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what i watched last week

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). The defining role in Rita Hayworth’s career, and she’s playing a woman who gets between two men. It’s not clear that any of the threesome are actually having sex … Gilda gets accused of it a lot, but the plot shenanigans that close the film explain she was always good and faithful. I suppose Gilda and her new husband Ballin Mundson (George Macready) might have done it on their honeymoon, although if they did, it was off-screen. Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford) probably did it in the time before the movie begins, but once they get married late in the film, Johnny puts Gilda in a cage and turns his back on her. The most sexually-charged relationship is between Mundson and Johnny, and it is typical of the times that it’s subtext, not explicit. But for subtext, it’s pretty obvious, even if there will always be people who think others are trying to find queer elements in straight movies. I feel like Gilda’s legacy revolves around the tension in the Mundson/Johnny relationship, and if that’s true, it’s certainly a far cry from when the major selling point of the movie was Rita Hayworth’s sensuality. It was sadly downhill for Hayworth after this, professionally and personally … The Lady from Shanghai with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Orson Welles, came soon after, and Welles wasn’t kind to Hayworth or her character. She hadn’t even turned 30 yet. She left us with a famous quote: “Every man I have ever known has fallen in love with Gilda and awakened with me.” The success of Gilda rests on atmosphere, subtext, and your tolerance for confusing plots. #930 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. Check out The Lady from Shanghai as well, or, on the brighter side, one of her 40s musicals: You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier with Fred Astaire, or Cover Girl with Gene Kelly.

Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963). 7/10.

Baby Boy (John Singleton, 2001). 7/10.

by request: baby boy (john singleton, 2001)

(This was requested by Neal.)

John Singleton returns to the milieu of Boyz n the Hood, ten years later, but this isn’t a sequel, just the musings of a man who has grown over the previous decade. In the earlier film, the main characters were in high school, while here, they are a few years older, with less hope as they live in a world of no jobs, no money. While contemporary American society sets the template for their existence, Singleton is intent on putting the blame in large part on the young man, Jody, at the center of the story.

Jody doesn’t spend much time complaining about how the man has him down, because his life isn’t all that bad from his perspective. He lives for free at his Mom’s house in his old room, his #1 baby mama, Yvette, has a job, his #2 baby mama is up for the occasional screw, plus there are always other women when needed. I can imagine a movie where this lifestyle is presented in a positive way, and the comedic moments in Baby Boy work that angle. But for the most part, Jody is a bum … a sensitive bum with potential, but a bum nonetheless. His mother wants him to move out because he’s not a baby anymore … his baby mama wants him to commit to their relationship because that’s what a man would do … the new man in his mom’s life tries to pass along hard-earned truisms about being a man. We know from the start that Being a Man is the point of the movie, because in a voiceover, Jody explains the theory of a psychiatrist who believes black men are meant to think of themselves as babies. Baby Boy is the story of Jody learning to get past that indoctrination.

The sentiments are often muddled; while Singleton is willing to step back from glorifying Jody’s life, the so-called positive alternatives amount to “just love him, baby, boys will be boys”. The best/funniest example is when Jody explains to Yvette why he lies to her about his cheating. “I lie 'cause I do love you. Being honest would mean I don't give a fuck. Out on the street, I tell the ho's the truth. I lie to you because I care about your feelings.”

There is some very good acting going on in the midst of all of this. Taraji P. Henson’s Yvette is a believable combination of love and frustration, Snoop Dogg as an old boyfriend just out of jail turns on a smoldering intensity, and Ving Rhames makes Melvin, the new man in Jody’s mom’s life, into an actual human being, despite the fact that he is written more to make certain points than he is to be a person. Tyrese Gibson has charisma, and an engagingly non-professional feel to his acting in his first major role. He is asked to carry the entire movie, and he pulls it off.

John Singleton’s debut film, Boyz n the Hood, was good enough that he’ll likely be cursed with comparison to that film for the rest of his career. But when I say Baby Boy isn’t as good as Boyz n the Hood, the point is how good his first movie is, not that Baby Boy isn’t a worthy film in its own right. The obvious companion film would be Boyz, but I’d also check out anything with Taraji P. Henson, maybe her Oscar-nominated turn in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She is often better than the movies in which she is featured.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

blu-ray series #9: shock corridor (samuel fuller, 1963)

The recent talk about the importance of formal analysis in film criticism hits close to home with Samuel Fuller. His movies are clearly his … there is a Samuel Fuller style (Produced, Written, and Directed By), and oftentimes, that style is a big part of whatever success a Fuller film brings us. In fact, Fuller’s in-your-face filmmaking can bulldoze over any inadequacies you might encounter, be it a tiny budget or actors of varying quality or dialogue that is a verbal equivalent of the close-ups Fuller loves so much.

All of which is a way of saying that Shock Corridor is a fascinating movie that succeeds in clobbering the viewer, even considering some of the quieter moments, because Fuller likes clobbering. In his autobiography, he wrote, “It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I was dealing with insanity, racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion. How could I have been light with those topics? I purposefully wanted to provoke the audience. … My madhouse was a metaphor for America.”

Fuller does indeed stick all of that stuff into Shock Corridor. I’d argue that it is over-stuffed, but that stuffing works in line with Fuller’s style. He doesn’t take on more than he can chew, he just gets down to chewing. He takes one small set and a dinky budget, and refuses to make a small picture.

Some of the psychiatric mumbo-jumbo is dated, and the template for the actors in the asylum is too simple (act normal, start screaming, quit screaming). It’s hard to blame some of those actors for being too obvious, when the man behind the film brags about the lack of subtlety. Constance Towers does the best, it’s fun to see Larry Tucker before he became “Mazursky and Tucker”, and the key characters in the mental hospital are touching in their few moments of lucidity.

Give Fuller an A for effort, an A for his commitment to his vision, but don’t let that obscure the silly plot and the way the energy which makes Shock Corridor exciting also makes it draining, not in a good way. #570 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. For another example of Fuller working with Towers, try The Naked Kiss.

music friday, 1979 edition

The Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”. The DK’s first single, and they managed to milk it for quite awhile. They re-recorded it for their first album … might have even improved on it, it was faster, at least, which matters with this kind of music. The year after that, they renamed it “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now” and changed the focus from Governor Jerry Brown to President Ronald Reagan. That version included a long lounge-jazz intro.

Gang of Four, “At Home He’s a Tourist”. Entertainment was one of the best debut albums ever. It was one of the best albums ever, period. And I’ve noted many times that it wasn’t until I saw them in concert in May of 1980 that I realized what an interesting dance band they were. It’s not that they were easy to dance to, but Andy Gill’s jagged guitar work messed with rhythm the way Ziggy Modeliste does on drums, never simply on the beat, never that far from it, either.

Marianne Faithfull, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Written by Shel Silverstein (“A Boy Named Sue”, “The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone’”), this had already been recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and Nancy Sinatra’s buddy Lee Hazlewood. Part of the startlingly wonderful “comeback” album Broken English, it became one of Faithfull’s most popular songs, turning up in several movies.

The Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays”. The Boomtown Rats were annoying even before Bob Geldof got knighted, and “I Don’t Like Mondays” is annoying as well in its bratty way. But it is also compellingly listenable, sounding at times like a punkier Queen, thanks to the massed chorus of “Tell me why!”. Plus, who hasn’t felt like the girl in the song at some point?

Blondie, “Dreaming”. Coming after Parallel Lines, “Dreaming” made it seem like Blondie would make pop hits forever. But the end was closer than we knew.

Earth, Wind & Fire, “Boogie Wonderland”. The first real disco track on this list, and a reminder that in 1979, the disparate genres, punk/New Wave and disco, dominated pop music. The next year, Blondie would offer up the New Wave Disco “Call Me”, and as I noted above, Gang of Four’s music had dance elements. But for the most part, my memory is of music as far apart as The Dead Kennedys and Earth, Wind & Fre.

Nick Lowe, “Cruel to Be Kind”. Still Nick Lowe’s most popular song in the U.S., it’s an example of the way Lowe can make you sing along with a pop song that has darker lyrics than you realize.

Chic, “Good Times”. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had to make this list eventually. I taught a class on 1970s popular culture once, and to demonstrate the difference between disco and funk, I’d play some standard disco classic with its consistent BPM, then play “The Payback” by James Brown to show how the syncopated rhythm guitar results in multiple beats. (If you know music theory, you’ll know I’m clueless about this … it’s probably polymetric groupings, rather than syncopation.) The cool thing about “Good Times” is that the drums are standard disco beat, while Rodgers’ guitar fiddles with the rhythm, rather like the afore-mentioned Andy Gill, and Edwards’ bass, sampled so often, is on its own level, as well. You can definitely dance to “Good Times”, but that’s not all it offers.

The Clash, “Guns of Brixton”. Speaking of bass players …

Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”. Rodgers and Edwards didn’t show up for awhile, but by the end of the list, they’d made two appearances. Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates have fond memories of this one.

throwback thingie

Are people still doing this?

dance group

This is a picture of one of the dance groups at Antioch High School in my senior year, which makes it 1969-1970, which makes me 16 years old. As I recall, there were two official dance groups, and anyone must have been able to join this one, because I had never taken a dance class and my skills were non-existent. I did this because a lot of my friends were involved (just to note the obvious example, my future wife of 40+ years is just over my left shoulder).

I imagine the real reason I was in this group can be ascertained by looking at the positioning of the various participants. The real male dancers are sitting in the front. The ringer (me) is standing amidst all of the female dancers. A few of them were girlfriends of mine, again obviously including my future wife.

Three of the people in the photograph are now dead, to my knowledge … I assume there are more than I know about, everyone in the picture would be in their early sixties by now. A couple of them continued in dance after high school … one founded a dance company at a major university. At least one person in the picture became a doctor … well, two if you count me, but I’m talking about medical doctors. One of them ran for Lt. Governor of California on the Libertarian ticket. One of them was the maid of honor at our wedding.

I’m still in touch with a few of these folks. I see the girl to my right once in a while … my wife sees her more often than that. One of the boys and one of the girls have been to my house, which if you know me is a big deal. I’m friends with a few of them on Facebook.

what i owe to wes anderson

A little more than a week ago, Ted Giola wrote a piece, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting”, that would have pissed me off quite a bit if I cared enough about the topic. Which is OK, Giola wanted to piss people off, and to the extent I write about music, I was one of his targets. After reading through some “leading music periodicals”, Gioia complained that “I didn’t read a single discussion of song structure, harmony, or arrangement techniques.” His thesis? “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.” I agree that much popular music criticism avoids discussing technique. But I don’t buy the suggested binary argument that music criticism that avoids technique is necessarily “lifestyle reporting”. I’d argue that the roots of rock criticism came from humanities majors, who were more interested in lyrics and cultural context than they were in technique. Yes, this was largely because they didn’t have the technical knowledge necessary for useful discussion of techniques. They went with what they knew. But Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train isn’t a book about lifestyles. Marcus has noted that he doesn’t have the theoretical chops to write about music technique, but that doesn’t stop him from writing about music as it connects with things he does know, and that doesn’t fall into the category of “lifestyle reporting”.

Now, the fine critic Matt Zoller Seitz has followed up Giola with his own extension of the theory, “Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking”. “[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.” He concludes:

You owe it to your readers to write about form. You owe it to yourself to write about form. You owe it to the filmmakers to write about form.

Films and TV shows are made by filmmakers.

Write about the filmmaking.

My position on this matter is informed in large part by you-know-who. A few years ago, Jim Emerson totally shred (h/t to Giola) Pauline Kael’s approach to film criticism:

Kael couldn't and wouldn't engage with "technique" because she didn't have the knowledge or the vocabulary or the taste for it. Her approach to movies and criticism was focused on her gut reaction -- the way she thought audiences and readers should respond. (This is why she said she didn't like to see movies more than once -- she prized remaining true to her first impressions above all else.)

That last sentence might get at where I part company from Seitz and Emerson. There are plenty of movies I watch over and over. I do that because I like them. And there is the occasional movie that draws out such a negative response from me that I eventually go back to it, to see if I was just in the wrong place the first time I saw it. But the kinds of movies that reward the extra attention Seitz is after … the ones where the form is of such depth that the films require multiple viewings in order to extract all of the value … well, if my “gut reaction” to a movie is positive, I’m happy to return, looking for formal elements that illuminate my gut. To use an example Emerson brings up, a favorite of mine (and of Kael), one reason I get more out of each viewing of The Rules of the Game is that his use of deep focus ensures there is always something to see in the frame that you might have missed before. In that case, an examination of form leads to a deeper understanding of a film I already love.

But then there’s Wes Anderson, about whom Seitz has written extensively. I have seen almost every movie he directed. Once. I see many similarities between those films … you could say he has an identifiable style, that he is an “artist”. But I don’t much like them … I don’t have a negative gut reaction, just a been-there-done-that reaction. And I suppose I’d get more out of his films if I watched them over and over, looking in depth at the “filmmaking”, because I “owe it” to Anderson. But honestly, there are thousands of movies I haven’t yet seen, many of which I’m willing to bet I’d like more than a second viewing of Moonrise Kingdom. I honestly don’t think I “owe” anything to Wes Anderson. Which is why I watched Gilda this week, rather than checking out Fantastic Mr. Fox for a second time.

girls, season three finale

Even after three seasons, it seems that people would rather talk about Girls as a social phenomenon than as a television series. Tim Donovan wrote an intelligent piece for Salon that examined the trend towards millennials who are undereducated and underemployed. As the subtitle explained, “There's an entire generation in dire trouble -- poor, young, undereducated.” This is followed by the sentence, “So why do we only discuss Lena Dunham?” You might be tired of hearing about Dunham, who is not poor or undereducated, but the systemic underpinnings of the current problems, which Donovan addresses in detail, are what matter. Lena Dunham and Girls are not the reason we have a crisis among millennials.

Girls is not just a show about the Zeitgeist of the 2010s. Dunham brings on some of this criticism herself … I’m not saying she isn’t hyper-aware of her place within the cultural buzz. But more than a social commentary, Girls is about characters, characters with good points and flaws, and the show is successful to the extent those characters are interesting and the writing and acting is strong.

Season Three wasn’t exactly more of the same … each of the characters saw movement in their life’s paths. But it was more a case of moving chess pieces on a board than it was starting a whole new game. As they found and lost happiness and contentment and fulfillment, we saw people who were the same but confronted with different situations. Your feeling about the season (well, about the show) depends on which characters you like most, and whether they get enough attention. Hannah is first among many on Girls (and in her own mind), more so, I’d argue, than even Carrie on Sex and the City. If you enjoyed watching Jemima Kirke or Zosia Mamet, well, they didn’t always have a lot to do (although Mamet was given a couple of big scenes, both of which she killed). It makes sense with the world of Girls, though, that Hannah would be the central character, since she is so self-absorbed she probably thinks she deserves the extra attention. (This extends in many people’s minds to Dunham, and again, she asks for it. It’s almost a running joke when the credits go by with Directed by Lena Dunham and Written by Lena Dunham and Starring Lena Dunham.)

So yes, I like Girls, but I understand the complaints, even if I am mostly able to take it simply as a TV show. I think I understand why people want to talk about it, and why they want to give it more cultural importance than your average show. In the end, Girls is rather slight, and perhaps it crumbles under the weight of all that analyzing. What I don’t get is why another show on a premium channel on Sundays gets so little attention. Fiona Gallagher, the millennial played so well by Emmy Rossum in Shameless, is a lot closer to what I suspect the critics of Girls want: lower-class, struggling to hold a family together on little to no money, existing on Showtime which never gets the HBO treatment. In a better world, Shameless would be the water cooler show, and Girls would be that other show we liked. But this is the world we have, and I’ve been giving the seasons of Girls a grade of A-. This time, I’m giving it a B+. There is no good reason for this, but Girls hasn’t really grown on me the way a great show will, and at some point, the grades start dropping. (As will become clear when I write about Shameless after its season-ending episode, some shows manage to get better with age.)

what i watched last week

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013). My previous encounters with Payne have been mixed. I liked Sideways very much, disliked About Schmidt about as much as I liked Sideways, and have decent memories of Election. Nebraska is a bit schizophrenic. Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson exhibit a level of contempt for most people (at least Midwesterners) that is tart but cruel enough to seem unfair. But the core characters (Bruce Dern as an old man, Will Forte as his son, June Squibb as his wife, and to a lesser extent, Bob Odenkirk as another son), while far from perfect, are allowed a depth that is never shown in the one-dimensional common folks of the rest of the movie. This is good news for Dern and Squibb, who received deserved acclaim for their work, and for Will Forte, who comes off like a natural. The small variations that are played on the relationships between those four keeps the film moving when “nothing” is actually happening, and Dern is a continuous marvel. Yet somehow I was more impressed than moved by it all. 7/10. If you want more Payne, I’ve noted above that I think Sideways is worth your time.

Sexy Evil Genius (Shawn Piller, 2013). When this movie ended, my first thought was that it wasn’t what I expected. Except I don’t know exactly what I did expect, and I’m not sure what I saw. It’s a dialogue-driven, low-budget “comedy thriller” without much actual comedy, and not much suspense, either. It plays like a less-pretentious version of David Mamet. Almost the entire movie takes place in a bar … there are a few brief flashbacks, and at one point two characters end up in the rest room, but otherwise, it’s just people sitting around a table drinking and talking. Four of the characters are people who have had, or are having, relations with the titular genius … the fifth character is Ms. Sexy Evil herself. The cast is geek heaven, even though I can imagine a scenario where a typical movie goer wouldn’t recognize a single name: Katee Sackhoff, Seth Green, Michelle Trachtenberg, Harold Perrineau, William Baldwin, even a cameo from Anthony Michael Hall, along with music from My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. Sackhoff doesn’t turn up in the bar until the movie is half-an-hour old, by which point her character has been built up to where no one could possibly match our expectations. I love Katee Sackhoff, think she’s, and it’s fun that she played Evil. I liked watching her here. But she didn’t stand a chance. It’s a pleasant way to while away a Saturday evening, which is in fact when I watched it, and I wish it were better. 6/10.

the 2014 rubio begonias

The moment no one has been waiting for: the 2014 defending champion Rubio Begonias. Ten teams, combined AL/NL:

  C: Wilin Rosario

1B: Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez

2B: Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley

3B: Ryan Zimmerman, Aramis Ramirez

SS: Jose Reyes, Alexei Ramirez

OF: Mike Trout, Carlos Beltran, Austin Jackson, Angel Pagan

SP: Chris Sale, Michael Wacha, Hyun-jin Ryu, Andrew Cashner, Drew Smyly, Zack Wheeler, Marco Estrada

RP: Grant Balfour, Steve Cishek, Tanner Scheppers, Mark Melancon

Limbo: Stephen Drew (I drafted Tim Hudson with my last pick, dumped him for Drew, hid Drew in a new position we have this year, “Not Available”, and grabbed Dan Straily to replace Hudson)

music friday: carrie brownstein

On their final album, The Woods, Sleater-Kinney included a song, “Entertain”, that was interpreted by some (i.e., me) to be a challenge to the audience. I’m not sure this is a universal reading of the lyrics … AllMusic claims the song takes on “easy targets of retro rock and reality TV”. The ferocity of Carrie and Corin’s vocals suggest something more than Wannabe 1972ers have got their goats. It was a startling note, coming from a band we thought of as “one of us” … they set up their own instruments, they worked their own merch tables, they were approachable. When the band broke up after The Woods (it’s time to finally say goodbye to the word “hiatus”), it was “Entertain” that stuck with me.

Carrie is featured in a piece in Rolling Stone, “Carrie Brownstein’s Life After Punk”. She is now known as much for the television series Portlandia as she is for her music career, which strikes old S-K fans as odd (as Simon Vozick-Levinson says in the article, “it's as if PJ Harvey joined the cast of Parks and Recreation”).

What hit home for me was the description of life during the later years of Sleater-Kinney, as seen from the perspective of Carrie. “She had struggled with anxiety for years, and was overwhelmed with the stress of constant touring”. The latter comes as no surprise, the road isn’t an easy place, but I don’t think most fans understood that a lot of what seemed like fiery charisma to us as we watched her grew out of anxiety we didn’t recognize:

Brownstein was fighting a private battle even as the group reached new creative heights. … Brownstein checked herself into emergency rooms around gigs in Denver, Seattle, Berlin and Leicester, England. "I'd think I was having a heart attack and I couldn't breathe, or I would have hives and be going into anaphylactic shock," she says. "My body was rejecting the life that I had built for myself. It didn't stop until the band ended."

Reading these words, knowing what she went through to provide us with something more than just another band, but also, yes, to entertain us, I head back to “Entertain” and want to cry.

So you want to be entertained?
Please look away
We're not here 'cause we want to entertain
Please go away (don't go away) …

All you want is entertainment,
Rip me open it's free
1, 2, 3! If you wanna take a shot at me,
Get in line …

[Don't drag me down,
I'm not falling down]
The grip of fear is already here
The lines are drawn,
Whose side are you on?

Here’s a powerful live version from The Henry Rollins Show: