Previous month:
June 2016
Next month:
August 2016

music friday: 1972

The conventions reminded me that I first voted for president in 1972, so here are ten tunes from that year.

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side

Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”

Curtis Mayfield, “Superfly

Steely Dan, “Reeling in the Years”

The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There”

The Rolling Stones, “Happy

Spinners, “I’ll Be Around”

Lyn Collins, “Think (About It)”

Edgar Winter Group, “Frankenstein

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

and so, hillary clinton

Back in early June, when Hillary Clinton garnered enough delegates in primaries to become the nominee for President of the Democratic Party, a friend (an African-American male, since identity politics is so much a part of all this) wrote on Facebook, “Hooray for the status quo!” A woman we both know responded, “I think I know what you mean, but nominating a white male is much more the status quo.”

This exchange summed up my own thoughts on the election, and I don’t know why it has taken me so long to add my two cents worth.

There are two things about Clinton that are indisputable: that she is a woman, and that she is not Donald Trump. For many voters, one or both of these facts are reason enough to cast a ballot for Clinton.

I think I understand the impulse behind a pro-Clinton reaction to both of those facts. The second point may only lead to an "anyone but Trump" vote, but the first item inspires many, including the woman who commented. More than anything else, what makes Hillary Clinton not just a candidate worth voting for but also an historic figure, is that she is a woman. Male political leaders are the de facto status quo; women leaders, by definition, are thus not the status quo.

This position relies entirely on identity politics. It does not matter what positions Hillary Clinton takes on the issues; if she becomes president, she will have broken a barrier that has lasted as long as the United States has been a country, and that is as far from the status quo as you can get.

We’ve been through this quite recently, of course. Barack Obama was equally a breaker of barriers, by virtue of his race. There is no denying the symbolic importance of the words “President Obama”, just as there will be no denying the symbolic importance if in November we end up with “President Hillary Clinton”.

So, to borrow a phrase, I think I know what the commenter meant regarding Clinton and the status quo.

But she suggests that she knows what the original comments meant, and I have no reason to doubt her on that. Which means the discussion comes down to a basic point: how do we define the “status quo”?

I would argue that in many/most areas, Hillary Clinton is fairly close to the policies of our current President. After all, she served him loyally as Secretary of State, and while I’m entering into the realm of gossip now, it would seem that Obama and Clinton forged an honest friendship in those years.

She is also fairly close to the policies of the last Democrat who was President before Obama, Bill Clinton. We are often told of how Hillary was more than just a First Lady, that she was an active participant in Bill’s government. Bill’s speech at the convention was designed, among other things, to remind us that he valued her contributions, and that her contributions were substantive.

I don’t think I’m too far out of line to claim that if Hillary Clinton wins in November, and later becomes a two-term president, we will have had, since 1993, 24 years with presidents in the White House who are mostly on the same page. We can point to that symbolic importance, we can be thankful that at last, 8 of those years will be under an African-American, and 8 will be under a woman. But the politics of Bill Clinton are not much different from the politics of Barack Obama which are not much different from the politics of Hillary Clinton.

That is the status quo.

I am not an expert on these things. I am sure we could make lists where the three Democrats differ on particular issues. But “New Democrats”, for all its haziness, is a reasonable label for all three.

You will not hear me say “Clinton is just a Republican”, or “there is no difference between the parties”. And you definitely won’t hear me say there is no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I have no idea how to rank Clinton, Obama, and Clinton as liberals. I do know that whoever you think is the least liberal of the three is still far to the left of Donald Trump, or George W. Bush. I don’t consider myself a liberal ... the “New Democrats” can’t count on me. But I don’t think supporters of Hillary Clinton are deluded right-wingers. Being to the right of me does not make you a Republican.

Yet I feel like all of this is irrelevant, and it goes back to that original Facebook exchange. For many people, the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman trumps all else. Her presence represents a toppling of the status quo. If that’s good enough for you, be true to that, and support and vote for Hillary Clinton. But please, don’t pretend that the specific importance of Hillary as potentially the first woman president overwhelms all the other ways in which she, like Obama before her, is very much part of the status quo.

Yes, I’ve sometimes voted for the lesser evil; I voted for Obama in 2008 too. And other times I haven’t; I’ve also voted Green and Socialist.... If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up, I’ll listen to them respectfully. If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.

-- Doug Henwood

[I feel like I need to add two things here. One, if I vote for Hillary Clinton, it will not be the first time I have voted for a woman for President. Two, none of the above should be taken as an endorsement of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. If I’m going to “waste my vote”, I’ll waste it elsewhere.]

what i watched last week

Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015). A low-fi movie (shot on iPhones) that makes the most of its budgetary limitations. The acting is strong, from the excellent leads Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, to cult actor James Ransone, to old-school Clu Gulager, in his 80s, who turns up in one scene. Baker is more interested in slice-of-life than telling a story ... there are a lot of shots of characters walking and walking and walking (interesting in itself since how often do we see people walking in L.A.?). There’s a new way to enjoy a carwash that I hadn’t seen before, which gets to the main selling point of Tangerine: we see a sub-culture that rarely turns up in movies, treated with open-ended honesty and no condescension. What makes it all work is Rodriguez and Taylor ... even when nothing is really happening (which is often), it’s a pleasure to listen to them jabber away. It’s reminiscent of New Wave Godard. #351 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014). Perhaps it says something that when I heard there was a character named “Gamora”, I convinced myself I’d misheard the name and a giant turtle was somehow going to be in the movie. And when I realized I was wrong, I was disappointed. James Gunn piles on the entertainment value ... for the first half of the movie, if not longer, the movie is a combination of non-stop action and clever dialogue. It’s exhausting. Gunn steadfastly refuses to pause for any kind of reflection, but the action scenes aren’t good enough to carry an entire film, and the dialogue isn’t exactly Whedon-esque. Most of the snarkiest lines are given to a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper that is only marginally less annoying than George Clooney in Fantastic Mr. Fox. When Gunn tries to elicit emotion from the audience at the last minute, it’s far too late, although Vin Diesel does what he can playing Hodor, er, Groot, a tree that says the same thing over and over (“I am Groot”, with which Diesel does some interesting things). I can think of so many things I liked better than Guardians of the Galaxy, including most of the other items in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I have seen (including the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Firefly/Serenity, which does a much better job of giving us entertaining characters with depth who toss around snappy dialogue. #955 on the 21st century list, which is just pathetic. 5/10.

music friday: thirteen

We recently began watching a series called Thirteen, which revolves around the re-appearance of a woman who had been kidnapped thirteen years before. At one point, an old friend gives her an iPod with a bunch of songs from the time she missed out on, which inspired this, one song from each of the 13 years the fictional character was captive.

2003: OutKast, “Hey Ya!

2004: Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out

2005: Kelly Clarkson, “Since U Been Gone

2006: Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy

2007: Amy Winehouse, “Rehab

2008: M.I.A., “Paper Planes

2009: Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind

2010: Cee Lo Green, “Fuck You

2011: Adele, “Rolling in the Deep

2012: Taylor Swift, "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together"

2013: Miley Cyrus, "We Can't Stop"

2014: Kendrick Lamar, “I

2015: Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

film fatales #16: citizenfour (laura poitras, 2014)

This Oscar-winning documentary is a confident piece of work. Not in its subject matter ... Laura Poitras is necessarily paranoid, as is her featured “character”, Ed Snowden. But Poitras assumes she has right on her side. She doesn’t hide her point of view. This is just as well ... the bias is built in.

This is especially important because Poitras is essentially working with Snowden, helping him make his information public. I’m reminded of Under Fire, where a news photographer played by Nick Nolte agrees to falsify a photo to help a revolution in Nicaragua. He knows he has crossed a journalistic line; he does it anyway, although not without some soul searching.

Poitras is inclined to be on Snowden’s “side”. For that matter, so am I. While she is always present, she is never on camera, so it’s possible to forget her role in Snowden’s “crime”. But even if you think Snowden is a hero, and Poitras a champion of the public’s right to know, you have to wonder what parts of the story Poitras is leaving out.

Again, I am one who thinks Snowden’s actions were good. I just wish I trusted Citizenfour more.

On the other hand, just before writing this, I saw a preview for an upcoming film, Snowden, written and directed by Oliver Stone. It is safe to say I am not a fan of Stone’s work. I expect he, like Poitras, will wear his biases on his sleeve. I don’t expect he’ll recognize them as biases, though, and I bet he uses “based on a true story” as an easy way to make that story fit what he wants to say. Which I suppose isn’t that far from Poitras, but if I am a bit mistrustful of Citizenfour, I am over-the-top suspicious of anything with Oliver Stone attached to it. #427 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

by request: the last five years (richard lagravenese, 2014)

My friend Diana made three requests for musicals. If memory serves, the impetus was a discussion of non-singing actors taking on roles that required singing. I fear I’ve failed this assignment, probably due more to taste preferences than anything else. It took me three tries to get through Guys and Dolls (Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons), and I couldn’t finish Into the Woods (Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and a bunch of others). The latter had actors who could sing, that is, it’s a bit inaccurate to call them non-singers (like, say, Marlon Brando was). When writing about Guys and Dolls, I tried to figure out just how far out of my preference zone such movies were. “It’s not that I don’t like musicals ... It’s not that I don’t like 50s musicals, although we’re getting closer ... But I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals from the 50s that made it to the big screen.”

Like Into the Woods, The Last Five Years is not a 50s musical. But, also like Into the Woods, it’s a stage musical that was made into a movie. And stage musicals just don’t interest me. I’ve been to one, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and that was in the early-80s. The music is not my cup of tea. I know I often stress how much our taste preferences guide our opinions, but it’s especially true here, because I’m not sure I would recognize a good stage musical if I saw it. Let’s put it this way: I can’t imagine listening to the soundtrack to any of them.

So I don’t know what to make of The Last Five Years, at least in any kind of evaluation that is fair. The gimmick, whereby the two people in a relationship take turns singing songs, with one (Anna Kendrick again, as Cathy) working chronologically backwards from the final breakup, and the other (Supergirl’s Jeremy Jordan as Jamie) working chronologically in a “normal” fashion, is interesting, although it barely makes sense if you don’t already know that’s what is happening. Kendrick is a fine singer, and I suppose Jordan is good, too. And that’s the extent of what I liked.

I knew I was in for trouble when it became apparent early on that almost the entire movie is sung, rather than spoken. That’s not a killer on its own ... I liked The Umbrellas of Cherbourg quite a lot. But ... and again, I can’t say the songs were bad ... but they were not anything I would choose to listen to. A day after watching the movie, I can’t recall a single one of the songs.

So I’m put off by the decision to sing songs I don’t care for, and while I liked Kendrick, I found Jordan about as bland as Richard Beymer in West Side Story. I had a hard time paying attention to Kendrick’s songs, but Jordan’s just about put me to sleep.

By the time we got to the end of the movie, which showed the power of the chronological gimmick, I was too worn out to appreciate it. Jamie, who has come to the end of the relationship, sings about that end, while Cathy, who is now beginning the relationship, sings about possibilities. I could tell it was touching, deservedly so, but I was long past being touched, myself.

On the other hand, it only ran for 94 minutes.

I’m looking forward to Diana’s non-musical request, Fiorile, a Taviani Brothers film that has no singing, as far as I know. She has steered me in the right direction more than once on television series, and I liked the one Taviani film I’ve seen, so the future looks bright. 5/10.

music friday: "post"-punk

Elisa Salasin drew my attention to a list on Paste Magazine, “The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums”. In the accompanying article, they note that they are picking from the period 1977-1987. I have always been far more a fan of punk music than of “post”-punk music, although such labels are always problematic, and I like plenty of post-punk artists. So, working backwards, #46 on the list, Germfree Adolescents by X-Ray Spex, is a great favorite of mine, but 1) it came out at the beginning of their self-imposed time frame (1978) and 2) I never thought of X-Ray Spex as “post” anything. They are one of my favorite punk bands, and I have no idea what they are doing on this list. Again, I should just get over being picky about labels.

At #31 is Crazy Rhythms (1980) by The Feelies. In my mind, The Feelies aren’t punk, or post-punk. Perhaps this is because I loved them most later in their career ... my fave album of theirs is Only Life from 1988 ... maybe they were less punkish by then?

And so it goes. The B-52’s debut album at #26? Another band where I never thought of them as punk or post-punk. Hüsker Dü, perhaps my favorite band on the list, at #18 with New Day Rising? That is my favorite of their albums, too, but if Hüsker Dü isn’t just plain punk, who is?

My dissociation from the list is exemplified by the top two. #2 is a Smiths album, and while I have no idea if they are post-punk, I know I never connected with them or Morrissey. Meanwhile, #1 is Television’s first album, which I love, and once again, I have no idea where the “post” in this punk album is.

The truth, which I don’t want to admit to myself, is that post-punk is when I started missing out because I was “too old”. In many ways, that’s nonsense ... I was only 34 in 1987. But I have created a large, even excessive, number of Spotify playlists, and one of my favorites is “Punk 1975-1980”. After punk, I loved many new artists, but I was no longer part of what could conceivably thought of as a community of genre fans. So I don’t make much of a connection to a post-punk list. (I should be honest ... in the 80s, my favorites, besides Hüsker Dü, were Bruce Springsteen and Prince, neither of whom come close to punk, post or otherwise. Also, my favorite music has always been from the 60s or 60s-based, no matter how modern I pretend to be.)

Here are some songs I love from the albums on that Paste list.

X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours! (I’m cheating, this was originally a single that got added to CD editions of the album Germfree Adolescents.)

The B-52’s, “52 Girls”.

Magazine, “Shot from Both Sides”.

Hüsker Dü, “I Apologize”. (I am required, whenever I mention this song, to quote my favorite lyric: “Take out the garbage, maybe, BUT THE DISHES DON’T GET DONE!”)

New Order, “Blue Monday”. (Another cheat, this single was added to U.S. CD releases. It is, in fact, the biggest-selling 12” single of all time.)

Violent Femmes, “Add It Up”.

Gang of Four, “Anthrax”.

Television, “Marquee Moon”.

what i watched last week

The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950). This the movie where Gregory Peck plays a “bad guy”. Except, of course, he’s Gregory Peck, so he can’t help but let some decency slip in. Plus, he’s a gunslinger at the end of his career, wanting to be left alone, so he has turned his back on what made him “bad” in the first place. This plot has been done so many times ... I don’t know when the first example occurred, for all I know it’s The Gunfighter, but watching it in 2016, you need something more to go on than that same old plot. There’s nothing particularly wrong here, and it falls into that category of Movies That Are Praised for What They Don’t Do. In this case, there isn’t much action, it’s more a character study than anything else, the gunplay is minimal, so it feels “adult” compared to, say, Hopalong Cassidy. But if you’re looking for better Gregory Peck, try Roman Holiday or the ultimate Peck role in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you just want a decent Western with a hint of noir, though, The Gunfighter will do. 7/10.

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921). Avoids most of what I find annoying about Chaplin ... the sentiment is hard-edged. It belongs with his classic films. More than any other Chaplin film I can think of, The Kid relies not just on Chaplin but on his co-star, Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid. He is both feisty and adorable, never cloying. The affection between the two stars is evident. It’s hard to realize that The Kid eventually became Uncle Fester. Chaplin reworked the film in 1971, adding a new musical score and deleting a few scenes. That’s the version I saw. The picture ends with a short dream sequence which feels unnecessary. Without it, I’d give this my highest rating. #342 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. My own favorite Chaplins, in no particular order, are Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush.

favorites expanded

A little more than five years ago, I participated in a Facebook group devoted to our 50 favorite movies. I figure by now, I’d have a different idea of what my 50 favorites were, but I’m not going that far today. I did exercise my obsessive-compulsive behavior a bit, though, and looked back at the movies I’ve seen over the past five years, since we did that group. The following list contains the seven movies I saw for the first time, since the original project, that I gave my top 10/10 rating to. I’m not including films I revisited ... these are the ones I hadn’t seen back in early 2011. (In four cases, the movies hadn't been released yet.) Think of them as candidates for any future Fave 50 I might do. (I’ve added links to my posts on the movies, which I’ve listed in chronological order by release year.)

  • The Navigator (1924). “The most important thing that separates The Navigator from the pack is Kathryn McGuire.... Her physicality and willingness to participate in Keaton’s intricate slapstick make her more of an equal than is usual in Keaton’s films, and this also adds a bit of a sexual charge to their relationship, again not usual for Keaton.”
  • Children of Paradise (1945). “When it’s over, you already want to watch a sequel, or a prequel, or just watch the same movie once again.”
  • A Man Escaped (1956).A Man Escaped doesn’t need flamboyant action scenes. The tension the movie creates is entirely down to the nuts and bolts of the escape attempt.”
  • A Separation (2011). “There are no bad characters in the movie, and everyone seems to be trying to live a good and moral life. But they don’t all agree on what is good and moral, and the realities of their lives make compromise almost inevitable.”
  • Before Midnight (2013). “I’ve never rooted so hard for a couple to get back together, and I’ve never felt so unsure about what might happen.”
  • The Square (2013). “A documentary about recent events in Egypt, shot and edited with such immediacy that it forces us right into the battles.”
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). “Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is like checking out an old silent Buster Keaton feature or a Jackie Chan HK film. Real people are actually doing these things.”