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music friday: pete seeger

By far the best thing I’ve read about Pete Seeger over the past few days is a piece by Dave Marsh for Rock & Rap Confidential. I feel a bit funny cut-and-pasting the entire thing, but that’s how they do it at RRC, and there is no link I can find to the piece on their website. So I’ll link to that site, and include the article below.

I have little to add to Marsh’s words. Pete Seeger was a titan, yet I had a complicated relationship to him, and paid little attention to him over the years. His politics were brave and “on the right side”, but his brand of folk music meant little to me, who was ten years old when the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan. The story that summed up Seeger for me was his outrage when Dylan went electric … he was something like the Steve Allen of music.

Marsh’s essay understands my feelings, and shows how there was so much more to Seeger’s work. I’m glad to be able to point to something that speaks so strongly for Seeger.

RRC Extra No. 41:Dave Marsh on Pete Seeger

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A GOLDEN THREAD, A NEEDLE….Dave Marsh writes: I met Pete Seeger about 40 years ago on the Clearwater, a refurbished 19th century sloop which had begun its then seemingly hopeless task of cleaning up the shores and waters of the Hudson River. Like a lot of the things that Pete got involved in, it was a hopeless task until it turned out to be common sense.

That day, we cruised Long Island Sound, if I remember right, from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay, which is not very far, and back, which is still not very far. It was worth every minute, and would have been if only for the chance to spend time aboard the 106 foot, single-masted Clearwater, a gorgeous vessel, stable even in Long Island Sound’s considerable chop and carrying as cargo volumes of lore and lessons about the costs of environmental neglect.

You could say that those early Clearwater voyages were the precursors of the present-day celebrity cruise, but with fewer celebrities. No more were needed. Pete Seeger was not only the enduring star of American folk music, he was its leading evangelist and one of the greatest singer/musicians this part of the planet has produced. I remember Pete singing though not what songs, and some lectures about the important work of the ship and the ecology of the Sound and the Hudson River region, though not their specific content. The presentation did its best to be as folkie as a much-darned pair of wool socks, and unmistakably also an event with a star and a crew and an audience, never exactly commingled. It was also a strong, healthy political event, by which I mean that each of us left with a sense of mission and some ideas about how to execute it.

I wasn’t there to clean up the Sound, though I was glad to be part of the movement, or to hear Pete perform, though I knew the importance of his music. I was there to write a story for Newsday, the Long Island daily. I did what you do in those situations, where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, which mostly means I watched and listened and took mostly the kind of sensory notes that you don’t write down on the spot.

When we docked everyone headed for the parking lot. Pete and his wife Toshi had several bags. I introduced myself, not only because we were meant to talk for a few minutes, but as a prelude to asking if I could help carry their stuff.

I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Dave Marsh from Newsday,” before Pete turned to me and snapped—and I mean snapped, like he was already booking me for malingering—“Grab a couple of those bags. It’s good for white collar workers to do physical labor.” Thus spoke the Harvard gentleman to the brakeman’s son who’d never owned a necktie. And no, I didn’t come up with my usual smartass retort. He was Pete Seeger, who had changed not only my life but the world, and the alternative to silence was insulting him as much as he’d just insulted me, and…well, for once it was not in me.

That incident was one of the best lessons I ever had several times over. I learned lessons I’d chew on for, apparently, the rest of my life: The relation between stardom and shyness, between changing the world and retaining your self, and between trusting your perceptions and remembering not to suppose anything until you’ve made sure the person about whom you’ve just supposed it is not a cartoon. And I mean it, I’ve always been grateful because that dressing down has saved me all manner of grief, and not only in things about celebrity. The most important lesson, you see, was about recognizing a difference between loving something and liking something, even when that something is someone. A great teacher may or may not inspire great affection, and he or she may not even teach the best lessons deliberately. So it turned out that Pete and I were in many social and professional situations over the next 40 years without ever getting to know one another much and that isn’t surprising. Mainly because I didn’t learn my lesson all at once. Though I think I did learn, finally. I’ll tell you about it later.

I respected Pete Seeger so much that my teenage self forgave him writing “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” which to my ears was sheer bathos, and for deriding Bob Dylan’s beautiful electric music, which to my ears was the absolute poetry of a world in chaos.

One side of what he did was somewhat foreign to me. Years later my friend Jon Landau and I were talking about folk music one day, which inevitably came around to talking about Pete. Jon told me a story about Pete appearing at his left-wing summer camp or maybe it was Earl Robinson’s music school. I said something I thought was appreciative and Jon stopped me cold. “You don’t understand,” he said. “He was Elvis.”

To me, he was more like a father figure or anyhow that’s the way I made sense of him after I understood that he had many metaphoric children and was glad of it, though not always of the way that they behaved, musically or socially. (Hmmm, that is like Elvis, isn’t it?) He could be amazingly contradictory—a sign of humanity not deity. In his 1972 anthology, The Compleat Folksinger, which collects among other things many of his columns for Sing Out!, Pete wrote about a tour of Czechoslovakia he made in 1964. He was especially thrilled to go to a particular club and hear the groups playing guitars, which happened to be electric.

Back home, Pete was not only immune to Beatlemania but hostile to folk-rock. Maybe it was because, as Pete said, he couldn’t hear the words due to the high volume but he should have known more about music than to use that to justify attacks on the songs themselves. I’m more inclined to think that he didn’t like “Maggie’s Farm” with the Butterfield Blues Band because of the loud absence of explicit social commentary and Pete’s acknowledged absence of feeling for post-war blues.

I am trying to reckon with the complexity of Pete Seeger as man and artist. It is not an easy road to travel, especially not today. But it never has been.

Ten years ago, more or less, there was a panel discussion at a Folk Alliance conference that wound up in a tangle when Nora Guthrie said that Pete had refused to allow Madonna to issue a recording of “If I Had a Hammer” because she’d changed the lyric to “If I had a hammer / I’d smash your fucking head in.” (I don’t know if that’s funny. Depends on how she sang it, doesn’t it?)

Another complex folk music elder, Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, also on the panel, thought that Nora was responsible for the rejection and scolded her for not asking Pete to make the decision, since he would surely have supported free speech. I was the moderator and tried to help out by asking Nora if what she meant was that she had communicated a decision made by Pete himself. She said yes. Chris began to sputter, well past the point of coherence for few seconds, and finally a single sentence burst out: “WELL...well...well...then Pete’s not God anymore!”

He never was. He never needed to be. Like everybody else, Pete Seeger set examples good and bad. We might pause here to take notice that, though his feet were of clay, he had a remarkable ability to keep them shod. By which I mean, his transgressions may have been personal but they were very rarely public and he knew how to back down. In 1967 or so, he made a record using electric guitar—not played by him--and somewhat heavier beats. And then returned to doing what he did, as he should have.

Pete Seeger was such a prodigious talent, so young, that the godlike was expected of him. Born in 1919, the son of the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, he grew up in a left-wing household. It was the mandarin left wing: Like his father before him, Pete went to Harvard. He began his prominent performing career in 1940 on CBS Radio, alongside Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and Josh White (the show was heard only in New York because the cast was integrated) and a year later was a founder of the first important left-wing folk group, The Almanac Singers, which defined protest singing. Pete Bowers, he called himself then—he had to, as his father was currently a government employee who had been blacklisted during World War I for espousing pacifism.

After the war, Pete formed the Weavers with Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. Their songs were not always topical, because McCarthyism had begun, but the political songs were always there and they had big hits. Thus “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” though the Weavers also rearranged Lead Belly’s “Good Night Irene” into one of the most important hits of 1950. Seeger and Hayes were a formidable songwriting team. Because of them, the Weavers also produced some of the most enduring post-war protest songs, notably “If I Had a Hammer.” By 1953, they were blacklisted by broadcasters. “If you had seen us coming down the street,” Toshi Seeger, Pete’s wife, told me once, “you’d have crossed over to the other side of the block.” I looked dubious. “That’s exactly what people did,” she said.

Toshi, at least as formidable and complicated as her husband, allowed herself the bitterness Pete never expressed. They had a lot to be bitter about. After being smeared as a Red, Pete became an unusually uncooperative witness before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. HUAC had caused the Hollywood Ten to be imprisoned for contempt of Congress in1950. The Ten lost for standing on the First Amendment as the basis for their refusal to testify. Since then, it had become the practice to stand on the Fifth—the non-incrimination clause--rather than freedom of speech and association. Pete returned to the fundamental issue: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."

This was not god-like. It was human-- stubborn, flouting all sound advice, courageous. It was also not quite as futile as it immediately seemed. In 1957, he was charged with contempt of Congress. In 1961, Pete was tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. In 1962, he won his appeal, a landmark case in ending the blacklist. But the consequences rolled on: The Weavers reformed in 1955, but mainly as a live act. They recorded for small labels but their music could not be broadcast. Nevertheless, they played the major role in popularizing “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “Sixteen Tons” and “Kumbaya.”

Pete was never idle. In the Fifties, he wrote How to Play the 5 String Banjo, invented the Longneck Banjo (three additional frets made it longer than a bass guitar), popularized the 12 string guitar (he’d learned from Lead Belly), and created the brilliant “Goofing-Off Suite,” using classical themes by Bach, Beethoven, Stockhausen and Grieg alongside Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and a batch of folk tunes. When John Hammond at Columbia finally got him a major label record deal, one of the first results was “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” probably the most beautiful antiwar melody ever composed. Pete championed the burgeoning topical song movement in the best possible way: He crammed the songs into his albums and concerts. He also took up world music, not as a stylistic synthesis, but as a collection of pieces that taken on their own terms resonated with one another, from Africa (“Wimoweh”) to Cuba (“Guantanamera”), even Europe. It was Pete who suggested that SNCC needed a singing group, and it was Toshi and Pete who befriended and cared for Bernice Johnson Reagon when the SNCC Freedom Singers broke up. He made children’s albums and live albums and thematic albums and mere collections of songs. He was instrumental in starting the Newport Folk Festival. He was on the editorial committee of Sing Out!, the Rolling Stone of the folk revival. And he played a major role (if not the central one—that credit he always gave to Guy Carawan and rightly so) in adapting and popularizing the most important song of the twentieth century, “We Shall Overcome.”

Pete made a live album called We Shall Overcome, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1963. It was extremely well-edited, I don’t know by whom. The running order of the album--13 songs of the 40 performed--has absolutely nothing to do with the order of the concert, but it’s more focused, gets to the point more directly and clearly than the show did. Alas, the digital version is the whole thing. ( (It’s easy to make a playlist of the original running order—the original track listing is at the Wikipedia entry for the album.)

I heard the We Shall Overcome album at age 14, when I was the son of budding George Wallace supporters, living in an Up South town full of Ku Klux Klansmen and packs of freelance racists, and going to quietly but adamantly all-white schools. The headlines had been filled every day for the past year with Freedom Riders, pre-teens slaughtered by bombs placed in churches, nonviolent demonstrators attacked by dogs and high pressure hoses. And that was just in the South. Racial turmoil was a constant presence in southeastern Michigan, not just Detroit. The one true thing I was being told about this was that it meant the world, or a world, was coming to an end. The one set of contrary facts I held in my head was almost entirely musical, not the early songs of Bob Dylan but Motown and early soul music that insisted, obliquely but powerfully, that freedom meant everybody or it didn’t mean anything.

Buying We Shall Overcome was more the product of exploration than rebellion. What it inspired was rebellion’s necessary partner, conviction. Most important, the conviction that there really must be a better world, somewhere, and that it was open to the likes of myself. Pete Seeger’s version of a protest album offered a vision, and the core of that vision was not so much any particular songs but the gentle persuasiveness with which he introduced them, the passion with which he laid out their origin or history or contemporary relevance and the power with which he encouraged all present to sing them. What transformed We Shall Overcome from a powerful collection to something with deep historical significance was the presence of the SNCC Freedom Singers. They lent not so much authenticity as boldness and authority to “Oh Freedom,” “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus,” and particularly “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” They made struggling for equal rights seem like something even a blossoming but isolated teenager could do.

As Daniel Wolff pointed out to me the afternoon that we learned of Pete’s passing, he did this kind of teaching all the time. Seeger believed in singing, he believed it was good for you in all sorts of ways. He was, I recall, fond of reciting his father’s dictum that a country’s cultural health could best be ascertained by how many of its citizens sang and made music. I was just one among who knows how many—a number surely in the hundreds of thousands, maybe the tens of millions, over the sixty years or so that Pete performed—who had their lives turned if not upside down at least askew by the power of his conviction, by the contagion of his vision.

If nothing else, Pete Seeger made me understand how far behind enemy lines I was living—he showed me the road that had to be traveled, if I really wanted to live. He did this the same way that James Baldwin and Elvis Presley and John Coltrane did it: by example, and with the same generosity and the same sense that the world was packed with a load of insurmountable cruelty and that, nevertheless, the truth was that something better had managed to survive within it. Which meant, for each of us, a choice and a chance.

It may even be that Seeger, whose rectitude often communicated, at least to me, a whiff of the Puritanism he inherited, offered a more direct route to this not-at-all specious salvation of spirit and society than anybody else, and for the oddest reason: He thought smaller. He genuinely believed that one more singer, one more non-violent resister, one more example of gumption and love, one more song, one more guitar, was an important thing. And, this I am sure about, he genuinely believed that that was mainly what he, himself, was: One more.

That, and nothing more meek, was why Pete Seeger eschewed the celebrity path. (Ask yourself this: If Burl Ives could become a big star looking like that, what could the young Pete Seeger have become if he’d just given over a few names?) Pete could seem innocent but you’d be a fool to believe it. He paid the price and he had seen the bill coming, too.

If all you know about Pete Seeger is a protest singer, a rag-tag Red, a spinner of false hope, a doddering old man walking that hopeless line (but never by himself, you may have noticed), then you missed it. If all you know is the famous songs – most of which I haven’t even mentioned—you might even then not see it whole. Pete Seeger lived his life every day in the possession of what he envisioned.

There is one song that to me expresses this vision almost perfectly, maybe the greatest of all the lyrics he wrote and in the performance on his mini-box set, A Link in the Chain, possibly his greatest recorded vocal performance. It is called “O, Had I A Golden Thread.” It’s sweet in a way the hard boys, left and right, fear, as they ought to. “Far over the waters I’d reach my magic band / To every human being so they would understand.” He makes it true. He makes those who hear him want to make it truer.

Without such a vision, the folk process that we talk about (or used to, before the scene shifted to singer-songwriters meditating on their inner lives—alas, almost never about the banality of them—and the preening cultists they attracted) isn’t worth much. But there is another question, which is whether Pete’s vision of freedom carries forward, whether it stands, whether it can be nurtured and sustained.

I am sure it will be and my conviction came, perhaps predictably, on the last night of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s magnificent Woody Guthrie tribute in 1996. Pete already wasn’t singing very much—Arlo led the night’s final song, which you knew was going to be “This Land Is Your Land” before you ever saw a ticket. But you didn’t know that the whole cast, including many of the conference’s speakers, would be on stage leading the singing.

It had been a night of triumphs: For Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, for Dave Pirner and Jimmy LaFave, Billy Bragg and Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen and Pete too. But the most powerful triumph was that group sing—above all for the spirit still embedded in a potential national anthem yearning for a country to become worthy of it. It floored me and really, it seemed like the moment caught everyone. John Wesley Harding and I, old friends, walked into the communal dressing room afterward, arms around each other’s shoulders, tears in our eyes. And there was Pete, with tears in his eyes.

I think it was the first time I’d ever truly seen him. He was pleased, I understood, not so much that the night had carried Woody and what he represented forth in such grand fashion. What I remember seeing in Pete Seeger’s eyes was a sense of relief. He knew something that night—if I’m right—something important about not just Woody’s work, but his own. Which meant also the work of all the people he’d learned from, and all those who’d taught them, from the slaves who came up with “O Freedom” to Mother Bloor writing the labor history Woody made into music. He knew that folks would try to carry it on, in both spirit and substance.

That linkage is the golden thread and its purpose now is weaving the garment of human survival, which was the explicit theme of Pete Seeger’s last few decades on the planet. A rainbow design without which we cannot live. A design that shows us why and how to keep the most important thing that Pete Seeger represents alive.

We cannot experience the full measure of what it means to lose Pete Seeger until we realize that this burden is not his to carry, anymore. Now, it’s on you. And me.

Got any bags you need carried?

(Thanks to Craig Werner, Danny Alexander, Daniel Wolff and Lee Ballinger, without whom grief might have overwhelmed coherence.)

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by request: the road warrior (george miller,1981)

This is another of those not-quite-a-request. A couple of people requested that I revisit some of the movies that just missed making my Facebook Fave 50 list. You can’t get any closer than The Road Warrior, which was #51.

I’m not sure what your definition of an “action movie” is. I can define it by giving examples: Run Lola Run, The Terminator, A Better Tomorrow, Supercop, Tomorrow Never Dies. Those are the five action movies I listed in my Fave Fifty, although Tomorrow Never Dies was a ringer and I don’t actually think that highly of it. At worst, that makes The Road Warrior my 6th-favorite action movie of all time. And perhaps those six movies give a feel for what I consider to be an action movie: something that is defined largely by its action scenes. I don’t think of The Godfather movies as action pictures, because while they have elements of the action picture, other things are more crucial. But a movie like The Road Warrior would be far less interesting without the way it approaches action. You can talk about Jung and Joseph Campbell, you can talk about the costumes, but what makes the film is George Miller’s skills as an action creator. The final fifteen-minute chase scene is the equal of anything in Stagecoach or Buster Keaton.

It is safe to say that not everyone shares my high opinion of The Road Warrior. Oh, it is highly regarded. But it is old. It relies on stunt work (like Stagecoach and The General do) … we’re just about to enter the CGI period, but it hasn’t happened yet. This makes it seem more remarkable to me, but younger viewers used to CGI might just find it outdated. Still, Miller’s work here is so effective, it wins people over … like I say, most people do like the movie. But if you look at the top-rated action movies on the IMDB, you have to get to #9 before the 20th century turns up. The Road Warrior comes in at #269, two places below Thor: The Dark World.

The average rating for The Road Warrior on MovieLens is 7.2/10. I give it 10/10. It is #549 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. I have it at #51. Clearly I’m a bit excessive in my praise.

You could watch the other two films in the trilogy. Mad Max is cheap and punky, and pretty good. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is bloated and not so good.

what i watched last week

P!nk: The Truth About Love Tour: Live From Melbourne (Larn Poland, 2014). Not exactly a movie, “just” a filmed account of one of her Australia shows on her recent tour. But since I got it, I thought to say a word or two. I saw two shows on this tour, and the DVD/Blu-ray does them justice for the most part. The camerawork is needlessly showy on occasion, but not enough to ruin things (although it comes close in “Sober”). The highlights are the same ones I saw live, and there are no low-lights. It doesn’t feel quite as liberating as the disc from the Funhouse Tour, but that’s nitpicking. And I now understand and agree with Pink’s stance on the f-word. In concert, I was disappointed that she avoided the word “fuck”, particularly in the great “Fuckin’ Perfect”, and thought her reason (her kid has Pink thinking differently about these things) was odd. But on this disc, when she says she sees a lot of very young faces in the crowd and she wants to respect that, I’m a believer, because we can see those faces, too. In fact, that’s one of the best things about the disc, that we see the faces of so many women in the audience, singing, happy, and together … mother and daughter, lovers, friends, just a lovely community. 8/10. The companion piece is obvious: Pink: Funhouse Tour - Live in Australia.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012). Good to finally see the movie that got Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar. She is very good here, although Winter’s Bone remains both her best performance and her best movie of the ones I’ve seen. I had managed over the past couple of years to remain mostly spoiler-free about this one, and before I began watching, I thought it was going to be a rom-com. And eventually it is, but it takes its time getting there, and that’s a good thing. There is an added heft to the film because it takes the time to let us get to know Bradley Cooper’s bipolar sufferer, Pat. In fact, it takes Lawrence almost half an hour before she even shows up, which points to another fact about Silver Linings Playbook: despite the romance angle, it is a movie about Pat, and no amount of Oscar-bait acting by the wonderful Lawrence will change her Tiffany into much more than a plot device designed to help Pat get “well”. While I watched the movie, I was taken in by the pleasing blend of genres, by the performances, and even by the inevitable happy ending. Looking back, I’m not as convinced. On the one hand, Russell goes to great lengths to demonstrate how bipolar sufferers can be hard to live with, and hard to live with themselves. But it is vague about the “cure”. We’re supposed to think the love of a good woman is what fixes Pat, and his initial rejection of medication places him in a long line of romanticized “crazy people” who just need to throw off society’s shackles and impositions. Russell wants it both ways … after a particularly violent manic episode, I think we are led to believe Pat finally goes back on his meds (“think” being the operative word, since the film is very much unclear on this point). If Pat really is helped by his meds, that would detract from the rom-com narrative, so Russell buries it, and allows the second half of the movie to devolve structurally into a fairly standard romantic comedy. Everything is so well done, you can’t help but root for Cooper and Lawrence. I’m just not convinced Silver Linings Playbook holds up to scrutiny. #236 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 movies of the 21st century. 7/10. For a companion piece, I recommend Animal Kingdom, a fine movie with an Oscar-nominated performance by Jacki Weaver (her first … Silver Linings Playbook was her second). Animal Kingdom is nothing like Silver Linings Playbook, so call it a Jacki Weaver Film Festival.

The Garment Jungle (Vincent Sherman and Robert Aldrich, 1957). This was Aldrich’s movie until late in the game, when he was fired … his name doesn’t appear on the credits. The Garment Jungle is an expose of corruption in the garment industry in New York in the mid-50s. It moves along at a reasonable pace, and it’s only 88 minutes. It has Lee J. Cobb and Richard Boone for scenery chewing, which makes most of the remainder of the cast seem a bit boring. The cast is full of “hey, it’s that guys”: Kerwin “7th Voyage of Sinbad” Mathews, Gia “Guns of Navarone” Scala, Robert Loggia (his first credited role), Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman, Harold J. Stone, and Wesley Addy. There is nothing special about the movie, but at least it doesn’t stink. 6/10. I have no recommendations for other pictures to see … why not just watch Guns of Navarone?

Prisoners (Denis Villenueve, 2013). In The Anatomy of Liverpool, Jonathan Wilson quotes Spanish soccer coach Juanma Lillo stating, “Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly.” The plot of Prisoners falls apart in the last half hour or so … it works on an emotional level, but it requires that we accept a lot of silly behavior. But there is enough good going on in most of the movie that I’m inclined to be generous. Even then, I think the movie works better as a thriller than it does as a film with multiple subtexts. Some of the parallels to the American government’s attitude towards torture are obvious and, I suppose, well-taken, but for the most part, what makes Prisoners interesting for its too-long 153-minute running time is the tension it builds up. Still, one of the nominal heroes, played by Hugh Jackman, is compromised enough to force us to question his concept of heroism. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, because they are required to have five nominees even though the four that aren’t named Gravity have no chance of winning. 7/10. I’d also recommend Villenueve’s Incendies, which I preferred. And the film has been compared to Mystic River, which I also preferred.

The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013). A documentary about recent events in Egypt, shot and edited with such immediacy that it forces us right into the battles. In this, it is a bit like The Battle of Chile, as Noujaim and her team put us in the middle of the action as it happens. (In fact, after the film debuted at Sundance in early 2013, Noujaim returned to Egypt and extended the documentary because of new protests, meaning the movie we see now is not the same one that won an award at Sundance.) While Noujaim’s sympathies are clearly with the revolutionaries, she gives us insightful looks at various individuals who may share a common desire for change, but who don’t necessarily agree on what changes should be made. So a young street-wise revolutionary and an older member of the Muslim Brotherhood work together at first, and as their relationship begins to crumble as first the Brotherhood takes control of the government, and then falls out of power, there is great drama in the interactions between the two. Ahmed Hassan, the young revolutionary, has great screen charisma, and he becomes our de facto guide. We experience the highs and lows with Hassan, and this personalized look at the revolution is touching. The Square is a vital piece of work. Nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. 10/10. The Battle of Chile would be a good companion piece, as would Noujaim’s earlier documentary, Control Room.

The Earrings of Madame de … (Max Ophüls, 1953). 10/10.

blu-ray series #7: the earrings of madame de ... (max ophüls, 1953)

(The “Blu-ray Series” is by request from my wife, who said I had to watch all of the Blu-rays on the shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to, before I bought any more.)

I wrote about this film two years ago, when I was revisiting my 50 Favorite Movies from our Facebook project. It was #14:

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.

Since this is the Blu-ray series, I’ll talk a bit about some of the extras. There’s an interview with the author of the original novel, Louise de Vilmorin, who savages the film. She thinks it is awful, and gives several reasons why, all of which can be summarized as “they changed my book”. (You can decide on this for yourself … the booklet accompanying the package includes de Vilmorin’s novel.) Particularly strong is an essay by Molly Haskell, who opens with an interesting take on why Madame de … doesn’t always get the respect it deserves:

For those of us who rank The Earrings of Madame de . . . at the top of our list of all-time favorite films, the mystery is why our passion isn’t universally shared. Every year, thanks to committed revival houses, new members are recruited to our cult, but Ophuls’s masterpiece never seems to attain the universal accolade of “greatness” automatically granted to movies like The Godfather or Citizen Kane. To most people, “great” means big, inescapably masculine and bold, and probably Important with a capital I.

This in turn implies an effort with a socially redeeming political or quasi-political ambition, a dissection (and, often covertly, a celebration) of the ways of powerful men. Is Ophuls left off of those lists because the German-born director and man of the world made films about women, and in the case of 1953’s The Earrings of Madame de . . . , a period film about an upper-class woman whose cushioned existence is light-years away from that of the ordinary people of contemporary cinema and the toilers on the margins of life?

Madame de … sneaks up on you, especially the first time you see it. You may find it actually superficial at first. It plays like farce, and it is easy to imagine a play that takes a different approach … they could make a Fred and Ginger movie out of the basic concept of the earrings. And, as I note above and as Haskell also mentions, these people, rich and seemingly frivolous, initially deflects the idea that it is more than merely superficial. By the end, we see how wrong such an appraisal would be. #108 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. That is scandalously low. 10/10. Nothing else by Ophüls has entranced me the way Madame de … does, but Letter from an Unknown Woman is very highly regarded (I haven’t seen it), so that would be a good companion piece.

music friday: beats music

Beats Music is a new streaming music service with an impressive pedigree. It was created by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Trent Reznor is the CEO. The underlying service is taken from MOG, which was bought by Beats. Whether there is room for another streaming service remains to be seen, and if there is, it won’t necessarily be Beats.

Much of Beats Music will seem familiar to streaming users of Spotify, Pandora, Rdio, Rhapsody, etc. There’s an enormous catalog (everything except the Beatles, for the most part, although Spotify, which has Led Zeppelin and Metallica, may have exclusive rights to them). It costs $9.99/month, like the pay versions of the others.

The key to the success of the service lies in the differences. First, there is no free, ad-supported version, so you have to pay to listen. The folks at Beats claim to treat artists better than the other services, arguing that free services barely pay royalties.

Second, Beats is tied to the cloud, although you can download to mobile devices. When I say “tied to the cloud”, I mean you can’t integrate your own music into Beats. In other words, if you want to hear your Beatles tracks, you’ll have to do it somewhere besides Beats.

Third, Beats is intended mostly for mobile users. There is a web-based version, but it lacks many of the coolest Beats functions.

So, we’re essentially talking about a $10/month mobile music streaming service. Since I have always insisted on the integration of my own music with a service, I’m not the core audience for Beats. (I had a similar problem with MOG.) Your mileage may vary.

But the differences don’t end with the above. Beats relies on human beings to program their playlists. Services like Pandora are automated … they work very well at ascertaining your taste preferences, I personally have nothing against AI playlists, but some people will prefer the Beats model. Of course, Spotify and others do have a variety of ways to give you that human touch, as well. Beats isn’t revolutionary in anything but their marketing.

Beats uses the term “curator” to describe the people making the playlists, a way of emphasizing the human angle, and they’ve hired knowledgeable curators.

The interface is an awkward combination of easy and confusing (and the first few days have been a bit buggy, which is to be expected but it’s hard to evaluate for the long term). But here is what you get when you load the app:

There are four basic screens. First, you get “Just for You”, “handpicked” by their experts based on “what you’re into”. I have a hard time believing they have a billion “experts” working 24/7 to handpick my music, so there is clearly some AI work here. I’ve been with Beats for four days, and among the choices on “Just for You” are “Jukebox Hits: New Wave”, the albums Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Fats Domino Jukebox, and a playlist, “Ray Charles: The Atlantic Years”.

The second screen is a goofy, madlibs thing that looks like fun but which seems pretty pointless to me. It’s called “The Sentence”, and you are asked to fill in the blanks for “I’m … & feel like … with … to …” An example: "I’m in the shower & feel like romancing with the paparazzi to jazz.”

The third screen is “Highlights”, which again features stuff handpicked by experts. In this case, it doesn’t seem to be tied to your own profile … I get the feeling everyone will get the same highlights. Right now, this includes “Lebron’s Pregame Mix” (apparently King James is an “expert”), the Daft Punk album Random Access Memories, and “Top 25: Pop”.

Finally, there’s the “Find It” screen, where a huge number of playlists can be found. There are three sections in “Find It”. “Genres” is self-explanatory, and you are able to burrow down to exactly what you want. So if you choose, say, “Beats Hip-Hop”, you are offered a selection of 752 (!) playlists like “Top 25: Hip-Hop”, “The Roots: The 2000s”, or “Intro to David Banner”. The second section is “Activities”, which again is pretty self-explanatory. You can choose from everything from “Starting a Riot” (20 playlists, such as “Best of Bay Area Hardcore”), BBQing (21 playlists like “60s Soul Picnic”), or “Kicking Back” (20 lists like “Country Songs About Fishin’”).

The last section in “Find It” is “Curators”. These aren’t individuals, but rather things like “Academy of Country Music”, “Latina Magazine”, and “Pitchfork”.

It all seems overwhelming, but it’s not, really. Overwhelming is creating your own playlists on Spotify. Underwhelming is letting Pandora program your music. Beats Music lies on the Pandora side of whelming … there are a lot of possibilities, but they are easy to access, and then you turn everything over to Beats.

Will I stick with Beats beyond my 7-day free trial? Probably not, because, as noted, it’s not really for someone like me. But I think their model is very promising if you’re looking for an intelligent “radio” service and don’t want to spend a bunch of time curating your own playlists.

looking: series premiere

HBO’s new series Looking, about a community of gay men living in San Francisco, opened during an interesting weekend. The biggest cultural event on Sunday was football player Richard Sherman’s instantly-viral post-game interview, which I’d like to say has opened up a reasoned discussion of professional athletes, role models, African-American life in 2014, and even the vague notion of “class” (not referring to economic status but to “proper” demeanor), but which instead elicited a sadly predictable explosion of virulent online racism. Meanwhile, an article on Grantland about a woman who had invented a new golf club became something more when the piece gradually transformed itself from a discussion of new-fangled putters to exposing the private lives of people against their will. Even with a strong editorial process as the piece was written, the article was published, despite its seemingly clear intrusion into the life of its central character. The publication happened in part because a group of individuals, all of whom as far as I know are good people, apparently lacked the ability to understand how their piece presented an extremely problematic vision of outing and the lives of transgender people. In this case, at least, the ensuing discussion has been more illuminating than hateful, although that discussion should have occurred before the article was published (which points to the way cultural hegemony clouds the vision of the best of us).

Looking was dropped into this unanticipated set of cultural disruptions, and was greeted by a snarky Esquire review that seemed proud of attitudes that the folks at Grantland have at least begun to question. I’m not sure which part of the article’s title is more indicative of how the review goes wrong. Is it the basic title, “A Straight Man’s Guide to HBO’s Looking”, or the subheading, “A show about three boring gay men”? The basic argument seems to be that Looking is boring because the men on the show don’t fit the stereotype of “funny, mincing guys with witty one-liners and put-downs.” It’s like complaining about The Wire because there were no Stepin Fetchits.

In all of these examples, we’ve seen representatives of dominant cultural thinking missing huge chunks of what is actually happening, because what they see doesn’t match up with their expectations.

I am not immune to this. After watching the first episode of Looking, I thought that a quickie take on the show was that it was closer to Tales of the City than to Queer As Folk. Looking is pretty matter-of-fact about the lives of its characters, which feels a lot like how Tales of the City came across, especially during its initial serialization in the San Francisco Chronicle. Meanwhile, I always liked Queer As Folk, even as the plots turned sillier and sillier over the years, because of the in-your-face presentation of gay sexuality and the visceral pleasures of the thumpa-thumpa. You could argue that Queer As Folk was necessarily confrontational, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked it in part because it fit into my own stereotypical views from outside the community.

For this reason, I think the approach of Looking (based on the pilot) is just as necessary as was Queer As Folk’s. We still need reminding that there is not just one narrative about gay life (or the life of any other community), and that stereotypes exist in order to close off the idea of limitless possibilities. It is a good thing that Looking is not the same as Queer As Folk.

One of the strengths of Looking is that it doesn’t seem to be presenting the banal notion that “gay men are just like everyone else”. Looking is an attempt to take an honest look at the culture of the characters in the series, which requires specificity. It is not a show about people who just happen to be gay; it’s a show about gay men in San Francisco. To the extent that it is successful, the “straight men” of Esquire’s fantasies won’t say “these people are just like me”, but rather, “I am like these people”. In the end, my own connection to Looking will depend on how well-drawn the characters are. The first episode was a good start, but I admit at this early stage, I haven’t learned enough about those characters to differentiate them. That will come with time. Grade for pilot: B+.

what i watched last week

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2006). There is something interesting going on here, although I can imagine many viewers would just find it boring. Haneke gives us a psychological thriller, but uses seemingly mundane techniques. Some critics have complained about the deliberate pacing and static camera work, which aren’t what comes to mind when imagining a thriller. But the gradual discovery of the hidden lives of people who appear rather bland does indeed resemble a thriller … we keep watching because we want to know what else we might learn about these people. Of course, in the good Hitchcock tradition, there’s a MacGuffin: the central couple’s lives are being recorded by an unknown someone, who then sends them copies of the tapes, so they know they are being watched. You may think the key to the movie is solving the mystery of the tapes, but Haneke isn’t interested in that. Instead, he uses the tapes to dissolve the ways the characters hide themselves from others (their self-knowledge isn’t too deep, either). It has the structure of a thriller, if not the pacing, but in the end, it’s about character and guilt. Caché is downright creepy, because the ways the characters react to being watched seem close to what we might do in a similar situation, as our hidden past rises beyond our desire to bury it. A subtheme about French imperialism and Algeria isn’t particularly successful, but it does provide context. I hated the first Haneke film I saw (The Piano Teacher), and so I am pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve liked the others I’ve seen. #8 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, and #354 on the all-time list.  9/10. A Haneke film I liked as much as Caché is The White Ribbon.

Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957). You couldn’t be a film major in the early 70s, as I was, without seeing a lot of Bergman films, and in fact, at this point, I’ve seen as many of his films as of any director. I first came across his movies on UHF TV (ask your grandparents) in the late 60s, when a local station had a weekly “Adults Only Movie”. They showed a lot of Bergman, as I recall … I think Summer with Monika might have been one. The one that made the biggest impression on me was Through a Glass Darkly. Even though I was watching on a TV with rabbit ears, where the movie was interrupted by commercials and probably edited for aspect ratio and nudity (not sure there was any in that one), I was completely sucked in. Imagine my disappointment when later I saw the two other films in that trilogy, Winter Light and The Silence, and found the former boring and the latter just plain sick. (I should watch The Silence again, I’d probably like it now.) Ever since then, when I thought of Ingrid Thulin, I thought of her in The Silence, sick in mind and body. I mention all of this because, when I watched Wild Strawberries again, one of the first things I noticed was how beautiful Ingrid Thulin was. It was quite distracting, because it messed with my long-lived picture of her in The Silence. To make matters worse, at some point I decided there was a definite “separated at birth” look between Thulin and Katee Sackhoff. No one else sees it … I even tweeted Sackhoff, asking if anyone had ever made the comparison. Understand, Wild Strawberries is one of those Bergman films with lots of soul searching and deep meaning. But here I was, obsessing over Ingrid Thulin. I suppose I should mention the actual movie. Victor Sjöström is excellent, the film looks great, and if it’s not as “deep” as it appears, well, after The Seventh Seal, perhaps that’s what people needed. #66 on the TSPDT top 1000 list. 8/10. I didn’t much care for Another Woman, but Woody Allen is a big Bergman fan, and there are some similarities between that one and Wild Strawberries. For a favorite Bergman of mine, check out Smiles of a Summer Night.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous, Christine Cynn, 2012). For many years on this blog, I had a series I called “Oscar Run” where I’d catch up with all of the Oscar-nominated movies I’d missed, in time for the Oscar telecast. I don’t do that anymore, because 1) I don’t actually like to watch the Oscars, and 2) I ended up seeing too many crappy movies just because they got a nomination for Best Song. But anything that helps The Act of Killing reach a larger audience is good, so the nomination for Best Documentary Feature is deserved and welcomed. One example of how much is at stake in The Act of Killing is the name of one of the co-directors, “Anonymous”. More than 20 crew members use that name in the credits, because they fear reprisals from Indonesian gangsters. Of course, one point the film makes is that those gangsters are tightly integrated into the country’s government, one reason why they have never paid for their part in the murder of somewhere in the neighborhood of one million people in the mid-60s military takeover of the government. A straightforward presentation of the available facts would be informative and powerful. But Oppenheimer et al are after something bigger. The idea is to get inside the minds of men who would commit such atrocities, and the solution is to help those men make a movie about their exploits. They are happy to participate, admitting that they patterned their behavior in the 60s after American movies. The levels of distancing are disturbing … we are watching a re-creation of events from 50 years ago, starring the original participants, as if it were a TV docudrama. Except the events being re-created involve torture and murder. All of this moves The Act of Killing far away from the straightforward presentation of facts, and the film does little to place the events in any historical context. But the point is less to detail those events, and more to show the effect of the acts of killing on the murderers. 9/10. Not sure what else you could watch after seeing this one … maybe Waltz with Bashir? (Note: I watched the 115-minute version.)

Invasion of the Bee Girls (Denis Sanders, 1973). My brother posted on Facebook that he was settling in for a crappy Monster Thriller Movie, and I thought I’d watch it too, a kind of long-distance viewing party. But I happened to see a couple of reviews of the movie, and it looked so awful I didn’t think I could make it work alongside my New Year’s resolution to avoid bad movies. So I decided to watch a bad movie I’d seen and liked before, because some bad movies don’t count against that resolution. I first heard about Invasion of the Bee Girls when Roger Ebert touted it on a “Guilty Pleasures” edition of Sneak Previews. The plot involves women-turned-bees who fuck men until they die. It’s never explained how or why the women became Bee Girls, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Bee Girls are naked a lot of the time, in a refreshing 1973 au naturel way. The movie is cheap, with hardly any special effects (when the Bee Girls seduce a man, we hear buzzing on the soundtrack … that’s the extent of the seduction FX). There are a few actors you’ll recognize, including legendary William “Big Bill” Smith in the lead. One of the women is a former Playmate of the Year … the Queen Bee Girl is played by a future Barker’s Beauty from The Price Is Right. Two-time Oscar winner Denis Sanders directed; Nicholas Meyer, who directed/wrote a couple of the more popular early Star Trek movies, got his first screen credit for writing Bee Girls. It’s a movie that must be seen to be believed. There is no subtext, although the opportunities are there: possibly bisexual women have sex with men, the men die, the women want to take over the world or something like that. It was made during the early-70s wave of feminism, and it is clearly the movie of men frightened by the ever-emerging power of women. Yet you don’t get the feeling the men who made the movie thought about that at all … they got some pretty women to take off their clothes, threw in some nonsense about women-turned-bees, and sent it to the drive-in. 6/10. For a companion piece, how about Hell Comes to Frogtown, with Rowdy Roddy Piper as one of the only fertile men on the planet after the apocalypse … it also features the wonderful Sandahl Bergman and, yes, the legendary William “Big Bill” Smith.

music friday: bruce has a new album out

First, listen to and/or read this great interview, conducted by my old friend Ann Powers for NPR:

A Long Road to High Hopes

Among the things that make this interview so good: Ann is a perfect mix of professional and fan. Some interviewers gush when face-to-face with Bruce. Others go for a more “objective” approach. Ann knows her shit … she’s been writing professionally about music for at least thirty years. She’s been a primary pop critic for the Village Voice, New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, spent years as the main curator for the Experience Music Project in Seattle, has written a few books, and currently writes for NPR. But she also knows Bruce Springsteen’s work, which is kinda nice for us aging Bruce fans (Ann is 11 years younger than I am). Knows it, and loves it. In the interview, she touches on her experience living in Brooklyn at the time of 9/11, and how The Rising resonated for her. But her fandom never gets in the way of drawing Bruce out … it’s there just enough to make the interview better.

I mentioned on Twitter that I had a favorite part of the interview, but that I wasn’t sure why. It comes when Bruce is describing what it was like making records when he was in his 20s: “It was terrible, you know. In truth, it was awful, an awful way to make records but it was the only way we knew how. Everybody simply suffered through it and the endless, endless, endless hours I can't begin to explain.”

Ann’s response was the part I loved most: “We thank you for those hours.”

I’ve had a couple of days to think about it, and I think I know now why this resonated so deeply with me. When I first heard she was going to interview Bruce, I thought she was a perfect choice, that people like myself would be well-represented. That one sentence is what I meant, when she stepped back momentarily from her professional role and briefly spoke as a fan. I am not the only Bruce fan to spend too much time wondering what I would say if I met him. Part of me thinks I’d just ask him to play “Back in Your Arms” the next time he comes to the Bay Area. That’s part of why people bring signs requesting this or that favorite song … it’s a way to talk to the man on the stage.

But the truth is (and from talking to friends over the years, I know I’m not alone in this), if I had a chance to meet Bruce Springsteen, the one and only thing I’d want to say is, “Thank you”.

So consider this blog post my way of thanking Ann for thanking Bruce on our behalf.

Here is a song from the new album, a cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”. If you ever wondered what it's like for us true believers at a Bruce show, just look at the faces of the people in the audience.

blu-ray series #6: what ever happened to baby jane? (robert aldrich, 1962)

(The “Blu-ray Series” is by request from my wife, who said I had to watch all of the Blu-rays on the shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to, before I bought any more. It’s not my fault I was given three more as xmas gifts.)

My daughter Sara gave this to me for xmas, and said she looked forward to the review, so I guess this is By Request, as well.

The things you learn while scrounging around the Internet looking for stuff about a movie. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? introduced a new genre, “Psycho-biddy”. While I had never heard of this before today, I instantly understood the concept. (Other examples include Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, The Anniversary, and Die! Die! My Darling, with stars like Shelley Winters, Olivia de Havilland, Genevieve Page, Ruth Gordon, Tallulah Bankhead, and Debbie Reynolds. I have fond memories of a couple of those.) Wikipedia tells us that “The genre has also been variously nicknamed by the press as ‘hagsploitation’, ‘hag horror’ and ‘Grande Dame Guignol’.” While there may be an underlying misogyny to the whole concept (which I suppose goes back at least as far as Jane Eyre), these movies also gave leading roles to actresses whose careers had faded as they moved into their 50s. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were glad to make Baby Jane, even though they ended up being typecast in similar movies after that (especially Crawford).

What is supposed to make Baby Jane particularly juicy is that Davis and Crawford were said to have hated each other long before the movie was made. This adds to the lurid voyeurism of the film … think of how Sweet Charlotte seemed more placid once Crawford left the picture, saying she couldn’t stand to work again with Davis. (She was replaced by de Havilland, which suggests a more perfect pairing might have been de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.) Baby Jane requires the backstage gossip regarding Davis and Crawford to make it work.

And it does work, although it’s not exactly deep. It makes a point about the plight of aging actresses in Hollywood, but it is less interested in that issue than it is in plying Davis’ face with more and more makeup. The end of the film is poignant, but everything that leads up to it is a character study that is singularly lacking in that poignancy. It is hard to feel sorry for Jane when she’s feeding rats to her sister, and Crawford’s Blanche exists to be The Victim in the fright fest.

It may sound like I don’t like the movie, but that’s not the case … I’ve liked it since the first time I saw it back in the 60s. Davis got the Oscar nomination … of course she did, she got to play a crazy lady and had plenty of legitimate reasons to overact. Crawford is at least as good as Davis, but her role in necessarily less showy. 7/10. Possible companion movies would include any of the “Psycho-biddy” films. Robert Aldrich directed several fine movies. Kiss Me Deadly is more than fine … it is one of my favorite movies, period. A less-known Aldrich movie I am partial to is Attack!. For Bette Davis, you can’t go wrong watching All About Eve for the fiftieth time. And I’m not a big fan of Joan Crawford, but I am a big fan of The Women.