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film fatales #45 and #46: the ascent (larisa shepitko, 1977) and the spy who dumped me (susanna fogel, 2018)

Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.

The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.

I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)

This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.

The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday: 2011

Continuing with years I don't know enough about. There's an interesting interview in the latest Rolling Stone, "Monsters of Rock Criticism: Greil Marcus Interviews Robert Christgau". It features two eminent rock critics in their 70s who don't seem to have any trouble "keeping up". Obviously, I am neither Marcus nor Christgau, although I spent a lot of my life following in Greil's footsteps. At least in this list of ten, I've seen one artist in concert.

M83,"Midnight City". French electronic music. I'm just narrow-minded enough to dislike this just by the description. It's actually not that bad.

Lana Del Rey, "Video Games". This is better.

Tyler, The Creator, "Yonkers". This video is some dark shit.

PJ Harvey, "The Words That Maketh Murder". Rolling Stone called this "Fairly peppy for a PJ Harvey song about murder".

James Blake, "The Wilhelm Scream". I like the title.

Jay-Z & Kanye West, "Otis". I don't know what to do with this, which samples one of my all-time favorite tracks in a creative way, but it just makes me want to hear the original. We like what we grew up with, I guess ... I remember playing the Live in Europe version of "Try a Little Tenderness" for my mom, and she said it was all wrong because Otis didn't do it like Sinatra did.

Cass McCombs, "County Line". Born and raised in Concord, California, which is about 15 miles from where I grew up.

Wild Flag, "Romance". Well, I only saw one of these ten acts live, but Wild Flag make up for the absence of any others. I saw them three times, which is pretty good considering they only stuck around long enough to make one album. If anyone unfamiliar with the band wonders why I was so taken with them, I have two words: "Carrie" and "Janet".

The Weeknd, "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls". Since he came up earlier, might as well quote Christgau here: "If coming leaves your penis feeling that bad, fella, remember that they're not called narcotics for nothing".

Drake, "Marvin's Room". He started on Degrassi: The Next Generation. He's sold a zillion records. Yet when I think of Drake, I think of this:

Spotify playlist ... no Jay-Z on Spotify, so I've added Otis for an encore:

Here is my mom's version of "Try a Little Tenderness" ... my parents had many, many Sinatra albums when I was growing up, including Nice 'n' Easy:

My version of "Try a Little Tenderness" ... I got to go now, and I don't wanna go:


Plentitude. That’s what I love about popular music. That’s the reason I review all those albums. I review albums — really positive reviews — I know I’ll never hear again, ‘cause I’m just not going to have the time. But continuing to document that plentitude is what I’m in it for. You know, democracy. And democracy is seriously threatened at this moment. We’re both worried about it but we can’t. . . . Fuck, we don’t know what’s going to happen.

-- Robert Christgau, interviewed by Greil Marcus

season finales and premieres: the deuce and outlander

Two of television's best series took important steps Sunday, with The Deuce concluding the second of its three seasons on HBO and Outlander beginning its fourth of at least six on Starz.

David Simon is fated to have everything he does compared to The Wire, and one of the wonders of his career is that his subsequent work belongs in the same room with that classic. He often uses actors multiple times, which increases the chances you'll think of The Wire. The Deuce features Gbenga Akinnagbe (Chris Partlow on The Wire), Chris Bauer (Frank Sobotka), Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (DeAngelo Barksdale), Method Man (Cheese), and Anwan Glover (Slim Charles). Many have noted that The Deuce is more like Simon's Treme than it is like The Wire ... all of the series feature large casts with plenty of characters to keep track of, but where The Wire had unifying themes for each season as well as for the series as a whole, Treme and The Deuce are more scattered. The characters' evolution is more important in the latter two than is a plot that keeps your attention over seasons. Me, I think The Wire is the best series ever, but I also loved Treme. The Deuce is a largely downbeat show ... I was going to say depressing, but I'm not sure that's the right word, so choose whichever you prefer. The best characters on The Deuce (and by "best" I mean the most finely drawn, not just "good guys") aspire to a better place in the world. The reason the show is depressing is that it is rare anyone actually gets to that better place. Part of this comes from our knowledge of where things are headed historically. The first season began in 1971, the second in 1977, and the third will be sometime in the 80s. The series relates the story of the emergence of the "Golden Age" of porn, focusing in particular on Eileen "Candy" Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a prostitute who first sees porn as a safer alternative to a life on the streets, and then sees opportunities to better herself by moving into directing films. Nothing goes easy for Eileen (or for anyone else, especially with the Mob getting its fingers in everything), but by the end of Season Two, she can envisage a future as a money-making director, having released a hit porn film. What we know and she doesn't is that the Internet is coming, making a lot of those hoped-for profits into something less than that.

Outside of Gyllenhaal, the biggest name in the cast is James Franco, playing twin brothers. But The Deuce revolves far more around its women characters than its men. In most cases, those women's lives are tied in unfortunate ways with men, most obviously in the relationship between pimp and whore. But The Deuce takes care to present this from the perspective of the women, and it makes a difference. And we really want the women to free themselves from their circumstances, which is why their failure to do so seems so heartbreaking.

Here is a scene of Eileen and Lori (Emily Meade), a prostitute with pimp problems that Eileen wants to cast as the lead in her porn version of Little Red Riding Hood:

Meade is a real standout on the show, but also deserving special mention are Dominique Fishback, Gbenga Akinnagbe, and Margarita Levieva.

Outlander is based on a series of historical romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, although "historical romance" somewhat limits what is actually going on in the books, which importantly involve time-travel. When the series begins, the primary eras are England in 1946 and Scotland in 1743 (don't hold me to any of these dates). Claire is the Englishwoman ... Jamie is the Scotsman. I had never really thought about the question "why time travel?", and Gabaldon's explanation is fascinating and makes perfect sense:

I had meant OUTLANDER to be a straight historical novel; but when I introduced Claire (around the third day of writing–it was the scene where she meets Dougal and the others in the cottage), she wouldn’t cooperate. Dougal asked her who she was, and without my stopping to think who she should be, she drew herself up, stared belligerently at him and said “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp. And who the hell are you?” She promptly took over the story and began telling it herself, making smart-ass modern remarks about everything. At which point I shrugged and said, “Fine. Nobody’s ever going to see this book, so it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do—go ahead and be modern, and I’ll figure out how you got there later.” So the time-travel was all her fault.

There is more to this anecdote than just explaining how time-travel worked its way into the plot. It is crucial that Claire takes over the story. On the series (I have only read half of the first novel, so I'm going on TV), Claire's perspective is foregrounded. Just to speak of sex (there is a lot of it in Outlander), Jamie is as much the eye candy as is Claire, and the love scenes between the two are not just highly erotic, but equal in a way you don't often see today. It doesn't hurt that stars Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan have an incredible chemistry. Both are perfectly cast for their characters, but it's as a couple that they truly shine. Simply put, without Balfe and Heughan working together, Outlander would be nowhere as good as it is. (Also, Tobias Menzies, who plays two roles, is horrifyingly awful as the bad one of the pair.)

The excellence of the show lies in good part on the source material ... without Gabaldon's novels, there is no series. But it's more than that, and I have no idea who to credit for the show, other than to mention that when Ronald D. Moore develops a show, I am always going to give it a shot.


el topo (alejandro jodorowsky, 1970)

I watched this countless times in the early 70s. Although I don't recall ever actually seeing it at midnight, El Topo is a contender for the first "Midnight Movie", having sold out a nightly, months-long run at that hour in a theater in New York City. Someone, probably Kael, was the first to call it an "acid western", and it's true that many in its audiences were high on something. I remember thinking it was possibly the weirdest movie I'd ever seen, and I returned to it often. I even bought a book that contained the screenplay and a long interview with Jodorowsky.

Now I've revisited it, after 45 years or so. It isn't the kind of movie I grew to like ... it's rabidly incoherent, which isn't my favorite style. It's either complete nonsense or deeply symbolic ... well, El Topo is not an either/or movie, it is both nonsense and symbolic. It is a kitchen sink movie ... as the IMDB tells us, "Alejandro Jodorowsky said the film was not intended to be a comedy, a tragedy, a political film or a religious film. It was everything."

I was never bored during its 125 minutes this time around. It's so loopy, and the overdone violence so regular, that it's hard not to pay attention. There are a couple of overriding themes (please don't ask me what they are), but the movie is best as a series of vignettes, each of which grabs our attention to varying degrees. With the violence, the genre, and the surrealism, El Topo plays like the lunatic offspring of Peckinpah and Buñuel. And there was a time when that was just what I was looking for at the movies. Admittedly, that is no longer true.

So it's hard to evaluate El Topo. I'm glad I watched it again after all these years, if for no other reason than to put myself back in an earlier stage in my life. But, there are loony movies from the same time (Performance being the best example) that I love just as much today. I can't recommend El Topo to anyone other than those with a taste for the oddball, and even there, I need to include a caveat about the violence ... just to quote a few examples from the "Parents Guide" on the IMDB, "A village is shown with its massacred inhabitants littering the place. Some bloody bodies are seen from a distance. Blood is seen on walls and the ground. Some of the dead carnage belongs to animals, their entrails are seen in bloody close-ups for a split-second. Several shots of graphic branding, a man quietly burns himself to death. Several scenes feature a swarm of bees, including a scene were a man bites a hive and we presume the bees sting him. A man is swiftly castrated. Blood sprays upward for a split-second as we see his POV (we do not see his genitals). He then shoots himself in the mouth splattering the wall behind him with blood (very brief)". El Topo does have its place in movie history, and if the above doesn't scare you off, it's worth seeing once.

what i watched

Two movies that deserve more attention than these short takes will provide.

Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, 1968). From a novel by Edmundo Desnoes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Alea, this tells a story about Cuba in the time between the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis. The protagonist is a bourgeois writer, Sergio, who stays behind after his family and friends go to Miami. The picture of post-revolution Cuba isn't particularly celebratory, and you might wonder how Alea got the film made at all. Alea appears in the film as a director who is glad to have moved beyond the censorship of the Batista days ... you could say that nothing is celebratory in the film. Sergio is alienated at best, and no advertisement for the bourgeoisie. Alea fragments his narrative, throws in documentary footage, and makes us feel as if "we are there" with Sergio. The film won a few international awards, but it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1973. #274 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

The Guilty (Gustav Möller, 2018). The first feature directed by Möller, this is a compact thriller that takes place entirely within an emergency services center. Jakob Cedergren plays a policeman on desk duty, Asger, awaiting the outcome of an investigation into something that happened when he was on the job. It's safe to say that there is no movie without Cedergren, but it's unfair to say there is nothing to the movie beyond the actor. Möller effectively shows how the claustrophobia we feel reflects the impotence Asger feels as he gets a phone call that is more than just a random drunk. He's a detective, and he can't help but piece together a story about what he is being told on the phone. He wants to save someone, but he's stuck in his office, on his phone. No spoilers here ... suffice to say that you can't guess what direction the narrative will go, it constantly surprises, and over the course of the film, you realize the title is plural, not singular. The Guilty is a genre exercise that achieves all that it sets out to do, and that is far more rare than you'd think.


music friday: 2010

It had to happen eventually. Here are ten tracks by ten artists, none of whom I have ever seen live. It would seem that 2010 marks the end of my youth and the beginning of my old age. Outside of the inescapable Adele, none of these songs impacted me very much.

Kanye West, "Runaway". "Let's have a toast for the douche bags."

Adele, "Rolling in the Deep".

Caribou, "Odessa". From Wikipedia: "'Odessa', was featured in a commercial for the automobile manufacturer Acura, the football video game by EA Sports, FIFA 11, as well as in a 2011 Lexus CT 200h commercial, and a 2012 Tissot commercial for watches."

Ariel Pink, "Round and Round". Oh, let's quote Wikipedia again, this time telling us that Ariel Pink "is frequently cited as 'godfather' of the hypnagogic pop and chillwave movements."

Janelle Monáe, "Tightrope". The video link is to her explosive U.S. TV debut on Letterman, where she takes over from James Brown. You might know her from Moonlight or Hidden Figures.

Flying Lotus, "... And the World Laughs with You". Correction, Flying Lotus feat. Thom Yorke.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "Heart in Your Heartbreak". "She was the miss in your mistake."

Javiera Mena, "Hasta la verdad". I love the drummer in the video, Natalia Pérez.

Drake, "Over". I'm too lazy to do the work, but who has sold more music, Drake or Adele? I think it's Drake, but what do I know?

Best Coast, "Boyfriend". "I'd love him to the very end, but instead he's just a friend. I wish he was my boyfriend."

Bonus ... I probably played this as much as the above ten combined:

Spotify playlist: 

throwback stretch

There are some great tributes out there right now to Willie McCovey ... Andrew Baggarly's was one of the best: "Remembering Willie McCovey, who struck fear without a drop of malice in his heart":

There was a time when McCovey worried that he really might be forgotten, that he wouldn’t have a lasting place in baseball history. It’s safe to say that he left this world with no such worries. There is a beautiful ballpark on the edge of San Francisco Bay. And there is a cove that bears his name....

A few years ago, former commissioner Fay Vincent interviewed former players for a book entitled, “It’s What’s Inside the Lines That Counts: Baseball Stars of the 1970s and 1980s Talk About the Game They Loved.” Vincent asked McCovey how he would like to be remembered. This is what he said:

“I just hope I left a legacy that lets people know how much I love the game. And I really mean what I said, that I would have played it for nothing. … I would have. I wanted to play that badly. I loved being a Giant. I mean, I grew up a Dodger fan because of Jackie Robinson. But there is nothing like the Giant family. That’s kind of the legacy I’d like, to be remembered as just a really nice guy.”

I think this is the second time I've cut-and-pasted this old post, which means it's making its third appearance on the blog. It's me, reminiscing about something involving McCovey that happened in 1980, when he was about to retire:

25 years ago today, I attended a double-header at Candlestick Park that shows the way sports works its way into our lives not only in large ways but also in small ones.

1980 was a nondescript season for the Giants. They got off to a slow start, and by June 29, they were already 11 games out and well on their way to a fifth-place finish in a six-team division. On offense, they had Jack Clark, Darrell Evans and very little else ... the pitching was a bit better, with Vida Blue and Ed Whitson having decent years (and making the All-Star team) and the bullpen pitching well.

Anyway, a bunch of us decided to take in the double-header, which was against the hated Dodgers.... The only thing going on for the Giants was the impending retirement of Willie McCovey, who was closing down a Hall of Fame career, and would be leaving the game at the All-Star break, which was a little more than a week away.

McCovey wasn't in the starting lineup for the first game. That spot belonged to Rich Murray, a 22-year-old pheenom who had just come up to the majors earlier in the month. (Murray's tenure as McCovey's replacement didn't last long ... he only played 57 games in the majors, and is mostly known now as Eddie Murray's brother.) The game was to-and-fro, Bob Knepper dueling with Don Sutton, and as the Giants came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, the score was tied 3-3. (It should be noted that the prospect of extra innings at a double-header wasn't quite so frightening in those days ... the game I am currently describing, for instance, only lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes.) The Dodgers brought in Bobby Castillo to relieve the tiring Sutton, and after a leadoff single by Rennie Stennett, Castillo retired the next two hitters, bringing up the pitcher's spot in the lineup.

And pinch-hitting for Bob Knepper was Willie McCovey.

There were 50,000 people at the park that day, and this was what we'd come to see: our old hero taking one last shot at our archrivals to the south. McCovey had managed only one homerun all season, the 521st of his career, but I think we can be forgiven for thinking hoping begging praying that he had #522 somewhere in that tired body.

And Castillo pitched to McCovey, and he got ahold of one. It went flying towards the right-centerfield fence, and 50,000 of us leapt into the air while Rennie Stennett circled the bases towards home. And then, since this is real life and not a made-up story, the ball fell just short of a homer, bouncing off the fence for a double that won the game for the Giants.

And I remember that game to this day.

Everything after that was anti-climactic. The Giants were shutout by Burt Hooton in the second game, and McCovey did not make an appearance.... The next Thursday, McCovey played his last game at Candlestick, and I played a little hooky to be there. In the third inning, with Jack Clark on third, Mac dribbled a ball past Dan Driessen at first base for a single and an RBI, his last at Candlestick. In the top of the 8th inning, McCovey went out to his position, and then, while everyone stood and cheered, Pheenom Murray came out to replace him. (There were 26,000 of us, not bad for a midweek day game.) Stretch McCovey was gone.

McCovey had one last shot in him, it turned out. On Sunday in Los Angeles, in his last game ever, he pinch-hit late in a tie game and lifted a sacrifice fly that gave the Giants the lead. It was his last major-league at-bat.