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film fatales #9: ratcatcher (lynne ramsay, 1999)

This was Ramsay’s first feature as a director (she also wrote the script). It is an uncompromising film ... Ramsay is an uncompromising filmmaker. (The word “uncompromising” turns up a lot in articles about her.)

Here, the great Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting discusses Ramsay as a poetic director:

The interviews with Ramsay in this video draw attention to something that affected the U.S. release of Ratcatcher: she is Scottish. I’ve always had trouble understanding the Scottish accent, and here, as with the first 20 minutes of Trainspotting when it was released in the U.S., the film is subtitled (unlike with Trainspotting, the subtitles exist throughout the film). I mention this only because I suspect this makes the movie feel different to an American audience than it would to one from Scotland. Subtitles may make a film seem more “arty” ... we associate them with foreign classics. And indeed, Ratcatcher is “arty”.

Since Ramsay isn’t one for explicitly explaining things, Ratcatcher isn’t always easy to follow. Zhou notes that she isn’t necessarily looking to narrative ... it is images that tell her story. But the setting isn’t clear, at least not to me. It takes place in Glasgow in 1973 ... there is no title card telling us this. It doesn’t hurt to do some research after the fact, I think ... there’s a garbage strike going on during the time of the film, and there is a subplot about families wanting to move from slums to newer housing. But perhaps I’m going too far ... Ramsay is able to convey the feel of this through the imagery. Old garbage piles up everywhere, and there’s a canal that looks like it’s been holding filth for a long time. She comes close to being anvilicious with all of this, but she definitely shows us the hopeless nature of the lives of the characters.

I only recognized one actor, Tommy Flanagan, who played Chibs in Sons of Anarchy. He is very good, but Ramsey gets effective performances from the entire cast, in part because she uses their faces to tell their stories, rather than burdening them with dialogue. The main character is a 12-year-old played by William Eadie, whose first film this was (he did not pursue an acting career).

I admit I rarely responded emotionally to what was on the screen. I’m not sure Ramsay was after that effect. The film is dismal and dreary on purpose, which is appropriate. One scene, where the boy and his “girl friend” take a bath together, is charming ... it is barely sexual, just two kids actually having fun for a bit, and there’s precious little fun to be had, so the scene is a welcome respite for the characters and the audience (although apparently it is this scene that provoked cries of exploitation). And there is another scene where a kid attaches his pet mouse to a balloon and lets it go to the moon. The kid is a bit slow, but Ramsay turns this into a lovely fantasy ... we see the mouse with the Earth in the background, then approaching the moon, and finally landing in a colony of other mice.

Ratcatcher is an impressive debut that makes me want to watch Ramsay’s subsequent films. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

what i watched last week

Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008). Last month, Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema posted a list of the “Top 10 American Indie Filmmakers Missing in Action”. Lance Hammer was #1. As of now, Ballast is Hammer’s only feature as director. In fact, his IMDB page lists nothing after 2008 (before Ballast, he worked on visual effects for a couple of Batman movies as well as Practical Magic). This is almost as interesting as the film itself, which is earnest and gets the most out of its small budget and largely amateur cast. The characters avoid stereotypes, and the actors are “real” without seeming out of their depth as actors. The film is a critical fave ... Roger Ebert admitted it made him cry. I’d like to see more from Hammer, but for me, this is more a good start than a masterpiece. #365 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005). As with the other Joe Wright films I have seen (Atonement and Anna Karenina), the director makes his presence known. The camera moves about like Wright has channeled Max Ophüls, and for the most part, that dazzle is in service to the film rather than existing on its own (the problem with Anna Karenina). Ultimately, though, the movie hangs on the actors, and give Wright credit for creating an atmosphere conducive to fine collective performances. The actresses playing the sisters have commented on how easily they bonded, and how much they appreciated Brenda Blethyn’s presence as both the mother of the film and the Mum of the actors. This shows through on the screen ... there is nothing cloying about the sisters. Carey Mulligan makes her film debut, Rosamund Pike is mostly just beautiful (although her beauty is quirky, and she is giving a good performance, letting us know there is something beneath the surface besides shyness). Keira Knightley has to carry the film, and she’s up to the challenge. Much of the supporting cast is also good, although I admit I wasn’t much taken with Matthew Macfadyen’s Mr. Darcy. Better than Bridget Jones’s Diary. #638 on the TSPDT 21st century list. 8/10.

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Lothar Mendes and Alexander Korda, 1936). I’m not sure why, but I think of H.G. Wells as a 19th-century figure. I suppose it’s that the works Wells is most famous for came at the end of that century: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds all came between 1895 and 1898. But Wells lived to see the end of World War II. He was alive when Orson Welles performed his infamous radio version of War of the Worlds. So it should be no surprise that Wells wrote the “scenario and dialogue” for this version of his 1898 short story. But surprised I was when his name turned up in the credits. The film itself is a quick and at times funny story about a mild-mannered man chosen by a God to have the ability to perform miracles. His first miracle is to make a candle light burn when it is turned upside down ... his last miracle is to stop the rotation of the Earth. And he gets there in 82 minutes. Things get preachy at the end, and after accepting the original premise, I never got much involved in the proceedings. Roland Young is winning in the title role, and along the way we get the ever-entertaining Ernest Thesiger and the lovely Joan Gardner, whose talents admittedly are more visual than thespic. 6/10.

music friday: dad’s tape

Back in 2004, I wrote a post about the father of a friend. I encourage you to revisit that post. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Carol's dad, a man I never met but who must have been in his 70s at least, ... decided to make a tape for me from his old records ... I'm pretty sure at least some of them were 78s ... and so one day a tape arrived, lots of scratchy-sounding tunes. I listened to that tape again this morning, and it would be a remarkable mix from anyone, but that this septuagenarian pulled it out of his old record collection strikes me as lovely and fascinating.”

Here are a few of the songs inspired by that tape.

Bessie Smith, “I Ain’t Goin’ to Play Second Fiddle”.

Lead Belly, “Midnight Special”.

Memphis Minnie, “Selling My Pork Chops”.

Oscar Woods, “Evil Hearted Woman Blues”.

Georgia White, “I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It”.

Ray Charles, “Mess Around”.

Lena Horne, “Love Me or Leave Me”.

Benny Goodman Sextet, “Flying Home”.

Miles Davis, “Bitches Brew”.

happy thanksgiving (these are better days, baby)

Last weekend, the following showed up on a friend’s Facebook feed:

Some thoughts as we enter the Christmas season ... It is important to remember that not everyone is surrounded by large wonderful families. Some of us have problems during the holidays and sometimes are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. And, many people have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness. We all need caring, loving thoughts right now. If I don't see your name, I'll understand. May I ask my friends wherever you might be, to kindly copy, paste, and share this status for one hour to give a moment of support to all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind and just need to know that someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. I hope to see this on the walls of all my friends just for moral support. I know some will! (You have to copy & paste this one, NO sharing) Be grateful xpx

This kind of post is fairly common on Facebook, and I usually avoid them like the plague. I appreciate the sentiment, but the entire concept beneath “You have to copy & paste this one, NO sharing” turns the sentiment into a greeting card. Hey, I don’t have to think of anything to say, don’t have to add a personal touch, don’t have to make a real connection to the words. I can just copy & paste and be done with it. I’ll even look like a good person.

But this one hit home, because I find this time of year to be depressing. And so, I decided to copy & paste. At the top of the message, I wrote, “I never do these, but this one's worth it:”.

Well, several of my Facebook friends followed suit. Some of them said nice things about me in the process. They are good people. Me? Not so much. Because I’m about to complain.

Almost every person who did the copy & paste thing included “I never do these, but this one's worth it:” at the top of their post.

Man, am I being picky or what? But I can’t quit obsessing about this. It tells me that there was little thought given to the cut & paste. It was taken literally ... my little sentence was assumed to be part of the message. Perhaps all of my friends, also, “never do these”, but someone is doing them, or why do I see them on my Facebook feed?

This is why I never do these, why I generally find them irritating. It’s a simulation of caring, no different in the end from sharing or liking. It’s an easy way to “connect” with others.

I’m guilty too, of course ... otherwise, I wouldn’t have broken my “never do” pattern.

And why did I think it was “worth it”?

I spent the majority of my days embroiled in hate for the curse of my life. “Why me?” was my motto. Even now, after ten years of psych meds, I feel much the same ... I no longer have the passion of hatred, but I still have a piss poor attitude towards life.

And my attitude is so bogus, just like my copy & paste. I have a large and wonderful family. I am lucky in that most of my loved ones are still with us. I don’t really have family problems, my health struggles are still containable, I solved my job issues by retiring which is what I wanted all along anyway, and I know that some people care. Yet I hitch myself to that wagon, pretending to a misery I don’t deserve.

As Bruce Springsteen sang, “it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin, and can't stand the company.”

what i watched last week

The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966). The original Japanese title is Tanin no kao; an alternate English title is I Have a Stranger’s Face. The basic plot is reminiscent of sci-fi films both good and bad: a man’s face is completely burned, a doctor (in this case a psychiatrist) offers to perform an experimental technique to graft a copy of another’s face onto the man, complications ensue. In this movie, though, subtexts are brought to the surface. In a cheapie movie, we would have to extract subtext from the cheesy movie, but Teshigahara is up to something serious here, and he’s not worried about hiding it where we can’t find it. So the psychiatrist is openly fascinated by the experiment ... he expects that the man will struggle mightily to maintain his sense of self once he starts wearing the mask, and he has no apparent qualms about this. The man does indeed start to question his identity. Meanwhile, he seduces his wife (wearing his mask so she won’t recognize him), then accuses her of infidelity when she succumbs to the seduction. Not quite, she says ... she knew it was him all along under the mask. While all of this is going on, a separate tale is told of a beautiful woman whose face is only partially scarred. No attempt is made to connect the two stories. It seems like a mess, but a planned mess ... I might have been confused, but I never felt that Teshigahara was confused, if that makes sense. The look of the film adds to the slight otherworldly feel. The doctor’s office in particular reminded me of THX 1138, although obviously if any influence occurred, it would have been in the opposite direction. Rewarding and creepy. 8/10.

Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015). With certain exceptions, James Bond movies can be grouped according to the actor playing the lead. Spectre is the fourth Daniel Craig Bond, and in the future, when we look back, we will think of all four movies as one. This isn’t to say they are all the same ... Casino Royale put 007 on a new direction, and it was one of the two or three best-ever Bonds. But after four Craigs, it is clear that while Casino Royale is a different kind of movie than Die Another Day, the final Pierce Brosnan Bond that preceded Royale, the other Daniel Craig movies are essentially variations on the Bond introduced in Craig’s first appearance. Spectre may recall earlier 007s, particularly the ones with Sean Connery where SPECTRE the organization plays a part in the proceedings, but ultimately, it is tied far more closely to the previous three films, especially Skyfall. No one has had the nerve to really break free from Bond conventions, and in that way, the films are all somewhat alike. But I’m starting to think it more useful to look at the subgenre level: not at the group of James Bond movies, but rather at the groups of Sean Connery Bonds, Roger Moore Bonds, Timothy Dalton Bonds, Pierce Brosnan Bonds, and Daniel Craig Bonds, respectively. (This omits the goofy 1960s version of Casino Royale, which is no loss, and also neglects to find room for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of the very best James Bond movies but with the problematic George Lazenby as Bond.) If you were to make a list of all the Bond movies from best to worst ... well, this has been done many times. But I’m suggesting we first make a list of the actors (this has also been done many times), and then order the films by each actor. The question isn’t whether Spectre is as good as, say, Diamonds Are Forever. The question is, instead, a two-parter: where does Daniel Craig fit into your appraisal of the various Bonds, and how does Spectre compare to the other Daniel Craigs. Since I’m the one writing here, I’ll offer my lists. For Bonds, either Craig or Connery is at the top, and Moore is at the bottom (well, Lazenby is at the bottom, but I don’t think even the best Moore Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, is as good as OHMSS). I have a fondness for Dalton’s version of Bond, especially in Licence to Kill, but I think Daniel Craig offers a stronger version of what Dalton offered. Anyway ... for the Craigs, I’d order them best-to-not-best: Casino Royale, Skyfall, Spectre, Quantum of Solace. For what it’s worth, though, when I made my Fifty Favorite Movies lists a few years ago, the only James Bond movie on the list was Tomorrow Never Dies, because of Michelle Yeoh. Which gets back to my comment that some Bond conventions will never be broken ... otherwise, Michelle Yeoh would have become the New Jane Bond. 7/10. (Another FWIW note: I had an essay published in an anthology about Bond, where my topic was The Best Bond Villain. My choice was Klaus Maria Brandauer in the non-canonical Connery, Never Say Never Again. If Michelle Yeoh suggested what might have happened if Bond was a woman, Brandauer suggested what might have happened if Bond was a villain.) (One last note: the publicity made a big deal of Monica Bellucci being the oldest-ever Bond Girl. Leaving aside the silliness of calling Monica Bellucci a girl, I'm going to offer a spoiler. Bellucci is on the screen for maybe five minutes.)

blu-ray series #27: my neighbor totoro (hayao miyazaki, 1988)

I was introduced to Miyazaki some years ago, and took to his work instantly. I usually watched his films alone, and I don’t recall ever watching one with a kid. So when I decided to re-watch Totoro on Blu-ray, I was glad to have a ten-year-old with me. He wasn’t really looking forward to it ... he wanted to watch a Star Wars movie, and he hadn’t ever heard of Totoro. I don’t think it quite succeeded with him, either ... after fifteen minutes he was already expressing his boredom, and later he said that nothing made sense, which is why he didn’t like it. Still, he made it to the end of the movie.

We watched the Disney English-language dub, which I hadn’t heard before. I didn’t really recognize any of the voices, including the stunt-casting of Dakota and Elle Fanning as sisters. It was fine, in any event ... I think I only notice English dubs when they are terrible. I liked the movie as much as ever, even with the semi-negative vibes in the room. I think Princess Mononoke is my favorite Miyazaki film, but to be honest, they all kind of blend together in my mind as the years pass, so I couldn’t really explain my preference. My fondest memories are of Spirited Away, probably because I love the soot thingies. Even the lesser movies are enjoyable, though, and often quite loony. #235 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

music friday: dean martin

I finally read the highly regarded biography by Nick Tosches, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. I’ll try to write more about this book later ... for now, here are two quotes that hint at the existential void that was Dean Martin:

He was a wise man. Wisdom had blessed him with a disregard for the worth of his own racket. Where others sought nobility in acting or art in song, he had known things for what they were, and that knowledge had set him apart. Wisdom too had blessed him with an understanding of human nature, and that understanding had set him apart as well. It had never been his own compulsion for lontananza or his own abhorrence of communication that had been a problem. The problem had been the pressure from others to change, to become more like them – to share, to relate, to confront, to lend the lie of meaning to all those meaningless verbs and more. To him, the problem was theirs: they who could never accept what they were nor live alone with it. Wisdom had given him the strength to do both. And wisdom, in its way, was leading him now to withdraw from the world in fact as well as in spirit. He no longer cared. He never really had.... When he returned to the Riviera in October, he seemed “as if he were someone impersonating Dean Martin.”

As Tosches puts it more succinctly early in the book, “Deep down, that, as much as anything, was what he was, a menefreghista – one who simply did not give a fuck.”

Some of his hits:

That’s Amore

Memories Are Made of This

Everybody Loves Somebody

His only music video, from 1983, “Since I Met You Baby”:

And this medley, from the great Rio Bravo ... with Dino, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan ... “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me” and “Cindy”:

kliph nesteroff, the comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of american comedy

Many of us have been looking forward to this book for a long time. Kliph Nesteroff has an encyclopedic knowledge of American comedy, which he has shared through numerous interviews posted to his Classic Television Showbiz website. Here is a partial list of the interviewees:

Buck Henry, Paul Krassner, Franklyn Ajaye, Dick Cavett, Peter Marshall, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Professor Irwin Corey, Norm Crosby, Bob Einstein, Rose Marie, Steve Martin, Paul Mazursky, Marilyn Michaels, Gary Owens, Betsy Palmer, Tom Smothers, Larry Storch, Rusty Warren, Mason Williams, Alan Young, Marty Allen, Shelley Berman, Pat Carroll, Jack Carter, Bill Dana, Shecky Greene, Marty Ingels, Will Jordan, Rich Little, Steve Rossi, Connie Sawyer.

You may not recognize all of those names, but Nesteroff is such a great interviewer that every segment is interesting. And virtually every interview has a moment when Nesteroff, who is decades younger than the people he is interviewing, asks about some obscure date at some obscure club fifty years ago, and the comedian says, “how the hell do you know this stuff?” Here’s a sample from his interview with Shecky Greene:

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched a segment from The Hollywood Palace in which he [pianist Herbie Dell] was onstage with you.

Shecky Greene: Yes, which one was that? The Perry Como thing?

Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't the Perry Como one. It was the one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Donald? No. I had one hosted by Groucho Marx.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, there is a Groucho Marx one, a Perry Como Christmas one, and one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Where the hell did you get all of those things?

Kliph Nesteroff: The internet.

The Comedians puts the stories in one place, and offers a narrative of American comedy, as suggested by the various chapter headings: from vaudeville to radio, to nightclubs and television, late-night TV, comedy clubs, and so on. In one sense, nothing changes ... the comics put themselves on the line night after night, failure is always a weak joke away, great success often goes to your head. But Nesteroff also shows how the Marx Brothers were different from Eddie Cantor, who was different from Milton Berle, who was different from Lenny Bruce, and on and on, with important segments on people like Richard Pryor. Along the way, you’ll read stories about people like Rodney Dangerfield that are quite illuminating, if, like me, you think he appeared full-grown in the persona we all know him as.

The interviews are what got me interested in reading this book, but it stands on its own. I’m not sure I can recommend it to everybody ... I know not everyone shares my interest in the subject at hand. And it seems almost complete ... it’s hard to think of who was left out, although I wish the Firesign Theatre got more than one page. But if you enjoy detailed stories of popular artists from the past, you will like this book. And, if you’ve never heard it, you’ll even learn one of my favorite stories, about a radio comedian who went by the name Parkyakarkas, the legendary Bob Einstein (known for everyone from Officer Judy to Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser), and the filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks. Nesteroff even added something new to the story, at least new to me, about the man who wrote a biography of Willie Mays.

And, just to indulge myself, here is one of my favorite Albert Brooks bits, from very early in his career:

what i watched last week

Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013). Brie Larson is a revelation. The cast is full of people you might remember from TV series: John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot), Kaitlyn Dever (Justified, among others), Melora Walters (Big Love). Everyone is fine, but Larson shines over them all. The treatment of troubled teenagers is mostly honest, and when it gets too melodramatic, there’s always Larson to fall back on. Do you get the feeling I liked Larson in this movie? (Oh yeah, she’s another ex-TV person: United States of Tara.) #579 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014). 7/10.