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music friday: sonic youth, “teen age riot”

I don’t get Sonic Youth, although I’ve seen them twice in concert (1999 and 2009). Both times, they were the headliners, which made sense in box office terms, but since Sleater-Kinney was also on the bill for one of those shows, I didn’t buy it on an artistic level. Both concerts, though, featured very enthusiastic crowds, so my opinion was in the minority.

Because I don’t get them, I have little to say. I can name a few I like (“Sugar Kane” and “Kool Thing” come to mind), and I recognize others when I hear them. But this is mostly a space-filling post, because I needed something for Music Friday.

The most interesting thing about Sonic Youth, to me, is their interaction with Robert Christgau. The “Dean of American Rock Critics” didn’t think much of their early work … from 1982-5, he parceled out grades of C, C+, B-, B, D. The band noticed … the title track to their EP, "Kill Yr. Idols”, began “I don’t know why you wanna impress Christgau”. Christgau’s review noted that he “wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right” (a reference to a live Lou Reed album where Reed ranted about the critic, prompting Christgau to end his review of the album, “I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right”). A later release of the song “Kill Yr. Idols” was retitled “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick” … Christgau placed this version on his list of the best singles of the year, calling it “I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick (And Now It Don't Work No More)”.

But then something happened. There is probably someone out there who has figured this out, but that person is not me, so I’ll just take a guess and say there has never been an act in music history that went from getting a D from Robert Christgau to getting an A+. The next three grades he gave out after the D for Death Valley ‘69 were B+, A-, A. That was 1987, and since then, Christgau has given at least an A- to eleven different Sonic Youth releases, topped by the A+ he gave to A Thousand Leaves in 1998. And they haven’t slid much in his estimation … their last album, 2009’s The Eternal, received an A-.

So there you go, a bit of history that most of you probably already knew.

“Teen Age Riot” is my favorite Sonic Youth song, and I doubt I’m alone. As Stewart Mason notes at the All Music site, “Teen Age Riot” was “the first honest-to-goodness pop song of Sonic Youth's by then six-year-old career. It was an enormous college radio hit.” I’ve never bothered to figure out what they are singing … the sound and the title are enough for me.

Here’s a video of them playing it live:

i'll take potpourri for $1000

It may seem like this blog is full of random crap, but I actually do stop once in a while to think about what might make for good posts. And there’s something about entering my 12th year of blogging that compels some reflection. Today I’m thinking about television and this blog.

I watch television in something approaching real time, which is to say, I see most shows with a day or two of their airing. That would suggest a useful immediacy to my blogging about TV; although I not one for dissecting every episode, I usually write season premiere and season finale posts. More and more, though, people are watching television outside of “real time”, buzzing through entire seasons months after the fact via multi-disc rentals or streaming. Since I am one who tries to avoid spoilers, I find my television writing impacted by this new method of TV watching. I can no longer assume readers have seen the same episodes I have. And, to the extent this is a consumer guide, my job is less to get you to watch something that’s on right now, and more to get you thinking about a show you might consider six months from now.

Another thing about television and blogging is that even the best series establish a pattern, such that with each season, I have fewer new thoughts. When Justified first hit the air, I wrote about it. Season Four started a couple of weeks ago, and I didn’t write anything, even though Justified is one of my favorite shows. Why bother? The pleasures of Justified lie partly in how it maneuvers around its format, so each episode/season is different, but they also resemble each other, and there’s only so many times I can repeat myself about what is good about the show.

So, here’s a grab bag of series that have just started or finished their latest seasons. I can’t promise depth, but here goes, in alphabetical order:

Downton Abbey: I was delighted by Season One, thought Season Two was a big drop off, and after two episodes of Season Three, I’m having a hard time remembering why I liked it in the first place. There is some witty dialogue and good acting, but many of the characters are annoying, charmless, or both. Also, with each passing episode, my understanding increases regarding the show’s stance on the class system. Downton Abbey has a lot of good characters on the “downstairs” side, but the show ultimately takes the side of the rich. The heroes aren’t Anna and Bates, they’re Lord Grantham and Lady Mary.

Girls: Lena Dunham seems much more reflective about her privileged characters (of course, she famously plays the lead). They aren’t entirely likable, and Dunham’s own character is the worst of the lot, self-absorbed in the extreme. I understand why people wouldn’t be interested; I don’t understand why Dunham takes so much crap. This is a half-hour comedy I’m sticking with, for now, at least.

The Hour: I haven’t written much about this British import … gave the first season an A-, that’s about it. And now Season Two has come and gone, and it was at least an A- once again. It seems to get compared to other American shows that don’t quite match up … Season One supposedly reminded folks of Mad Men, probably because it’s a period piece, but it’s nothing like Mad Men. Once The Newsroom became a reality, a more obvious comparison was made between Aaron Sorkin’s wet dream of American television news and The Hour, which takes place in a British TV news organization. The biggest difference, and it really matters, is that while The Hour takes place among real-world events (the Suez crisis, budding nuclear missile politics, even something of a preliminary to the Profumo scandal, if my knowledge of history isn’t too warped), the show doesn’t exist to pontificate. It’s a character study that also says something about journalism. It also features a fine combination of eye candy and acting chops (hello, Dominic West and Romola Garai).


Justified: Still one of the best shows on television, especially but not exclusively for Elmore Leonard fans. (And since I was talking about eye candy and acting chops, Timothy Olyphant is king … I want to look like him when I grow up.) The dialogue here is so wonderful, I would watch it if all they did was put two characters in a room for an hour and had them talk. Great acting, intricate plotting that doesn’t make a big deal about itself, solid continuing arcs, and a real feel for the community it has created (Harlan County, Kentucky). About the only complaint I have is that there are so many interesting continuing characters with believable backstories presented by excellent actors, that some characters end up getting too little screen time. If this was a post with grades, Justified would get the only A.

Portlandia: I mention it here because I love Carrie Brownstein, but the truth is, I’ve only watched one episode … the others are sitting on my DVR, waiting for me to rescue them. It’s a precious show and I want to like it more than I do.

Shameless: Based on a British series, this Showtime version began its third season last weekend. It’s a disreputable cousin kind of TV show, rough around the edges just like the struggling working-class family at the heart of the series. Many critics have pointed out that the most famous actor in the show (William H. Macy), without whom the series might never have gotten the green light, is in most ways the least-interesting major character on Shameless. For whatever reason (probably that it is on Showtime and not HBO), hardly anyone I know even watches Shameless, which is their loss. And as long as the show runs, I’ll tout Emmy Rossum as offering some of the best acting on television, week after week. Even if the rest of the show sucked, I’d still watch just for her.

35 years ago today

It’s been 35 years since I attended what was at the time the last-ever Sex Pistols concert. Here is how I described it in a 1993 essay, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”:

January 14, 1978: I am at Winterland, the aging ex-home of ice shows, turned into a rock emporium by Bill Graham (and soon to be torn down forever). The Sex Pistols take the stage for what will turn out to be their last concert ever (so far), and the crowd begins the most awesome display of audience participation I have ever witnessed. The Pistols are used to playing clubs; Winterland holds 5,000. It is the biggest crowd in Sex Pistols history, and Johnny Rotten, at least, hates it. People begin throwing things at the band, not just the usual wadded-up paper cups, but money, toilet paper rolls and dead flowers. Rotten hangs on the mike stand, dodging the missiles, and though I am perhaps halfway back of the old auditorium, I can see the piercing intelligence of his demonic eyes as he badgers the audience and sings our favorites: 'Anarchy for the USA' indeed. He paces the stage, pocketing the most useful debris, asking 'Cameras? Anyone got any cameras?' (and sure enough, what looks like a camera flies through the air and lands at his feet).

Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to MY children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.

You can watch the entire concert on Wolfgang’s Vault. Here’s the encore, the aptly-named “No Fun”:

what i didn’t really watch last week

Perhaps it’s time to question the ability of AI recommendation systems to tell me what I’ll like.

I got the movie Samsara from Netflix. I knew nothing about it, but MovieLens predicted I’d give it 8/10, so onto my queue it went, and into my house it came. When I took it out of the package to watch it, I peeked at the description, and I knew right away it was not the movie for me. I tried … got through just over an hour, although much of that time was spent sleeping. Then I gave up, put it back in its package, and placed the mailer in the mailbox to be taken away forever.

Samsara is the sequel to director Ron Fricke’s last movie, Baraka, which, it should be noted, came out nineteen years ago. Fricke takes his time getting his movies just right. There is an audience for Fricke’s films … Samsara won the Best Documentary Award at the 2012 Dublin Film Critics Award, for instance, and the reason I saw Baraka many years ago is because one of my students told me it was the movie that changed his life or something like that, so I felt I had to see it. I gave it 5/10 … in deference to the fact that I slept through what little I “saw” of Samsara, I’ll give it an “Incomplete”. Both of those movies are stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective. There’s another movie, Fricke’s first as a director, Chronos, that I might have seen (although since I’m not sure, perhaps it didn’t impress me much). I saw that one in a theater … I feel like it was the first IMAX movie I ever saw. My memory is I liked it, but then, it was only 43 minutes long.

Samsara looks stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective on the Blu-ray … if you can’t see it in a theater, Blu-ray is a necessity. Fricke’s movies are documentaries with beautiful cinematography shot all around the globe, with a nice interplay between picture and music, and no narration or apparent plot. In short, they are moving picture versions of coffee-table books. If that sounds good to you, check it out … if you liked Koyaanisqatsi, check it out (Fricke worked on that picture, as well).

The point of this post, though, is that I am not the audience for Samsara, which I’d think was obvious given the 5/10 rating I gave Baraka. So why did MovieLens think I’d give Samsara 8/10?

First, it’s a documentary. Of the 19 genres MovieLens lists, documentaries get the third-highest ratings from me (7.6/10) behind “Film-Noir” and “War”. Next, only 42 MovieLens users have rated Samsara, which doesn’t leave much for comparison, and their average rating is 8.4/10. I’ll see this happen a lot when a movie is first released. The first people to see a movie and rate it tend to be fans of the film, so the average rating is high. The rating drops over time. Samsara hasn’t had a chance to drop, yet.

Netflix, where I got the movie, predicted I’d go with 6/10, which is a lot closer to reality. Netflix has a good AI system, but I think my ratings are affected by the stuff Robin watches, so I’m not sure their ratings are “pure”. Criticker, though, agreed with MovieLens, predicting 8.4/10.

Obviously, the real question is why I let AI systems pick my movies for me. At the least, I should have an override button when something turns up that is clearly outside my interests. But I hesitate to do that, because relying on AI means I regularly watch movies I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, and most of them are good movies. Maybe I can just call it progress that I gave up on Samsara, instead of keeping it around the house for weeks while I decided whether to watch it.

music friday: aretha franklin, "think"

(Just to get the preliminaries out of the way: Aretha Franklin is the greatest female vocalist in the history of rock and roll.)

Last weekend, we were listening to the Pandora station I created for my wife, and the Blues Brothers popped up singing “Soul Man”. I don’t doubt Belushi and Aykroyd’s love of the music, but there is something sterile about their presentation, which is most evident when Belushi shouts out “Play it, Steve!” to Steve Cropper at the exact point where Sam Moore does the same thing to the same guitarist on the original recording. The Blues Brothers had such respect for the original that they invited Cropper into their band, but that respect crippled any chance at something original of their own.

The Blues Brothers’ movie featured some fine performances by other musicians idolized by Belushi and Aykroyd. Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown turned up in the movie, as did Aretha Franklin, who performed an inspired version of “Think”, her hit from 1968. A year earlier, in 1967, Aretha had her signature tune, Otis Redding’s “Respect”, and her cataclysmic attack on that song topped even the great Otis. Not only did she make “Respect” her own, she made the song into something that inspired an entire generation of women (and men, for that matter). “Think” was written by Franklin and her then-husband, Ted White. It’s hard to know how much difference it makes that Franklin co-wrote “Think” while she covered Redding for “Respect”. In truth, her performances of the two songs are so overwhelming that she might as well have written them both. “Respect” remains the great feminist anthem, but “Think” isn’t far behind:

I ain't no psychiatrist
I ain't no doctor with degrees
But it don't take too much I.Q.
To see what you're doin' to me

You better think (think!)
Think about what you're tryin' to do to me
Yeah think (think! think!)
Let your mind go let yourself be free

Oh freedom (freedom!)

Aretha’s voice soars … it is freedom itself.

Here’s the original:

In The Blues Brothers, Aretha plays a woman who co-owns a restaurant with her husband. The husband wants to hit the road with the Brothers, and Franklin sings “Think” as a warning:

Of course, she then lets her husband follow his dream, which is useful for the movie’s plot, but reduces the power of the lyric at least a little bit.

I’ve often wondered why I’m willing to let Aretha get away with vocal excess (hell, “get away with” barely describes it … I love when she gets excessive), but I hate it when more recent vocal divas perform similarly. It’s always possible I’m just being an Old Fart Who Doesn’t Appreciate the New Stuff, but I think it’s more than that. When Aretha goes over the top, it comes from her emotional connection to the song, and her gospel roots are obvious. She could resort to glossolalia and I’d buy into it. When I hear her musical children, I hear singers showing off. And they often have plenty to show off … there are some great voices out there. But, for my taste, Aretha always managed to turn showing off into something fully integrated into the deeper meaning of her vocals.

Having said that, I admit that one of my all-time favorite Aretha Franklin performances come when she sings “Dr. Feelgood” live. Even I admit the excess might be more than the song can handle. There are plenty of examples on YouTube (along with a great one on her album Live at Fillmore West) … here’s one of the best:

look up

I’m reading You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney, which I am using in a class this semester. In a chapter titled “Introspection”, he writes:

THE MISCONCEPTION: You know why you like the things you like and feel the way you feel.

THE TRUTH: The origin of certain emotional states is unavailable to you, and when pressed to explain them, you will just make something up.

The book appears to be a revision of some of his blog entries, so I can point you to a version of the chapter here:

Introspection Illusion

Quoting from the blog now, since it means I don’t have to type stuff in from the book:

Is there a certain song you love, or a work of art? Perhaps there is a movie you keep returning to over the years, or book. Go ahead and imagine one of those favorite things. Now, in one sentence, try to explain why you like it. Chances are, you will find it difficult to put into words, but if pressed you will probably be able to come up with something. The problem is, according to research, your explanation is probably going to be total bullshit. …

This brings up a lot of concerns. It calls into question the entire industry of critical analysis of art – video games, music, film, poetry, literature – all of it.

This ties into something I wrote in a comment yesterday, which reiterates a theory of mine: While we pretend that we construct analyses from scratch and then offer a final evaluation, in fact we first react in a like-don't like-meh manner, and then construct analyses to explain our taste preference. (It’s not analysis followed by evaluation, but evaluation followed by analysis.) I don’t think this process results in total bullshit, or I wouldn’t have spent eleven years writing this blog (or spent nine years getting a Ph.D in English). But the results aren’t what we think they are, and I find this statement of McRaney’s interesting:

When you ask people why they do or do not like things, they must then translate something from a deep, emotional, primal part of their psyche into the language of the higher, logical, rational world of words and sentences and paragraphs. The problem here is those deeper recesses of the mind are perhaps inaccessible and unconscious.

As I was reading this on my Nexus 7, I commented to my wife that there was a connection between the above and something that has fascinated me over the past couple of days. I have taken the following photo and made it the wallpaper for my Nexus, for my smartphone, and for my computer desktop:


I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time just staring at this photo. Something about it reaches me beyond “isn’t my grandson cute?” There are plenty of cute pictures of him … some are probably better than this one, especially when the camera catches him laughing, which is often. But I love this picture.

And so, as I stare and stare, I try to construct an explanation for why I like it so much. I’ve thought about how it is well-composed (although I’ve cropped it for my wallpapers, so that’s not likely the reason). I’ve thought about how he really is pretty darned cute (but, as I say, there are lots of cute pictures of him). I’ve noted the smoothness of his skin (more obvious with higher resolution) and extrapolated a theory about the innocence of a child and how it speaks to me. I even imagined that if you took a picture of me when I was on acid, my facial expression would be something like this.

Anyway, I told Robin about the book passage, and about the photo, and she replied fairly quickly. “You like that picture because he’s looking up, and that appeals to you for some reason.”

Here is one of my favorite pictures of Robin. As a picture it’s nothing special, just one of those “I’m gonna take a picture of myself using my phone” photos:


I couldn’t tell you why I like that picture so much, any more than I could tell you why I like the picture of Félix so much. If I tried, it would be an example of an Introspection Illusion, translating something emotional into words.

But Robin knew right away what was going on, because she doesn’t have an emotional attachment to the pictures. She is able to identify my taste for pictures where the subject is looking up. I would never have thought of that.

Does this call into question the critical analysis of art? Are our responses to art completely subjective, and buried too deep for us to fully understand? And are all our attempts to analyze art total bullshit?

Again, I think the answer to the latter question is no. But it is at least possible that our work as critics, valuable as it might be, has less relationship to the work of art than we realize. And if that is the case, then the best critics are not the ones with the best taste, but the ones who are the best writers. And what we get from critics isn’t a consumer guide (which is being taken over by AI systems, anyway), but rather the pleasures of reading good prose.

by request: barton fink (joel coen, 1991)

(This was requested by Tomás.)

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t much care for the Coen brothers, but looking over their work, it is clear that the more accurate assessment is that I like them, but not as much as some do. Fargo is my favorite of their movies. I thought No Country for Old Men was very good. But the cult movies, like The Big Lebowski and Blood Simple … it’s not that I don’t like them, I do, but I don’t gush over them. I don’t think they come close to Fargo. And once we get to Miller’s Crossing, they’ve lost me.

I’d place Barton Fink among the lesser Coens, like Burn After Reading. Better than Miller’s Crossing, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. Barton Fink reminded me of a David Lynch movie, and I tend to have problems with his films, as well. I have complained about what I consider is a willful insularity in Lynch’s work. But I’ll give him credit: he has a vision, and he sticks to it. The Coens are like smart-ass David Lynches. Barton Fink’s meanings tend to the obscure and symbolic, and it helps to have seen all of the same films the Coens have. But I don’t get that Lynchian sense that there are artistic reasons for their decisions. I think they just like to fuck with us, to feel superior to us when we don’t “get it”. Joel Coen once said about critics who have offered detailed close readings of the film, explicating its mysteries, that “In Barton Fink, we may have encouraged it – like teasing animals at the zoo. The movie is intentionally ambiguous in ways they may not be used to seeing.” It’s a revealing quote: even the people who are willing to spend a lot of energy in digging deep into the movie are just animals in a zoo. They aren’t good enough to “get it”. And, by admitting they encouraged such detailed analysis, the Coens are also admitting that their artistic vision is at least partly about poking the audience with a stick. If you work hard at understanding Barton Fink, you have fallen for their tease; if you don’t “get” the film, you aren’t really worth their trouble.

Barton Fink works well if you just let it wash over you. It would probably play even better if you were high when you saw it. Some of the imagery is evocative, and if I wasn’t all that impressed with John Turturro, at least he was better than Nicolas Cage in full-out crazy mode. There wasn’t anything objectionable when I watched it, and in fact, I was bothered more by Joel Coen jabbering about teasing animals than I was about the movie itself. But I never cared about the characters, never cared what was real and what was fantasy, didn’t care that this scene evoked The Shining and that scene evoked Eraserhead and that other scene evoked Kiss Me Deadly, and the entire thing evoked Roman Polanski. #490 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

the baseball hall of fame

I usually make big pronouncements about who belongs in the Hall of Fame off the top of my head, without actually looking closely at the issue. I decided this year, which will be the most contentious vote in Hall history, that I would make the effort. Understand from the start that I am 100% uninterested in the moral or physical aspects of PED usage. I won’t mention it again, but you can assume I’ve ignored it.

There are four candidates who are the elite of the elite. Two of those are the elite of this group of four: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. The other two … well, now I’m going to have to mention PEDs again, because these two players, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, should be instant inductees. But Bagwell is already up to his 3rd ballot, and most people seem to think he and Piazza will once again be on the outside looking in. The only connection between these two players and PED usage is based on gossip. You want to talk about the moral high ground? It’s bad enough that Bonds and Clemens won’t get the votes, but Piazza and Bagwell? The longer it takes to get them into the Hall, the less the Hall means, and the more those voters will deserve to be called dumbshits.

The guy who would finish #11 on my list (i.e., the guy who comes closest to getting my hypothetical vote without actually receiving it) is Larry Walker. Yes, he was helped immensely by his home park, but he was a great player for many years. But not enough great years. He finished with fewer than 2000 games played, which is why his counting stats aren’t Hall-of-Fame impressive (2160 hits, 383 homers).

The other six players I would vote for, in alphabetical order, are: Craig Biggio, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa.

I accept that I am somewhat inconsistent. McGwire, in particular, played in fewer games than Walker, and Walker also had six more Gold Gloves. I admit I am surprised that the numbers don’t push McGwire to the elite of the elite. But the 583 HR do provide quite a push.

Who’s missing? Most obviously, Jack Morris, who will probably get in, and who would be a terrible choice. Relief pitchers are nowhere to be found on my list (most notably, Lee Smith is missing). Edgar Martinez was a late scratch … despite my love of his bat, he didn’t play as much as he needed to be in the Hall. That this is attributable in part to the ignorant Mariner management that didn’t put him in the majors to stay until Edgar was 27 years old is unfortunate; it’s also a fact that can’t be denied, no matter that it’s not Martinez’ fault. I gave Alan Trammell a little extra thought, but I felt he came down on the wrong side of the list.

My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who I count on to always have a good head about baseball, made his list and it’s almost exactly the same as mine … he includes Trammell, leaves off Sosa although he thought Sammy was on the bubble. Neither of us would vote for Jack Morris; Jonathan says a Morris induction would be “an amazing travesty”, and I don’t disagree.

I haven’t given much evidence here, although if anyone is interested enough, we can argue in the comments section, and I promise to be more precise. You are welcome to make arguments about PEDs, but I’ll ignore them. I think I’m right, you think you’re right, the time for discussion is long past. But if you think there are good reasons why any of my choices are bad ones, or if you think I’ve missed someone (say, Kenny Lofton or David Wells), I’m interested in your take.

what i watched last week

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). What to make of Gone with the Wind? There is no use denying its areas of greatness: the sweep of the narrative so that close to four hours doesn’t seem long at all, the performances of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, the impressive overall production design by William Cameron Menzies (who pulled off something similar for $290,000 in 1953 with Invaders from Mars). As I had watched A Streetcar Named Desire recently, I recognized more than a little Blanche DuBois in Leigh’s tics as Scarlett O’Hara, but that wasn’t a bad thing … it was actually kind of cool. Scarlett is a great character, and not very likable, which is also kind of cool. But then there’s the elephant in the room: even taking into consideration the time the film was made, the treatment of plantation life scars Gone with the Wind. There has always been a poignancy to the story of the destruction of the South, and GWTW unashamedly takes the side of the South. But the film deals with the question of slavery by largely ignoring it. The slaves at Tara are presented as if they were just workers; the ones who stick around after the war act no differently as free men and women than they did before the war. The horrors of slavery simply don’t exist in Gone with the Wind. Also, while the tale of the South provides a framework for the film, the main story is about Scarlett, who is so self-centered that the South as an ideal only enters her consciousness (and thus, that of the movie) when it impinges on her personal struggles. Which means Gone with the Wind is a fine, epic melodrama about Scarlett O’Hara, but its treatment (or lack of same) of slavery is only tolerable if you don’t think about it (and the film pretty much doesn’t think about it). #64 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934). This is a film that plays better in the mind after you’ve seen it, and it might be even better with a second viewing. The plot is barely there, but beneath a character study of newlyweds, a lovely atmosphere works its way into our hearts, and by the end of the movie, you know you’ve seen something. I found myself wishing I’d noticed things when they happened, instead of after the fact, and I won’t make that mistake again the next time I watch it. There is some unforgettable imagery in L’Atalante, and my response to it is reminiscent of how I felt about Murnau’s Sunrise (“Many of the trend-setting Murnau touches are ordinary to us, more than 80 years later. Ah, but those touches!”). #17 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

The Hurricane (John Ford, 1937). An early example of a disaster movie, coming a year after San Francisco. The hurricane that comes near the end of the movie may top even the earthquake from the earlier film. While the story leading up to the disaster is nothing special, it is better than the usual crap served up in 1970s pictures like The Towering Inferno. Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour are photogenic, and Hall’s attempts to escape prison are interesting enough. Still, it’s all about the hurricane, which is mindboggling, impressive even 75 years after the fact. 7/10.

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012). Time travel stories are inherently difficult. You can try to explain how time travel works, which leads to a spiral of disbelief. You can do what Philip K. Dick often did, and just create multiple parallel universes. Or you can throw up your hands and mutter something about the willing suspension of disbelief. Rian Johnson deals with the problem by having Bruce Willis’ character announce, “I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.” And so they don’t talk about it. Yet Johnson is up to something interesting. He gives us a movie full of action, character development, humor, and even a female character who isn’t just eye candy. All the while, he seems to push the time travel element to the side, bringing it up only when the plot requires it. Yet at the end of the film, we realize he hasn’t forgotten about time travel at all. I’m pretty sure Looper doesn't work on a logical scale, but that’s not really why we watch time travel movies. The movie is well-cast and acted, the futuristic setting is subtle, and there’s just enough extra to it all that Looper is one of the better films of its genre. 7/10.

The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó, 1967). This intriguing Hungarian-Russian co-production was supposed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It was eventually banned in the Soviet Union, which tells you how well Jancsó fulfilled his orders. It is the most matter-of-fact war movie imaginable. There are no main characters, there isn’t a plot, it’s impossible to know who to root for … and for the uninitiated like me, who aren’t conversant in the role of Hungary in the Russian Civil War, even the historical setting is hard to understand. (The Reds of the title, who had won the revolution, fought against the Whites, who wanted the old order of the Tsars reinstated. The Hungarians fought on the side of the Reds.) The narrative, such as it is, is almost abstract. We see a series of events in the war, as first one side and then the other take “top spot”, some people are killed, some are executed, others are captured and set free, it all seems meaningless, and we know as little by the film’s end as we didn’t know at the beginning. Which means The Red and the White is both an anti-war film and an anti-heroic film, because it rejects all the usual stuff we find in even the most ardent anti-war films (heroes, bad guys, ethics). It’s a unique work. #890 on the TSPDT list. 8/10.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012). 8/10.