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death in venice (luchino visconti, 1971)

Luchino Visconti, working with a novel by Thomas Mann, gives us a tortured artist, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a young boy, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), and the city of Venice (Venice). The city is itself, the boy is a mystery, and the artist is, well, tortured ... by the boy. Which is not to imply that Tadzio is actively torturing the artist ... at most, I'd say he allows Gustav to feel tortured, but even that might be going too far. Tadzio might be only slightly more aware than his implied innocence allows.

The boy is maybe 16, the artist perhaps 50. The artist goes to Venice for unclear reasons ... for his health, or to get away from it all, or to be inspired. What he doesn't anticipate is that his inspiration comes from a beautiful teenage boy. "Nothing happens" ... this isn't a film about pederasty. Yes, Gustav lusts after Tadzio, but it is also implied (in flashbacks inserted clumsily into the film) that what Tadzio represents isn't lust, but perfection. His is a natural beauty ... he is born into it ... and this frustrates Gustav, who as an artist must believe that beauty is created, not natural.

Death in Venice argues for both nature and creation. Venice is a creation, made more so by the work of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, Björn Andrésen is natural, but used in a creative way to lift him above his inherent beauty (you can't say Andrésen gives a performance, he allows himself to be photographed). As for Gustav (a writer in the book, a composer in the film), we know he strives to be a creator, but the only time we see one of his works, it is booed, and his focus throughout is insistently on Tadzio. That he is a composer allows for the use of Mahler and others on the soundtrack, and it sounds lovely. There is a lot of beauty in Death in Venice.

Visconti makes things as acceptable as he can. The pederasty angle might turn away audiences, but the lack of physical contact between Gustav and Tadzio works against that. Dirk Bogarde deteriorates before our eyes over the course of the film. He may die of a heart attack, but all along, he is made more sick because of his obsession with Tadzio. Death in Venice is moving at times, boring at others, but almost always beautiful. #197 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: phil dellio, you should've heard just what i seen

This book is one where the subtitle tells you a lot: "Pop Music at the Movies and on TV". Phil covers a lot of ground, from the first three chapters on Mad Men to the last chapter on Donovan (yes, that Donovan), inspired by the appearance of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac, a movie he loves. Phil Dellio is the right person for this book, because he has lived the movies and the television and the music for a long time, and he worked as a teacher so he knows how to get our attention and then sneak a little learning in with the enjoyment.

Funny thing is, as much as I love Phil's writing, he starts off with something that I've always disliked. He's trying to decide how Mad Men will end, which a lot of us were, to be sure, myself included. But then Scott Woods emails Phil with an idea, and "as soon as I read it, I realized [it] may even be more important to me than what happens to Don: what song does Mad Men go out on?" I once had an essay published about the show House, where I complained that the series was not top notch because it always fell back on what at our house we called "The Song", something to emphasize what we had seen, something I inevitably found unnecessary and even insulting (what, we don't get it without help?). It's no coincidence that my all-time favorite show, The Wire, relied almost exclusively on diegetic music with the exception of an end-of-season montage.

But, as I knew would be the case, none of this matters when reading the book. Because Phil has things to say about the music and the films or series, and those things are interesting, and the ways he connects the music to those films and series is enlightening, regularly showing me a new way to think about the music, the visuals, or both. Sometimes the connections are startling, like when he finds that Diana Vreeland reminds him of Pauline Kael. Vreeland is a good example for another reason ... I have no interest in her, didn't know the movie he was talking about, but have been thinking obsessively about the Vreeland/Kael comparison since I read it.

Which is one way of saying that it doesn't always matter if you aren't familiar with a particular text, because Phil will get you thinking about it anyway. I knew most of the music, and especially with songs that have been overplayed over the years, it's a pleasure just to read someone putting those songs into a different context. The chapter about Donovan is one of my favorites, because I was a fan back in the 60s, and have long felt that he was underrated due to his spacey-hippie image. Phil jumps on this, calling it a "misguided caricature" that hippie music "was all sunshine and light", followed by a discussion of Donovan. The obvious starting point for me is "Season of the Witch", one of the truly frightening songs of that era. But Phil talks about "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man". "Season of the Witch" only sneaks in when Phil quotes Greil Marcus, who shares my feelings about that song. What this does is send me back to other Donovan songs ... I'm still certain "Season of the Witch" is his masterpiece, but now I'm listening to Donovan's entire catalog with a different ear, all thanks to Phil Dellio and Zodiac.

To top it off, Phil and Scott Woods are building a "clipography" on YouTube. You can find it here. It's just two long-time, opinionated friends talking about music and movies. It's quite casual, and you might not want to binge-watch all the videos at once. But it's fun to watch. Here's their talk about Almost Famous:

And here, for the zillionth time, I post the clip they refer to:

I realize I've never written about Almost Famous. Not sure why ... I certainly think about it a lot. My feelings intellectually about the movie are in line with what Phil says about Greil Marcus in their Clipography: Cameron Crowe, god love him, was an example of what went wrong at Rolling Stone. And the way Crowe works Lester Bangs into the story ... well, I suspect Philip Seymour Hoffman got him right, and for all I know, Bangs and Crowe were good buddies, but Lester Bangs was not about the Rolling Stone of the post-Crowe era. I love Almost Famous because I love Hoffman as Lester ... I am irritated by Almost Famous because of what it does to the Lester I admire.

Meanwhile, if I did a book like Phil's, then sure, 'Tiny Dancer" would have to be there. I'd have to watch movies for a specific reason if I was going to create a long list, though ... what would I include? Mick Jagger as Turner singing Robert Johnson in Performance? Virtually the entire movie Mean Streets? Fred and Ginger dancing cheek to cheek in Top Hat? My brain hurts just trying to come up with examples, which shows just what a remarkable feat Phil Dellio has pulled off in his book.


geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)

Natalie Erika James has done a little of everything in the film business, and now with Relic, she has directed a feature, as well. She is new enough that she doesn't have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, and her IMDB bio is equally blank. Relic should change all of that.

Relic is a horror movie, I suppose ... depending on your mood, you might be frightened at times. (At one point, I told my wife that the movie was scary because nothing was happening. She said no, it's simply that nothing is happening. Yes, replied, that's what makes it scary ... you don't know what is coming! I liked it a lot more than she did.) It is a slow movie, but it's also brief (89 minutes) and it picks up in the last half hour, where it most resembles a typical horror film.

There are three generations of women in the family that appears in the film: Edna, her daughter Kay, and Kay's grown-up daughter Sam. While the film doesn't tell us their ages, the ages of the actors suffices, I think: Robyn Nevin (77), Emily Mortimer (48), and Bella Heathcote (33). Edna lives along in a big house in the woods. There are mysteries about that house, but James doesn't get specific, and for most of the film, Kay and Sam just assume Edna is suffering from dementia (which may be true, but which doesn't necessarily explain events).

We in the audience are always disoriented. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff accomplish this mostly by using odd angles, with mirrors turning up in unusual places. We don't always realize we are looking at a reflection. And more than once, there is a shift in perspective that throws us off. A person opens a door, and we never know if the next shot will be from their point of view, or from the view on the other side of the door. It's very subtle, but it works, perhaps more so because we don't really recognize it as it's happening.

James draws a parallel between our unease and that of a person with dementia, never sure what is real or what actually happened. But, as with everything in Relic, James isn't about to state anything clearly and obviously. Thus, when the movie was over, my wife still thought nothing happened, and I couldn't really argue with her. It's not that kind of horror movie. But it insinuates itself into the viewer. James is a talent to watch.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

This marks the 50th movie Robin and I have watched during our We're Retired Geezers, Let's Go to the Movies Once a Week program. We saw 32 in a theater before the quarantine began, 18 at home. Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.


by request: for love of the game (sam raimi, 1999)

Kelly Preston died, and I can't remember anything she ever did. I know she was in Jerry Maguire, but I have no recollection of her, and I don't think I've seen any of her other movies. For Love of the Game was on the DVR, and it has been on my request list for a long time, so it seemed a good time to watch it.

I can't really say Sam Raimi is one of my favorite directors. He works in a variety of genres, and I love his movies in one of them, horror. He started with the Evil Dead movies ... Evil Dead II remains my favorite. But he moved on, making a Western and an Oscar-nominated crime thriller, before directing all three Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies (which made upwards of $2 billion). Thankfully, he returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell, which was delightful for those of us who had been waiting. Since then, he directed Oz the Great and Powerful and moved mostly into producing.

So I had no idea what I would think of For Love of the Game based on what I thought of Raimi, except that it wasn't a horror story. But it was a request, and it was a Kevin Costner baseball movie, which doesn't guarantee a good time (not a fan of Field of Dreams) but Costner brings a nice authenticity (like when he was a switch-hitter in Bull Durham).

The baseball was the best thing about For Love of the Game. It felt real, and Costner, a pitcher this time, seemed right. Vin Scully made his lines sound as if he was making them up on the spot. Yes, it was hokey ... so are most sports movies. But sports movies almost always have an emotional ending ... the big fight, the last-second touchdown ... and For Love of the Game gives us a doozy.

But ... and I guess this is a spoiler, but I had no idea going in, and besides, the movie's more than 20 years old, so get over it. No one told me For Love of the Game is a romance. And the romance is trite. Raimi goes back and forth from a baseball game and the romance, and honest, I didn't give a shit about the romance. The music was intrusive, and there were too many of what we call "The Song" moments, where the director uses popular music to overstate was is happening (I'd say the worst offenders were a Bob Seger song, and a far too on-the-mark "I Threw It All Away"). The damn thing runs for 137 minutes, a lot longer than Bull Durham, which is actually a good movie.

For Love of the Game is half a good movie. Except the baseball takes up less than half the running time, so let's say it's a third of a good movie.


film fatales #85: cameraperson (kirsten johnson, 2016)

Cameraperson has a fascinating premise. Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer with more than 50 credits to her name, mostly in documentaries (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, This Film Is Not Yet Rated). Cameraperson is her solo debut as a feature director, and it is quite personal. It begins with the following statement on the screen:

For the past 25 years I've worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.

I felt an immediate affinity with this approach ... after all, the motto of this blog filled with my thoughts on movies, television, music, and the like, refers to the entire project as my memoirs. Just for starters, though, Johnson has been a lot more places than I have. The film takes us, among other places, to Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Bosnia as well as Washington D.C., Queens, and Alabama. Most of what we see, obviously, relates to the films she worked on. (The IMDB page lists Jacques Derrida at the top of the cast list, although he appears only briefly; Johnson worked on the film Derrida.) But she also includes footage of her family, in particular her mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, and who eventually dies. Johnson is ever-present in the documentary footage ... we can hear her talking behind the camera, but we don't see her face until the end of the movie, when she is talking with her mom. Her presence, combined with the opening quote about memoirs, provide something of a theme for the film.

But Johnson's methods seem to reject structure. Even people who love the film admit it's hard to follow at first, because Johnson moves from one brief clip to another, with title cards telling us where we are. Because the clips are taken out of context (whatever the movie Derrida was like, all we see here is him crossing a street and making a philosophy joke), we're left "wondering still", and because the order in which she shows the clips seems haphazard, it's not easy to understand just what she intends with Cameraperson. By the end of the movie, though, we appreciate the skill she uses in putting together the "story", and while I'm still not sure what her intentions were, it's clear she has them. Cameraperson is not haphazard. #230 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)


out of the coma again

In 2003, I had a blog post ("Out of the Coma") about ... well, here's how it began:

There's a news story about a guy who has just awoken from a coma that began on July 13, 1984. Apparently, the guy is talking a blue streak, and he still thinks Ronald Reagan is president. This made me decide to play a game, "What If I Was In A Coma?" The idea here is that everything is still 1984 to me ... the Reagan thingie is the example of what I mean. What needs to be explained to me, to get me up to speed?

I thought to do this again. In this case, I went into a coma in July of 2003, and woke up today. What needs to be explained?

When I went into a coma, George W was president. Since then, we elected our first African-American president. After him, we elected a real-estate mogul who by that time was known in part for his reality TV show, The Apprentice.

Harvey Pekar is dead. But Betty White and Olivia de Havilland are still alive.

When I went into a coma, the Giants had lost the World Series the previous season. Among the team leaders were Barry Bonds, Ray Durham, Marquis Grissom, and Jerome Williams, all African-Americans. While I was in a coma, the Giants miraculously won three World Series. There were no African-Americans on the list of top players on those teams. When I woke up from a coma, I was informed that there was no baseball yet, because of a virus.

Ah yes, the virus. For almost a year, now, the world is living through a pandemic. Lives have changed. When/if I go outside, I'll find that I have to wear a mask and stay at least six feet away from people. Many things will be closed ... shopping is a dangerous thing to do.

The most important political movement is now Black Lives Matter, which covers a lot of ground but which focuses on police brutality against African-Americans. In June of 2020 alone there were several dozen killings by law enforcement officials, including Rayshard Brooks, an African-American murdered in a Wendy's parking lot in Atlanta.

In football, the 49ers were mostly awful for nearly a decade, but they returned to the Super Bowl behind QB Colin Kaepernick. During the 2016 season, Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem as a protest against treatment of black people and people of color. After the season, he was released by the 49ers. He has never been given a job in the NFL since.

You know that American soccer league, MLS? It had 10 teams when I went into a coma. Soon afterwards, the Earthquakes won their second MLS Cup. A couple of years after that, they moved to Houston. A couple of years after that, San Jose was awarded an expansion team. A couple of years ago, the Earthquakes opened their new, soccer-only stadium. You'll notice that MLS is still around, now with 26 teams. Oh yeah, my nephew Sean works for the Toronto team.

When I went into a coma, the #1 song in the country was "Crazy in Love" by Beyoncé with Jay-Z. When I woke up, Beyoncé was the biggest music act in the country. The current #1 song is "Rockstar" by DaBaby. Prince died in 2016. While I was in a coma, Bruce Springsteen released 7 new studio albums, went on 7 world tours, had a show on Broadway that ran more than a year, and turned 70. Along the way, he won a few Grammies and a Tony. Danny Federici died in 2008, Clarence Clemons died in 2011. My beloved Sleater-Kinney released one of their greatest albums, went on a "hiatus", and came back a decade later. Before their most recent tour, Janet Weiss (sigh) quit.

Those Oscars you watched a coupla months before you went into a coma? The ones hosted by Steve Martin, where Chicago won Best Picture? The Best Picture at the most recent Oscars was Parasite, the first non-English language film to win the award.

The #1 broadcast TV series was CSI, which ran until 2015. Not sure you knew it back then, but we were entering the time of Peak TV. People "binge" series now. May I recommend the following shows to you, most of which you haven't heard of: The Wire, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, 30 Rock, Justified, Terriers, The Americans, Broad City, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Girls, The Leftovers, Mr. Robot, Orange Is the New Black, Rectify, Halt and Catch Fire, Jane the Virgin, The Comeback, The Knick, RubiconTremé, Outlander, GLOW, Vida, The 100, Agents of SHIELD, Better Things, Insecure, Atlanta.

Your family is fine, Steven. Robin is as terrific as you remember. Neal and Sonia are still a great couple, Sara married Ray and had your grandson, Félix, who is about to turn 8. Welcome back.

Oh, and it's possible to become famous via something called YouTube, which was created a couple of years after my coma began. Here's a YouTube show you should binge:

You won't recognize most of those people, but they are all big stars today. And yes, that's Scarlett Johansson, the girl from Ghost World. She is one of the biggest stars in the movie world.


the wind (victor sjöström, 1928)

The last silent film for legendary Lillian Gish, and one of her best. Her acting mostly lacks the kind of overdone mime that often plagues silent films ... she really shines, here, as Letty, newly arrived in the West.  Victor Sjöström pours on the atmosphere, helped by the Mojave Desert where it was filmed. The Wind is a combination of the gritty realism of the setting and the mystical use Sjöström presents to reflect the impact of that setting on Letty.

The main villain is close to a mustache-twirling stereotype, but the secondary bad guys aren't too over-the-top. What is clear is how difficult it is for Letty to adapt to a world where every man seems one step away from rape. At times, it's hard to tell whether Letty suffers more from the desert wind or the mere presence of men. It's a dark film, although there is a happy ending that some (including Gish) claim was a compromise after studio heads disapproved of a more downbeat ending. (The ending we get is pretty dumb, the downbeat conclusion would have been more appropriate, but the claims of compromise are contested.) #481 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: fillmore west 1968

On July 9-11, 1968, the Fillmore West had a "Blues Bash". Opening was Freddie King. King had a big hit with "Hide Away" in 1960. He was influential on many guitarists, including Eric Clapton, who recorded "Hide Away" early in his career with John Mayall. King is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here he is in 1972:

Buddy Guy was and is even more influential than King, and he is still with us and still playing live shows (King died at an early age). He, too, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and while playing at the White House in 2012, he convinced President Obama to sing a bit of "Sweet Home Chicago". Here he is from a 1969 movie, Supershow, playing with Jack Bruce and Buddy Miles:

Headlining was The Electric Flag, which was formed by Mike Bloomfield (who died at an early age), who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The band, which combined rock and blues and soul, with a horn section, also featuring the aforementioned Buddy Miles. Here is the first song from their first-ever concert, at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967:

And here is the song of theirs that I love the most ... it always takes me back to 1968:


tv catchup, part 4

Outlander. Outlander has pulled off a fairly rare feat: its fifth season was on a part with its first. To my eye, there is a consistency between the various season, such that I can't say off the top of my head which is the best. Outlander continues much as it always has ... its best features (sex, acting, cinematography, music) are still fine, its worst qualities (too frequent use of rape as a plot device, not knowing what to do with black characters once the show gets to America) still problematic. It's not a perfect show, but if nothing else, it shows that Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) remains one of our finest showrunners.

Watchmen. Not only was Watchmen a fascinating revision of the original comic with a sterling cast, it also managed to both illuminate that original and add to it in important ways. Regina King is tops, as usual, but Watchmen is filled with actors giving impressive performances. Even Henry Louis Gates Jr. turns up, playing himself. Watchmen is timely ... its made-up world is like our own in worrisome ways (including the fact that in the world of the show, Robert Redford is president). It's also oddly prescient, in a rather backwards way: while the universe of the show is an alternate one, it hinges on the actual events in Tulsa known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, which has been in the news of late. Apparently this is a mini-series rather than a continuing story, and if one season is all we get, it's enough. But I'd watch a second season, for sure.

Bonus: Perry Mason. Only three episodes have aired, and I can't say I'm impressed, although I haven't given up yet. Good cast, good recreation of 1932 Los Angeles, but thus far, the only reason I can figure that the lead character is named Perry Mason is so we can get excited about his origin story. But it works just as well without being attached to Mason. Tatiana Maslany is great ... no surprise there.


geezer cinema: my spy (peter segal, 2020)

It was my wife's turn to pick our weekly Geezer movie, and when I asked her what was her choice, she said it had "that guy you like". I was surprised to learn she was talking about Dave Bautista. Honestly, I didn't realize I was a fan. It's just that I'm not fond of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and find his character to be the most enjoyable thing about them.

Well, now I've seen one of his starring vehicles. He's OK, just as the film is OK. But I wouldn't go any further with my praise, and in fact, I didn't much like My Spy. It's an unoriginal story (big tough guy teams up with cute little kid) done without any attempt to break out of the norm. There's not as much action as you'd think (it came in at $18 million, which is pretty paltry these days), it's rated PG-13 (for "action/violence and language"), which is probably appropriate, the movie isn't really for kids.

In fairness, Bautista is decent, the cute little kid (played by Chloe Coleman) keeps her cuteness on the right side of too-much, and Kristen Schaal has a reasonably-sized part. I laughed a couple of times. It's entirely possible My Spy is in the YMMV category, but really, it's nothing special.