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film fatales #54: shirkers (sandi tan, 2018)

Shirkers is the story of a film that got stolen. Sandi Tan was a 19-year-old who, with two friends and teacher/mentor Georges Cardona, shot the footage for a feature-length movie. The three young women went off to college, leaving the film for Cardona to edit. They never saw him again, and the footage seemed to be lost. Many years later, Cardona's widow contacted Tan, telling her she had found the footage, which Cardona had kept all those years. There was no audio.

Tan does a great job of integrating that footage into a making-of documentary. It gives Tan a chance to regain what was once hers; it's also crippled by the lack of sound. The original Shirkers is lost to the world, but with the perspective that distance provides and the technical skills Tan had picked up over time, she gives us a new feature that is probably better than what she made as a teenager. There is a sense of loss, of course, but in the end, we can only guess at the quality of the original. There is no guess work involved with the documentary, which is intriguing and shines light on the precarious nature of the art we make.

Cardona seems to sneakily become the film's focus, which would be his final triumph if that's what he wanted (he is ultimately a cipher), but eventually it turns back to Tan and her friends, as it should. While Tan includes interviews with critics who make extravagant claims for the lost film, it feels hyperbolic. And unnecessary, since the film she eventually makes stands on its own. And if the original was charmingly amateurish, the grown-up Tan is an accomplished film maker (for one thing, she hides that fact that the footage is silent for most of the film, and I never suspected a thing ... maybe if I watched it a second time I'd see the signs).

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

music friday

Some Wikipedia items about this week's artist:

"The book British Hit Singles & Albums states that he was "Britain's most successful album act before the Beatles...the first act to sell over one million stereo albums and [have] six albums simultaneously in the US Top 30".

"His records were regularly used for demonstration purposes in stores selling hi-fi stereo equipment, as they were produced and arranged for stereo reproduction. He became the first person to sell a million stereophonic records."

He "starred in his own syndicated television series ... which was produced in England and which aired in the United States ... Thirty-nine episodes were filmed".

"Author Joseph Lanza stated that [he] was a leader in the use of new studio technologies to 'create sound tapestries with innumerable strings', and that 'the sustained hum of [his] reverberated violins produced a sonic vaporizer foreshadowing the synthesizer harmonics of space music.' ... Variety ... [called] him 'the biggest musical phenomenon of the twentieth century'."

Wikipedia lists 50 albums (it's not complete).

And depending how old you are, I bet you've never heard of him. But his name was synonymous with a certain kind of music, such that even now, the only way I can think of to label his music is to use his name: Mantovani, who died on this date in 1980.

Here is his 1951 hit "Charmaine", which hit #10 on the charts and was on them for 19 weeks:


film fatale: agnès varda, 1928-2019

I've rated and written about five Agnès Varda films here. On a scale of ten, I've given her 8 8 8 9 9. An all-time great film maker.

Cléo from 5 to 7. "Cléo from 5 to 7 isn’t quite as startling now as it must have seemed in 1962, but its essential, existential heart is just as large now as it was then."

Vagabond. Film Fatales #1. "Varda shows us how each individual gets Mona wrong, but she refuses to show us a Mona we can understand. It’s as if such a demonstration would be corrupted by value judgments."

The Gleaners & I. "But what comes through more than anything is the joy Varda takes from the gleaners. At one point, she picks up a broken wall clock with no arms or hands. It would seem useless, but Varda puts it on a mantel in her house, telling us a clock without hands is perfect for her."

The Beaches of Agnès. "The film feels almost tossed off, as if Varda gathered together some source material, filmed a few transition pieces, and had a movie. But after it’s over, when you start thinking about what you’ve seen, you realize how detailed is the film’s construction."

Faces Places."The themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it."

broad city series finale

In the end, Broad City mattered so much more than we could have expected when it began.

It was always a comedy, full of what were, to cite the title of one of the last episodes, "shenanigans". The shenanigans were what you told your friends about the day after an episode ... and after 49 episodes (not including the web series), there were plenty of them: trying and failing to see Lil Wayne, Abbi hallucinating a giant Bingo Bronson stuffed toy, Abbi filling in for Ilana at the latter's food co-op, the pegging episode. And Broad City always made use of guest stars playing themselves in delightfully off-center ways: a hard-partying Kelly Ripa, Hillary Clinton as Hillary Clinton, a well-endowed basketball star Blake Griffin, Shania Twain getting a workout. Not to mention the perfect casting of Susie Essman as Ilana's mom, and Alia Shawkat as Ilana's doppelganger. But even when there was stunt casting, Broad City's center was Abbi and Ilana.

And in the final two seasons, the series became arguably less funny, with a tone that wasn't exactly serious, but which showed more of how the real world tried to impinge on the women's friendship. This last season in particular sees Abbi and Ilana faced with growing up. It's not that their younger selves were exposed as trivial, far from it, but the characters must move on, just as the real-life Abbi and Ilana have more projects on which to work, together and separately. The final season matters more because of the first four seasons, because the friendship of Abbi and Ilana was so accurate and imperfect and loyal that our knowledge that the series was ending, and the way the show itself dealt with this ending, was heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.

One reason their connection was so strong was because they accepted each other's quirks, they had no boundaries, neither of them was perfect, which made their friendship seem more perfect. In the final episode, Glazer and Jacobson create a situation that is believable and excruciating, just as it would be in real life. But, as the final shot demonstrates, not only does the world go on, but the world is filled with best friends living lives together, unbeknownst to the world at large.


film fatales #53: captain marvel (anna boden and ryan fleck, 2019)

Captain Marvel is a "film fatale" for more reasons than that it was co-directed by a woman. Two of the three screenwriters are women, the composer is a woman, a woman is co-editor ... none of this would be remarkable if it weren't for the fact that it is still far too rare. There's also the part where this is a Marvel superhero movie with a woman as the lead, although this isn't a first if you include television (say hello to Peggy Carter).

Captain Marvel succeeds in all of the Marvel basics: good action scenes, an enjoyable supporting cast (some, like Gemma Chan and Lee Pace, aren't easily recognized under their makeup, and while Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg are recognizable, that's because of the CGI work that made them younger), even an animal that isn't annoying (Goose the Cat, so much better than that damn fox in the Guardians films). I can barely keep track of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I am a regular viewer of the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so it was fun seeing some of that show's plot integrated into the film (the Kree have been in the series, as has the Tesseract, not to mention Phil Coulson, although the show got better when it mostly detached itself from the MCU).

I've been a fan of Brie Larson since United States of Tara, and she's fine as The Captain, even if she's no Agent Carter (or Wonder Woman, for that matter). I've seen more of these movies than I realize, and for the most part, I like them OK, even if only one has been truly excellent. My rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe items I've seen:

Easily the best: Black Panther

Runner-Up: Agent Carter (TV series, but she's a character in a few of the movies, so I'm counting it)

OK: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.Ant-ManThe AvengersAvengers: Infinity WarCaptain America: Civil WarCaptain MarvelDoctor Strange, Iron Man, Venom (not sure why it isn't in the official MCU)

Not so OK: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Worst: Guardians of the Galaxy

As is known by now, Captain Marvel is a huge hit at the box office, and I'm glad for that ... puts to rest the notion that female leads can't do box office. Still, my favorite Brie Larson movie, Short Term 12, cost less than $1 million to make ... it would be nice if Marvel fans checked that movie out some time.

Some 4K trailer action:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

liquid sky (slava tsukerman, 1982)

Some cult movies earn the label over time by an audience that creates the cult status. Others are purposely cult movies, odd, aggressively different. Liquid Sky is the latter. A hit on the festival circuit, Liquid Sky is the story of aliens from outer space who are attracted to heroin, until they find out what they need from the opiate is better supplied by humans having orgasms. Of course, the plot takes a back seat to ambiance, visuals, androgyny, and a punk subculture that listens to experimental synth music. It's something of a kitchen sink approach, but there is always something going on, even if at times that something seems pointless.

Anne Carlisle stars in a dual role, and she does a fine job as both the female lead and a male counterpart who, everyone notices, looks a lot like the female. The rest of the acting, though, is highly variable ... in some cases, I felt like I was watching something headed for MST3K.

Usually, I appreciate the effort in movies like this, without actually liking them very much. And Tsukerman, Carlisle, and Nina V. Kerova, who co-wrote the screenplay, are ambitious and unafraid to put their ideas out there. Truth is, I liked Liquid Sky more than I usually do with obscure cult movies. It's a wonderland for fans of neon.


music friday: jorma kaukonen

I just finished Jorma Kaukonen's memoir Been So Long. Kaukonen is best known for his work as a guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. He's a fine writer. The book is episodic at times, as Kaukonen pulls memories out of his life. The time spent making albums with the Airplane is rather quickly dispensed with, not because of any ire towards his old band, but he doesn't seem to realize (or care) that readers might have an interest in those albums. He spends equal amounts of time on all albums he worked on, including his many solo albums.

His honesty pays off throughout the book. Of the Airplane's status as "hippies", he writes, "We were ... affluent and most of our problems were upper-class, first-world ones.... The so-called straight people might have considered that we lived an eccentric lifestyle, but consider this: we were successful in a mainstream way, contracted to an old guard establishment corporation (RCA), and we all had money."

Jorma writes in a low-key style, a bit like his vocals. His doesn't shy away from talking about his troubles with booze and drugs, but neither does he sensationalize them. It's just there. By the time you've finished his book, you've learned something of his philosophy of life. He's 78, and content. He also still loves to play his music.

Here are a few songs featuring Jorma. From Volunteers, "Good Shepherd":

"The Other Side of This Life" is as much a showcase for Jack Casady as it is for Jorma, but sometimes you can't have one without the other:

Maybe his best solo track, from Quah:

Legendary acoustic Hot Tuna:

And probably his most-famous composition ... he once recorded an album with 11 different versions of this song. Here, he plays it at the Airplane induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

And a bonus: "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning"

revisiting detour

It's been ten years since I watched and wrote about Detour, the classic noir from Edgar G. Ulmer. At that time, I wrote:

What is left to say about a movie that cost about 1/5 of what we spent remodeling our house, and is now in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry? A marvel of ingenuity, and surely the best movie you could make, given $20,000 and six days. One of the least-perfect great films ... you can watch it in the spirit of Plan 9 from Outer Space and it will reward you ... but it is relentless, and Ann Savage is perhaps the #1 noir bitch in screen history.

Detour has been restored since I watched it last, and it now looks as good as any $20,000 movie can look. Perhaps it's because over the past ten years, I have watched so many Grade-Z movies and written about them, but on this revisit, I felt that Detour is a lot more perfect than I gave it credit for. Some movie has to be the ultimate cheapo classic. Detour is it.

It was this week's Movie of the Week on the upcoming Criterion Channel, and it's not hard to take it in, if you've never seen it or if it's been awhile. After all, it's only 68 minutes. And you'll never forget Ann Savage.


five years (2019-2023)

Every five years, my sister and I choose baseball players that we think will do well over the following five seasons. We pick one player for each position, 4 starting pitchers, and one reliever. That's all of the rules ... there are no substitutes (one of my choices once died during the five-year period, but I couldn't make a change). After five years, we see who made the best picks ... there are no hard-and-fast tools for evaluation, we just eyeball what they have done, and it's usually obvious. We pair the players by position, so we compare her catcher to mine, etc. This is our fifth time doing this, going back 20 years, and my sister wins every time. Here are our choices for 2019-2023:


C: JT Realmuto
1B: Freddie Freeman
2B: Jose Altuve
3B: Nolan Arenado
SS: Francisco Lindor
OF: Mike Trout, Roberto Acuna, Bryce Harper
SP: Gerrit Cole, Blake Snell, Corey Kluber, Walker Buehler
RP: Edwin Diaz


C: Gary Sanchez
1B: Cody Bellinger
2B: Javier Baez
3B: Alex Bregman
SS: Trea Turner
OF: Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, Aaron Judge
SP: Chris Sale, Aaron Nola, Noah Syndergaard, Jameson Taillon
RP: Josh Hader

We dug up our first draft, from 1999. Here are the players we picked 20 years ago:


C: Mike Piazza
1B: Jim Thome
2B:Craig Biggio
3B: Chipper Jones
SS: Alex Rodriguez
OF: Ken Griffey, Ben Grieve, Shannon Stewart
SP: Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Brown
RP: Mariano Rivera


C: Ivan Rodriguez
1B: Carlos Delgado
2B: Todd Walker
3B: Scott Rolen
SS: Derek Jeter
OF: Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, Bobby Higginson
SP: Brad Radke, Kerry Wood, Kevin Millwood, Jimmy Haynes
RP: Matt Anderson

danny kustow

Danny Kustow died a few days ago. He was best known as the guitarist for the original Tom Robinson Band.

I wrote this back in 2006 ... it's worth checking out the entire post, there's some good tidbits in there ... but here is the part that references Kustow in particular, lightly edited:

The Tom Robinson Band was coming to town, we were big fans, he was playing somewhere semi-large in the City, but he was playing in a dinky club in Davis before he got to San Fran, so we decided to see him there. Our friend Claire said she could get us backstage. I came prepared ... I made a big sign that read "Danny Kustow is God" and took it to the show. We set up right near the stage on the side Kustow would be playing, and it's safe to say the band was delighted to have such a big fan in such a dinky club, because for probably the only time in my life, then, now, or in the future, the band played to me ... that is, I was identified as the biggest fan in the crowd, so I got a lot of the "let's interact with the audience by looking his way" stuff.

And when the show was over, Claire escorted me backstage ... and if the club was dinky, you can imagine what the dressing room was like. It was, to be perfectly honest, not much more than a closet. A closet with four people stuffed inside of it. Five, once I entered.

The band was v.nice ... they all autographed my sign ... to this day it's the only time I got to go backstage.

Looking back, trying to identify why Kustow made such an impression on me. I was under the spell of punk rock, where great musicianship was almost in bad taste. The great punk guitarists tended towards minimalism, or followed the creatively chaotic playing of Johnny Thunders. Kustow was different ... he had the kind of chops that would have served him well in a traditional classic rock band, but his playing also had an audible snarl that was perfect for the music TRB were making. As Joe Strummer said of Mick Jones in "Complete Control", "You're my guitar hero!"

Robinson gave a beautiful tribute at Danny's funeral ... not sure this link works properly, but a transcript was posted on Facebook. Meanwhile, thank you Danny. Here is one of many highlights from those days: