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music friday: frequently played albums

The question has been asked on Twitter: What 5 albums have you listened to most in your life? Be honest, not trendy. I don't know how to be honest ... I mean, if I ask Last.fm, which has been tracking my Spotify usage for a long time, the album I have listened to the most is Pink's The Truth About Love, which I'm pretty sure doesn't reach the numbers of stuff from the 60s, to begin with. So, keeping all that in mind, here is what I came up with, in no particular order.

Honorable Mention to Children of the Future, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Dirty Mind, Surrealistic Pillow, Beggars Banquet.

Personal note: The White Album was released on November 22, 1968. My then girlfriend/current wife gave it to me for a Xmas present.


film fatales #56: exhibition (joanna hogg, 2013)

This is my first Joanna Hogg film, and so I can't tell if its idiosyncrasies are typical of her work. Exhibition is a bit different, in any event. It's in the traditional of movies where "nothing happens" ... I'd say it's one of the leaders of that genre. Hogg tells the story of a middle-aged couple who have decided to sell their house after 18 years of living in it. He is an architect named "H" (at least I think he's an architect, we don't get a lot of detail in that regard), she is a performance artist named "D". Their house is suitably modernist, and is the setting for almost the entire movie. Tom Hiddleston has a couple of scenes as a realtor which amount to a cameo ... the relationship between D and H is pretty much the whole movie.

Some people seem to think of D and H's marriage as falling apart, but I didn't get that. They are in a rut, and they occasionally try to break through that feeling, but for the most part, they reminded me of my wife and I, and we just celebrated our 46th anniversary without falling apart. Something is missing from their lives, just like something is missing from the house, which is exquisite yet somehow barren. D and H are childless, and again, some think this is important, but I thought they were just two people who didn't want kids.

Exhibition is rather chilly, and perhaps some viewers will think that proves the couple are in trouble. It is true that the most intense sex scene in the film comes when D masturbates in bed as H sleeps beside her ... OK, maybe they are in trouble.

The leads, Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, are not actors ... this was the only movie as actor for each. Gillick is a conceptual artist, while Albertine has done many things, beginning with her time in the seminal punk band The Slits. In her wonderful memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine writes about the making of Exhibition. She and Joanna Hogg were longtime friends, and Hogg asked her to star in the movie. Albertine said yes instantly, then had second thoughts after meeting Gillick. But she (and Gillick) stuck it out.

What I’m not confident about is my body, or my face. Joanna doesn’t want me to wear any makeup, and here’s the camera inches from my face (and thighs), god knows what kind of lens Ed Rutherford, the director of photography, is using. I have absolutely no control over what I look like. I feel like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Stanley Kowalski grabs her face and holds it under a bare light bulb to see how old she really is (Vivien Leigh said that was the most painful scene she had ever filmed). On the first day of shooting I’m acutely aware of my age and the rarity of a movie camera lingering over an older woman’s face in films. Usually it’s a young woman’s face the camera loves, it almost caresses her: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she perfect....

I couldn’t do the sex scenes if I had a boyfriend, it would be a betrayal. ... I haven’t been touched by a man for over a year, this is so strange, a man I don’t know touching me intimately, with another group of men I don’t know watching me, the microphone dangling over our heads and the blank shark eye of the camera lens recording it all. I’m half appalled and half aroused. ... By the time we get to the last sex scene, towards the end of the six-week shoot, I have to make a huge effort to get into it. I’m exhausted, all wrung out, I’ve given every last drop of myself. ...

One of the last scenes we shoot takes place in a country house. The room is cold and completely dark, there’s no bed, just a mattress in the middle of the floor. Joanna tells Liam and me to curl up together under a blanket. I put my head on Liam’s shoulder, he wraps his arm around me. I start sobbing uncontrollably. Joanna asks me what she should do, I say, ‘Keep filming, I’m not going to be able to stop.’ It’s the position we’re in that’s affected me so deeply. Just how Husband and I used to snuggle up together when we were happy. I cry continuously for the next four hours, the first time I’ve cried since the break-up of my marriage.

The visual style of the film, with shots through blinds and reflections everywhere, is a way of making the house into a character. It certainly has a bigger and more important role than does Tom Hiddleston.

Just because why not, here's a video of The Slits in 1979:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)


catch-22

Earlier, I wrote about Mike Nichols' 1970 film adaptation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I re-read the novel as I watched the new, six-part mini-series of the book.

Heller's novel, like the Nichols movie, holds up well (and, as was true at the time, the book is better than the movie). Heller combines the horrors of war with tongue-twisting word play designed to demonstrate the circular illogic of the military. Heller's Catch-22 is absurd, violent, and hilarious, often at the same time. While The Military is the ultimate villain, two characters in particular stand out for their essentially evil nature. Aarfy is a privileged social climber who doesn't care about anyone who can't help him get higher up the ladder. He commits the novel's most repugnant action (and gets away with it). Milo is a schemer who turns a job as mess officer into a huge capitalist enterprise. Milo bombs his own base, trades with the enemy, and acts in an amoral way while claiming he is just following the philosophy of capital.

In the mini-series, Milo does the same things that occur in the book, but somehow he comes across more as an innocent savant than a representative of capitalism run amok. Jon Voight's interpretation in the 1970 movie is better ... by the film's end, Milo is as much fascist as capitalist. As for Aarfy, he is creepy, but not really important enough to stand as the worst that men can do.

Women are treated with more respect in the mini-series than in either the novel or the earlier film. The sexism of Heller's book is fairly ordinary for its time, but it's hard to take now, when we should know better. The mini-series mostly solves this problem by making the marginal women characters of the novel even less important. There is less overt sexism, but the women aren't really given anything useful in its place.

Christopher Abbott is a fine Yossarian, but the better-known actors are a mixed bag. Giancarlo Giannini is OK as a jaded survivor, but George Clooney overplays his role and Hugh Laurie is barely there. Kyle Chandler comes off the best ... other than Abbott, he gives the best performance in the show.

Catch-22 is an acknowledged classic novel. If you have never read it, you should. If you read it long ago and liked it, a re-reading will be rewarding, although ultimately I'm not sure it is THE major novel of its era. Meanwhile, the mini-series is more good than bad, but it lacks the lunacy of the novel.


what i watched

Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970). Better than I remembered it being. It's still like a revue of the novel, with various highlights, doing better with the humor than with the existential angst. Features a ridiculous cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Marcel Dalio, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel , Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles. Better than reading the CliffsNotes, I suppose, at least more fun. I see I used the word "better" three times ... that may give the movie more credit than it deserves.

I didn't know this, but there was a TV pilot in 1973 with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. It's pretty bad, with an incongruous laugh track. I'd link to a video, but it's been taken down from YouTube. I'd recommend you try to hunt it down, but it's awful enough that it's not worth your time unless you're a completist. Of course, there's also a new mini-series, which I'll get to once I finish it.

Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015). Follows Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (duh). Donnie Yen is a little older with each outing, but unlike someone like Jackie Chan, who relies so heavily on stunts, Yen mostly sticks to martial arts, which I imagine aren't quite as hard on an old body as some of Jackie's crazier stunts. Lynn Hung returns one last time as Ip Man's wife ... she's not always given a lot to do, but at 5'10" she certainly stands out, and her acting is as good as she is tall. Max Zhang makes his first appearance in the series, and he's so good they gave him a spinoff, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which I haven't seen. Nor have I seen the recent Ip Man 4, with Yen returning once again. (In fairness to me, I don't think Ip Man 4 has been released yet.) A final fight between Yen and Zhang is the highlight, but there's also Ip Man going up against "Frank", played by Mike Tyson, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Ip Man 3 was the biggest success of the three at the box office. For reasons that escape me, I watched this in an English dub, which was not too bad. This outing takes place in 1959, and as with Ip Man 2, there is a notable anti-British bias. Ip Man remains the best of the series, but they are all worth seeing.

Here, Ip Man takes on Mike Tyson in a 3-minute round:

Not bad for a 52-year-old and a 49-year-old.


cataracts no more

Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on both eyes. If you've ever had this done, you know how I'm feeling right now.

I'm giddy. It's not just that I can see better than I did with contacts/glasses ... it's that I can see BETTER. Colors are far more vivid, distance vision is much improved, there is no more hazy film on everything I look at. It's amazing.

And the procedure wasn't bad, either. I made them give me lots of sedatives, but when they asked halfway if I needed more, I said no, I was having too much fun. The doctor had told me what I saw would be kinda psychedelic ... guess what, he was right! It was like having an old-school light show in my eyes. I'm pretty unknowledgeable about what he did, but they give you enough local anesthetic that you can't feel a thing, and between the bright light shining in your eyes and the accompanying light show, I never once thought "ugh, they're cutting into my eyes".

Whole thing took half-an-hour ... I spent more time in prep than I did in the operating room. The difference was apparent immediately ... as they were wheeling me out of the operating room, I told the nurses, hey, I can see your faces! I've been like that pretty much ever since (closing in on 24 hours now). I can see better than I ever remember ... my vision is now 20/25 in each eye, and I don't think they are done getting better. I need reading glasses ... for 60 years I was nearsighted, now I'm farsighted. It's impressive.

And colorful.


impossible burgers

Just read an article about Impossible Burgers (disclosure: I haven't eaten one yet). In "Impossible Foods’ rising empire of almost-meat", Chris Ip tells the story of Impossible Foods, which among other things will be making an "Impossible Whopper" for a Burger King in St. Louis:

Something in the story took me back to this one time when I dropped acid ... would have been early-70s, I guess. It starts with this video:

At one point, the Director of Research for Impossible Foods explains that flavor comes to us in part via our nose ... the nose "tells you what you're eating". It was that point which led to my "acid flashback". As is often the case with seemingly mundane events that happened when I was tripping, I can remember this as if it were yesterday.

I was sitting at the dinner table at home ... I was living there, as were my three youngest siblings. We were eating hot dogs, and I had done some psychedelics. I was holding a hot dog with no condiments, staring into space, trying to act "normal" so Mom and Dad wouldn't suspect anything. One sibling passed the mustard across the table to another sibling. I could smell mustard as it crossed my line of sight. And then, suddenly, I could also taste the mustard, just as I would have if I'd put it on my hot dog in the first place. I smelled it ... I tasted it.

Now I know that was science at work. Or nature, not sure what to call it, exactly.


finales: better things, fleabag

You might have heard there's a TV show having its series finale tonight. While you are waiting for it to air, may I offer these two shows for your binging pleasure?

Better Things just finished its third season, and has already been renewed for a fourth in 2020. At first, Better Things was associated with Louis C.K., who with Adlon was the co-creator and writer of the show. After he admitted to sexual misconduct, he left the show, making the third season a question mark. But it has always been a show based in part on Adlon's life, she had already directed every Season 2 episode, and the third season ended up being perhaps the best yet. Adlon wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 12 episodes, directed them all, and, of course, starred in them all. She shines in every capacity.

Better Things is the story of a divorced mom with three daughters and an aging mother who lives next door. Adlon's character, Sam, is an actress in Los Angeles who does voice over work, commercials, bit parts in movies, whatever comes her way. She also teaches acting classes and is able to provide for her family in relative comfort. There are male characters, but the core of the show is and has always been the five women/girls in the family. Adlon and her actresses have created sisters who are believable and clearly delineated. Each has her own good and bad parts, and they aren't necessarily interchangeable. The varying ages of the girls also offers opportunities for different stories: Max, the eldest, who goes off to college at the beginning of Season 3, Frankie, the middle child and the most troublesome, and the youngest, Duke, who is still mostly lovable. Meanwhile, Sam's mom, Phil, is at the beginning of something resembling Alzheimer's. Sam thinks she has to take care of all of them. Her heart is usually in the right place, but she doesn't always do the right thing, nor do her daughters act like something out of The Brady Bunch. They can all be infuriating, but Adlon never loses sight of their core decency, even when they are acting terribly. In this, she is helped immensely by her cast, all of whom were unknown to me: Mikey Madison as Max, Hannah Alligood as Frankie, and Olivia Edward as Duke. Celia Imrie, who I do know, rounds out this great cast as Phil.

The writing is excellent, the direction is excellent, the acting is excellent, and the show gets better every season. I can't recommend it enough.

Here is my favorite scene, from the Season 2 finale ... Max prepares something special for Max's high-school graduation:

Then there is Fleabag, a British series which just ended its second and final season. It felt like Fleabag came out of nowhere, yet it was such a success that, even though Season One ended in such a way that nothing more was needed, when Season Two arrived, we were delighted to find out it was, if anything, even better. There was no way Season Two would "come out of nowhere" ... creator/star/writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge will never be anonymous again. Since Fleabag began, she has done the voice for L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and developed the smash TV hit series Killing Eve. Now she's been hired to co-write the next James Bond movie. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the woman who plays the wicked stepmother in Fleabag, Olivia Colman, won a Best Actress Oscar between the making of Seasons One and Two.

Fleabag is more tragicomic than Better Things. The latter tends to be a bit closer to "real life" than Fleabag, which is both hilarious and crushingly sad whenever the occasion calls for it. The first scene of Season 2 is an excellent example:

Yes, Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a "comedy". In one of the most telling moments in the show, Fleabag responds to a therapist's question about having someone to talk to by saying oh yes, and then looking at us and winking ... sadly, it appears the audience is her best friend:

If I had to choose which of these shows to binge first, I'd go with Fleabag, which only has 12 30-minute episodes.

A personal note, which seems appropriate given the personal nature of these shows. My wife avoids both of them, and most similar shows, for that matter. She said Fleabag is just people blabbing. I said it isn't just blabbing, it's emotion, to which she replied that she thought it interesting that I like emotional shows. I recalled the above scene with the therapist, and realized that I have the reverse problem of Fleabag: my friends are the characters in the shows I watch. I feel like I know Sam and Fleabag better than I know the real people in my life.