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pat garrett & billy the kid (sam peckinpah, 1973)

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of those movies where you need to begin by saying which version you have seen. Briefly, the original (which I saw in a theater in 1973) was butchered by MGM (Peckinpah's movies were often cut by the studios, of course). Peckinpah had put together a preview version, which he showed at least once (Scorsese claims to have seen it). The studio cut it from 124 to 106 minutes. There is a story that at the preview showing, friends of Peckinpah stole the reels and gave them to Sam. In 1988, Ted Turner took over the MGM library and had the film done to match the preview version. This wasn't a perfect product ... the preview version had some technical problems that needed fixing, if nothing else. That version, called the "Turner Preview Version", ran 122 minutes. Peckinpah had died by 1984, so he had nothing to do with this or other versions, although everyone who worked on those versions claimed to be restoring Sam's vision. (It can be argued that there is no complete "Sam's Version", since the last time he worked on it, he only produced the first cut he showed at the preview.) Finally, in 2005, a "Special Edition" was released on DVD that used the Preview Version as a starting point, improved the technical problems, added a long-lost scene and cut or changed a few others. This version runs 115 minutes, and it's the one I watched yesterday.

So, I saw the original butcher job once, 44 years ago, never saw the Preview Version, and now I've seen the Special Edition but for the most part, my memories aren't going to let me truly compare the two versions I've seen.

Blah blah blah ... is the movie any good? I'd say it's a must for Peckinpah fans. Am I one of those people? Hard to say. I hated Straw Dogs, thought most of the other Peckinpah movies I've seen were worth watching, and named The Wild Bunch my 8th favorite movie of all time a few years ago. Given that, I can't help but see Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in the context of The Wild Bunch, partly because I can't see any Western since 1969 without thinking of The Wild Bunch. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid deserves to be considered on its own merits (or lack of same), but for me, it is as much a commentary on The Wild Bunch as that earlier film was a commentary on the Western genre.

The Wild Bunch was a nostalgic look at a time that was passing rapidly into the past. The Bunch were romanticized as the last of their kind, and the infamous violence, culminating in that amazing ending, was orgasmic in how it said goodbye to Westerns. But there is precious little romanticizing going on in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and pretty much nothing I'd call orgasmic.

Pat Garrett (James Coburn) is tired, but he doesn't even get the camaraderie The Bunch share. He's all alone ... Billy was his friend but now he's a target, and one scene (left out of the original) where Pat stops by his house and gets told off by his wife shows that Garrett's life has alienated even the woman who loves him. Essentially, he has no home to return to, and no purpose other than to capture Billy the Kid for the landowning bigshots who hire him.

Billy has a lot of charisma, at least as Kris Kristofferson plays him (and this is one of his better performances), but an early scene shows how much that charisma actually means. He pulls a gun on an old friend who is trying to keep The Kid in jail, saying he doesn't want to kill the guy. The guy says Billy wouldn't shoot a man in the back and turns to walk away. Billy shoots him dead. (There's a "funny" scene where The Kid and Jack Elam walk ten paces and then try to kill each other. But once Elam starts walking, Billy turns around so he can see, and when Elam gets to "8" and turns around to get the jump on The Kid, Billy shoots him dead. "I never could count" says Elam.) There is no attempt to make Billy the Kid out to be better than he is ... he's not a good-bad guy like The Wild Bunch, he's just a killer.

But Pat Garrett isn't any better, he's just older and more tired. And so, for two hours, Pat Garrett searches for Billy the Kid, with Billy not seeming all that interested in escaping, and Garrett not seeming all that interested in capturing his former friend. It's a languid film, without even dazzling shootouts to break the calm. (There are shootouts, but there's not much to them, as if Peckinpah got it out of his system in his earlier Western.)

Peckinpah pays homage to the Western by hiring a tremendous supporting cast, some of whom only have one scene. (A couple of them have no scenes, apparently ending up on the cutting room floor through three separate versions ... it would have been fun to see Elisha Cook Jr. and Dub Taylor.) So there's Chill Wills, and Jason Robards as the guy who wrote Ben-Hur, and Jack Elam and Emilio "Mapache" Fernandez and Harry Dean Stanton, even Peckinpah himself as a guy who makes coffins. And lots of people less tied to the Western: Richard Jaeckel, Richard "Al Neri" Bright, Charles Martin Smith. And, to keep Kristofferson company, Rita Coolidge and Bob Dylan as "Alias" (Dylan, of course, also did the soundtrack). Best of all are Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado as old friends of Garrett's who have only one scene but make the most of it ... it's the best scene in the movie:

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is long and slow and erratic, and who knows at this point what Sam intended. But it works as an elegy. #537 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

filthy friends

Filthy Friends have been regularly tagged with the "supergroup" label. Certainly on the indie front, their heritage is impressive. Kurt Bloch (Fastbacks, Minus 5) and Scott McCaughey (Minus 5, Baseball Project, R.E.M.) are frequent contributors to a variety of indie albums. Drummer Bill Rieflin worked with R.E.M. and King Crimson, along with a billion indie bands (Revolting Cocks, Pigface). Rieflin is not on the Friends' current tour, with Linda Pitmon (Baseball Project, Minus 5) taking his spot. These folks have worked together a lot over the years, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, a common figure in many of the above bands, would seem to be a central organizing member of the collective. But the main thing that separates Filthy Figures from the other "side projects" mentioned above is that Corin Tucker is the singer for the band (and the author of the songs' lyrics).

I say this not merely because I am such a big Corin fan, but because the band's music is designed to show what Tucker can do. This was especially clear in the concert I attended last night. In many ways, Filthy Friends was a "supergroup" version of the earlier Corin Tucker Band. All of the musicians contributed ... I especially liked Linda Pitmon's work ... but Corin was front and center, she was the one who mostly talked to the crowd, and I suspect, levels of fame aside, more people were there to see Corin than they were to see an indie supergroup.

She has come a long way in terms of stage presence over the years, although that impression may be off a bit, since with Sleater-Kinney she shares the stage with Carrie Brownstein, who oozes charisma. Peter Buck isn't going to upstage her ... in fact, he let Bloch take the guitar solos, content to stay back, adding his identifiable sound to the chords coming from his instrument. Bloch actually did concoct some stage presence, bouncing around like Angus Young. But it was Corin's show, and that fact means that now, when I listen to the Filthy Friends album, Invitation, I'll hear it as Corin's band.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Once I have lived with the Filthy Friends songs for awhile, I expect they will grow on me. But in concert, as on record, Filthy Friends are good-not-great, without the ecstatic moments I often get from listening to Sleater-Kinney.

The title cut from the album is not particularly representative of the whole, although the songs vary quite a bit from one another in any event. Corin sings it like a good-timey crooner from the 60s. Here it is from last night:

I should add that this was my first visit to The Independent, and the sound was excellent.


game of thrones, season seven finale

For all the fighting that goes on between the various pretenders to the throne, one thing rises above all else: dragons. Daenerys has them. Finally, in "The Spoils of War", she unleashed her dragons, demonstrating that while there are many pretenders, there is only one Mother of Dragons.

There are many great series in this era of Peak TV, so many that even the critics have admitted they can't watch them all. There have always been great series that slipped through the cracks, but especially now, amidst so much competition, shows need something that makes them stand out. There are so many pretenders to the top of the list of Peak TV. But only one show has dragons: Game of Thrones.

Oh, there are other shows with fantastical beings. But the dragons of GoT have HBO money behind them, so they are more impressive than anyone else's. Well, money, and the talent behind the cameras that makes this a great show.

For six seasons, the dragons were anticipated more than they were seen in action. Just as winter was always coming, so, too, the dragons were always ready for action. The wait was almost unbearable. But for six seasons, GoT managed to give us enough spectacle, combined with wonderful acting and plots that were involving, albeit convoluted.

Game of Thrones has never lacked for great acting and impressive spectacle. But now that the dragons have shown their power on the battlefield, the series is rather like the Lannisters' army: after the "Loot Train Attack", there is very little to be done.

And so we get nonsense like the relationship between Sansa and Arya. Arya in particular acts in ways that don't match what we've learned about her. That the sisters worked together to defeated Littlefinger was fun, but it was also just an easy way to excuse the poor character development. "Oh, don't complain about Arya, things were happening that you didn't see." More than once I was reminded of The L Word, which regularly threw continuity to the winds so that characters could change, unbelievably, so new narratives would make sense in their moment.

This doesn't bother me as much as it usually does. As I told my son some years ago, half of the time I don't know what is going on, but the individual scenes win me over, and the big scenes are always worth it. My relationship to the overarching narratives of Game of Thrones is reflected in the opening credits. Each week, we move over a map intended to put the Houses in place, and apparently, these credits will change to reflect happenings in the plot. Honestly, though, I have never understood those credits. I don't recognize the Houses by the buildings on the map, I don't notice whatever changes might have happened ... the only things I get from the credits are that GoT has one of the all-time best theme songs, and that I am confused.

When I care about the characters, I have something to enjoy between the spectacular moments. But, for the main characters, I find myself caring less. Cersei is Cersei, Jon Snow is Jon Snow, Bran irritates the shit out of me. The palace intrigues are supposed to keep us going from week to week and season to season, but I'm mostly tired of them now. Which means the spectacle is, more than ever, what I like best.

This is a reductionist view of my responses to the show. I still love many of the characters. They just tend to be secondary characters: Bronn, Brienne of Tarth, Hodor RIP, The Hound, Olenna RIP. Some of my all-time favorite Game of Thrones scenes came when Brienne and Jaime traveled together. And I am not immune to the plot shenanigans.

But dragons. Now one of the dragons is a Bad Guy, which should be fun. But at this point, I don't really care who sits on the Iron Throne. I don't care that Khaleesi and Jon Snow finally did it ... those two have maybe half the intensity that Jon Snow had with Ygritte, who always told him he knew nothing.

Game of Thrones has rightfully secured its place as one of the central series of its time. I have rated it highly in the past. But I don't think it has ever been the best show on television, and Season Seven did nothing to change my opinion. Grade for "The Spoils of War": A+. Grade for Season Seven: A-.

And this making-of I found fascinating:


klute (alan j. pakula, 1971)

It's odd ... I've seen Klute before, but all I could remember of it (vaguely) was that it ended inside a building with hallways and offices. That turned out to be accurate enough, but if that's all there was to Klute, it wouldn't have been good enough to watch again. Because while Klute is a serviceable mystery thriller, serviceable is as good as the thriller gets. It's no better than a hundred others.

You'd think I'd remember Jane Fonda, because her performance not only carries the movie, but is one of the great acting jobs ever. Fonda has always struck me as an intelligent actress ... you can see her brain working. At her best, though, she makes that intelligence seem a natural part of the character she is playing. Sometimes, you'll see an actor trying so hard to stay on top of a role that the effort distracts from the result. Other times, an actor will bury themselves so deeply that all you get is emotion. But Fonda can convey intelligence and emotion at the same time, no more so than as Bree Daniels in Klute.

Bree is only confident when she's turning tricks. She is in control when she can make men do what she wants while making them think it's them who want it. But she herself wants more, as we learn in her therapy sessions. She isn't as sure of herself in the therapist's office as she is when she's working. And when the environment in which she works turns more dangerous than usual, her fear is rooted in the loss of control that implies.

The writing is good enough to earn an Oscar nomination (it lost to Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital, and I've had a soft spot for another runner-up from that year, Penelope Gilliatt's Sunday Bloody Sunday). (It's interesting that I described Glenda Jackson in the latter film by saying "her acting often suggests an intelligent woman" ... although later I noted that "Glenda Jackson in particular is always clearly acting … she’s very good at it, but she isn’t a 'natural' actress.") As I say, the script is fine, but it is at its best in making room for Fonda's work as Bree. The actual mystery is pretty mundane.

Alan Pakula doesn't help much, although this remains my favorite of his movies. He attaches his standard, spooky paranoia (The Parallax View), but is rather aimlessly arty when it's not necessary. Gordon Willis is his usual great self as cinematographer (for no reason, I blame Pakula for the arty stuff). His next movie was The Godfather.

I've gotten this far without mentioning Donald Sutherland, who after all plays the title character. He does an excellent, self-effacing job ... he stays out of Fonda's way, supports her the way Klute supports Bree.

But this is Jane Fonda's picture. She got the second of her seven Oscar nominations, and picked up her well-deserved first win, beating out, among others, the aforementioned Jackson in Sunday Bloody Sunday.

As for a rating, I was torn between a 9/10 to reflect Fonda's performance, and 7/10 to reflect the rest of the movie. Since I apparently already gave it 7/10 that forgotten time when I'd seen it before, and since I want to tip my cap to Jane Fonda, 8/10.

Karina Longworth's great podcast, "You Must Remember This", just finished a series on Fonda and Jean Seberg. This episode discusses Klute:

Jean and Jane

Here's a scene from Klute:

Fonda discussed her role on Inside the Actors Studio:

Finally, here's one of the most famous (and shortest) Oscar acceptance speeches of all time. People were worried she would "get political". She asked her father what she should say, and then she took his advice:

creature feature saturday double bill

Electronic Lover (Jesse Berger, 1966). Why do I bother? Every once in awhile I get the idea of watching some of the movies I'd seen on Creature Features on Saturday night when I was a kid. The problem is, I don't always pick the good movies from the array of choices (and they do exist). Electronic Lover is a sexploitation "nudie". but when I watched it for free on Amazon Prime, all of the nudity was edited out. (As a sign of how much nudity is in the movie, it runs 79 minutes but the Amazon version only lasts 60 minutes.) A sexploitation movie without the nudity pretty much has no reason for being, and I suppose I shouldn't rate this one too low since I saw an expurgated version. But trust me, it is so abysmal I'm positive the nudity wouldn't have helped. A crazed voyeur sends "Brother" out in the world with a hidden camera and watches the results from home. It is so cheap, it almost feels like an avant-garde film. Purely dreadful. 1/10.

Spies-a-Go-Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit) (James Landis, 1964). Another in the long line of Arch Hall movies. Arch Hall Sr. wanted to make movies, and after a couple of decades on the margins of the industry, in the 1960s Hall started cranking out what Wikipedia gently refers to as "some of the worst films ever made". The peak of his filmmaking was Eegah, in which he also starred alongside his son, Arch Hall Jr., and Richard "Jaws" Kiel in the title role. Junior appeared in many of his dad's movies ... he wanted to be a musician, so he'd play several songs, rather like Ricky Nelson in his family's TV show, except Junior didn't have much talent. Spies-a-Go-Go (titled Nasty Rabbit in the copy I saw) tells of a Soviet plot to release rabbits in the U.S. that have been infected with deadly bacteria. I think. The whole thing is played as a slapstick comedy ... bad slapstick comedy, although that probably wasn't intentional. Junior is a teen-idol rocker who is also an undercover spy. Oh, did I mention the rabbit occasionally talks to the audience ... he even gets the best lines (the IMDB only lists one "Memorable Quote", when the rabbit asks us, "I wonder if John Wayne had to go through this to get his start."). It's nowhere as good as it sounds. Richard Kiel pops in again for a cameo. Award-winning cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) turns up as "The Idiot", while his longtime friend Vilmos Zsigmond takes on the cinematography. (They teamed up more than once in the early days of their career, most "notably" when they were both behind the camera for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.) Finally, the legendary Liz Renay, who played Muffy St. Jacques in John Waters' Desperate Living, has a substantial role. I really wanted this to be "so bad it's good", but instead it's "so bad it's bad". Still, it's better than Electronic Lover, so 2/10.

But stop ... there's more trivia! In this clip from Spies-a-Go-Go, Junior sings a song accompanied by his band, which included Pat and Lolly Vegas, who later formed Redbone.

Here is Redbone's biggest hit:

And finally, for you youngsters who actually made it this far, a brief reminder of where you've heard that song before:

So there you have it: the connection between Spies-a-Go-Go and Guardians of the Galaxy is exposed!

music friday: 1977

These are the artists I saw in concert in 1977. There is one top of the line classic band, an all-time great who was past his peak, some personal favorites, and at least two opening acts that I thought sucked. These are in chronological order, with the earliest concerts at the beginning, and the acts at each show listed in order of appearance.

The Outlaws, "Green Grass and High Tides"

Santana, "Soul Sacrifice" (video taken from concert I attended)

Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Freebird" (video taken from concert I attended)

Peter Frampton, "Do You Feel Like We Do?" (video taken from concert I attended)

Judas Priest, "Diamonds and Rust"

Rick Derringer, "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo"

Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir" (audio taken from concert I attended)

Head East, "Show Me I'm Alive"

Robert Gordon and Link Wray, "I Sure Miss You"

J. Geils, the whole damn concert I attended

Air Supply, "Love and Other Bruises"

Rod Stewart, "Hot Legs"

film fatales #29: girlfriends (claudia weill, 1978)

In some ways, a perfect Film Fatale selection. Low budget, directed, written, and edited by women, the story of a 20-something photographer and her relationships, mostly with her women friends.

Girlfriends could be remade with Greta Gerwig and released today, and it would fit right in. Low budget, charismatic lead performance, character-driven. More than one writer has noted the similarities between Girlfriends and Frances Ha. Katherine Maheux called it "the best movie Noah Baumbach never made". And then there's the TV series Girls. Lena Dunham has admitted the influence:

[T]his movie feels like my oldest influence, yet I saw it for the first time less than a year ago. I was dragged (because I was tired, not skeptical) to a screening at 92Y by a friend well versed in lost classics who said this was truly my kind of movie. And she was right—from the first shot, I was transfixed. By the complex relationships, the subtlety, the odd comedy that was awkward long before awkward was cool. It was the 1970s of my mother’s youth, which I discuss in Tiny Furniture through her journal entries. Claudia was at the screening for a Q&A, and I found her stories and general manner (tough but sensitive; third woman admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; great effortless hair) really transfixing.

It's interesting that a film which feels very much of its time would have such resonance 40 years down the road, not for the evocative presentation of the late-70s, but because it feels fresh like the 2010s.

Weill and star Melanie Mayron have had careers based more in television than in movies. Weill, who also works in the theater, directed It's My Turn in 1980, and then moved to TV, where she worked on everything from Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life to the (perhaps inevitable) episode of Girls. Mayron is probably best-known for the four seasons she appeared on Thirtysomething, but she also moved on to directing for television (her IMDB page lists 50 different series she has worked on). She is especially busy on Jane the Virgin, where she has directed 11 episodes while appearing in ten of them as Jane's writing instructor.

You won't hear me complaining about the value of TV work over movies. Still, it would have been nice for Weill to get more opportunities to create features. But it's good that newer talents like Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are able to credit Girlfriends as an important marker for their own work. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

the eclipse and me

In the days before radio, baseball fans could keep up with the action for big events such as the World Series, in real time, by attending places that used giant scoreboards to update every play. You can read about these here: "Photography of Playography".

This was as good as it got, other than attending a game in person, until the advent of radio. The first major-league baseball game on the radio was in 1921, and radio reigned supreme for four decades, give or take. Radio was eventually supplanted by television, although the two co-exist to this day. (Those giant scoreboards have a modern-day approximation in the various apps that update games on the web and mobile devices using animation and vast statistical resources.)

Many of the earliest radio broadcasts were narrated by announcers who were not actually at the game. The announcer would read the game events as they came to him via telegraph and relate them to the listeners as if he was at the ballpark. These recreations were aided by sound effects, while the announcer would fill the time between pitches pretty much the same way they do today. Future president Ronald Reagan performed recreations in the 1930s.

Televised baseball, in its infancy, was a simple affair, with a limited number of cameras and no instant replay. This has evolved to what we get today, which features multiple viewings of each play, shots of kids in the crowd eating popcorn, and the like.

Growing up in the 60s, I had the chance to watch the American space program from the country's first man in space, Alan Shepard, to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon. I can remember many times the networks would show animated simulations of what was happening in space, beyond the camera's eye.

Meanwhile, the astronauts themselves worked on countless simulated flights before the real thing took place. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe gets inside John Glenn's head as Glenn looked at the Earth from space.

He knew what it was going to look like in any case. He had seen it all in photographs taken from the satellites. It had all been flashed on the screens for him. Even the view had been simulated. Yes ... that's the way they said it would look ... Awe seemed to be demanded, but how could he express awe honestly? He had lived it all before the event. How could he explain that to anybody?

It was as if the simulation was real, and real was a poor substitute.

I slept through most of today's eclipse. My son took a couple of pictures, where if I looked close enough, I could see ... well, I'm not sure what I saw. It was very overcast in our neck of the woods. Fog rules over eclipses when you live a couple of miles from the coast. Our daughter's family drove up to Oregon, and I imagine her two sons will remember the trip.

Of course, it was practically impossible to avoid animated simulations of what the eclipse would be like, in the days before the event. My guess is that I'll remember this eclipse ... it's just that I'll remember those simulations. Or maybe I'll check out the instant replays on YouTube.

some came running (vincente minnelli, 1958)

It's easy to see why MGM would want to make this picture, from a novel by James Jones. Jones had previously written From Here to Eternity, which as a movie won 8 Oscars, including one for Frank Sinatra. MGM succeeded partially ... Some Came Running received five Oscar nominations, although it won none. Sinatra is very good here, but his role is far less showy than the Oscar-winning Maggio. But the movie did get three acting nominations, Best Actress Shirley MacLaine, Supporting Actor Arthur Kennedy, and Supporting Actress Martha Hyer.  (The actual winners were Susan Hayward, Burl Ives, and Wendy Hiller.) The women fare better than Kennedy, whose blustering performance didn't do much for me. MacLaine gets the showy role here, a woman with a heart of gold and not a lot going on in the old noggin. It's a stereotypical part, but MacLaine makes you believe in it, and makes you care about her. This was probably the best role in Martha Hyer's career, and she is great. Meanwhile, the film was made when Dean Martin was establishing himself as someone who, yes, could be a good actor. His next film was Rio Bravo.

Wikipedia calls Some Came Running a "crime film", which is pretty far-fetched. It's a melodrama about post-WWII America, and fairly astute about how difficult was the return from war (Sinatra's Dave Hirsh has just been released from the Army). But it's going too far to suggest this is the central theme of the film. What drives the narrative is class issues. Dave's brother Frank is a social climber who, along with his wife, looks down on Dave. Dave's own class status is somewhat fluid ... he's a veteran, although that doesn't seem to carry much weight in the small Indiana town that he returns to. MacLaine and Hyer lie on different ends of the ladder. MacLaine is a "loose woman", while Hyer is Gwen,  a teacher of creative writing who lives with her professor father. Gwen is a good fit for Dave, since Dave was once a novelist, although he hasn't written for a long time. MacLaine loves and looks up to Dave, Dave loves and to some extent looks up to Gwen, and Frank and his wife look down on everyone, although Frank also suffers because his wife comes from money.

I was reminded more than once of a favorite movie of mine, The Chase. That film also features a stratified society ... it even has Martha Hyer. But The Chase was way over the top ... Kael described it as the story of "a corrupt, blood-lusting Texas town in the mythical America of liberal sadomasochistic fantasies ... where people are motivated by dirty sex or big money, and you can tell which as soon as they say their first lines." Some Came Running is a "better" movie than The Chase. You never get the feeling that Vincente Minnelli is losing control. Better, sure, but The Chase is a lot more fun, and I like it enough that I've seen it several times. I can't imagine watching Some Came Running again. But watching it once was rewarding. #453 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (The Chase isn't on the list). 7/10.