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music friday: bruce springsteen, “we take care of our own”

Bruce has a new album coming out in March, and the first single has been released:

Advance word is that the new album, Wrecking Ball, is the “angriest” of his career. I suspect that honor will always belong to Darkness on the Edge of Town, which assumed the personal stories of the people struggling to follow the American Dream would translate, unspoken, into an angry indictment of the world that made their struggle so difficult.

The repetition of the title, “We Take Care of Our Own”, hammers home the irony of the place where the flag is flown (this throws us off, because Bruce is usually the least ironic of artists). There would seem to be no way to take it other than ironically: good hearts turn to stone, there ain’t no help, the promise from sea to shining sea is gone, but “wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.” No one is being taken care of … he can’t get much more clear than “there ain’t no help”.

Yet some folks are apparently unearthing a hopeful message from all of this, as if the mere existence of a Bruce Springsteen song in these dark times is reason to hope (I’m regularly guilty of this idea, myself). I hate to quote that fucking Huffington Post, but Google sent me to them, so for once I’ll break my rule. They wrote, “The lyrics of ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ evoke recent tragedies but also sound a note of hope, suggesting that the nation can reclaim its spirit of shared sacrifice.” Uh, no. There may be hope elsewhere on the album, and Bruce has a long tradition of finding hope in the midst of despair. But it ain’t here.

Matt Orel writes that the song is already being distorted by writers with an agenda, comparing it to the misreadings of “Born in the USA” in the 1980s:

It didn't take long for history to repeat. Already this morning, a piece in Los Angeles Times was titled, "First take: Bruce Springsteen's patriotic 'We Take Care of Our Own'" According to this misread, the lyrics "offer an affirmation of national glory," and "the title phrase borders on jingoism." Of the chorus, "We take care of our own/Wherever this flag is flown/We take care of our own," the piece concludes, without the barest hint of irony, that it's "about community and pride."

Matt’s a lot more astute about the song than either the Times or HuffPost: “I hear an accusation, a cry of betrayal from a former believer … the song is one of bitterness, angriness, and is a reminder of who we supposedly were.”

I’m obliged to point out that the music is pretty standard Bruce, despite Jon Landau’s claim that the album’s music is innovative. But then, no one expects musical innovation from Bruce Springsteen. I think it’s interesting that the only person to appear in the video is Bruce himself … he’s not trotting out “the common man” for this one. I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the song, but I am glad that the ball is rolling on getting him to play a concert in the Bay Area. I’ll feel hopeful at least for the duration of that show.


catching up: justified, house of lies, lost girl

Two new-to-the-USA series began this week, and since we hadn’t yet watched either of the first two episodes of the new Showtime series House of Lies, we made Tuesday into Catchup Night.

First up was Lost Girl, which began its run in the States on the SyFy channel (it’s in the middle of Season Two in Canada). It has “not for Steven” written all over it (it is, on the other hand, very much a Robin show), but it came highly recommended, and quality is the ultimate “for Steven” marker. Since it features a strong young woman in the lead role, and since it takes place in a contemporary setting with fantasy elements, it draws comparisons to Buffy. While I loved Buffy enough to teach a course on it at Cal, I’m less a genre fan than a Joss Whedon fan … I don’t watch any of the post-Buffy vampire shows outside of True Blood. Still, Lost Girl gets a fine performance from Anna Silk in the lead as a Succubus, and the first episode did a decent job of setting up the context for what will follow. I’ll be back for the next episode, although I’m already tired of Ksenia Solo’s turn as the sidekick (I can’t tell if it’s Solo or the part itself that bothers me).

Next was House of Lies. SyFy had put a parental warning at the start of Lost Girl, claiming nudity was forthcoming, and there may be some in the Canadian version, but all we saw was half a butt crack and a little side boob. So when House of Lies began with a Showtime warning, I told Robin that this being Showtime, we were pretty much guaranteed some real nudity. Little did I know … the very first shot of the very first scene of the very first episode of House of Lies was of Don Cheadle and Dawn Olivieri sprawled naked across a bed. Ah, Showtime, always willing to try something new, but also predictably certain to include lots of nekkid people. Cheadle is great, I laughed a few times, and while I was reminded of the 1999 series Action, which I liked quite a lot (and which was quickly cancelled), I couldn’t resist the feeling that House of Lies would end up being another comedy that I lost track of. For now, I’m there.

Justified really deserves its own post. Last season it grew enough for me to consider it one of the best shows around, and while the loss of Margo Martindale will hurt, there are plenty of other fascinating characters, and the dialogue is going to be great as usual. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins are bringing it once again (Alan Sepinwall said, “Goggins and Timothy Olyphant have such chemistry at this point that I'm happy to just watch them shoot the breeze”). With some good shows having finished their seasons, and with some even better shows yet to begin their new seasons, Justified becomes the show I am currently most excited about watching each week (sorry, Shameless). Fans of the movie Out of Sight, or fans of Carla Gugino, or just people interested in the inspiration for my annual Karen Sisco award will want to watch next week, when Gugino makes a guest appearance as a marshal named “Karen”.


#14: the earrings of madame de … (max ophüls, 1953)

(This is the 37th 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.)

Charles Boyer’s description of his marriage to Danielle Darrieux’s Madame de (we never learn her last name) is also a perfect description of the film: “superficially superficial.” Nothing could seem less interesting to me on the surface: a period romance about the rich, where people go to balls and flirt and wear fabulous clothes. But the milieu actually works to focus us on love; as Kael wrote, “By removing love from the real world of ugliness and incoherence and vulgarity, Ophüls was able to distill the essences of love.” I was reminded throughout the film of Renoir’s Grand Illusion, another film that showed us how honor worked amongst the upper classes. In Renoir’s film, class was the spanner in the works, but here, it’s gender: Madame de doesn’t operate under the same strictures of honor that her husband and her lover do, and eventually, no one trusts anyone else.

Madame de can’t be trusted because she lives outside the code that directs the men in her life. As long as she merely flirts, she’s playing her proper role. When she falls in love, though, she oversteps her boundaries. She doesn’t realize this at first, and she tells what seem to her to be little white lies, not understanding that lies of any kind exist outside of the men’s code of honor.

It’s a remarkable achievement, to take a shallow character like this Countess and make us understand her suffering. Early in the movie, she suffers only from the need to cover her gambling debts. Falling in love with a Baron played by Vittorio De Sica changes her, but when she blossoms, her men want only to clip her petals.

Ophüls is sympathetic to the men, as well, recognizing that the roles they are forced to play constrict their lives. Boyer’s admission late in the film, “I’m not particularly fond of the person you’ve made me out to be,” implicates both his wife and himself. He falters because of his attachment to his code, she because she doesn’t accept the code.

The main performances by Boyer, Darrieux, and De Sica are exquisite, individually and as they work together. And Ophüls’ trademark tracking camerawork draws us into the story, its lushness revealing as it entices.

 

Comments were slim … one person didn’t know it, another had seen it once ten years ago, and that was that.


politics, and taking a leak

Salon had a brief piece yesterday where political journalists and analysts offered their favorite “campaign-related fare”. What got my solipsistic attention is that I know two of the people who were asked for their choices, which instantly made me think of the article as somehow “mine”.

The problem is, I don’t have much to contribute to the topic beyond my peripheral connection to the writers. I thought long and hard, and this is what I came up with as my best campaign-related moment. Congressman Ron Dellums, who was my favorite politician for so long I can even forgive him for his time as mayor of Oakland, stopped by the Berkeley campus when I was at Cal. I forget why he was there, but it was during a presidential election, so it was probably 1988. I happened to be walking across lower Sproul Plaza and saw the Congressman and a couple of “aides” (i.e. bodyguards) ahead of me. I had to take a leak, so when Ron stopped into the men’s room, I followed suit, and found myself standing a couple of urinals away from Representative Dellums.

So, of course, I asked him to convince me to vote for the Democratic candidate for president.

It was the typical dicks-in-hand conversation common in men’s rooms across this great nation of ours, albeit with one of the participants being a bit more famous than the other. I suppose I had visions of Hunter S. Thompson asking questions of George McGovern when both were taking a leak early in the 1972 campaign. I was going to get a scoop! Nah, let’s face it: the truth is, I was star-struck, and wasn’t thinking about much at all.

As I recall, Dellums cussed more than once as he explained the standard “sure, the Democrat leaves a lot to be desired, but anything is better than the Republican” line. I thanked him and said if anyone could convince me of the rightness of that argument, it was the politician I most respected.

The point of the story, in 2012, is simple: I have nothing but lame campaign-related tales to tell.

There is a follow-up to this story, or rather, to Ron Dellums and me. There was a guy who used to hang out on our block occasionally. He was convinced that he was the illegitimate son of Ron Dellums. His “proof” was that his mom … ah, why bother, it was so goofy it didn’t even qualify as “proof” with scare quotes attached. This guy did not look a thing like Ron Dellums, although he thought the resemblance was clear. Some of us dream of winning the lottery; this gentleman dreamed of being recognized by his “real” father.

Here’s a clip from a long-forgotten movie that relates to all of this, if you happen to have taken a hit of acid this morning:


what i watched last week

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011). You can’t make a movie of Jane Eyre without everyone knowing you’re dealing with a classic, but as much as possible, Fukunaga makes this just another movie, and I mean that as a compliment. Yes, it is as dark and mysterious as Jane Eyre should be, and no, it isn’t played as some awful modernization. But it does seem fresh. The actress who plays Jane is usually too old and too pretty; at least Mia Wasikowska is the right age, and she gives the impression of someone who is old for her years instead of older than she should be. 8/10.

A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom, 1971). After writing about Drive, He Said last week, I suppose I can admit that one of my Xmas presents was the BBS box set. I think this was my first Jaglom film, and I’m not exactly looking forward to my second. A Safe Place is pretentious and insular (Anaïs Nin liked it) … my guess is it means nothing to anyone but Jaglom, so David Lynch fans would probably like it. It does make me nostalgic for that period of American movies, and its experimental nature is worth praising. But I could barely stay awake when I had to actually watch it. Tuesday Weld made this just before Play It As It Lays, and she gives herself to the role in ways she didn’t manage in that movie. It’s not her fault she’s swimming in quicksand. The best things about the movie are the trivial ones. Jack Nicholson agreed to be in it without pay, as long as they gave him a color TV. Orson Welles keeps popping up. Gwen Welles (no relation) makes her movie debut and has one strong scene. And Philip Proctor of Firesign Theatre fame (and father of Kristin Proctor of Wire fame) is the male lead. None of which helps. 3/10.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). I wrote about this one in the early days of this blog, and here I am ten years later seeing if I like it any more than I did then. Nope. I preened a bit over the line “It's not a movie about people with quirks; it's a movie about quirks masquerading as people.” It was one of the best lines I wrote for this blog in its first couple of months. And it’s still true. The Royal Tenenbaums isn’t like any other movie, which is to say it’s standard Wes Anderson. Anderson’s desire for originality deserves praise, but by itself such desires don’t guarantee a good movie. Just ask Henry Jaglom. Since first seeing Tenenbaums, I’ve seen a couple of newer Anderson movies, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. All three of these get 6/10 from me. The only Wes Anderson movie I ever actually liked was Rushmore, and even that is balanced out by Bottle Rocket, which was every bit as mediocre as Rushmore was good.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Roger Corman, 1963). This week’s Creature Feature. Roger Corman obviously has his hands all over this new “what i watched tradition” … this is the 6th film in the series, and Corman directed three of them. It’s worth noting in this context that Corman had some influence on the BBS crowd, mostly through Jack Nicholson. And while Corman never made anything remotely as good as Five Easy Pieces or The Last Picture Show, I’d much rather watch X for the tenth time than sit through A Safe Place again. Whatever else they were, Roger Corman movies were not pretentious. This time he gets an Oscar winner (Ray Milland) for the lead, finds room for the inevitable Dick Miller, spends less than $300,000, and gets the whole thing done in three weeks. This one has a more philosophical bent than the usual Corman movie, and it has a final scene that burned itself on my brain when I was a kid and which is just as amazing today. 6/10.


#15: the passion of joan of arc (carl theodor dreyer, 1928)

(This is the 36th 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.)

There are all sorts of markers that, I suspect, convince people to avoid a particular movie. If “everyone” says the movie is a classic, you might tire of their enthusiasm. Maybe it’s a silent movie and you don’t think you like those, or it’s in black & white and you think you don’t like those. Maybe it has a religious theme, and you aren’t ready to be converted. And maybe you read comments like those that appear in this group, where week after week we recommend this or that movie, and at some point you realize there is no way you’re going to keep up with our suggestions, and no way to ensure you’ll actually like the ones you watch. And so, when I tell you that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a justifiably great classic film, that when I say it’s great I don’t mean great like The Social Network but I mean great like Hamlet or The Great Gatsby or Born to Run, when I note that, as Pauline Kael wrote, this is “one of the greatest of all movies” … this time, it isn’t hyperbole. Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, never appeared in another movie, but she went out with a bang … her performance here is unparalleled. In addition to all of the above, you have likely never seen a film that looks quite like this one.

Jean Cocteau said The Passion of Joan of Arc was “an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist.” This perfectly explains the odd feeling we get watching the film, which is like a cinéma vérité documentary, except we know it can’t be. What is equally odd is that the film feels so “real” yet there is nothing realistic about it stylistically. As Dreyer said, “What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.” The actors wore no make-up, and the film was shot in sequence, all of which added to the documentary feel. But Dreyer’s use of close-ups draws our attention; we are constantly aware of the manipulation of the camera.

Meanwhile, there is Falconetti. I’m suspicious when someone says “it’s great, but I can’t put the reason into words.” I usually assume the person is merely trying to disguise the way their subjective response affects their judgment. (I’m all in favor of subjective responses, I just don’t think they should be disguised.) I am also suspicious when someone uses a version of the “end of story” trick, wherein discussion is closed without any real explanation for what has been said (end of story). Yet, the truth is, I can’t describe Falconetti; she has to be seen. And even Kael, who was never at a loss for words, is left with nothing except to state that “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.”


music friday: sleater-kinney 2002

sjsk

Ten years ago, in the first couple of weeks of this blog, we saw Sleater-Kinney on two of the three nights of their stand at the Great American Music Hall. I wrote about the shows here and here. As you can see from the webcam photo, we were going to be late for the show on the 16th. The band was just about to hit the studio to record One Beat. Here are a few of the songs they played for us:

Start Together

“Sympathy”:

Youth Decay”, featuring perhaps my favorite S-K lyrics of them all (“I’m all about a forked tongue and a dirty house”) and Janet’s finest moment amongst a zillion fine moments.

And “Good Things” … why do good things never want to stay?


time flies when you’re having fun

This is my nephew Sean in the 1990s … he’s the one in the red shirt (that’s Eric Wynalda with his arm on Sean’s shoulder):

seanwaldo

This is my nephew Sean, along with Drumming Guy, in the English magazine 442 in the mid-2000s:

442

And this is my nephew a few minutes ago, on ESPN2, sitting at the San Jose Earthquakes draft table for the 2012 draft, with Quakes coach Ian Russell and head coach Frank Yallop to Sean’s left:

sean super draft 2012

For perspective, when the first picture of Sean with Waldo was taken, Ian Russell was 20 years old and playing for the University of Washington, while Frank Yallop was 31 years old and playing for the now-defunct MLS team, the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

Oh, and I think that might be the first time I’ve ever seen Sean in a suit and tie.


#16: vertigo (alfred hitchcock, 1958)

(This is the 35th 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.)

I like Hitchcock, but his reputation demands that you love him, and there are bigger Hitchcock fans than me. But Vertigo … it’s a movie that is perfect for fans of the director, and also for those who think less highly of his work. I respect Hitchcock’s ability to create popular entertainments that are always something more than just entertaining, but there is something too mechanical about his films. You remember the set pieces because they are masterful, but you rarely remember the acting (he supposedly didn’t care for actors, which wasn’t true, but you sense he did see them as just more cogs in the machine), and the plots are only there to give context to the set pieces.

This is not to say that there are no consistent underlying themes in Hitchcock’s work. On the contrary, any halfway astute critic, or even an attentive film buff, will easily note, for example, Hitchcock’s obsession with cold, blonde women. What makes Vertigo stand out from the rest is that Hitchcock seems to have decided that, just this once, he’d be overt about all the stuff that worked as subtext in his films.

This, I think, is why Vertigo is creepy. You can’t escape the creepiness; it’s not just subtext, it’s the essence of the entire film. James Stewart’s Scottie falls in love with Madeleine. His love turns into an obsession when she dies. When he meets Judy, who bears a resemblance to Madeleine (she is, of course, the same woman, although Scottie doesn’t realize this), he remakes her in Madeleine’s image.

Judy is the key role, and Kim Novak makes it work in part because of a certain hesitancy in her performance that have led some to find her lacking. I think that hesitancy is the appropriate response to a world where one man after another wants to make her into something she is not. Gavin Elster turns Judy into Madeleine; Scottie turns Judy into Madeleine; and Hitchcock tries to turn Kim Novak into Vera Miles, or Grace Kelly, or whichever blonde he is obsessed with.

Scottie is so creepy in the film’s second half that he tries to remake Judy twice, first when he meets her and turns her into Madeleine, and then again at the end of the film, when he finally understands the two women are the same, and he turns Madeleine back into Judy.

When Scottie insists that Judy transform herself into Madeleine, he says, “It can’t matter to you.” It never occurs to Scottie that Judy is a real person; she is merely a symbol of his obsessions. And there is no mistaking Hitchcock’s hand in all of this, for he has always been a director willing to turn actresses into symbols of his obsessions. What is remarkable about Vertigo is that through Scottie, we empathize with Hitchcock’s obsessions, but through Hitchcock’s direction of James Stewart, we are also revolted by those obsessions.

 

There were several comments about this one. I liked Phil Dellio’s the best: “When it comes to obsessing over the perfect blonde, I’m not kidding when I say give me The Heartbreak Kid any day.”