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music friday: more daily mix

Returning to last week’s theme, here is “Daily Mix 3” from Spotify:

Professor Longhair, “Cry to Me”. Solomon Burke had the first hit version, in 1962. From Crawfish Fiesta, the last album the Professor recorded before his death. That’s Dr. John on guitar.

The Temptations, “A Song for You”. Title song from a 1975 album. This is the Leon Russell song.

Brook Benton, “Kiddio”. One of a series of hits for Benton around 1960, which is when this was released.

Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. The original version, from 1975, that became a monster, iconic hit two years later for Thelma Houston.

The Manhattans, “Kiss and Say Goodbye”. Giant 1976 hit by a group that first hit the charts in 1965 and had a platinum single in 1980.

Martha & The Vandellas, “Heat Wave”. Early Motown hit topped the charts in 1963. Linda Ronstadt did a popular cover in the mid-70s. The Who also covered it, in the mid-60s.

Junior Wells, “Come on in This House”. It’s on an album called The Roots of Led Zeppelin, but I can’t figure out where they stole this one.

The Supremes, “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking”. The last hit for the post-Diana version of the group, in 1976.

Stevie Wonder, “Fingertips, Pt. 2”. What key, what key? Marvin Gaye on drums.

The Drifters, “There Goes My Baby”. One of the earliest uses of strings on an R&B song (some say THE first).

And because she needs to be here, Thelma Houston taking over from The Blue Notes, in the process cutting the greatest disco record of them all:

the decade's best movies 2010-2016

Alfred Soto updated a list on his blog of the decade’s best movies so far, which prompted me to make my own list.

Top four:

  1. A Separation
  2. Before Midnight
  3. The Square
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Honorable mention in alphabetical order:

12 Years a Slave

13 Assassins

The Act of Killing




If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise

Inside Job

The Interrupters

Mysteries of Lisbon

Nostalgia for the Light

O.J.: Made in America

Olive Kitteridge

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The Past

Stories We Tell

Winter’s Bone

the set-up (robert wise, 1949)

One of those movies that are as well known for the background trivia as for what’s actually on the screen. It’s based on a poem, which you don’t see every day. The leading role, a never-has-been boxer named Stoker, was black in the poem, but white in the movie (played by Robert Ryan). It took less than three weeks to shoot the movie, which eventually came out at 73 minutes. It runs in real time, from 9:05 at night to 10:16 ... I guess there was a couple of minutes of credits.

Director Robert Wise got his first Oscar nomination for his work as editor on Citizen Kane when he was still in his mid-20s. He later won two Best Director Oscars, for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, which speaks for itself. This little boxing drama didn’t get any Oscar noms, although it won a couple of awards at Cannes. It seems The Set-Up was underrated for a long time, as it had the misfortune of coming out the same year as another boxing film, Champion, which got six Oscar nominations. I think some people have over-compensated now, thinking of The Set-Up as a classic, which it is not. It’s a decent movie with noir elements and a fine performance from Ryan. The real-time angle is unobtrusive, and the setting (“Paradise City”) effectively reflects the life of a small town on the outskirts of where famous things happen.

And supposedly, Martin Scorsese loves the movie, and thought about it a lot when making Raging Bull.

I don’t doubt that, frame by frame, the boxing scenes are realistic. But The Set-Up features a common mistake of boxing movies: in order to jazz up the picture, the fights as shown are all-action affairs, as if Hagler-Hearns could be maintained for more than 3 minutes. it works in a dramatic sense, but given the attempts at realism in the film, the in-ring action is excessive.

I watched this on TCM, and that affected my viewing. First, the film was hosted by Michael Feinstein, one of the great singers of the “American Songbook”. Feinstein was stiff, almost unbearably so. He also claims that what we are about to see is a boxing film with only a short bit of boxing near the beginning, with the meat of the movie being Stoker trying to escape from pissed-off mobsters. But the big fight actually comes about halfway through, and the post-fight stuff with the mobsters takes barely ten minutes.

None of this is the fault of the movie, but it stuck with me nonetheless.

In the middle of all of this, there are some good dressing room scenes at the boxing arena that offer the kind of realism the rest of the film misses.

The Set-Up is a good movie. Just avoid the idea that it’s an underrated masterpiece. 7/10.

happy 50th birthday to the velvet underground and nico

I recently called this the greatest debut album in the history of rock and roll.

“No one ever even notices this, but right in the middle the drums stop ... No one ever thinks about the drummer, they're all worried about the guitar sound and stuff, and nobody's thinking about the drummer. Well, as soon as it got loud and fast I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't hear anybody. So I stopped, assuming, 'Oh, they'll stop too and say, 'What's the matter, Moe?' And nobody stopped! So I came back in.”

-- Moe Tucker, on “Heroin”

my night at maud’s (éric rohmer, 1969)

I once wrote of Éric Rohmer’s film Claire’s Knee, “A bunch of articulate people talk a lot ... like a more mature version of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless, without the pop energy. They talk and talk, and as we listen we get a feel for what each person thinks of themselves.” This is a good description of My Night at Maud’s, although there are fewer articulate people in this one, which I suppose brings it even closer to Breathless. This was another in Rohmer’s series, Six Moral Tales, released a year before #5, Claire’s Knee.

All of these films feature intelligent people involved in long conversations that reveal the character of the people doing the talking, no matter the topic of conversation. In the case of My Night at Maud’s, Pascal’s Wager is repeatedly discussed, but the central scene involves a man and a woman dancing around the possibility of a sexual relationship. The man, Jean-Louis, is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is still making his presence known as he approaches 90. (Among his films are Z, The Conformist, Under Fire, and Amour.) The woman is Françoise Fabian, who seems to know the man better than he knows himself. The characters are just interesting enough, and the acting is just good enough, to keep our attention, but Rohmer doesn’t seem particularly interested in advancing the narrative, and I’m not convinced the characters change much, either, although Jean-Louis eventually marries the woman of his dreams, who is not Maud.

When I wrote about Claire’s Knee, I compared it to Breathless, but now, I think both movies can be compared to Linklater’s Before series. But I care less about Rohmer’s characters than I do about the couple in Linklater’s films, and find My Night at Maud’s easier to respect than to like. #246 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

music friday: my daily mix

Awhile back, Spotify started creating “Your Daily Mix”. “Play the music you love, without the effort. Packed with your favorites and new discoveries.” Depending on how often you listen to Spotify, you’ll get one or more mixes ... the most I’ve gotten is six. As I type this, I have five mixes, and while the mix titles are mundane (Daily Mix 1, Daily Mix 2, etc.), they are clearly selected to make for reasonably smooth segues. So right now, “Daily Mix 1” includes Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, Quicksilver Messenger Service and more, while Daily Mix 2 has Jimmy Reed, Professor Longhair, Junior Wells and more. Down at Daily Mix 5, there’s Sleater-Kinney, DEVO, Patti Smith and more. You get the idea.

Here are two songs from each of the current daily mixes:

The Rolling Stones, “Torn and Frayed

Fleetwood Mac, “I Don’t Want to Know

John Mayall, “Don’t Waste My Time

Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain

Joan Baez, “I Still Miss Someone

Linda Ronstadt, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

Bobby “Blue” Bland, “36-22-36

The Everly Brothers, “Up in Mabel’s Room

Mekons, “1848 Now!

The Fall, “Flat of Angles

melancholia (lars von trier, 2011)

I have a problem with Lars von Trier’s movies that is probably overdone. I found the two of his films that I had seen (Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) to be interesting art films that were completely offset by the ways the female leads were treated like Job, with misery after misery piled upon them. It bothered me enough that I never saw another after Dancer in the Dark from 2000. The last time I discussed von Trier at length on this blog was back in 2004, upon the release of Dogville, which I had no desire to see. So I am as surprised as anyone that I finally got around to watching my third von Trier movie.

The reason was typical of my attempts to constantly challenge my fossilized notions about what movies to watch. In this case, it was the website Criticker, which was featuring the late John Hurt. I went down the list of his films (sorted by Criticker’s AI opinion as to how much I would like them) and quickly came to Melancholia. I decided it had been long enough ... time to take on Lars von Trier once again.

And amazingly, I liked Melancholia. A lot.

My friend Kim Nicolini, a long-time fan of von Trier, wrote an excellent essay, “Freedom in Oblivion: Post-Feminist Possibilities in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia”. She writes:

To be sure, there are those who find the film profoundly depressing and see it as yet another exercise in Lars von Trier’s distinctive brand of sadistic cinematic provocation, but in this case those people are a distinct minority. Many people who have seen the film feel just the opposite and have described feeling a kind of exaltation and release from this apocalyptic piece of cinema. Even some critics who have a reputation for disliking the films of Lars von Trier have found Melancholia to provide a nearly transcendental experience. They respond to this film about the claustrophobic prison of depression and the ultimate end of the world by feeling a tremendous sense of relief and even renewal at the end of things.

What I like about Kim’s piece is that she details the things going on just beneath the surface. This is useful, at least for me, because my enjoyment of the film exists mostly on that surface. While I don’t agree with all of her interpretations, her various takes are always illuminating.

Although Kirsten Dunst is gradually putting together an impressive resume, my sense is that, other than her pre-teen performance in Interview with the Vampire, she was primarily known more for her appearances in Spider-Man movies than for her acting. (Of course, she had many strong performances in those years.) Melancholia changed this ... as Justine, she won the Best Actress award at Cannes. I came to this in a backwards way ... I thought she was great in Season Two of Fargo, which I saw first, so her work here didn’t surprise me. She dominates the first half of the film, as she climbs inside the part of a woman with depression. (She is quoted as saying, “I definitely destroyed everyone else's lives for the first half of the movie.”) There is a lot going on in that first half, but I was mostly overwhelmed by Dunst, enough so that I wasn’t always paying attention to anything else. Von Trier suffers from depression himself, and Dunst is said to have also had her battles. Whatever inspires it, I have seen very few performances that so accurately define the emotionally wrenching experience of depression as Dunst does in Melancholia.

And I don’t think von Trier is able to treat Justine as another of his "Job" Women. No matter how many perils he tries to stick to Justine, her torments are her own. You get the feeling she was depressed long before the movie begins, long before von Trier got ahold of her. Others fear the end of the world, but she already fears. Von Trier can’t work his shtick on her. Of course, this grows out of von Trier’s writing and directing ... when a film features as many strong performances as does Melancholia, the director must get some of the credit. I never felt like Dunst was abused by the process of making the film. In some odd way, Justine’s depression gave her strength, even as it worked its debilitating worst on her.

Which is why the second part of the film, which focuses on Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is especially interesting. Claire has it together for the first half of the film, but as the world’s end comes closer, she falls apart. But Justine seems to thrive in the apocalyptic moment. It’s not that she loses her depression, exactly. It’s that the impending end of the world shows that her depression was “correct”. Thus, she has little fear at the end.

Ironically, the most beautiful thing in the movie is the mystery planet that is bringing on the end. (It, too, is called “Melancholia”.) And the most beautiful moment for that planet is the literal end, when it crashes into Earth. It’s stunning, and, as Nicolini says, “It is about the end of the world, yet people leave the film feeling as if their world has opened up. Perhaps they are liberated from the prospect of hope itself.”

Melancholia seems ripe for multiple viewings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I visited it down the road and liked it even more than I do now. Until then, 8/10. #486 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #30 on the Top Films of the 21st century list.

the vampire lovers (roy ward baker, 1970)

Yet another adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s book Carmilla (there have been maybe a dozen movies based at least a bit on the novella). In this case, Hammer Films took advantage of the loosening of censorship standards, replacing the ever-present cleavage of their previous films with actual naked bosoms. The casting of Ingrid Pitt as “Carmilla” was perfect, and helped make her a cult figure for the rest of her life.

Pitt had a fascinating life. Her New York Times obituary began:

Lovely and voluptuous, the actress Ingrid Pitt was given a choice early in her film career: pornography or horror. Ms. Pitt, who had spent her childhood in a Nazi concentration camp, later scoured Europe in search of her vanished father and still later was forced to flee East Germany a step ahead of the police, chose horror. It was a genre she knew first hand.

Later in the same obit, she was described as being “known for her tousled hair, pneumatic figure and sporadically sharp incisors”.

Despite the lure of nudity, The Vampire Lovers isn’t a particularly good Hammer film. It’s sluggish, the vampire material is underplayed, and the sex is, well, sporadically sharp. There is nothing new here, other than the almost-explicit lesbian references. Pitt is excellent at luring women to her, but overall, she lacks the flamboyance of Christopher Lee’s many portrayals of Dracula for Hammer. And the atmosphere, which can save even the lesser vampire movies, is nothing to write home about, either. Of note: this is Jon Finch’s first movie. The next year, he was Polanski’s Macbeth, the year after that he was the lead in Hitchcock’s Frenzy.

I saw this at a drive-in back in the early-1970s, when I was still a teenager, and I remember Pitt’s escapades quite well. But now, I realize the film doesn’t live up to those escapades. Still, this time I saw what is as close to the original as possible ... that early release in the States was apparently censored.

The Vampire Lovers isn’t the worst vampire movie, but it is far from the best. 6/10.

sunset blvd. (billy wilder, 1950)

Sunset Blvd. is remembered, among other things, for Gloria Swanson’s performance as an almost ghoulish washed-up silent movie star. I know when I thought of the movie, Norma Desmond was always the first thing to cross my mind. I remembered Norma as ancient and creepy, and Swanson’s acting as over the top. It was fascinating to watch the film again, because most of my memories were contradicted by what I saw on the screen.

There is a tension between the way the film’s narrator, Joe Gillis (William Holden), sees Norma and the way Norma sees herself. When I was younger, I imagine I identified more with the young screenwriter. Now that I’m older than all of these characters, I’m not as frightened by Swanson’s portrayal of old age. Of course, one of the primary reasons for this is that Norma is only around 50 years old (about the same age as Swanson). My fears of getting old got in the way of my seeing what was actually in front of me. In real life, Swanson was dedicated to good health, and she barely looked older than Holden, who was just past 30. Wilder wanted to use makeup to age Swanson, but she convinced him that Norma would have kept good care of herself, so, in order to emphasize the age difference, Holden was made to look younger.

So some of the scariness I perceived in Norma was due to the ageist bias of my youth. Which is not to say that Norma is no longer scary. The movie is called a film noir, but her mansion is straight out of horror movies, and she is the monster of the house.

Whatever sympathy we feel for Norma comes from Swanson’s performance, which rarely relies on self-pity. When she rants about modern movies, she blames the movies, not herself ... it’s the pictures that got small, not her. But she is too secluded, living with her ex-husband/ex-director, watching her old movies ... when she goes out to the studio, she’s fine as long as she sees faces from the olden days, but otherwise a bit lost. In those times, she reverts to her fantasy life.

A comparison can be made to Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in All About Eve, which came out the same year (Davis and Swanson were both up for a Best Actress Oscar ... they lost to Judy Holliday). Margo, a stage actress, is being passed over in favor of the younger Eve. Davis was a decade younger at the time than Swanson, and Margo isn’t played as an old woman. In fact, Margo is still a vital member of the theatre world. Norma Desmond, on the other hand, dropped out of pictures when sound came in, so she is no longer fighting against younger actresses, she is fighting against advances in her art form, a fight she lost long ago. She may not have self-pity, but we in the audience pity her, when we’re not hating her.

William Holden is fine among all of this. He is required to play the more stereotypical role of the noir patsy, but he manages to suggest his own form of self-pity ... Norma may be bringing him down by treating him like a gigolo, but at least he knows it’s happening, which adds a touch of tragedy to his character.

Meanwhile, Sunset Blvd. features lots of off-the-wall scenes, like a chimpanzee funeral, and a bridge game played by other silent film stars (as themselves? hard to say). The subplot with the nice girl next door isn’t as good as the rest of the movie, not through any fault of Nancy Olson, but her part seems to exist solely to piss off Norma. And something must be made of the way Cecil B. DeMille, playing himself, is offered to us as the greatest of directors, while Erich von Stroheim, who actually was one of the greatest, plays Norma’s butler. Granted, it’s a much meatier role than DeMille’s, but it adds to the way the New Hollywood forgets its past, not just Norma Desmond’s, but the great Stroheim as well. (Apparently, Stroheim didn’t think much of his part ... just another butler.)

I think All About Eve is a better movie ... the good dialogue is spread around a lot more actors than in Sunset Blvd., and Margo isn’t insane. But these things are relative. #39 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

music friday: #1

Number 1 songs off the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

March 3, 1967: The Buckinghams, “Kind of a Drag

March 3, 1977: The Eagles, “New Kid in Town

March 3, 1987: Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer

March 3, 1997: The Spice Girls, “Wannabe

March 3, 2007: Justin Timberlake, “What Goes Around ... Comes Around

March 3, 2017: Ed Sheeran, “Shape of You

And the winner of the Best #1 song on March 3 over the fifty years is ...