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February 2015
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April 2015


We had the pleasure of attending a production of the Carly Mensch play Oblivion this weekend. It's a four-character family dramedy, where the first act is almost a sitcom but the end of Act One and most of Act Two supply the drama.

Two "cool" parents in their 40s struggle to connect with their teenage daughter. She is looking to organized religion to help explain her world, which drives her parents a bit nuts, particularly Mom (shades of The Americans). The performances are good, as is the play, although the somewhat happy ending was a disappointment after spending time with Nietzsche.

The main reason we were there was to see our friend Arthur Keng. We've been following his acting career for a long time, now ... there aren't many posts here with the "theater" tag, but they can be broken down into two categories: famous people come to Berkeley Rep, and Arthur. Since he went to SoCal, we don't get to see him as often, but he is guesting in Oblivion in Sacramento, so you know we had to be there. (It worked out perfectly ... I hope Arthur agrees ... after the matinee performance, we went over to Sara and Ray's house and went out for dinner, meaning Arthur got to meet the irrepressible Félix.)

Not only did we get a chance to see Arthur's latest role (he was quite good, with several monologues I'll get to in a second), bnt his character was a teenaged filmmaker who obsessed over ... Pauline Kael. Once in a while, he'd give one of those monologues, which amounted to him reciting letters he was writing to Pauline, thinking aloud and asking for her advice. A parallel is drawn between his connection to Kael and the daughter's attempt to communicate with God ... it's only a bit of a stretch to say both teens are up to the same thing. The daughter knows that Nietzsche said God was dead, and Arthur's character has a similarly deflating moment when he finds out Kael had died a long time ago.

The bios in the program draw our attention to Mensch's participation in Weeds, and I can see that, although as far as I can tell, she came on during the later, lesser seasons. Mostly, though, I mention the program because of something Robin noticed as we sat awaiting the start of the play.

She nudged me and pointed at Arthur's bio, which includes the following: "Arthur would like to dedicate this show to Steven, the biggest Kael fan around, and to Steven's amazing wife Robin. Their support has always, and will always, mean the world to him."

First time I wanted to cry before the play had even started.

Oblivion runs at the B Street Theatre in Sacramento through April 19.

the 2015 rubio begonias

Tonight was our fantasy draft. I promise not to talk about it much, if at all, during the season. But here is my team (10-team league, AL+NL players, 5x5):

  • C: Carlos Santana, Russell Martin
  • 1B: Jose Abreu, Chris Carter
  • 2B: Mookie Betts, Ben Zobrist, Josh Harrison
  • 3B: Kyle Seager
  • SS: Jhonny Peralta
  • OF: Mike Trout, Starling Marte, Matt Kemp
  • SP: Chris Sale, Alex Wood, Michael Pineda, Jose Quintana, Brandon McCarthy
  • RP: Kenley Jansen, Jonathan Papelbon, Sean Doolittle, Brad Boxberger, Ken Giles, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Sergio Romo

what i watched last week

An Autumn Afternoon (Yasujirô Ozu, 1962). Ozu's last film, like so many during his career, is instantly recognizable ... the low-level camera and the lack of camera movement take care of that, even before we get to the plot and realize that once again, Ozu has returned to a story about a family with a daughter at the age to be married. Although the idiosyncratic nature of his style by definition draws attention to itself, Ozu always manages to give a feeling of "real life", as if a static camera suggests a documentary. Throughout, I felt like I was missing something because I wasn't a Japanese viewer in 1962, but rather an American in 2015. The class structure that affects relationships among the characters isn't always clear to me, but it seems to be very clear indeed to the characters. The struggle to be true to that structure means people rarely speak their minds without resorting to allusion. Drinking loosens tongues, though. Some lovely acting here, and this is another must-see for fans of Ozu, even if it isn't quite the masterpiece that is Tokyo Story. #252 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. A companion film would be Ozu's Late Spring.

My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004). Nicely drawn tale of two teenage girls from different backgrounds who come together one summer. Emily Blunt (Tamsin) is properly beautiful as the rich one; Natalie Press (Mona) dresses in a thrown-together manner that befits her casual, working-class status. It's easy to see why Mona is taken with Tamsin, but it doesn't initially play as you might expect. Tamsin seems to have real feelings for Mona, which Mona matches, but Mona is never condescended to. Or so it seems. A series of revelations at the end of the movie show that more was going on with Tamsin than Mona realized. That realization makes the movie a bit more generic, but the buildup, and the interaction between the two actresses, makes their summer of love believable, and thus makes the end of summer surprising. #463 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century ... it benefits greatly from the new format that expands the list from 250 to 1000 films. 7/10. If you'd like to create a double-bill, go with Heavenly Creatures.

music friday: john renbourn, 1944-2015

John Renbourn died yesterday. He had a long and valued career in music, worth digging into, but as is usually the case here, I'll personalize it and stick with what I know, which is the 1960s and "underground" radio.

My memories ... well, insert the obligatory "don't trust my old memories" ... Pentangle was a band that was listened to by many people I knew, whether on the FM radio or on their turntables. They were a band that came together gradually, even (dare I say) organically. Guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were well-known in British folk circles, and had even recorded an album together. Singer Jacqui McShee began working with them, followed by standup bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Terry Cox, who brought a jazz feel. In June of 1968, they released their first album, The Pentangle, which is when they caught my attention. British Folk wasn't always my favorite genre, but here, the musicianship and the fine interplay between the band members won me, and many other listeners, over. In the modern YouTube world, you can listen to the entire album here. If you want to get right to it, though, check out "Pentangling", the one song I most associate with the band and with the summer of 1968:


The bass player in me loved what Thompson does here, although I never did figure out the double bass myself.

They recorded several more albums over the next years, but it was the debut that I remember best. One album, 1970's Cruel Sister, did inspire one of Robert Christgau's more memorable comments. On the way to giving the album a C+, he wrote, "I prefer "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" to the eighteen-minute 'Jack Orion,' about a noble fiddler betrayed by his serving lad. Don't they realize that every verse of 'Cruel Sister' used to end "Fa la la la la la la la la la" because in the olde days people had nothing else to do at night?"

Here is Renbourn and Jansch in 2011, playing a song from their 1966 album, Bert and John:


Jansch died a little more than two months after this performance.

This is John and Bert in 1967:


Finally, for you Led Zeppelin fans who enjoy seeing how the band was "influenced" by others, here's Jansch with the traditional "Blackwaterside". (Jimmy Page was a big fan of Jansch ... how big? Check out "Black Mountain Side", "written" by Page.)




throw it back

"When I got home I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the groundswell of traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell, never for very long completely silent. Twenty four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped, and murdered. People were hungry, sick; bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed."

-- Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye. Chandler died on this date in 1959.

going into the broad city

The city in the title of Robert Christgau's new memoir, Going Into the City, is New York. The television series Broad City, which just ended its second season, is also New York to its core. There is nothing else to connect the two works in any obvious fashion ... in one, a man in his 70s looks back on his life, in the other, two women in their 20s create versions of themselves in something resembling the present. In both cases, though, the presence of New York City goes beyond merely adding local color. Christgau grew up in Queens, and so has greater New York in his bones, but the title refers to his move to Manhattan.  Abbi Jacobson, one of the two creators of Broad City, spent her formative years in Pennsylvania, but met up with Ilana Glazer when both were members of New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade (Glazer's background is a little harder to pin down, but she seems pure New York). What matters, in all cases, is that New York City is a crucial component of the people. I can't really call Christgau a "character" ... while he constructs a "Robert Christgau" for his memoir, the construction is "really" him, while Jacobson and Glazer are based-on-themselves "real" characters in Broad City, as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler.

Christgau admits from the beginning that his memoir might seem different than the norm, partly because other than being a rock critic, his life isn't all that unusual. "Only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog ... I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic.... As writers go, I'm a fairly normal guy." He quickly adds, "Some might hold that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that's snobbish baloney. All lives are interesting -- how interesting depends on the telling."

Christgau is a fine writer, with a lot to tell, and an audience that is already interested. He doesn't exactly ignore his audience's desires ... he just tells his story in the manner that suits him, and it is largely interesting for the reasons he notes: it depends on the telling, and he's good at it.

I don't know what others expected of the book. Speaking for myself, I was ready for anything, because it was Christgau, which meant I assumed I'd like it. Which I do. There is some name-dropping, but less than you might think. He spends time talking about working at the Village Voice, but as he states, "I didn't want people to think it was about the Voice. That's a book worth writing, but I don't know by who ...." He talks about the members of the first (and to some extent subsequent) wave of rock critics, but I don't think Going Into the City would be the primary text for an historian of the era. We learn which of those critics were his close friends, and get a hint of some of their approaches, but it's a memoir, not an evaluation. What Christgau pulls off is a memoir that might be written by a "regular" person, where the primacy of his experiences is more important than what celebrity he knows.

And the primacy of his experiences includes his intense devotion to the two most important women in his life, his first great love, Ellen Willis, and his eventual wife and life-partner, Carola Dibbell. In his introduction, he discusses this:

The main way marriage impacted my vocation, however, was intellectually. That's why I feel deprived when, for example, Christopher Hitchens or Ed Sanders or Richard Hell -- all of whose recommended memoirs share ground with mine, and all of whom have their reasons -- fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work. My '60s partnership with Ellen Willis ... set me on the path I've followed ever since.... my chief guide has been my legally wedded wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, who's also a fine rock critic ... No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either.... Till death do us part, my marriage is my most satisfying achievement.

This is the kind of thing usually dismissed in a brief note about how "I couldn't have written this without the love of my partner". But Christgau wants us to know from the start that his memoir will integrate his important relationships into his discussion of his work as a critic. There is almost no need for an acknowledgements page for Willis or Dibbell ... the entire book acknowledges them.

It also gets to the core of my own relationship to memoirs, especially since, if I ever had the ambition to write a book of my own, it would fall into that category. The motto of this thirteen-years-and-counting blog is the Pauline Kael quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." To know my take on movies and TV and music is to know me, as well. Christgau goes beyond this, though. His approach is almost the opposite: to know his take on music, it is crucial that you know about his experiences, particularly with the important women in his life.

I accept that it is a stretch to connect all of this to Broad City. But New York is a major character in Christgau's book ... it's a titular character, no less. Part of what sets Broad City apart, though, is that Abbi and Ilana are already in New York ... there is no "going". It's less that New York is a character, and more that Abbi and Ilana have New York inside of them. New Yorkers often assume that outsiders like myself don't "get" the city, that you have to live there, experience it on a daily basis. And I'm sure I miss many nods to locals in Broad City. It is very specific about its New York-ness. But Abbi and Ilana feel universal, despite their specifics as young New York Jewish women in their 20s. I'm much closer in age to Robert Christgau than I am to Jacobson and Glazer ... my kids are a decade older than those two. A typical day for me usually involves doing something with my wife of 40+ years, and while we have memories of the stuff we did when we were young, in honesty, memories are mostly what they are at this point. I don't get high all the time anymore the way Abbi and (especially) Ilana do. I don't have the energy to pursue anything that crosses my mind (Ilana is irrepressible in this regard). But the spirit with which they engage in their world is inspiring, not because I know what it's like to be a young woman in New York, but because that spirit is contagious.

Which is something they share with Christgau. As you read his memoir, you understand better the things that drive him. It no longer seems odd that he listens to music a billion hours a day. He loves to engage with music, loves to keep learning about music, and, of course, he's a master as a critic of writing about these things in ways that engage the reader, and, yes, inspire us in some way.

i still don't know what avaya does

Today, we attended the first-ever MLS match at the San Jose Earthquakes' new Avaya Stadium. It looks lovely, the view is fan-friendly, and everything had the fresh feeling of something new. The seats were a bit narrow for my butt ... on the other hand, they were seats, which was quite a revelation for those of us who have spent many years sitting on benches. The incline for the seats was steep, which was good for viewing ... even the top rows were as close to the field as possible ... but also a real cardio test (we were in Row 22).

The stadium is built next to San Jose International Airport, and it was startling when planes would suddenly appear from behind the stands opposite our seats as they landed. We were startled partly because the sound of the planes went unheard by us ... I don't know much about physics, but whatever they did when building the stadium, it kept the noise out. I think the idea was more to keep the noise in, i.e. the acoustics are designed so the noise of the crowd is amplified.

Here are a few pictures I took ... there are better ones out there, but these are mine. Here is our first view of the stadium as we approached it:

Avaya 1

A different angle from outside:

Avaya 2

A lame selfie:

Avaya selfie

And the view from our seats, with the airport in the distance:

Avaya 3

music friday: going into the city

I'm up to the last chapter of Robert Christgau's memoir, Going Into the City, and I'll write about it once I finish. Someone (I think his publisher) created a Spotify playlist to accompany the book, and I'll look at that list here, with a few comments. I won't connect the songs to their mentions in the book ... you'll have to read it yourself for that info.

  • John Prine, "Donald and Lydia". A teacher in the mid-70s once told me my writing reminded him of John Prine.
  • South Pacific Ensemble, "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame". When I was a kid, my parents had the soundtrack album to the movie version. The picture of Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor on the cover fascinated me ... OK, it was Mitzi in her two-piece bathing suit.
  • Doris Day, "Secret Love". From Calamity Jane. Lots of subtext here.
  • Bill Doggett, "Honky Tonk (Parts 1 & 2)".
  • The Channels, "The Closer You Are". I used to say that you couldn't trust anyone who didn't love doo-wop.
  • The Three Friends, "Blanche".
  • Chuck Berry, "Rock and Roll Music". He headlined my first rock concert.
  • Charlie Parker, "The Song Is You".
  • The Miracles, "You've Really Got a Hold on Me". Cheating a bit ... the video is from their appearance in The T.A.M.I. Show.
  • Marcie Blane, "Bobby's Girl".
  • The Exciters, "Tell Him".
  • The Newbeats, "Bread and Butter".
  • Dobie Gray, "The 'In' Crowd".
  • The Lovin' Spoonful, "Darling Be Home Soon".
  • The Rolling Stones, "Goin' Home". The last seven tracks could be a soundtrack of my pre-teen life.
  • Mungo Jerry, "In the Summertime".
  • John Lennon, "Oh Yoko!".
  • New York Dolls, "Human Being". They had no bigger champion than Xgau.
  • Al Green, "Let's Get Married". Speaks for the memoir as well as any song.
  • Bonnie Raitt, "Good Enough". Xgau may be the only person who loves Home Plate more than I do. YouTube seems to agree with everyone else ... the video is from a live show, the original was nowhere to be found in my quick look. Good version, in any event.
  • Ramones, "We're a Happy Family". The city in the book's title is New York, after all.
  • Television, "See No Evil". The city in the book's title is New York, after all.
  • The Clash, "Janie Jones". Cheating again. This is live, 1977, because they were so great in concert I couldn't help myself.
  • Funky 4+1, "That's the Joint". Xgau called this the best single of the 1980s. Video chosen because I think the picture is of the 12" we had at our house at the time.
  • T.S. Monk, "Bon Bon Vie". He named this the second-best single of the 80s.
  • Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, "Looking for the Perfect Beat". He named this the eighth-best single of the 80s. For homework, find out what he named #3-7.

carlos (olivier assayas, 2010)

I've tagged Carlos under both film and television, which I think is appropriate. It was made as a TV mini-series running in three parts. It has been shown rarely as a complete movie, but the more standard presentation, as far as I can tell, is to show the three parts separately on TV. There are also edited "movie versions" than run two-and-a-half to three hours. I watched the entire series of three, which makes it a mini-series, but if you watch it, you'll see why I think it's a movie. It has the look of a movie, with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Carlos plays like the long-form serial television series that have become the standard for quality TV today, taking advantage of the extended running time to offer depth that wouldn't be possible in a shorter film. But the way the story unfolds reminds me more of a movie like De Palma's Scarface than it does a series like The Wire.

In fact, Scarface makes an interesting comparison with Carlos. Both are epic-length stories of the rise and fall of a narcissist on the wrong side of the law. One thing that would seem to make Carlos different is that its titular character isn't a mere gangster, but is rather a political terrorist. But politics takes a backseat throughout the film ... it's not as different from Scarface as you might imagine.

The scope of the movie is impressive. In covering the career of Carlos, Assayas takes us from 1973 through 1994, and crisscrosses nations and continents: London, Paris, Vienna, the Netherlands, Yemen, Germany, Algeria, Libya, Budapest, East Berlin, Syria, Sudan. Yes, at times it's a bit confusing, but the overall feel of the life of an international terrorist is clear.

Édgar Ramírez plays Carlos as a charismatic man who we can see would easily impress others. He's ultimately not very good at his job ... his most famous escapade, a takeover of an OPEC conference, mostly results in flying from airport to airport with hostages, never accomplishing any goals, until finally they take money in return for releasing the hostages. Nonetheless, the OPEC sequence is a masterwork in the world of action/thriller cinema. Assayas is more successful with his representation of the OPEC events than Carlos was in trying to pull off the caper.

The film does well in showing the grungy glamour of the lifestyle of Carlos, as well as his gradual fade from importance. The third chapter, which deals with the decline, is necessarily less exciting than what came before, but it does provide some closure on the story.

What is missing is a sense of the politics that drove Carlos and his associates. People toss off standard catch phrases about the revolutionary struggle, but the film rarely goes deeper than those phrases. Assayas is more interested in the character of Carlos, and he is very successful, but the ultimate lesson to be taken from the film is that the politics never really mattered, that Carlos' self-involvement was the key to the story. I don't need Assayas to provide an explanation for terrorist acts, but even with the decades-spanning nature of the movie, the individual acts almost seem to lack context. They work as scenes in an action thriller, but you wouldn't watch Carlos to learn about revolutionary thought.

Nonetheless, Carlos is a triumph of epic film making, riveting for most of its long running time, with a terrific performance from Édgar Ramírez. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10. For a companion film, try the aforementioned Scarface, or something with a similar topic, like The Baader Meinhof Complex.