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music friday: 1968

B.B. King, "Lucille". B.B. never sings and plays at the same time, because he doesn't want to interrupt Lucille.

Manfred Mann, "Mighty Quinn". Dylan wrote and recorded it during the Basement Tapes era ... it ended up on the Great White Wonder. The flute part at the beginning is played by the guy who won a Grammy for drawing the cover of Revolver. The singer is the cousin of a Bond Girl. Thus ends my Casey Kasem imitations.

Aretha Franklin, "The House That Jack Built". A two-sided hit with "I Say a Little Prayer".

Dusty Springfield, "Son of a Preacher Man". Dusty and Aretha used to be labelmates.

The Dells, "Stay in My Corner". Released in 1965, they re-recorded it in 1968 and hit #1 on the R&B charts.

The Beatles, "Revolution 9". It is easier to find this song on YouTube with the track played backwards, than it is to find the original.

Marvin Gaye, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". From 1967-1970, there were three great, popular versions of this song (Gladys Knight, Creedence).

Status Quo, "Pictures of Matchstick Men". More than 20 years later, Camper Van Beethoven took their remake to #1 on the Modern Rock charts.

Mary Hopkin, "Those Were the Days". The music is a Russian romance song. This was Apple's second single release, after "Hey Jude".

Lee "Scratch" Perry, "People Funny Boy". Perry's first big single.


what i watched last weekend

Call this my "Let's Guess What Will Get Oscar Nominations" post.

Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017). Icarus is only the second feature (and first documentary) directed by Bryan Fogel. Fogel is, among other things, an amateur cyclist who decides to try performance-enhancing drugs to increase his chance of winning a big amateur race. His scheme leads him to Russian Grigory Rodchenkov, who is the real star of the movie. He has charisma, he has a backstory (he was the head of Russia's anti-doping lab, where he worked to help Russian athletes escape being caught using drugs), and he is the gateway for an examination of Russia and doping that leads, cliche or not, right to the top, i.e. Vladimir Putin. This would make a good one-hour documentary, even 90 minutes if you include the unreliable narrator aspect of Rodchenkov's presentation of himself. But Icarus runs two hours, with Fogel wasting far too much time on the setup, in which he is, of course, centrally involved. If Fogel had spent a couple of minutes explaining how Rodchenkov enters the scene, he'd have a more focused (and shorter) movie. Instead, Fogel, purposely or not, puts himself at the front of the narrative more than is necessary. Icarus is a solid film, but it's no classic. 7/10.

Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Here we have a "based on real life" historical drama about England, Churchill, and World War II, set in May 1940. Wright doesn't make any mistakes about who is the center of his movie: the larger-than-life Winston Churchill (with an interesting performance by Gary Oldman, who stops just short of hamming it up in creating a believable Churchill). Darkest Hour is close enough to the real events that it's mostly nitpicking to point out where it deviates. Ultimately, your reaction to the movie may depend in large part on your opinion of the real-life Winston Churchill. Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make sure to include just enough unlikable details to forestall any criticism that they have created a hagiography ... Churchill drank all the time, he smoked stinky cigars all the time, none of his fellow politicians liked him. But we get nothing of his imperialist tendencies, and I suppose it could be argued that this not a movie about that, but nonetheless, I liked the film less because Churchill was the hero, and I distrusted the film a bit because, well, because Churchill was the hero. I might feel differently if I were British ... it is certainly true that Churchill was vital in leading Britain during the war. Suffice to say that the Churchill family apparently likes the movie.

There was one scene I found objectionable, and I'd think most would agree with me, except Owen Gleiberman called it a "showpiece sequence". At a crucial moment, Churchill decides to take the subway, and ... well, I'll let Gleiberman explain:

He introduces himself to the citizens, communing deeply with each one of their names, and asks them whether Britain should stand tall against tyranny. The answer comes roaring back, from citizen after shining-eyed citizen: Yes! Stand against tyranny! The scene culminates with Churchill offering words of Macaulay that are completed, in a flawless quotation, by a vibrant black Londoner. It’s all so rosy and multiculti and inspiring that you feel like you’re seeing a remake of “My Beautiful Laundrette” directed by the ghost of David Lean.

Of course, that’s what’s utterly fabricated and even eye-rolling about it. It’s a scene that’s — transparently — too good to be true. Yet it plays as Oldman’s Oscar-clinching moment: the clip that was made to be shown, in triumph, on the telecast. It’s the best scene in the movie, or the worst. Or maybe both.

Count me on Team Eye-Roll. The black guy ... the only black guy on the subway car, pretty much the only black guy in the movie ... he's the one literate enough to complete Churchill's quotation. He's a concoction designed simply to show that Churchill listened to all of the people, even the black guy. Churchill, the man who famously said, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

So you have a lead performance worthy of an Oscar in an interesting movie that, when it falters, fails miserably. 7/10.


fire and fury

And to say that he knew nothing -- nothing at all -- about the basic intellectual foundations of the job was a comic understatement. Early in the campaign, in a Producers-worthy scene, Sam Nunberg was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate: "I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head."

-- Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Everyone around Donald Trump is too polite to Donald Trump. Democrats, foreign dignitaries, underlings… all of them. And the White House press is perhaps the worst offender. From the media pool playing along with Sarah Sanders during press conferences—conferences where Sanders openly lies and pisses on democracy—to access merchants like Maggie Haberman doling out Trump gossip like so many bread crumbs, too many reporters have been far too deferential to an administration that is brazenly racist, dysfunctional, and corrupt. And for what purpose? It’s clear to me that Haberman and the like aren’t saving up their chits for just the EXACT right time to bring this Administration down. No, the only end goal of their access is continued access, to preserve it indefinitely so that the copy spigot never gets shut off. They are abiding by traditional wink-wink understandings that have long existed between the government and the press covering it.

But Wolff didn’t do that. He did not engage in some endless bullshit access tango. No, Wolff actually USED his access, and extended zero courtesy to Trump on the process, and it’s going to pay off for him not just from a book sales standpoint, but from a real journalistic impact. I am utterly sick to death of hearing anonymous reports about people inside the White House "concerned" about the madman currently in charge of everything. These people don’t deserve the courtesy of discretion. They don’t deserve to dictate the terms of coverage to people. They deserve to be torched.

-- Drew Magary, "Michael Wolff Did What Every Other White House Reporter Is Too Cowardly to Do"

"I can handle things. I’m smart! Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!"

This morning’s presidential Twitter outburst recalls those words of Fredo Corleone’s in one of the most famous scenes from The Godfather series. Trump tweeted that his "two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart," and in a subsequent tweet called himself a "very stable genius."

Trump may imagine that he’s Michael Corleone, the tough and canny rightful heir—or even Sonny Corleone, the terrifyingly violent but at least powerful heir apparent—but after today he is Fredo forever.

There’s a key difference between film and reality, though: The Corleone family had the awareness and vigilance to exclude Fredo from power. The American political system did not do so well.

-- David Frum, "Donald Trump Goes Full Fredo"


music friday: 1967

The Beatles, "A Day in the Life." Greil Marcus once wrote, "[A]t the time it was obvious that Revolver, released in 1966, was better than Rubber Soul, just as it was obvious Sgt. Pepper was better than both put together. The times carried the imperative of such a choice—though it was not really a choice at all, but rather a sort of faceless necessity. The only road, after all, was onward." And "A Day in the Life" was the exemplar of Onward. He added, "Such a choice does not seem so obvious now, and of course the necessity has faded."

Aretha Franklin, "Respect." The Acclaimed Music site lists this as the #11 track of all time. That seems off ... of the top ten, only "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Johnny B. Goode" strike me as the equal of Aretha's greatest hit.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Purple Haze." Perhaps lost in the greatness of Hendrix's guitar work is the fact that he was also a great vocalist and songwriter.

The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset." Christgau called this "the most beautiful song in the English language". I admit I preferred the raunchy Kinks of songs like "Who'll Be the Next in Line".

The Doors, "Light My Fire." I remember once, in the early FM years of Tom Donahue, he said he didn't want to play this song because they played it all the time on the AM dial. Listeners pointed out to him that they didn't listen to AM any more, so they never heard it. The version in the video is the short one, with a different Morrison vocal.

Jefferson Airplane, "White Rabbit." I wouldn't have said it at the time, but this is just about a perfect record. One reason is Grace Slick (see below).

The Velvet Underground, "I'm Waiting for the Man." Many of these songs elicit memories of the 60s. This is the only one that personifies those times as standing around waiting for your dealer to bring you heroin.

Nico, "These Days." That's Jackson Browne on guitar. He also wrote the song. He was 17 when this was recorded. He loved Nico. She was older than 17.

Love, "Alone Again Or." Arguably the most famous song by Love, the band led by Arthur Lee. But Lee didn't write it ... that was Bryan MacLean. (As with The Kinks, I preferred the raunchier Love of their first two albums.)

McCoy Tyner, "Four by Five." Tyner, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones.


the big sick (michael showalter, 2017)

The Big Sick focuses on the budding love affair between a stand-up comic and a graduate student. The comic is played by Kumail Nanjiani, who among other things is a stand-up comic in real life. A successful comic, I should add. Because the character he plays in The Big Sick is based on his own life, and some of Nanjiani's bits make their way into the movie. The problem is, they aren't very funny. This works to place Kumail (the character's name as well) in the milieu of aspiring comics, but it seems we're supposed to think he is funnier than his counterparts, and it doesn't ring true. (I'm reminded of Obvious Child, which also suffered because the comedian at the center wasn't particularly funny. Jenny Slate is so good that she makes this mostly unimportant, but it is still a problem.)

This is pretty much the only thing that doesn't ring true, though, because The Big Sick is a rom-com that often transcends its genre. Nanjiani is fine, and Zoe Kazan as his is-she/isn't-she girlfriend Emily steals the movie whenever she's on the screen. That is another problem, though, because Emily is the character who personifies the film's title, and she spends a good portion of the movie in a coma. Her energy is missed, although it does provide a useful reminder of the hole in Kumail's life when Emily is not there.

The Big Sick is like a couple of other movies I've watched recently (Real Women Have Curves and Lady Bird) in that much of what we see is in line with its genre. What separates these movies from the norm is that they are about different people and cultures than we usually see. Those other movies insert women into standard coming-of-age stories (with a Xicana character at the center of Real Women), which changes the context enough to create something new. In The Big Sick, the change comes from Kumail being Pakistani. Much of his stand-up works off of his heritage, and the film features many scenes with his family that are heartfelt. But there isn't much different here, really, just another tale of parents not understanding their kids' romantic adventures. Also, while the actors playing his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) are good, they are also clearly actors. Compare them to the Indian parents on Master of None, who are played by Aziz Ansari's real, non-actor, parents. They are clearly not actors, and Ansari makes this work.

But I'm complaining too much. Nanjiani and Kazan have wonderful chemistry, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano deliver as Emily's parents. There are plenty of funny parts, and the film has heart without cheaply trying for the audience's tears, which is difficult when one of the sweethearts is in a coma. 7/10.


up to this point

"[T]he handwringing is a direct result of believing that cordial interpersonal relationships and self-reported goodwill is enough to extract oneself from the systems that make racism and rape culture possible. So it’s time to stop thinking that your own warm feelings and properly woke policy positions are enough to make you an ally."

-- Ana Marie Cox, "Are You an Ally?"

"Being a privileged white guy is hard. We get it.

"And now we’re told a host of influential media industry men caught up in the current flood of harassment, abuse and assault stories just didn’t understand the power dynamics in their respective situations.

"Nonsense. Of course they did.

"Asserting power, in so many cases, was the point. And it still is, for many who’re working on back lots, in executive suites, in newsrooms and on sets today."

-- Maureen Ryan, "Powerful Men Can’t Plead Ignorance in the Wake of Misbehavior Revelations"

U.S. presidents up to this point have, whatever their temptations or even their actions, attested to the democratic values embedded in the Constitution and the practices of the republic. Trump rarely does that. Instead, he frequently attacks the system of separated institutions that share powers on which U.S. democracy rests. His nasty personal attacks on other politicians tend to corrode the political system. So do his claims of omnipotence within the system. So does his disregard for norms, whether it's his refusal to disclose his tax returns, his refusal to divest himself of his businesses, or his use of the office to advertise those businesses.

-- Jonathan Bernstein, "Just a Reminder: This Isn't Normal"