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where do we go from here

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

-- Martin Luther King


music friday: ramones

jagger destroy

Nicholas Rombes was my editor for the anthology New Punk Cinema, which came out in 2005. The book included one of my better essays ... I began by quoting the great song by The Adverts, “One Chord Wonders”, and somehow ended up talking about Run Lola Run. In the contributors bios, we find that Rombes had a forthcoming book on the Ramones’ first album, part of the 33 1/3 series. Well, I finally got around to reading the book, and it’s a good one.

I’ve only read a couple of the 33 1/3 books. There was Michaelangelo Matos on Sign ‘O’ the Times, and an ever better one by Douglas Wolk on James Brown Live at the Apollo. In Ramones, Rombes does a good job of showing how the band’s primitive art didn’t just fall from the sky, and they didn’t play seemingly simple songs because they couldn’t play their instruments (unlike, say, The Adverts at the time of their first single), but consciously chose to make the records they intended. It’s perhaps an obvious point, except my recollections of the mid-70s are that many people assumed the band members were dumb. He explains that one reason they were able to produce their debut album for the legendary $6,400 was that they were prepared ... these were songs they had played regularly in concert. It took only a week, but “the Ramones approached the recording process with a high degree of preparedness and professionalism and a fiercely self-contained, unified sound.” Again, perhaps in retrospect this is obvious, but I admit I hadn’t thought much about the making of the album outside of that $6,400.

(Earlier today, I was watching a film of a Rolling Stones concert from 1978. This was the Some Girls tour, and the band had clearly been affected by the music trends of the day ... disco and punk in particular. Near the end, Jagger takes off his jacket to reveal a punkish-looking t-shirt that says “DESTROY” on it. A few songs later, he removes even the t-shirt, running around bare-chested. This is a relief, because the t-shirt had a swastika underneath “DESTROY”, which the network on which I was watching covered up electronically.)

His breakdown of the individual tracks is also interesting ... the writing is strong here. Rombes’ book made me want to listen to the album, and thus, Music Friday: Ramones.

Here is the expanded version of the album, which includes several tracks not on the original:

And if you only want one song, here’s “Blitzkrieg Bop” from one of the great live rock albums, “It’s Alive”:


the 100

I’ve made a habit over the years of catching on to very good television shows after everyone else has already gotten there. I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so much I taught a course on it at Cal, but despite my wife and daughter watching faithfully and constantly telling me I would like it, I didn’t begin until Season 3. (Once I made the decision, I binge-watched the first two seasons as quickly as I could download them, not the legal way but this was pre-On Demand.) The Wire is my favorite show ever, and I jumped in at Season 2, although in that case, it was because we didn’t get HBO until then. And Battlestar Galactica, after which I named our three cats (Starbuck, Boomer, and Six), was not on my radar until critics started talking it up ... don’t remember when I began watching, maybe between the first two seasons.

The 100 has gotten through two seasons, and it’s hard to imagine a show that would appeal less to me on first glance. It’s on the CW, and while it’s true I watch Jane the Virgin, until now, that show was the only CW program I ever watched. When I thought of the CW, I fell on the stereotypes: shows meant for the 18-34 market, featuring boatloads of young, very attractive actors. The 100 certainly has this ... I hadn’t heard of a single one of the young actors on the show, but a lot of them were eye candy in the extreme. And the basic setup is tailor-made for the desired market ... the one hundred teenagers of the title are sent by grownups down to a post-apocalyptic Earth, where for all anyone knows they will die instantly of radiation, thus establishing a primary location for the action that is populated solely by those good-looking young actors. Among the grownups were a few actors I actually recognized ... Paige Turco, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick ... and, perhaps more telling, three Battlestar Galactica alumni, Alessandro Juliani, Kate Vernon, and Rekha Sharma (who joined in Season 2).

So, to summarize so far: show for young adults (based, in fact, on a trilogy of YA novels), with a bunch of young actors I never heard of, on a network I rarely watch, with a premise designed to grab that young adult audience from the get-go.

I didn’t watch it. For two seasons, I didn’t watch it. Even when it finally crossed my mind to give it a try, I was put off by the general opinion that it started slow, and didn’t really pick up steam until Episode 5 or so. Still, this helped when at last I decided to play catch-up ... I wasn’t grabbed at first, but I held on, hoping for what was coming. (The primary driver of my intentions was Maureen Ryan, who is probably the show’s top advocate amongst the major critics.)

Here comes spoilers ... I generally try to avoid them, but it’s impossible when trying to explain how The 100 snuck up on me. In Episode 3, one of the main teenage characters is killed. In Episode 4, a 13-year-old commits suicide.

And then came Episode 5, called “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (calling to mind the BSG episode “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”), in which, due to a lack of oxygen on the space station that has housed the humans for 97 years after the nuclear holocaust that started the events of the series, the powers that be decide that a “culling” is needed. They need to kill off 300 of their people in order to maximize what oxygen remains. Now, maybe if I was watching Game of Thrones on HBO, I’d be thinking “I wonder if they’ll really kill off all of those characters?” But this is a CW show for “kids”. The kids on Earth are trying to contact the adults in The Ark (as they call the space station), and it’s easy to see that they will make contact in the nick of time, the powers that be will see that the Earth is now habitable, they won’t have to kill the 300, and all will be well.

Except the contact isn’t made. And the culling takes place. And 300 people die on a show that doesn’t have a very large cast of characters to begin with. And their deaths were demanded by good leaders who see no other option.

On the CW.

OK, I was convinced. Over the course of the next season-and-a-half, we get scenes of torture, we get “reapers” who are savage cannibals, we get living humans being “harvested” for their blood (and later their bone marrow), we see signs of war (and eventually more than signs), we see large numbers of people left to die, we see political intrigue as the various factions get a series of new leaders.

All of this works to confound the viewer ... what will they do next? Thoughts of the CW are long gone ... the show has made the network irrelevant.

You may wonder why I’ve mentioned Battlestar Galactica more than once. Outside of a connection to sci-fi, the shows are not the same. But Battlestar Galactica was a great show because it used genre to investigate big questions. Politics, identity, religion, ethics and morals ... these were all part of BSG, and they made the show more than generic. The 100 has a sci-fi basis, and it gets your attention by confounding expectations. But where it really shines is by showing the ramifications for every action. No one is spared, particularly leaders who must constantly make decisions based on the conflict between the good of the many and the good of the individuals. Some of those decisions are horrific ... lots and lots of people die, usually people who don’t deserve it, always in the name of something “greater”. Everyone is touched. The 100 makes clichés into something real. “Maybe there are no good guys” is facile, except by the time that line is delivered (at the end of Season 2), we’ve seen evidence to suggest facile is not the best word to describe what we’ve seen. The person who says that is the same person who helped put her husband in an airlock ... the person she is talking to, her daughter, has saved her world but lost her soul.

Perhaps the most commonplace idea here that works better than you’d think is the good old generation gap. On The Ark, the teenagers are prisoners. On Earth, they are responsible for themselves and everything they confront. When the adults finally get to Earth, the interaction between the two groups is fascinating, because the adults want to reassert command, and we’ve seen the kids make plenty of mistakes and we might even side with the grownups, except the grownups have no idea what life on Earth has become, while the kids (they really aren’t kids any longer) have seen it for the dangerous place it really is. The show actually goes a bit too many times at this ... a grownup will give a command, a young adult will contest them, the grownup will note that they know best, the young person will do what they want anyway, because they actually do know best. It’s an interesting inversion that surely plays well with a CW audience. Gradually, you notice that leaders from other factions bypass the grownups on a regular basis ... for instance, when the “grounders” (people who survived the holocaust) want to communicate with the “Sky People”, they don’t go to Mom, they go to the daughter, because they know who is really in charge.

I don’t know if I can single out any particular actor ... the entire cast is very good. It is a female-centric show without preening ... a majority of the main characters are females, the most important leaders are women, and the matter-of-fact way this is addressed actually makes it more powerful. You just gradually realize that the women are more likely to know what’s what. Of course, this also puts them in positions where they can fuck up, and as I noted, everyone on The 100 fucks up, often with the most dire consequences. And no one gets away with anything. The people who fuck up are changed by their actions ... even if they did “what had to be done”, something inside them is destroyed. To the extent this is believable, I’d give great credit to that unknown-to-me cast of young actors. In some ways, Eliza Taylor, who plays Clarke, the leader of the teenagers, has the biggest challenge. A typically pretty blonde, she looks like someone who gets cast as the dumb friend. Taylor has spoken to the value in being able to play a complex character who exists as something beyond pretty and dumb. It’s a bit of a running joke, but Clarke, and many of the other characters, are generally completely covered in dust and dirt and mud, deflecting any desire to see them only as sex objects. This makes interviews with the cast rather fun, because we’re not used to seeing them after they’ve had a shower. (It’s even more fun that Taylor and Bob Morley, the male lead, are from Australia and don’t sound anything like their characters.)

I can’t tell if I’ve properly conveyed how good The 100 is. If nothing else, I hope I’ve disabused people of the notion, which I once shared, that it can’t be any good. The first several episodes are only OK, the rest of Season 1 is much better, and Season 2 moves it into the highest levels of current TV.

Season 3 begins on January 21. The first two seasons can be streamed on Netflix.

Here’s a sort of Mo Ryan manifesto:

 


bowie

Like many people, I was taken by surprise at the announcement that David Bowie had died. There was nothing special about my reaction, which was similar to how I feel about most celebrity deaths. The only two musicians’ deaths that blew me away were Elvis and John Lennon. But when death comes to an artist, we inevitably find ourselves re-evaluating the artist’s works and our relationship to them. So when Lou Reed died, I wrote a long post about his importance in my life.

The details in that post ... the number of times I saw him live, the solo albums I particularly liked, the individual songs that meant the most to me ... I don’t have those details for David Bowie. I’m trying to remember which of his albums I bought, back in those days when I bought albums. The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, and Station to Station ... I don’t think there were any others. Oh, and Changesonebowie, with “Changes” and “The Jean Genie” and “Rebel Rebel” and “Young Americans” and “Fame”. He was also hard to avoid ... he was my younger brother’s favorite, and Bowie always seemed to be doing something interesting in the media, like “The 1980 Floor Show” on The Midnight Special, with Marianne Faithfull in a nun’s habit singing “I Got You Babe” with Bowie. And, of course, there was The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by my then-favorite director, Nicolas Roeg. And I liked the hits from Let’s Dance.

Put that all together, and I guess Bowie was part of my musical life in those days. But I wouldn’t call myself a super fan ... that would belittle people who really loved his music. Maybe the best way to explain this is to note that my all-time favorite Bowie track is “Stay”. I don’t know the words, don’t care. I like it because of guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick. Bowie himself is almost irrelevant to my pleasure in the song.

All of which is a prelude to the realization that this death hit me a bit more than the average random celebrity death. I don’t know why that is. But when I saw the news, my first words were, “Oh no.” I thought instantly about my brother, and about my English friend who I knew had felt a closeness to Bowie throughout her life. I listened to his new album and watched the video for “Lazarus”, which is right up there with Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” video for stark realities.

There isn’t much here ... like I said, I had a lot more to say about Lou Reed. But something touched me enough that I wanted to add my small contribution to the many beautiful words that have been written over the last day.

In the comments section for that Reed post, one person wrote, “it says so much about the man's art that it meant so many different powerful and personal things to such a diverse many.” This is what has struck me about Bowie’s death. The responses have come from everyone from the British Prime Minister to Kanye West. Bowie was special.

Here is “Lazarus”:


what i watched last week

The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003). I have said many times that I don’t like cheap emotional appeals in movies. I don’t have a problem with crying at the movies ... hell, I cry every time I watch “Cheek to Cheek” by Fred and Ginger in Top Hat. But I want my emotions to be touched in, for lack of a better term, an honest way. There are many ways to make an audience cry, but most of them are cheap ... kill a dog, the crowd will sob. I resent being forced to cry. The Barbarian Invasions is far too subtle to fall victim to my complaints. While it deals with the last days of a man dying of cancer, it’s largely an uplifting movie. At the end, when he says his last goodbyes, our tears come honestly, after we have gotten to know the man and his companions. But there is something far too easy about this movie. It’s like a fantasy of how to die. Cancer’s an awful way to go, but the man’s son has money, so he arranges for his dad to get heroin (because it’s the best pain killer), and his dad in thus in less pain than he might have been. Despite the heroin, he is coherent enough for most of the movie, which allows for many lovely scenes of him with his ex-wife and his ex-mistresses. These scenes essentially forgive the man for his past, and why not? But instead of really reflecting on how he might have hurt the people in his life, he sees his former lovers all together, getting on just fine, with everyone telling him they learned from him how to love life. The acting is fine, everything is fine, but Arcand knows his audience quite well, and as we watch the man “get away” with his flaws, we can feel absolved, too. #489 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955). 8/10.

Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967). 9/10.


blu-ray series #28: weekend (jean-luc godard, 1967)

Jean-Luc Godard is one of my favorite directors. I listed Breathless as my 13th-favorite movie a few years ago, and Vivre sa vie isn’t far behind. Masculine-Feminine is another fave, with its children of Marx and Coca-Cola. Pierrot le fou, even Alphaville and Contempt ... I’m a fan. Close readers will notice, though, that my affection reaches only to 1967, even though Godard continues to make movies to this day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his post-Weekend films. This is something I should work on. I can’t say I’ve seen his best when I’m missing so much of the story. But it does seem like Godard has had the career of a rock star: a decade of brilliance, and then a long, show fade.

Weekend is the culmination of the part of Godard’s work with which I am familiar, and it’s no accident that the line is drawn ... Weekend famously ends with the title card “FIN DE CINÉMA”. There is a sense, upon coming to the end of the movie, that anything else would be superfluous. Godard brings a kitchen-sink approach to the film, not just in style but in ideas. It overflows with the latter, as is often the case in his movies. The cast listing on the IMDB includes Karl Marx (as “Himself”), and among the other characters are Saint-Just and Emily Bronte. While most of the movie is devoted to a representation of the inevitable corruption of capitalist consumerism, about an hour in, we get two long diatribes about colonialism while we watch men eating sandwiches. The film basically stops for these lessons.

Weekend is infuriating, and you might think it doesn’t matter that Godard intends to infuriate. His command of the medium is immense, yet he seems intent on using that mastery solely to break our concentration, to frustrate us, daring us to not like his film. The early traffic jam is justly famous. It’s also a very long tracking shot that seems to go nowhere. (One reviewer, who hated the film, called the traffic jam “one of the most obnoxious sequences that I’ve ever seen anywhere.”) The scene is the first level of the hell the film will present. Over the course of the film, we will see people resorting to gunplay whenever they are thwarted in their attempt to get more money, more stuff. Long past the time when the traffic jam has been left behind, the landscape is littered with broken, abandoned automobiles, the detritus of the old society of the consumer. The two primary characters lose their car in an accident ... they are lucky to be alive, but the woman can’t quit crying over her lost handbag. Eventually, one of them will be eaten by cannibalistic hippie revolutionaries.

The soundtrack is equally maddening. The volume level rises and falls seemingly at random, and while snippets of music are reminiscent of the movie music of our past, there is a disconnect between the memories the music recalls and what we see on the screen. Romantic music during a shootout, ominous music during a therapy session ... if cinema is ending, then so is our ability to connect life with the music of that cinema.

Weekend is brilliant and unlikable. There are worse things than “unlikable”, even if it means I rank Weekend a bit below Breathless and Vivre sa vie. The first time I saw Breathless, I immediately sat through it a second time. Weekend is so full of ideas, it, too, warrants multiple viewings. But I can’t imagine sitting through it twice in a row, or even twice in a year. #321 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.


music friday: tv

Black Flag, “TV Party.” We've got nothing better to do than watch T.V. and have a couple of brews.

Bruce Springsteen, “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On).” I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills.

Iris DeMent, “Let the Mystery Be.” Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:32.

Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love.” I watched it for a little while. I love to watch things on TV.

Regina Spektor, “You’ve Got Time.” Remember all their faces.

Dave Edmunds, “Television.” I'll sit and watch it 'till it drives me mad, just so long as it's on I'm glad.

Blondie, “Fade Away and Radiate.” I hear how you spend night-time: wrapped like candy in a pure blue neon glow.

Five Blind Boys from Alabama, “Way Down in the Hole.” You gotta keep the devil way down in the hole.

Hüsker Dü, “Turn on the News.” With all the ways of communicating, we can't get in touch with who we're hating.


by request: pather panchali (satyajit ray, 1955)

Phil Dellio had the Apu Trilogy at #15 when we did our top 50 fave movies a few years back, so I’m only fulfilling 1/3 of the request so far. I’m surprised I had never seen these movies before, but I am woefully behind on Ray, having only seen Charulata in the early 70s and The Music Room more recently. The Apu Trilogy has been restored, so I was able to record all three films, and the other two will follow eventually.

Ray was encouraged by Jean Renoir when the latter was in India making The River, and you can see some of Renoir’s feel for the basic humanity of his characters in Pather Panchali. There is so much to admire about this film, but the treatment of the characters might be the best part, for Ray doesn’t judge them for their poverty. He used a lot of non-professional actors ... hell, he was a non-professional, the first day he spent making a movie was the first day of this film. This was reportedly also true for Subrata Mitra, the photographer-turned-cinematographer. Honestly, there were so many road blocks to the making of Pather Panchali that it’s hard to believe all of them are true. Perhaps my favorite (this comes from the IMDB): it took some years to complete the film, which features a young boy (Apu), and young girl (his sister), and a very old woman (the village “Auntie”). Ray said all three were part of the miraculous completion of the film: the young boy’s voice did not break, the young girl didn’t grow up, and the old woman didn’t die.

About that old woman. She is the damnedest thing. She was played by Chunibala Devi, who was born in 1872 and had been in a few films in the 1930s. While she lived through the filming, she died before the movie’s release. She is so old, and it’s clearly not a trick of makeup ... Devi is stooped over into a hunchback, she is missing most of her teeth (and her hair), she can barely walk. But she’s a sharp cookie (not just the character, but Devi, who impressed Ray when they first met). As Phil wrote, “you will literally never encounter anyone else remotely like her in any other film.”

The film looks beautiful. I don’t think it romanticizes poverty, but we are aware of the pleasures of the land. Ray takes his time, both as a storyteller and in the film making as a whole ... there are long takes that he is content to let run. It is a peaceful film, except when the realities of the characters’ poverty hit home.

It is easy to see why Pather Panchali is so highly regarded, and I will watch the other two movies in the trilogy. But ultimately, for me, it falls into the category of “admired more than loved”. Maybe the languid pace gave me too much time to think, but I wasn’t as drawn in emotionally as I expected. It’s importance in Indian and World cinema is clear, and I have no problem recommending it. I just wish I had felt more sucked into its pleasures. #59 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


happy birthday, steven rubio's online life

This blog began 14 years ago today.

Who the hell does anything for fourteen years?

There is something old-fashioned about persisting in a format that has long been overtaken by other forms of online presentation.

And there is something odd about continuing to write for the smallest of audiences.

But think of this: my blog has never had advertising. I’ve never made any money from it, unless you count published writing that had its root here (i.e. I was “discovered” via my blog writing ... of course, much of my published writing has been unpaid/academic). This allows me to pretend my writing is “pure”.

Changes have occurred over time. I used to write about a broader area. I hesitate now to write about things where I know people who can do better jobs, so I rarely write about politics, and I write less about sports than I did in the past. The blog has become an arts site, where I write about TV, movies, and music ... and admittedly, when someone has asked me to write for publication, it’s those areas that come up.

I know there is some good writing buried in the past fourteen years, pieces where I happen to read them by accident and don’t always know they are mine until I’m finished, and I think, “I am good enough”. The published stuff, which doesn’t appear here, is of varying quality ... I think my piece on punk cinema for Nick Rombes was good, ditto for my Bugs Bunny Meets Picasso essay for Michael Berube. My Battlestar Galactica and King Kong essays might be the best of my Smart Pop work. Point is, the form is shorter, but I occasionally reach those heights on this blog. Maybe for 2016 I should find a way to foreground Past Classics.

What I hope to avoid as much as possible is the type of naked confessional I am far too capable of indulging in. It’s worth repeating every once in awhile the motto for this blog, Kael’s “I’m frequently asked why I don’t write my memoirs. I think I have.”

Right now, the thing that has me most excited is catching up with The 100 before Season Three begins. I might have a pretty good post about that surprisingly fine show, which made #9 on my Top Ten List even though I only started watching it a short time ago.

 


what i watched last week

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015). Straightforward story of child molestation in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect was that this is a newspaper picture in the vein of All the President’s Men. The plot is carried forward by the attempts of a special team of reporters at the Boston Globe to expose the Church’s cover-up. It’s an interesting story, well-told and acted. But despite the insistence of some characters that the story is bigger than one priest, that it’s institutional, the only result is that the team digs further to get the bigger story. In Spotlight, the team matters more than the church. It’s a solid movie, but it could have been more. 7/10. As a companion piece, I recommend Amy Berg’s excellent 2006 documentary, Deliver Us from Evil.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter R. Hunt, 1969). Really belongs in the Blu-ray series, since I gave this to my wife as part of her annual 007 Xmas present (she also got Diamonds Are Forever). But I’m doing all I can to just keep up with things right now, so I’m putting it here. The worst 007 (George Lazenby), combined with one of the handful of best Bond Girls (Diana Rigg), a Bond that is more human than usual, a love story that is touching without getting in the way, and some of the best actions scenes ever to appear in a Bond movie. If it wasn’t for Lazenby, this would be a contender for best James Bond movie of all time. Instead, 8/10.