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dishonored lady (robert stevenson, 1947)

An undistinguished film with a hint of "what if" to make it more interesting off the screen than on. It's based on a 1930 play by Edward Sheldon and future Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Ayer Barnes, Dishonored Lady officially made it to the screen in 1947, but the road was long. There was a Joan Crawford film in 1932, Letty Lynton, which has been unavailable since 1936 after a lawsuit claimed it was plagiarized from the play Dishonored Lady. (Ironically, the film Dishonored Lady fell into the public domain, meaning there are lots of crappy versions, like one on YouTube.) This film was delayed by a couple of years due to disputes with the Hays Office. Wikipedia picks up the story:

The Hays Office insisted that two affairs - one in Mexico and the other in New York - might be "overloading" the picture, and also objected to the "night of sordid passion." A memo dated April 25, 1946, stated that, despite revisions, the script was unacceptable because of its gratuitous sex and its references to Madeleine's unsavory family secrets. In the released version of the story, references to Madeleine's parents were omitted completely. The character of Moreno and the affair in Mexico City were completely excised, and the "night of sordid passion" was not shown. All suggestions that Madeleine was a murderer, or had even contemplated murder, were also removed from the film.

What remained in the finished product was watered down and largely dull. Hedy Lamarr holds up her reputation as "The World's Most Beautiful Woman", and her acting isn't bad. The rest of the cast was made up of lesser lights like Dennis O'Keefe and John Loder (married to Lamarr at the time), along with pop culture icons such as Natalie Schafer (in her mid-40s at the time, she went on to play Lovey on Gilligan's Island 20 years later) and Margaret Hamilton (best-known as The Wicked Witch of the West). Director Robert Stevenson made the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre, got an Oscar nomination for directing Mary Poppins, and eventually made 19 movies for Disney, back when that meant Son of Flubber and Herbie Rides Again.

Dishonored Lady went over budget and then bombed at the box office. Lamarr went on to Samson and Delilah, and today is known as much for her work as an inventor as for her beauty.

And there's a personal connection for me. The music for the film was done by Carmen Dragon, Oscar winner for Cover Girl. Dragon was born in my hometown, Antioch, California. For many years, he was connected with The Standard School Broadcast, which was piped into my elementary school on occasion for all the students to hear. Dragon was also the father of The Captain of The Captain and Tennille fame.

None of the above makes Dishonored Lady any more worth watching.

music friday: 1979

The Clash, "London Calling". Their greatest track? I don't know what I'd choose ... "Safe European Home"? "Complete Control"?

Chic, "Good Times". Their greatest track? What else ... "Le Freak"? Rodgers and Edwards sued and got songwriter credits for:

The Sugarhill Gang, "Rapper's Delight". Their greatest track? What else?

Patti Smith, "Dancing Barefoot". Her greatest track? Christgau called it "quite possibly her greatest track ever".  How about "Gloria" or "Free Money"?

Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". His greatest? Some might choose "Billie Jean", but I'd cheat and easily go with "I Want You Back".

The B-52's, "52 Girls". Their greatest? I suppose most would choose "Rock Lobster", but for me, the only real alternative is "Private Idaho".

Graham Parker, "Local Girls".  Their greatest? OK, I'm stretching ... it's not even the best song on Side One of Squeezing Out Sparks. I'll vote for "Don't Ask Me Questions".

Earth, Wind & Fire, "After the Love Has Gone". Their greatest? It won a Grammy. OTOH, it was kept out of the #1 slot on the charts by "My Sharona". (I'm going with either "September" or "Shining Star".)

Delta 5, "Mind Your Own Business". Their greatest? It was their first. Sure, I'll vote for it.

Pink Floyd, "Comfortably Numb". Their greatest? Those who consider David Gilmour solos to be integral to any discussion of best Pink Floyd tracks probably vote for this. But my favorite Gilmour solo is this one:

throwback thursday: my first prince concert

Saw Prince for the first time, 37 years ago, at The Stone in San Francisco, capacity around 700. Greil Marcus was there, and wrote the following:

Fronting a band of three blacks and two Jews from Minneapolis, Prince stormed into town on the heels of last year’s breakthrough Dirty Mind, was greeted by the most excited and diverse crowd (black and white, punk and funk, straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor) I’ve been part of in a long time, and sent everyone home awestruck and drained: “That was the history of rock ‘n’ roll in one song!” a friend shouted before the last notes of “When You Were Mine” were out of the air. All barriers of music, sex, and race were seemingly trashed by Prince’s performance, and leering organist Lisa Coleman walked off with the 1981 Most Valuable Player award—edging out Junior Walker, whose sax work on Foreigner’s “Urgent” is the closest he’s come to hoodoo in a twenty-year career.

The setlist:

Do It All Night
Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?
Gotta Broken Heart Again
When You Were Mine
Sexy Dancer
I Wanna Be Your Lover
Still Waiting
Crazy You
Gotta Stop (Messin' About)
Dirty Mind

Everybody Dance


dressed to kill (brian de palma, 1980)

Ah, Brian De Palma. It is almost impossible to talk about one Brian De Palma movie without talking about them all. For De Palma elicits extreme reactions from critics ... not that they agree with each other. I find myself in the middle, except I don't ... all I mean is, there are some of his movies I like, and there are some I don't, and I don't think any of his films are classics, nor do I think any of his films are worthless. But there's a big gap nonetheless between his best and his worst.

Since Pauline Kael gives me the tagline for this blog, I should start with her. She was an early and regular champion of De Palma's work ... in my mind, the best example of this is perhaps her review of The Fury, where she favorably compares De Palma to Peckinpah, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Welles, and Scorsese. David Thomson, on the other hand, compares De Palma to Leni Riefenstahl. It may be De Palma's great achievement that both Kael and Thomson's comparisons make some sense.

Where do I stand? I once wrote about Femme Fatale, "the only time this movie exists outside the world of Brian De Palma movies is when it's attaching itself to other movies ... it's never about real life". Dressed to Kill wouldn't exist, at least not as it turned out, if Vertigo didn't exist, and I don't think De Palma shames himself in the comparison (he's never made a movie anywhere near as great as Vertigo, but neither have most directors). The great set piece in The Untouchables doesn't just bring Potemkin to mind, it forces us to make the connection, which doesn't do De Palma any favors, except his version in The Untouchables is still undeniable.

De Palma was on a roll in the 1980s ... Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War ... and Dressed to Kill is as good as any of them. Yet he began the 90s with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and as I look as his filmography, I realize I have never seen a single Brian De Palma movie from that decade, so I was apparently turned off by that point. In the 21st century, I liked Femme Fatale, and found Mission to Mars tolerable, but The Black Dahlia is the worst De Palma movie I have ever seen.

So ... Dressed to Kill. I think the best word to describe this movie (and many of De Palma's films) is "gleeful". De Palma is an expert at drawing reactions out of his audiences. Not everyone is happy about this ... they'll point to something like Angie Dickinson getting brutally slashed to death with a knife as an example of the director's misogyny, or just simple misanthropy. It's not that they are wrong, it's just that De Palma is so gleeful about the way he manipulates us that I often find myself admiring his work, even as I feel bad for liking it. It's unfortunate that Dressed to Kill resorts to transphobia (Sherilyn Connelly: "On a purely cinematic level, you're pretty brilliant ... On the other hand ... I would be perfectly happy if nobody ever watched you again, because you're deeply transphobic. So fuck you, Dressed to Kill.") There is no use denying this. Which is why you can compare De Palma to Welles and Riefenstahl at the same time.

Ironically, given that many people think Brian De Palma's films, especially Dressed to Kill, are so misogynistic, the person who comes off best here is Nancy Allen. As she does in RoboCop (from another controversial director, Paul Verhoeven), Allen brings a pleasing humanity to her acting. Dressed to Kill might be her best movie. (She was married to De Palma at the time, and he wrote the part with her in mind.)

Ultimately, your opinion about Dressed to Kill might reflect your thoughts when Angie Dickinson's character, having just had extramarital sex, finds her partner has a venereal disease. Either you find the use of the trope tired and offensive, or you think it's an eye-winking joke.

Dickinson is brilliant in this dialogue-free set piece:

And the scene to which De Palma plays homage. Note that in Hitchcock, the focus is on the man gazing upon the woman, while with De Palma, our attention is on the woman. We learn nothing about Kim Novak's character here, but we learn a lot about Dickinson's.

vacation movies

Watched a couple of movies while on vacation last week, and they were perfect for the occasion, meaning they weren't very good but they passed the time pleasantly with friends.

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). I'm not sure why this keeps getting remade. In all formats, it's the fourth version in my lifetime (a movie in 1974 that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar for Supporting Actress, a stripped-down made-for-TV version in 2001, and an even more stripped down TV episode in 2010 ... I didn't count it, but there was even a Japanese mini-series). Since it features a surprise ending, and since that ending is no surprise once you've seen one of the films or read the book, it would seem that the story would have increasingly limited returns. Shows what I know ... it earned more than $350 million at the box office, and a sequel has already been announced. Kenneth Branagh carries his affectations too far, both as Poirot and as the director, where he indulges in odd flashiness to no apparent purpose. Penélope Cruz wears a wig that does the impossible, making her look homely. Michelle Pfeiffer comes off best ... for more of her, try Dangerous Liaisons.

Colossal (Nacho Vigalando, 2016). This is a dirt-cheap ($15 million) homage to Kaiju films that falls apart in a plot that rarely makes any sense. Anne Hathaway does what she can as an alcoholic "writer" who goes back to her hometown after her boyfriend (Dan Stevens from Legion) breaks up with her. Jason Sudeikis is also interesting as her childhood friend. But the movie is too stupid to make anything of its ideas. Some critics liked it ... Matt Zoller Seitz gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4, offering a good description of the film: "Imagine a relatively laid back, small-scaled indie comedy about a woman coming to terms with the mess she's made of her life, but with her demons represented by a kaiju that looks like something out of an older 'Godzilla' movie." I admit, though, that I didn't see much comedy. For more Anne Hathaway, check out her Oscar-nominated performance in Rachel Getting Married.

our trip to joshua tree

We returned to the Bay Area on Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning we were greeted by a special section in the Sunday paper about the Mojave Desert. Checking online, I see "The Mojave Road is California's off-roading mecca", "Why do runners love Death Valley?", "Will there be a 'super bloom' in Death Valley in 2018? It's not looking good.", and "Joshua Tree's 'Desert Oracle' reveals his favorite Mojave haunts". I admit it was fun to see all of this, but it had little to do with our own visit, which lasted from Tuesday evening when we arrived, to Saturday morning when we began the trek home. Some thoughts before I forget them ...

Our friends were great hosts, as expected, but the setup was even better than I realized. They have a separate cottage next to their house, good enough to serve as a B&B, so we had plenty of space in a lovely setting. Space is a key word here ... they have 2.5 acres, which seems to be the norm for that area. We went in March because I looked up average monthly temperatures for Joshua Tree, and it turned out to be a great plan, with the temperature never getting out of the 70s.

I've forgotten what order we did things during the three full days (Wednesday-Friday) we were there, but in semi-random order:

Ate lots of good home-cooked food.

Also ate take-out BBQ, and stopped one afternoon at La Copine, a popular place on Old Woman Springs Road (I had fried chicken). Thursday night there was a birthday party for one of our hosts, and a lot of good pizza was served from Pie for the People.

On two evenings, we watched movies, about which more in a later post (the movies were Murder on the Orient Express and Colossal).

The biggest touristy thing we did was go to The Integratron for a sound bath. You drive out to the middle of nowhere (well, most things out there are in the middle of nowhere) and enter a dome that was inspired by aliens from Venus (I'm exaggerating, but only a bit). You lay down, and for half-an-hour or so, while someone plays quartz crystal singing bowls, you merge with the universe. This short video "explains" things, and you get a little sample of the singing bowls near the end:

I'm glad I did it, but I don't feel a pressing need to go again, and outside of relaxing for half-an-hour, I didn't get any Venusian feelings. Still, it enhanced the overall feeling that the residents of the area are willing to connect to all of their surroundings.

There was also a quick stop at Pioneertown, which among other things has a movie set that was used for things like The Cisco Kid TV series:

There was a gentleman inside a store who was working on a book about Pioneertown. He showed me a list of all the things filmed there. I was surprised to see that movies as recent as Ingrid Goes West were shot in part in Pioneertown.

The main point about a short vacation like this is you get to spend time with friends, and that was easily the best part this time (I wish you could see all four of us, but someone had to take the picture):

Steven robin doug joshua tree

Finally, we did spent part of a day driving through Joshua Tree National Park. We took a picture of me at a famous site in the Park, but I'm informed they don't want you to post pictures of it. So I'll include this one instead, to prove I was in nature:

Steven in joshua tree

Bonus song:


music friday: 1978

Blondie, "Heart of Glass". 1978 was the apex of our concert-going days. We saw five of these acts, including Blondie, who were a bit disappointing. Opening act Rockpile was better.

Talking Heads, "The Big Country". Opened the show we saw, which seems odd to me. "I wouldn't live there if you paid me."

Chic, "Le Freak". Nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 11 times, which should have been unnecessary, but since they still haven't gotten in ... Nile Rodgers finally made it on his own, which is something.

X-Ray Spex, "Germ Free Adolescents". One of many bands to start up after seeing the Sex Pistols, and one of the few to match the greatness of their influences.

Lou Reed, "Street Hassle". Too often, when a rocker decides to go Epic, the result is overblown. But "Street Hassle" is one of the handful of total classics from one of the musics greatest songwriters.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Is This Love". Easy to like, which doesn't mean it's his greatest song.

Bruce Springsteen, "Darkness on the Edge of Town". In the case of Bruce, we saw him three times ... in 1978. This album may have connected with me on a personal level more than any other record in my life.

Patti Smith, "Because the Night". Bruce turns up for a third time. (He has a cameo in "Street Hassle" ... was pretty busy that year!) The two versions (Patti's and Bruce's) stand alone, reflecting the respective artists. Much as I love this version, though, Bruce's live versions on the Darkness tour were another level of thrilling.

Earth, Wind & Fire, "September". They are good enough that it is unfair that whenever I hear them, I think of George Clinton's "Earth, Hot Air & No Fire".

Elvis Costello, "Radio Radio". I was hanging out with a group of women ... this would have been the mid-90s. They were talking about Elvis Costello and which of his albums were the best. I offered the opinion that This Year's Model was so much better than any other Costello album that a discussion was unnecessary. They said I was being a guy.

throwback thursday: love has gone away

I picked up a CD the other day, and I assure you, I rarely buy CDs anymore. But this one can't be found on streaming. It's a couple of Lou Reed concerts from 1978, when he was touring behind Street Hassle. The concerts happened a month or two before the ones memorialized on Lou's official live album, Take No Prisoners.

One of the concerts on the CD I got, Waltzing Matilda (love has gone away), was from The Old Waldorf in San Francisco, recorded 40 years ago today, March 22 1978. And we were there. I think it was the third time we'd seen him, first time in a club (so this might have been the night my wife looked at Lou's hands ... we were right up against the stage ... and informed me that they looked like her grandfather's).

There are no easily available cuts from the night we went (hence my buying the CD), so here is one from Take No Prisoners: