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horror of dracula (terence fisher, 1958)

This one was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi version. (It was also released here on a double feature with The Thing That Couldn't Die.) It was Hammer Films' first of several Dracula movies, and an early example of Hammer Horror, coming a year after The Curse of Frankenstein.

Hammer was a staple of Creature Feature shows when I was growing up. You looked forward to them, because even the worst of them didn't suck the way something like The Corpse Vanishes did. Their Dracula had a lot going for it. Christopher Lee seemed born to play the title role ... eventually he played the Count ten times, seven of those for Hammer. Peter Cushing, another Hammer warhorse, played Van Helsing. The two had also starred in the Frankenstein movie, with Cushing as the Doctor and Lee as the Monster.

Hammer added decent production values to the horror genre, albeit with low budgets. They looked good, especially once we got a color TV. The best ones are the earliest, which were taken seriously both by the filmmakers and critics, at least as far as critics could go with the genre. (Dracula is #896 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.) Eventually, the budgets seemed to be smaller, and a certain camp quality crept in. (I remember watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave once in a theater where the audience laughed throughout the picture, prompting the man in charge to stop the film and come out to berate the audience.)

Dracula isn't nearly as gory as you might expect. Hammer is known for adding more overt sex to their movies, and while censors in 1958 weren't going to allow much, Lee was clearly a much sexier vampire than Lugosi, and the scenes where he bit buxom women were sexy in ways you didn't see in 1931. There's a story about director Terence Fisher telling one of those actresses, Melissa Stribling, "Just imagine you've had the best sex of your life, all night long!"

The picture is rather slow, to be honest. Lee only appears on the screen for seven minutes. The atmosphere is appropriately unsettling, and Lee and Cushing are great. It's far from the worst Dracula movie you'll ever see. But neither is it a classic.

I'll mention a couple of other Hammer pictures. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the States as Five Million Years to Earth) may be my favorite, and I'm surprised I've never written about it. And there is no better example of how loosening censorship gave Hammer space for more sex than 1970's The Vampire Lovers, which did get a blog post after I bought it on Blu-ray.

A scene from Dracula:

And, for comparison, a chunk of the middle of The Vampire Lovers:

rock and roll hall of fame

First, we can eliminate Stevie Nicks, John Prine, and Rufus with Chaka Khan. Nicks is already in for Fleetwood Mac. Her solo work consists of "Edge of Seventeen", a hit with Tom Petty, and an album that on its own wouldn't be enough to get her in, even if was tremendous, which it is not. I love John Prine. He's probably my favorite artist on this year's ballot, and he's the only one I've seen live (OK, I saw Stevie with F.Mac, and Tom Morello with Bruce). But as much as I like him even now, in his later years, his reputation rests mainly on his first album. It's great, but it's not enough. Rufus had a few fine singles, but they never made a truly great album. 

The Zombies had a few great singles in the 60s, and one great album. Not enough for the Hall of Fame. I've never quite understood the MC5 ... influential, but there's only three albums, all overrated in my mind, but even if they aren't, three albums doesn't make them one of the five best artists on this list. Devo was a lot like the MC5 ... attention-getting first album, innovative presentation, but after three albums they lose their touch. I appreciate that metal fans feel left out, rightfully so, and I don't know enough to effectively evaluate the genre. For me, though, Def Leppard is easy to pass on.

That leaves eight, and fans are allowed to vote for five at one time. Who do I drop? All eight are good. Todd Rundgren certainly has his champions, and his output in the early-70s is why he's on this list. But I have to drop somebody, and I don't see enough in Rundgren's career after 1974 to win my vote. I have argued for LL Cool J in the past. He's this year's token rapper. It wouldn't bother me if he got in ... I'd like it, actually. If I was voting for 7 artists instead of 5, he'd make it. I admit I'm surprised I've kept Rage Against the Machine on my possible list this long, which is probably reason enough to pass on them.

And then there were five. These are the artists I'd vote for. They aren't all favorites of mine, but even when I'm not a fan, I understand why they are important. When I make my own Hall, John Prine will be there. In the meantime:

  1. Radiohead
  2. The Cure
  3. Kraftwerk
  4. Roxy Music
  5. Janet Jackson

Honestly, I think they are all no-brainers, which is why Todd and LL and Rage don't make it. I'm one of those old Nick Hornby guys re: Radiohead. "Creep" is the only song of theirs I would recognize right off (it is a great song, of course). But Acclaimed Music, which collates critical opinion, lists Radiohead as the 6th-best artist of all time. The only ones above them are The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Bruce Springsteen. Even if you want to quibble about Acclaimed Music's methodology, it's hard to argue with that kind of company. The one Cure album I treasure is Staring at the Sea, their first singles collection. Seventeen tracks and not a dud among them. I prefer Singles Going Steady by The Buzzcocks, but I'm not being asked to vote for them, so The Cure wins. "Autobahn" by itself practically places Kraftwerk in the Hall, and that's not their only song, plus they get points for innovation and influence. Roxy Music has belonged for a long time, and it's nice to see them on this list. As I said on Facebook, I don't dislike them, and I appreciate that they elicit wonderful reactions from their real fans, so I don't feel I could add anything to that. I can say that I have a favorite Roxy Music song, by far my favorite. I can also say that I never remember which one it is, so I'm always confusing it with another song on the same album. (It's "Out of the Blue".) Finally, Janet Jackson has had a bunch of great albums and lots of great songs, and her peak arguably lasted more than a decade.

One last thing. I'm trying to be "objective" here (impossible, I know). But then there's the question of what I actually listen to. So, off I go to to see what it tells me. Here are the 15 artists, ranked by the number of times I've listened to them since 2005. This is the real Steven:

  1. John Prine
  2. Radiohead
  3. The Cure
  4. Todd Rundgren
  5. The MC5
  6. Roxy Music
  7. LL Cool J
  8. Devo
  9. Janet Jackson
  10. Kraftwerk
  11. Rufus with Chaka Khan
  12. Rage Against the Machine
  13. Stevie Nicks
  14. The Zombies
  15. Def Leppard

Finally, a nod to someone who didn't make the 15. If they had, they would replace The Cure on my list. The following song ... I love it so much, in my fiction-writing days I wrote an entire short story about someone who played "Temptation" over and over. I saw them in 1985, and it's one of my great regrets that they didn't play "Temptation" that night. Considering it's the most-played song of theirs in concert, I wonder why they hurt me like that. I mean, they played "Sister Ray"!

music friday: 2007

M.I.A., "Paper Planes". Straight to hell.

LCD Soundsystem, "All My Friends". Covered on the B-side by Franz Ferdinand and John Cale (not together).

MGMT, "Time to Pretend". Supposedly inspired by a praying mantis.

Arcade Fire, "Keep the Car Running". When Bruce Springsteen invites you onstage, you better bring a car song.

Kanye West, "Stronger". After his visit to Donald Trump, his past work may be reevaluated.

Feist, "1234". I dare you to click on the video link.

UGK, "Int'l Players Anthem (I Choose You)". Featuring OutKast.

Robyn, "With Every Heartbeat". For some reason, this video is from a Nobel Peace Prize event.

The National, "Fake Empire". By this point, there will always be at least one song about which I have nothing to say.

Bruce Springsteen, "Livin' in the Future". Magic wasn't his best album, and this isn't the best song from that album. But I've always been intrigued by the line, "We're livin' in the future, and none of this has happened yet."

Spotify playlist: 

perhaps i need to go out tonight

Quiet around here.

Partly that's because I had written a post about the movie The Look of Silence, only to have the draft disappear (user error, but still frustrating). I was already struggling to write about it, and lost all inspiration when I had to start over. Short take: definitely see it if you've seen The Act of Killing. Don't see it if you haven't seen the other film ... you need to watch that first.

I'm sure I'll have a post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, I've already written a bit in a Facebook thread, but that's doesn't fill space here, at least not yet.

I'm finished Heather Havrilesky's new book of essays, What If This Were Enough? Again, I wrote elsewhere, in this case in an email to a friend. I'll cut-and-paste ... this is incomplete, but better than nothing:

Her title bothered me at first ... was this going to be an ode to accepting the world as it is (which turned out to be partly true) without questioning the parts of that world that are destructive and dangerous? But she isn't interested in sticking her head in the ground and ignoring injustice. Nor is she promoting navel-gazing. She's arguing against the ever-present idea in our culture that we must always strive for more, that the best is just around the corner. She doesn't only mean consumer culture, but rather, the ways in which our acquisitive culture never allows us to stop and ask if what we have and where we are is enough.

At the end of the book, she writes:

We are called to resist viewing ourselves as consumers or as commodities. We are called to savor the process of our own slow, patient development, instead of suffering in an enervated, anxious state over our value and our popularity. We are called to view our actions as important, with or without consecration by forces beyond our control. We are called to plant these seeds in our world: to dare to tell every living soul that they already matter, that their seemingly mundane lives are a slowly unfolding mystery, that their small choices and acts of generosity are vitally important.

Finally, I just listened to this, which made me feel good for some reason:


still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":

music friday: 2006

Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy". Grammy winner. Pazz & Jop winner. Best song of the year in Rolling Stone.

Amy Winehouse, "Rehab". Three-time Grammy winner. Pazz & Jop winner. She said she wouldn't go to rehab. How's that work out?

Hot Chip, "Over and Over". I'm getting old, Exhibit A: I've never heard of these guys.

Ghostface Killah, "Shakey Dog". OK, I know this one. Christgau gave the album an A+.

The Hold Steady, "Stuck Between Stations". First line namechecks Sal Paradise.

Pink, "U + Ur Hand". I'm not here for your entertainment.

The Raconteurs, "Steady As She Goes". By 2006, Jack White's presence meant a band was called a "Supergroup".

Cat Power, "The Greatest". She was already a veteran, having released her first song 13 years earlier.

Lupe Fiasco, "Kick Push". On the other hand, this was his first single.

Bruce Springsteen, "O Mary Don't You Weep". First recorded in 1915. No, not by Bruce.


Spotify playlist: 

tell me something new

Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971). This was the 7th film in the Bond canon, and the last with Sean Connery until his return in the non-canon Never Say Never Again. It followed the only George Lazenby Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had everything except a good actor playing 007. Connery returns to the worst of his first six ... it's not up to From Russia with Love or Goldfinger ... heck, it's not up to You Only Live Twice. Jill St. John is a decent Bond Girl, there are a couple of goofy bad guy partnerships, and Jimmy Dean plays Howard Hughes. But it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you'd watched the ones that came before it. 

The Brink (Jonathan Li, 2017). We saw this at an HK festival ... it came out in Asia last year, but is only now showing up in the U.S.. It's Li's first turn as a director, and he is brutally efficient. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and the two leads, Jin Zhang and Shawn Yue, were charismatic. But the plot existed mainly for the fight scenes ... there was none of the over-the-top "heroic bloodshed" of HK gangster movies in the past. It's a good movie that doesn't give you any real reason to watch it. Like Diamonds Are Forever, it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you watched the ones that came before it.