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what i watched last week

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999). Audition is a difficult film to talk about, because it’s unfair to offer too many spoilers for those who haven’t seen it, yet everyone deserves to have some kind of advance warning about what is to come. So, to start with, if you are disturbed by extreme violence, stay away from this movie. If you like seeing a film maker go far beyond “normal” expectations, you might like Audition. It is a film that sneaks up on you, and there is little in the first half of the movie that suggests what will follow (although I suppose you can see the foreshadowing if for some reason you felt compelled to watch it again). Miike isn’t pussyfooting around, here … he wants to dig deeply into obsession and misogyny, and he is willing to accomplish what he wants, even if it means throwing narrative coherence out the window, closely followed by “good taste”. Even fans of Audition will admit that it is almost impossible to watch the long final segment of the film, which isn’t to say that segment is gratuitous (although it often is) or unnecessary. In the context of the film, it is the best possible ending. That it is also revolting, that it has inspired plenty of walkouts in theaters over the years, that it is entirely possible that there is less than meets the eye, well, let’s just say it is a complicated movie. I can imagine people giving this 10/10 … I can imagine them giving it 0/10. In light of that fact, I’m cheating when I don’t choose one or the other, but I’m just being honest when I say I think it’s closer to 10 than it is to 0, but it does indeed have elements of both. 8/10. #721 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964). There’s a tendency to overrate the decent Elvis movies, just because they don’t suck. That tendency isn’t necessary here, for Viva Las Vegas is probably the King’s best movie. The plot isn’t much, but neither was plot the point in Fred and Ginger musicals. The acting is tolerable, if not excellent, and the dialogue only occasionally fails. I know this sounds like damning with faint praise, but I haven’t gotten to the praise yet. First, Elvis gets a few decent songs to sing. Not just the title tune, a Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman classic, but also “C’mon Everybody”, “What’d I Say”, and another Pomus/Shuman song, this one a ballad, “I Need Someone to Lean On”. Second, the musical numbers are actually staged with some thought (director George Sidney wasn’t exactly in the pantheon, but he knew what he was doing, and was given the time and budget to do it). Third, Ann-Margret. I don’t think of myself as her biggest fan, but she brings a lot to the table in Viva Las Vegas, and is the primary reason this one is better than the other Elvis movies. She works really hard … really hard … and while it can be a bit much in another context, it’s likely the only way to compete with Elvis Presley. She exudes sex appeal … that’s pretty much her act, although she somehow seems more like a human than, say, Marilyn Monroe. The chemistry between the two stars is electric, meaning that Elvis’ performance has a jolt he didn’t always offer in his films. Ann-Margret gets a couple of songs herself, does a duet with the King, and, when the two enter a talent contest, she ties Elvis for the top prize. You never get the feeling you’re watching ELVIS PRESLEY and some lady … Ann-Margret matches Elvis, and it’s quite something to see. So yes, the plot isn’t much, and the acting isn’t great, and the dialogue doesn’t always work. Viva Las Vegas still gets 8/10.

get more educated

So, Hope Solo is talking, again. I missed the match about which the current controversy arose, because I was, sadly, at China Basin watching the Dodgers destroy the Giants, 10-0.

In their second match of the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. women’s team defeated Colombia, 3-0. By all accounts, it could have been a bigger margin, and the main thing to come out of the game looked to be the black eye Abby Wambach received after being punched by Colombian player Lady Andrade. With their win, the U.S. clinched a trip to the quarter-finals with a game to spare.

But after the match, Solo took to Twitter to express her anger with former star Brandi Chastain, who is currently in the announcers’ booth as a commentator. Solo called Chastain out for saying one of Solo’s teammates was “the worst defender” (Solo’s words), for not keeping up with the times (“Lay off commentating about defending and gking until you get more educated @brandichastain the game has changed from a decade ago”), and for not “helping 2 grow the sport”.

I love Hope Solo, and one reason for that is her tendency to say what she thinks. It strikes me as a bit odd that she wishes Chastain would quit commenting about defense, given that Brandi was a top defender herself in her playing days. Sticking up for her teammate, on the other hand, is a good idea, especially since Solo has gotten into trouble in the past for speaking poorly of teammates. Basically, I don’t have to agree with her points (and, as I noted, I didn’t watch the game in question) to find Solo refreshing.

But that last part, about “helping 2 grow the sport”, hits on something that has bothered me for a long time. Ever since MLS arrived, San Jose Earthquakes fans have complained about the media … not what the media says, but what they don’t say. The Earthquakes are ignored, according to this thinking, as if the Quakes/soccer/San Jose meant nothing. The San Jose Mercury News was often singled out, and I can’t count the number of times someone would state that it was the job of the local media, like the Merc, to be supportive of local businesses.

This is, to be brief, horseshit. It is, perhaps, how the world really works. But the ideal of a free press is that they exist to tell the public what is happening (“news”). It is dangerous when the press becomes a publicity arm of local businesses (or, if the scale is larger, national or international businesses). It isn’t the job of the New York Times to convince us that the banks, or the President, or the Knicks, are good. It isn’t their job to convince us to buy tickets to the NBA, to vote for the President (except on the opinion pages), to bend over for the banking industry. Yet somehow, Quakes fans wanted the Mercury News and other local media to support the team, as if that was their true function.

This is exactly what Hope Solo gets wrong, as well. It is not Brandi Chastain’s job, when she is working as an analyst during a soccer match at the Olympics, to “help grow the sport”. Chastain has plenty of venues for that kind of work, and, at least to this outsider, it seems like she works hard in that regard. But her job in the broadcast booth is to tell us what is going on. If she’s wrong about a particular defender, well then, she’s a poor analyst. But if she resorts to cheerleading, then she’s just as bad as all the other jingoistic announcers in all the countries participating in the Olympics.

As is often the case, Jennifer Doyle does a good job on this one (“Solo thoughtz”). While Doyle wasn’t all that happy with Chastain’s work during the match (“humorless … She sounds irritated with the game. She sounds annoyed. It just is not fun to listen to.”), she did point out the problem with at least some of Solo’s take. Conveniently for me, it’s the same problem I have: “A commentator is supposed to offer criticism of the match - Chastain is not being paid to be a cheerleader for the team (this is where Solo is wrong).”

Doyle concludes, “I love that we have players who are not totally controlled by the team's handlers.” I’m with her on that, 100%.

music friday: new order, “temptation”

Rhino UK has released high-quality videos of some of New Order’s songs, including “The Temptation of Victoria”, a 2005 version of the classic “Temptation”, directed by Michael H. Shamberg. “Victoria” is Victoria Bergsman, a Swedish singer formerly with The Concretes (she now records as Taken by Trees). There are several versions of “Temptation” out there … the one used in this video, best as I can tell, is from Substance, a singles collection from 1987 that included a reworked “Temptation”. I’ve always preferred the original 12” version from 1982, especially the vocals, which I think are much less effective in “Temptation ‘87”. There are, I believe, four different studio versions of the song, and New Order have played it live more times than any other song in their catalog (naturally, when I saw them in 1985, they skipped it, although we did get “Sister Ray”). You can find a zillion live versions on YouTube, and my love of the song is so great, I have played several of them in succession on more than one occasion.

I have to be careful not to repeat myself, as “Temptation” has made previous appearances on this blog. In the mid-80s, when I was taking fiction writing classes, I wrote an entire short story around the song … if memory serves, it wasn’t much of a story, but I had to at least try to get something on paper. I’m not sure why it sticks with me to this day … I can’t really say it’s a perfect record, not even in its original version, because New Order themselves later released several tracks that are closer to perfect. But something keeps bringing me back to this one. I was never a big Joy Division fan, a band I appreciated more than I liked. But New Order … I liked them very much, indeed.

Synth Pop at its best was very catchy, but in general, it wasn’t a genre meant to click with the likes of me. I preferred the snarl of punk that preceded Synth Pop, and mistrusted the foregrounding of synthesizers over good old-fashioned rock-and-roll geetars. Certain songs broke through my prejudices, though … “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat was probably the one I liked best. I even went to an Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark concert (I won tix from the college radio station), and while it was a good show and I liked some of the band’s songs, I admit to feeling smug when, early in the concert, OMD took a break because one of their computers wasn’t working. Even when I got around to seeing New Order, I was disappointed that a drum machine was used on occasion.

My love of “Temptation” overcame all of this, though. And while I tend to think of it as one of my all-time favorite songs, it occurred to me as I was writing this that “Temptation” is also my one-and-only favorite song in the Synth Pop genre. It isn’t even close. “Blue Monday”, reportedly the best-selling 12” of all time … “The Perfect Kiss” … “Bizarre Love Triangle” … there are a lot of great New Order songs. But there is only one “Temptation”.

Here is the Rhino UK high-quality version of “The Temptation of Victoria”. I’ve read that some people outside of the UK are having problems accessing this, although I’ve had no trouble. If you can’t see it, Google it, since there are other copies online. Or listen to the 1982 original. (After “The Temptation of Victoria”, I’ve added a live performance of the song.)

who am us, anyway?

Every Thursday on Google Plus, people are invited to post old photos, which are then archived here:

Today I posted this, my second-grade class photo from March, 1960:

bidwell 1960

That’s me in the front row, fifth from the left, with my pants legs rolled up.

What got my attention when looking at this photo again was the date. Whenever I talk off the top of my head about my childhood, I think of my schooling all occurring in the 1960s, culminating in my high-school graduation in June of 1970. I guess I never counted backwards far enough to realize just when I started school. But that’s what blogs are for …

  • 1967-70: high school … back then, in Antioch, high school was grades 10-12, with junior high (I guess it’s called middle school now) being grades 7-9.
  • 1964-1967: junior high school
  • 1959-1964: grade school
  • 195?: pre-school

It’s grade school that surprised me. I was a charter member of Bidwell Elementary School, which opened during my kindergarten year … if I recall correctly, the opening was a few weeks late, so I went to another school at the start. I was promoted out of first grade a few weeks into the school year, so in the photo above, I was a year younger than most/all of my classmates. In my memory, it opened in 1960.

But that memory is off by two years. When I count backwards, kindergarten was in 1958-9, then first grade for a bit in 1959, and second grade in 1959-60. Bidwell opened in 1958.

I know this is of little interest to anyone but me. I’m just a little flabbergasted to think I was already going to school, not pre-school but regular old school, in 1958. It makes me wonder … do people who were born in 1963, and who are thus “70s kids”, think much about their lives in the 60s? How about 1973, or ‘83, or ‘93? I usually assume the 60s were my formative years, but now I’m not so sure.

who’s bob?

I’m not a big Olympics guy, but I watch some of the soccer matches. So this morning, I checked out the U.S. women against France. I found the announcing interesting. Arlo White, in my opinion, is one of the best soccer play-by-play announcers in the country (he’s English, but has done MLS for a few years and now does national games as well). He gets a lot of information to the viewer, and he doesn’t leave a lot of dead air. He might be best as a solo announcer. But he’s got Brandi Chastain with him. Brandi’s fine; like many athletes, I think she’s a bit better the further she gets from her own playing career (fewer “when I played with her” stories). And she clearly had points she wanted to make. But it was hard for her to get a word in … White kept stepping on her comments.

It will take a few games for them to develop teamwork, and I’m not making any big claims after one match. There was nothing hostile about White’s approach … like I say, he just does a lot of the talking, himself. But there was a subtext, where we’re watching the women play, and the woman in the booth doesn’t get to talk much because the man is jabbering away. If White wasn’t good, I’d be pissed, but instead, I think they just need to work together a bit more.

And that was the end of my Olympic watching for the day. I did watch the Giants game, and then later I saw the MLS-Chelsea All-Star game (got to practice my Spanish for that one). And I saw this, about, oh, half a dozen times. Today. As I do every day I watch the Giants. Half a dozen. Every game.

[Edited to remove a link to a now non-existent video.]

what i watched last week

The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949). I continue to gradually catch up with the work of Max Ophüls. As I have noted on occasion, for a long time I thought of Ophüls as a great director, even though I’d only seen one of his movies, The Earrings of Madame de …. Every Ophüls I have seen since (and there have been a few over the past couple of years) has disappointed me. I liked La Ronde OK, but that’s damning with faint praise considering I listed Madame de as my 14th-favorite film of all time. And I didn’t get Lola Montès at all. Now I’ve seen my first film from Ophüls’ Hollywood period, and it’s … well, OK. Like the best film noir, it has depths worthy of the kind of detailed analysis such movies inspire. Joan Bennett doesn’t do much for me … in fact, none of the actors won me over, and I found the grandfather and the young boy particularly annoying. On the other hand, that annoyance was partly the point: Bennett’s suburban mother has a fine life, except it imprisons her. And she doesn’t seem to know it. In the end, I think perhaps Ophüls suffers in my eyes because I want everything he did to measure up to my favorite. It’s the opposite of seeing a minor Howard Hawks film and taking pleasure from seeing the Hawksian touches. I don’t blame such movies for not being as good as Rio Bravo. But I give Ophüls a treatment he doesn’t really deserve. The story on which The Reckless Moment was based was later turned into the Tilda Swinton vehicle, The Deep End. As with that movie, I’m giving Reckless Moment 7/10. #800 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

in which a 70-year-old man talks about a 62-year-old man and a 59-year-old man quotes him

My raves about Bruce Springsteen, and the astounding way in which he can still offer up concerts as good as any in his fabled career even into his 60s, can be taken with a grain of salt, I’m sure. I’m a fanboy.

Robert Christgau, the 70-year-old “Dean of American Rock Critics”, is not a Bruce fanboy. He has given Bruce his due … the first nine albums received one A+, 2 A, 4 A-, and 2 B+ … but he has remained an outsider to the fanboy cult (only 2 A- in the 25 years since Tunnel of Love).

My point is only that Christgau appreciates Bruce without falling all over himself in the process. Christgau also stays more current than most 70-year-old rock critics, and he has a great interest in world music. Which is why, at the Roskilde festival in Denmark, Christgau was late to the Bruce Springsteen show, missing the first two songs because he was so taken with the Congolese musicians Staff Benda Bilili that he couldn’t tear himself away until they were done on another stage.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying you can trust Christgau on Bruce more than you can trust me. And this is what he had to say:

[B]y walking in on "Two Hearts" I missed only two songs of a set whose force and clarity bowled me over with my mind intact. By the time Springsteen's Marvin & Kim tribute with Little Steven was over, I'd realized that he was projecting joy where Jack White gave off mere ego, and somewhere into the three bitter "Wrecking Ball" songs that followed I was a convert all over again. Having seen Springsteen many times when he was young and brimming over, I'm here to testify that the 62-year-old's performance was just as inspired. I still wish that when the Roots were called out for "The E Street Shuffle" ?uestlove Thompson had been ceded Max Weinberg's chair. But between the depth of Springsteen's songbook and the depth of his commitment, my attention didn't wander for a second, and Weinberg's ineluctable pounding helped. As befits Bruce’s most compelling album in decades, anger and disillusionment were never far away even as he provided the celebration the crowd had paid for. Positive and negative were fused, and fans seemed to know it even when he climaxed with the anthems they craved, "Born in the U.S.A." to "Born to Run" to "Glory Days" to "Dancing in the Dark."

It’s worth noting that Bruce is playing festivals and other outdoor stadium shows in Europe right now. While stadiums are obviously not the best play to see him, he pulls it off better than most. I’ve seen him a few times in such settings, and I’ve never been sorry, always surprised at how he seems able to turn a big stadium into an intimate night club by bringing even the people furthest from the stage into the joy. He’ll be playing stadiums in the States later in the year (so far, only the Northeast is scheduled, but other shows are certainly possible). He’ll also be returning to the idea, first formed a few years ago, of playing baseball parks (we got him in China Basin in 2003), with Fenway and Wrigley and a couple of others already on the list. Don’t take my word for it, listen to the Dean: you don’t want to miss these shows.

music friday: rahsaan roland kirk

“Kesey by now had not only the bus but the very woods wired for sound. There were wires running up the hillside into the redwoods and microphones up there that could pick up random sounds. Up in the redwoods atop the cliff on the other side of the highway from the house were huge speakers, theater horns, that could flood the entire gorge with sound. Roland Kirk and his half a dozen horns funking away in the old sphenoid saxophone sinus cavities of the redwoods.”

-- Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

toni aubin, aka aunt mary

My cousin Ian found something fascinating (to our family, at least) the other day:

Toni Aubin

A lot of my family on my father’s side worked in the entertainment industry. One uncle co-owned a nightclub in North Beach that became more famous for the club on the floor below; one aunt had a variety of jobs (off the top of my head, I can remember her being a DJ on the local radio station, the star of her own last-show-before-station-went-off-for-the-night program, Ebb Tide, where she read poetry on a voiceover with footage of her posing in a flesh-colored swimsuit on rocks at a beach, and as “Miss Speedway” on a TV show called Spotlight on Speed, which was run by her second husband); a cousin worked as a grip on many movies and television programs; his sister was and is a singer with many appearances over the years in local venues, who also works with an entertainment legend who lives in Berkeley; and I’m sure I’m leaving someone out (another cousin was once married to someone who made a famous appearance at an Oscar ceremony, and I don’t know that it’s exactly the entertainment industry, but another cousin did important work for a popular video website … I know I’m being vague, but I’m trying to maintain a semblance of privacy).

Toni Aubin was the stage name for my Aunt Mary, younger sister of my dad. Her time as a band singer is not a mystery, but until Ian discovered it, I had no idea she had a Wikipedia page.

I know this isn’t of much interest to anyone but our family, but I think it’s pretty cool, and hey, it’s my blog.