse, Leonard’s character throws himself into a love of acting that comes out of nowhere; that love leads to conflict with his parents, with tragic results. It might have worked better if the entire picture had been about this character, but as it is, the acting bug hits him too abruptly, making what follows ludicrous. An Oscar winner for best original screenplay (beating Do the Right Thing), and #749 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list. 6/10.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988). The most honest grade for this one would be “incomplete”,  because I was unimpressed, but I also sensed that I might find the film more powerful on a second viewing. It’s an intriguing combination of English kitchen-sink realism and near avant-garde stylings. It is also, to quote one critic, “nigh incomprehensible” (yet moving, they add). If you are like me, you are old-fashioned when it comes to narrative, and so Distant Voices, Still Lives will befuddle at best. But Davies isn’t trying for a straightforward chronological series of events. The connections are emotional, the way they are when we reminisce. I admit I was lost half of the time, but that’s why it might look better to me on a second viewing, since I’d know more about what was going on. I doubt this would ever be a film that I loved, though; while some of the emotions are universal, others come across as purposely insular. This movie will never mean as much to me as it meant to Davies. #362 on the TSPDT Top 1000 list, and voted the 3rd-best British film of all time. A provisional 6/10.

“Duck Amuck” (Chuck Jones, 1953). Daffy Duck’s finest moment. This would make a good companion piece to Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. 10/10.

luck, season premiere

You never know … HBO series are generally very good at the least, and David Milch was responsible for Deadwood, one of the two or three best series the network has ever produced. But Milch was also responsible for John from Cincinnati, and HBO has had a few clunkers along the way.

Happily, Milch’s new HBO series, Luck, is closer in quality to Deadwood than to John. It shares many of the usual Milch touches: you have to pay attention, because he doesn’t baby his audience (Luck is about the world of horse racing, which Milch knows very well, and he immediately begins filling the dialogue with racing slang and situations most folks know nothing about); the dialogue is odd, even stagy, but highly quotable; and you get completely absorbed into the world of the series.

I can’t say I followed everything. I know what a Pick Six is, so I was able to explain to Robin what the deal was with that angle. On the other hand, there are three key horses, and I had a hard time remembering which was which. (There was also a fourth horse, not a regular, who served the same role as the redshirts did on Star Trek.) It appears the horses will be central characters in the show. Their trainers are also important (one is played by Nick Nolte), as are the jockeys, and their agents. Then there’s the owner of one horse in particular (played by Dustin Hoffman, although Dennis Farina acts as the front). Somewhere along the way all of this will fit together, but it won’t happen very quickly … this is David Milch we’re talking about.

Sundays are big nights for the cable networks, and right now you have to be very happy for the existence of DVRs. HBO’s got Luck, Showtime has Shameless (and, if I stick with it, House of Lies), and PBS has Downton Abbey. Based on this first night when all three contended with each other, I think our own schedule will be Luck, after which I’ll watch Shameless (which Robin doesn’t watch), and then Monday we’ll catch up with Downton Abbey. The three shows couldn’t be any different, but they are among the best shows on right now. Grade for Luck’s premiere: A-.

#11: king kong (merian c. cooper and ernest b. schoedsack, 1933)

(This is the 40th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Each generation, it seems, gets their own Kong. There is something elemental about the story that grabs our attention. People of my generation, who grew up watching the original on TV when we were kids, hated the 70s remake because it was not King Kong as it lived in our nostalgic remembrances. But later generations, sitting around watching TV, saw that remake much as we saw the original, as something that was on seemingly every couple of months. When Peter Jackson’s version came along, the audience compared it, not to 1933 and Fay Wray, but to the 1970s and Jessica Lange. We all got our own Kong, influenced by what had come before.

Kong may have lacked a penis (although he did have the Empire State Building), but it was always clear that even if he did have an appendage, it wasn’t going to do him a whole lot of good with Fay Wray. What wasn’t a joke was the effect the pre-Code Wray had on many young boys who saw the film on television in the 1960s (even though the version shown in those days was missing the scene where Kong peels off Wray’s clothes). Wray was indeed sexier than pretty much anything else on television at the time, but it was already a nostalgic sexiness, something that had taken place long ago, before most of those boys were born.

Race is complicated in King Kong. On the one hand, you have stereotypical representations of primitive natives. On the other hand, Kong is the baddest black man on the planet; his ultimate demise is a metaphor for the oppression of people of color. (The 1970s version makes this more explicit, including a sequence of the trip from the island to New York, which did not appear in the original. In that version, seeing Kong jailed at the bottom of the ship makes clear the connection between the story of Kong and the story of slavery.) In fact, the 1933 King Kong has it both ways: it reinforces both the white audience’s assumptions about race and sexuality, and the black audience’s assumptions about representations of race and sexuality in mainstream (i.e. “white”) culture. What gives this King Kong its potentially subversive subtext is that by the end of the film, the white audience has come to sympathize with Kong. He begins as whites’ worst nightmare, but with that sympathizing, the door is cracked open to give that audience a sense of what their assumptions mean to those who are stereotyped. The film gives no sign of “white guilt,” but the ending, and the identification of the white audience with Kong, introduces white guilt nonetheless.

When I place King Kong this high on my list, I am succumbing to my pre-teen self, the one who couldn’t imagine anything more sexy than pre-Code Fay Wray. I certainly never thought about any of the above in those days. But watching it today, I can barely think of anything else. Well, Fay Wray is still pretty damn sexy.


The comments section consisted of a bunch of us reminiscing about our favorite horror and monster movies from our youths.

music friday: aretha franklin, “dr. feelgood”

In February of 1971, Aretha Franklin did a three-night stand at the Fillmore West. The opening act, who also backed up Aretha on her sets, was King Curtis and his band, which included such stalwarts as Cornell Dupree and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie … Billy Preston was there, as well. Plus Aretha herself on electric piano. There are stories about these shows that Aretha was worried her music wouldn’t go over well with the Fillmore audience. Whatever … she won them over, no question. She was 28 years old.

There are three basic recorded versions of those shows. Live at Fillmore West was the official release of King Curtis’ contributions; it was released later in ‘71, just a week before the King was murdered. Aretha Live at Fillmore West was also released in 1971, and that was the version most of us listened to for the next 30+ years. Aretha’s performance tended towards the excessive (not necessarily a bad thing in her case), with some odd song selections that appear to be meant to connect with the hippie audience (as if her voice wasn’t enough all on its own). The seeming highlight of that album was “Spirit in the Dark”, at least its reprise, when Aretha brought out Ray Charles to sing and play along. It’s an amazing moment, but the truth is, the best part is the introduction of her surprise guest … the music is mostly an aimless jam.

In 2005, a limited-edition 4-disc box set offered the most complete version yet of those legendary nights, with Aretha and Curtis’ sets all together at last.

My personal favorite track from all of this is '”Dr. Feelgood”. She is indeed over the top on this one, and I have never been able to get enough … forty years of listening hasn’t dampened my love for it.

Now, after all these years, a video has surfaced. It’s extremely lo-fi, but it will do. It’s amazing to see things we’ve only heard in the past. When Aretha and Ray Charles and King Curtis are all busting loose on a 25-minute version of “Spirit in the Dark”, well, actually, it’s still mostly an aimless jam, but seeing them together is amazing, just the same.

And we get “Dr. Feelgood”. This might not be the exact version from the original album (they had three shows to choose from, after all). But I’ll take it. It lacks the concise perfection of “Respect”, but this makes as good a case as any for Aretha as the greatest female singer in the history of rock and roll music.

#12: top hat (mark sandrich, 1935)

(This is the 39th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

One of the Astaire-Rogers movies was going to turn up here. I could have chosen Follow the Fleet for being the first one I saw, but it’s an atypical choice (no top hats, white ties, and tails, just sailor suits). I could have chosen Swing Time, which I guess is generally considered the best. But none of those have “Cheek to Cheek,” the best dance number in the entire Astaire-Rogers series, so Top Hat gets the nod.

The best book about the Astaire-Rogers movies is Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book. I doubt I have any original thoughts she didn’t already come up with. These movies were about romance and seduction, not necessarily sex, although there is the famous line about how Fred and Ginger were great partners because he gave her class and she gave him sex. The plot of Top Hat is exceedingly silly; the true story is told in the series of dances in the film. In the first, Fred offers a joyful solo tap dance that wakes up Ginger in another room in the hotel both are staying in (I could call them by their characters’ names, but why bother?); this leads to their first meeting, with Ginger cranky at Fred and Fred suffering from love at first sight (this happens in a lot of their movies together). Next, they dance together in “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” … Ginger hesitates to join in at first, but finally she makes her move, surprising and delighting Fred with her skills. The ice thaws. Fred does a show-stopping solo number (the title tune), and then, in the midst of that goofy plot about mistaken identities, the two of them fall in love to “Cheek to Cheek.” What’s happening in the non-dance parts of the film is irrelevant. What matters is getting Fred and Ginger to this point, where they will recognize their love for each other (or rather, Ginger recognizes … Fred is already there). “Cheek to Cheek” is one of the great romantic, exquisite moments in film.

There’s one more dance, a big production number, and the plot gets straightened out. There are some fun turns by the supporting cast, especially Erik Rhodes as dress designer Alberto Beddini (Rhodes, born in Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory, played a similar Italian in The Gay Divorcee … Mussolini banned both films in Italy because he found Rhodes’ over-the-top characters to be offensive). Rhodes’ most famous line here is “Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!”


Even the commenters who professed to knowing little about Astaire/Rogers films admitted to seeing a couple. And one commenter knew the movies better than I do, which was great fun!

adventures in customer service

My Internet connection went down before midnight last night. When I woke up this morning, it was still down. I called Comcast’s customer support number. After going through the usual array of menu items, a recorded voice told me my call was being transferred to a customer support agent.

Before the agent got back to me about my inability to connect to the Internet, I got another recorded message:

“We are experiencing higher than normal support calls at the moment. There may be a longer than usual delay. For faster service, you can go to”

what i watched last week

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Phil Dellio made this #10 on his Facebook Fave Fifty list. It’s safe to say I didn’t have it on my list, but Phil convinced me to give it another try. The thing that most interested me about his take was the way he compared it to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Before reading what Phil had to say, I would have thought such a comparison to be silly, but he made a good case, and having watched Zodiac again, I see exactly what he meant, for both movies are in part about obsessions. So why did I put Close Encounters on my own Top 50 list, while I find Zodiac hard to sit through? I think it’s because there is nothing appealing about Robert Graysmith’s obsession. When I wrote about the film a couple of years ago, I complained that there was no setup to convince me that Graysmith would be such an obsessive. Watching this time, I had a different problem with the movie: I found Graysmith to be thoroughly unlikeable. In Close Encounters, Roy Neary’s obsession leads to a meeting with the cosmic angels. He becomes estranged from his family, but in the name of a higher power. Zodiac doesn’t care about higher powers. Robert Graysmith is presented as a man obsessed, a man whose life falls apart while he searches for … what? Phil quoted Neary, saying “This is important. This means something”, claiming this held true for Graysmith as well. And I’m sure Graysmith would agree. But just how important was Graysmith’s obsession? He made a lucrative career for himself as a true-crime writer (besides the two books he milked from the Zodiac killer, he has written about everyone from the Unabomber to Bob Crane, the latter leading to another movie I didn’t like, Auto Focus). Graysmith didn’t get religion … except in his own mind, you could argue he didn’t even get Zodiac. Next to Roy Neary going inside the Mothership, Graysmith’s accomplishments seem pretty paltry.

But much of this confuses me, for I am not a religious person myself (Close Encounters is one of the few religious movies I like), and in fact I am much more like the Robert Graysmith of Zodiac than I am like Roy Neary. So perhaps in the end, it’s just a case of me being uncomfortable seeing myself portrayed so accurately and in such an unlikable fashion. I’m left with something I said to Phil in the comments to that post back in 2009. “This all points to something I often find true: two people agree on what they've seen, but not on what it signifies.” Because everything I’ve seen of Phil writing about Zodiac strikes me as right on target. But he thinks that makes Zodiac his 10th-favorite movie, while I think 6/10. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They agrees with Phil: it’s #24 on their Top 250 films of the 21st century list.

Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009). George Clooney is an interesting case. He’s smart and has great on-screen charisma. He moves with ease between simple entertainment and more complex films.  He’s done good work as a director … in the case of Good Night, and Good Luck, much more than good. He is surely the best choice to play the lead in Up in the Air, a character with a black hole in his soul who gets by on charm and the ability to give people bad news is an acceptable way. Clooney being Clooney, we understand how he works that charm, because we feel it in the audience. And Clooney being more than just a handsome face, we understand what’s going on underneath the charm. Yet there is something almost flippant about Up in the Air. It takes place during a serious economic low point, and pretends to address this social problem, but really, it’s just a movie about a soulless man finding something deeper in his heart than mere charm. That’s a good subject for a movie, and Clooney does well with it. But I kept getting the nagging feeling that the people being fired in the movie wouldn’t have liked the film all that much (even, or perhaps especially, the actual non-actors who, having recently lost their jobs, were asked by Reitman to play versions of themselves). I liked this quite a bit, but only a day later, I already feel like it won’t age well. #194 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011). It’s a George Clooney Film Festival! The Ides of March has a nice blend of top stars (like Clooney and Ryan Gosling) and top actors (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Jeffrey Wright). It has an interesting script that isn’t particularly profound but which keeps your attention. It’s a movie for grown-ups, and that’s nice. It’s just missing that unknown something that would make it great instead of good. It occurs to me that Clooney is becoming the director people think Clint Eastwood is. Eastwood wins praise and Oscars for being simple and efficient, trusting his writers, actors, and crew to get things done quickly and correctly. He directs like he acts; there are few extraneous moves. Clooney also stays out of the way. He seems to like actors, and he gives them room to shine. He also tends to treat his audience like grown-ups (there’s that word again). Yet Clooney has only been nominated for one Best Director Oscar and one Directors Guild award, both for Good Night, and Good Luck (in fairness, he’s only directed four movies), plus he has one Best Supporting Actor Oscar on his shelf. Eastwood, on the other hand, has two Best Director Oscars and two DGA awards. But for my money, Eastwood is no better a director than Clooney. 7/10.

Corridors of Blood (Robert Day, 1958). This week’s Creature Feature is a different kind of cheapie. It’s British, and while it’s not a Hammer production, it has the same feel, accomplishing a lot with a small budget (in this case, 90,000 pounds). It was the first of two films that co-starred Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, although at this point in their careers, Lee takes a backseat. The subject matter is serious (Karloff plays a London doctor in 1840 who is trying to create the first anesthetic for surgery), and there are no real “creatures” in the film. It’s not prestigious enough to win over those who want their historical dramas to be high-class affairs (although it was eventually released on DVD by Criterion), and it’s not really all that scary, either, so it sat on the shelf for four years before it was released … when it hit the States, it was double billed with Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. Still, the scenes of Karloff operating on patients in the pre-anesthesia era are hard to watch, even though you see little. Karloff does a fine job … he experiments on himself, and ends up hooked on the opiates he puts into the anesthetic. It’s an admirable little production, but it’s no classic. 6/10. (Since I seem to be continuing this tradition of a weekly Creature Feature, I need to plan ahead … most of the movies I watch are chosen in a semi-random fashion. So I can tell you that if all goes well, next week’s Creature Feature will be Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, with the incomparable Barbara Steele. Check it out … there will be a quiz.)

ghost light

Some friends got us tickets to see Ghost Light at the Berkeley Rep for Xmas, and today was the day we got to go. It’s the emotional story of the son of George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor who was assassinated along with Harvey Milk in 1978. It’s directed by that son, Jonathan Moscone, and written by Tony Taccone.

Ghost Light takes its ghosts seriously. They are all over the play, in often confusing ways. Jon has dreams that take him back to his father’s death when he was 14, while he tries to put on a production of Hamlet that gets stuck with an inability to figure out how best to present the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This all works better on an emotional level than any other way … you always sense how tortured Jon is, but it’s not always clear exactly what is happening or whether this or that scene is “real” or a dream.

The acting was strong, although the dialogue felt stagy to me, and there was too much didactic speechmaking in the early part of the play. (I’ve been obsessing about an odd piece in Salon about sitcoms, which may have inspired me to look for staginess where it didn’t necessarily exist.) The play also runs too long after what feels like the proper ending.

But the entire production is innovative, and it is definitely worth seeking out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a filmed version show up at some point on HBO.

#13: breathless (jean-luc godard, 1960)

(This is the 38th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

Many modern reviews of Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature discuss the impossibility of reclaiming the moment when Breathless first arrived on our screens. Its innovations, not just in technique but in attitude, were so influential that even now, in 2012, films and television shows and commercials exist in homage to Breathless. If you saw it for the first time today, it would be impossible to share the startled delight of those who first saw it in 1960. The technique and the attitude are now commonplace, and there is some question whether Breathless can still stand on its own as a great film.

Happily, I can sidestep the issue by falling back on the continuing theme of Favorite vs. Best. Breathless is one of my favorite movies, dating back to the first time I saw it. That was already the early-70s, but I was only just beginning my film education, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that something like Bonnie and Clyde owed a lot to Godard’s film. Which is to say that I was able to approximate the feeling of 1960, which is something, at least. I sat through the film, and I didn’t leave the theater … I watched it a second time, the only time I can recall ever doing that (outside of Yellow Submarine once when I was high).

I claim to be a substance-over-style guy, but making this list has shown me how shallow is my feeling for this. Directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Ophüls, all of whom have turned up recently on my list, are certainly style-first directors, even if they are only “superficially superficial.” (Run Lola Run surely fits this, as well.) Breathless is definitely style-over-substance. The “plot” barely exists, and whatever “meaning” can be extracted from the film must always confront the ultimate playfulness with which Breathless was made.

In the middle of the film, Breathless stops for about 20 minutes while Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg talk in her apartment. (I use the actors’ names intentionally … Godard has said the film could be seen as a documentary about the two.) It’s like seeing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in a prequel to the “Before” movies, if those two played amoral, self-absorbed icons instead of something resembling real people.

Breathless is also another movie that stands in for many others. Suffice to say that Jean-Luc Godard was going to make my list, and I could have placed half-a-dozen in my top 50 without stretching (off the top of my head, I’d add Vivre sa vie, Masculine Feminine, Weekend, Band of Outsiders, and Pierrot le fou). I don’t know which to recommend first for someone who has never seen any Godard; Band of Outsiders, which Tarantino loves, or Masculine Feminine, with the immortal self-description, “The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” But Breathless works for me.


What little commenting there was focused mostly on which Godard was the favorite of the commenter. Well, that’s a stretch … the first commenter said he thought I would have picked Masculine Feminine, I was the second commenter, and the third (and last) cast her vote for Breathless, as well.