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sleater-kinney #16 & #17

This weekend I took in my 16th and 17th Sleater-Kinney concerts, the first ones without longtime drummer Janet Weiss. Since Weiss had played on their latest album, these concerts were the first real test of new drummer Angie Boylan. Katie Harkin, the guitar/keyboard/vocals 4th member who started touring with the band on their last tour, was back, along with Toko Yasuda, the new 5th member who performed some of the same things as did Harkin. Both were very good at filling out the sound of the band, but Boylan is the one people had their eyes on. She was just fine, and of course, why wouldn't she be? The one thing of note was that she was playing Janet's parts, that is, I didn't get a feel for what Boylan might add on her own, because she was mostly just replicating what Weiss had done on record. If Boylan sticks around, we'll get a better sense of what she brings. For now, no harm no foul.

What really stood out was how much Janet's absence turned Sleater-Kinney into a two-piece, Corin and Carrie with three backup musicians. While the two stars interacted as much as ever, there was little crossover into the Backup Three, and you realized how Janet was more than just a great drummer, she was an integral part of the band. Boylan could play Janet's licks, but S-K didn't really bother to replace Weiss as part of a trio. They just played like a duo, which is how they started, so I guess it wasn't that odd.

Other than that, there was nothing particularly new at these shows. Well, each night they played every song from the new album, but the key was still Corin's otherworldly vocals and Carrie's rock star charisma and idiosyncratic guitar work. I have never seen Carrie smile so much, and with her large mouth covered in red lipstick, those smiles were hard to miss. Both of them were having so much fun, and after reading Carrie's memoir and finding out how miserable she often was, it was something of a relief to know she has hopefully gotten past that.

Reviewing The Center Won't Hold, I wrote, "Ultimately, we may not know just how good The Center Won’t Hold is until later in Sleater-Kinney’s career. I want to see these new songs live, mixed in with older classics, and to see how they work with a new drummer. I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'." Now I've seen them live, and the best of the songs are already integrated firmly into the live set. To that extent, The Center Won't Hold is established as part of S-K history, no matter how different it sounds from their earlier albums. What I can't tell yet is how many of those new songs will still feel vital down the road, the way classics like "Jumpers" and "One More Hour" and "Entertain" and "Modern Girl" continue to resonate today. But that the band is this far along in their journey, and they are still relevant, is remarkable in the rock world.

They did me the favor of playing "Youth Decay" on Saturday ... I had been bugging them on Twitter to do so, not that I got their attention. It has always been my favorite Janet song, so for me, it was a real test of Angie Boylan, and again, she played the Janet part accurately. They were a bit more talkative the first night, and I especially appreciated Carrie's introduction to "Modern Girl" ... she noted that she wrote it when she was very depressed, and that it is a depressing song (the crucial line "My whole life is like a picture of a sunny day" points out, it should be obvious, that her life wasn't sunny, it was like a picture of sunny). She expressed surprise that some people use "Modern Girl" as a wedding song.

The major difference for me in the two shows was that I was on the floor the first night, but sitting in the balcony for Night Two. It had a much larger effect than I might have imagined. Being in the balcony placed a distance between us and the band. It's silly in a way ... it's not like the first night Corin and Carrie were looking directly at me, 2/3 of the way back on the floor, performing just for me. But there is something about being on the floor that connects you viscerally to the band, and that was absent in the balcony. I am used to sitting in balconies, especially as I get older. But, to cite the two artists I see most besides S-K, Bruce Springsteen and Pink bring the spectacle to their shows, and while I've been up close for both of them, the distance isn't a deal breaker ... Bruce has a great ability to turn an arena into a small club, and Pink is famous for flying around the arena so everyone at some point is "close". Sleater-Kinney offers none of that. Oh, they earned the warning we got entering the theater that strobe lights would be on display. But ultimately, their entire live act is focused on a one-on-one relationship to each of us that, no matter how silly it is, has an honest feel to it. And that silly honesty was lacking from the balcony.

I suppose the #1 thing I learned from this weekend is that I am too old for consecutive nights on the floor. I loved the first night, but I was very sore afterwards, and was thus very glad I was sitting for the second night. The balcony experience convinced me I want to be on the floor for Sleater-Kinney ... my creaking bones convinced me I'm no longer the young whippersnapper who could do consecutive nights on the floor.


music friday: sleater-kinney

Here they come again. This weekend, I will see Sleater-Kinney for the 16th and 17th time. No one whose name isn't Springsteen comes close.

I tend to remember dates by the events that accompanied them. We moved into this house in 1987, and I remember that because the Giants almost made the World Series. My daughter was born on January 15, 1978, the day after I saw the Sex Pistols, and I'm never quite sure if I remember the Sex Pistols' date because of my daughter, or the other way around.

My wife and I go way back with Bruce Springsteen, seeing him for the first time in 1975. It's a way of marking the passage of time ... remember that first concert? Remember when we were in the third row? Remember when we followed him up and down the west coast? Remember when he turned up as a surprise guest at a Gary U.S. Bonds show? Remember, remember, remember? (For the obsessive-compulsive among you, the years for those particular memories were 1975, 1976, 1980, 1981.) It's understood that our experiences with Bruce have covered a lot of years. Hell, Bruce is 70 years old now.

Well, sometimes I think of Sleater-Kinney as a band of riot grrrls, emphasis on girls. They weren't exactly girls, even when I first saw them (Carrie was 23, Corin was 25, Janet was an ancient 34). This is no longer true, and their music reflects their middle-agedness. At a show a few days ago in Texas, Corin celebrated her 47th birthday.

And so now I realize they have been around so long, and been important in my life for so long, that I can use them to mark time. Or I can just use them as another example of how time flies (i.e., I am getting old). I first saw Sleater-Kinney in concert more than 20 years ago, and that simple fact blows my mind. Let's put it in blog context: I saw them five times before I started this blog, and this blog is almost 18 years old.

That first show in 1998 was at the Great American Music Hall, which holds 600. It remains the smallest venue I've seen them at, and I've seen them there 7 times. Here they are in 1998:

Here they are in 2000, back when Janet would tell jokes:

And from the last time I saw them, New Year's Eve, 2016/7:

And most obviously, here is a complete show from a month ago:

 


tv in the 2010s: david simon, phoebe waller-bridge

I don't write as much about TV these days. One reason is that there is indeed too much good stuff ... it's hard enough to keep up with the watching, much less the writing. But I've found a catch-all way to inject TV into the blog, AV Club's "The 100 best TV shows of the 2010s". It's an obvious way to make my point about too much good stuff ... the list has 100 shows, and I haven't watched many of them (about a third). (Not to mention the thing about all such lists: each of us wonders why our favorite show didn't make the cut? Shout out to The 100, Lights Out, Agent Carter, Sweet/Vicious, Outlander, and Hot Ones.) What follows is a few comments about the shows I did watch. This will be a multiple-post thread.

The David Simon Decade (numbers are their place in the poll):

Show Me a Hero (100). A six-part miniseries, typically underestimated by everyone but critics. This is based on the true story of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko and the fight to desegregate public housing. Oscar Isaac starred, and the usual bunch of top actors were happy to take part in a David Simon show. Treme (68) was, to me, Simon's best show since The Wire. A story of the resilience of New Orleans residents in the face of natural disaster and governmental neglect, it was also a musical showcase, featuring great music every episode. Notably absent from the list: Generation Kill, about soldiers in the Iraq war that worked Simon's favorite theme of institutional incompetence preventing good people from doing their job, and The Deuce, about the sex industry in the 1970s and 1980s that had more problems than is normal for a Simon series, but had some great acting. [Edited because Generation Kill was actually 2008.]

All Hail Phoebe Waller-Bridge:

She was not the best thing about Broadchurch (91), but she was in the second season. You should binge that show, and not just because of Phoebe. Her great triumph, of course, was Fleabag (10), one of the defining shows of its time, the thing that put Waller-Bridge over the top. Killing Eve (59) featured fascinating acting from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, and Waller-Bridge was in charge of the first season. She had less to do with Season Two, and it wasn't as good.

The jump suit that took over the fashion world:


geezer cinema: linda ronstadt: the sound of my voice (rob epstein and jeffrey friedman, 2019)

The Sound of My Voice suffers from some of the usual problems that come with documentaries about musicians. Most notably, we never get a full version of any songs, just excerpts. We get plenty of examples of Linda Ronstadt's remarkable voice, but each time, we're left wanting more.

Still, this is preferable to standard biopics that invent life events to match the songs the artist produces. And you don't have to worry about someone else singing for Ronstadt ... that's her on the soundtrack.

Ronstadt fans can rest assured, though. They will enjoy the musical moments, and the presentation of her life in music is straightforward, if mostly on her side. You will come away with a better understanding of why Ronstadt moved so easily between so many genres. As she says at one point, "People would think I was trying to remake myself, but I never invented myself in the first place." Gilbert & Sullivan, classic pop standards, Mexican canciones, all of these were part of her musical upbringing. However it might have seemed to audiences, Ronstadt was just singing what she knew.

The film presents a who's who of musicians and industry people who rhapsodize about Ronstadt. There is, in fact, too much of this ... every repeated gushing story takes the place of the music we came to hear.

Epstein and Friedman sidestep the issue of Ronstadt's tour of South Africa during the cultural boycott of that country. It is mentioned once, she gives a brief statement about politics and singing, and it's forgotten.

The Sound of My Voice isn't great, but fans won't care. And the final scene, of Ronstadt singing gently with family as she suffers from Parkinson's disease, is moving.

For those who want to read a detailed analysis of Ronstadt's music from a critic/fan, I recommend the 1978 essay "Living in the USA" by John Rockwell.


lessons of darkness (werner herzog, 1992)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 10 is called "Cinéma-vérité Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite]; 'truthful cinema') is a style of documentary filmmaking, invented by Jean Rouch, inspired by Dziga Vertov's theory about Kino-Pravda. It combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It is sometimes called observational cinema, if understood as pure direct cinema: mainly without a narrator's voice-over. There are subtle, yet important, differences among terms expressing similar concepts. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence: operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode", a fly on the wall. Many therefore see a paradox in drawing attention away from the presence of the camera and simultaneously interfering in the reality it registers when attempting to discover a cinematic truth. Cinéma vérité can involve stylized set-ups and the interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation. Some argue that the obvious presence of the filmmaker and camera was seen by most cinéma vérité filmmakers as the best way to reveal the truth in cinema. The camera is always acknowledged, for it performs the raw act of filming real objects, people, and events in a confrontational way. The filmmaker's intention was to represent the truth in what he or she was seeing as objectively as possible, freeing people from any deceptions in how those aspects of life were formerly presented to them. From this perspective, the filmmaker should be the catalyst of a situation. Few agree on the meanings of these terms, even the filmmakers whose films are being described."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Cinéma-vérité film.

OK, let's deal with the Challenge parameters first. I didn't notice that the movies were supposed to be feature length, and Lessons of Darkness is only 54 minutes. But I got it from the above mentioned list of Cinéma-vérité films, so blame them. Also, while even Wikipedia struggles to define cinéma vérité in an exact manner, it's not clear to me that Lessons of Darkness qualifies. According to the IMDB, Herzog "prefers to think of this as a science fiction film, not a documentary."

None of this is particularly relevant, except as a comment on the Challenge.

If you need a genre, Lessons of Darkness is a documentary presented as science fiction. Herzog uses beautiful/ugly visuals to construct Earth as if it were seen from another planet, and he provides no context beyond the suggestion that the movie takes place after a man-made apocalypse, a la Mad Max movies. In fact, it's Kuwait after the Gulf War, and oil is the predominant image. Oil is everywhere ... as Herzog-as-narrator says, "This was once a forest before it was covered with oil. Everything that looks like water is in actuality oil. Ponds and lakes are spread out all over the land. The oil is treacherous because it reflects the sky. The oil is trying to disguise itself as water." Oil is the ugly side of beautiful. Much of the film consists of long aerial shots of the terrain, and they are hypnotic.

This is not a hopeful movie. At times, it seems like Herzog is recreating the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth (one segment is titled "Dinosaurs on the Go"), only now, the dinosaurs are the big machines operated by oil workers. Without context, there is no telling how this apocalypse took place, or why it wouldn't take place again. Herzog finds beauty in the land, but it's hopeless beauty.


i am cuba (mikhail kalatozov, 1964)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":

Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the ASC's list of 100 Milestone Films of the 20th Century.

I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.

Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:

Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.

Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.

I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include these clips because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. First, the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.

And my favorite of all the long takes:

And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: mink deville

I wrote the following back in 2007:

Mink DeVille, "Spanish Stroll." Somehow, this song manages to be vaguely New Wave while recalling the kind of culture that might have also spawned disco. We saw these guys once, and the opening act was an unknown local comic named Dana Carvey. Carvey was funny enough, but who comes to a rock concert to see a comedian? So he wasn't going over very well, and at one point he did some bit about a then-current commercial for Irish Spring soap. When no one laughed, he ad-libbed "what, you guys don't wash?" To which I shouted in reply, "We don't stink!" It was the only good heckle I ever got off. Robin liked Carvey, though, and so she wrote him a note on a napkin saying she thought he was funny and had our waitress take it to him. No word on whether or not he actually saw the note. He doesn't stink anymore, though.

The band was touring behind their first album, which made #29 on that year's Pazz & Jop poll. They had begun as Billy de Sade and the Marquis. As Mink DeVille, they were a house band at CBGB. That first album had a few memorable songs besides "Spanish Stroll", including a favorite of ours, "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl".

The band lasted until 1986, and Willy DeVille had a solo career, releasing albums through 2008. He died in 2009.

Here is an Irish Spring commercial from the late-70s:

As for Dana Carvey, well, you know him. Here is my favorite Dana Carvey bit ... I believe this is from his tryout tape for SNL:

A few decades and a lot of money later:


swing time (george stevens, 1936)

Generally considered one of the two best Fred and Ginger movies (along with my favorite, Top Hat). An Oscar winner for "The Way You Look Tonight", which is perfectly sung by Astaire, but which is a bit spoiled by the fact that Rogers has her head covered in shampoo during the scene. The score, by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, also includes "Pick Yourself Up", "A Fine Romance", and "Never Gonna Dance". The plot is the usual Fred and Ginger trifle ... the plot is never the point of their movies.

The dance highlight is "Never Gonna Dance" (many of these clips are of poor quality, especially unfortunate since Criterion has recently released a restored version):

The most famous dance in the movie is "Bojangles of Harlem", a tour de force as a dance and as a production, that is problematic because Astaire wears blackface. This time, it's hard to get a clip that shows the entire number, so here's an excerpt:

Finally, here is probably the best dance number in the film, "Waltz in Swing Time":

Bonus, because I can never resist posting it again: the greatest scene in Fred and Ginger history, one that never fails to bring tears to my eyes:


geezer cinema: terminator: dark fate (tim miller, 2019)

The reviews are mediocre, and the film cost so much that it's been called a box office bomb because it "only" made $29 million on its first weekend (the top box office draw, but that's not enough). I'm not sure what the problem is. It's not as good as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but then, T2 wasn't as good as The Terminator, which remains the only classic of the bunch. I guess people have expectations.

You might say Tim Miller is up against another Miller, George, of Mad Max fame. Thirty years after the heyday of Mad Max movies, George Miller made Mad Max: Fury Road, which is not only the best film in the series, but the best movie period over the last decade. Just as Dark Fate isn't as good as the first two Terminator movies, it's no match for Fury Road. But honestly, so what?

Mackenzie Davis kicks ass at the beginning of the movie, and I am a big fan of hers since Halt and Catch Fire, so maybe I'm easily pleased. Much is made of the return of Linda Hamilton, and she is great, but for me, Davis is the highlight. The rest of the movie? Well, there are some good action sequences, it's fun to see Hamilton and Arnold together again, and if the plot is confusing, what the heck. If you don't come in expecting a return to the original (or the equal of Fury Road), you'll enjoy Dark Fate. It's no classic, but I bet in ten years, people will wonder why Dark Fate got a bad reputation.