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music friday: earth quake, jonathan richman, lawrence hammond

I start with Beserkley Records, formed by Matthew King Kaufman.

Earth Quake, Winterland, 11-22-74. Kaufman managed Earth Quake in their early years. When he started Beserkley Records in frustration with how the record biz worked, he located it at the home of Earth Quake singer John Doukas. Bezerkley issued only singles at first ... you can hear some of them on the album Beserkley Chartbusters Volume 1. The first Beserkley single was by Earth Quake. Other label artists included The Rubinoos, their biggest "star" Greg Kihn, and the immortal Jonathan Richman. When I saw Earth Quake, they opened for Lou Reed and Arthur Lee. Here they are a few days after I saw them (the video is also at Winterland):

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Boarding House, 1976-7? Richman is the only legend associated with Beserkley. Kaufman had something to do with the early Modern Lovers demos, so his label made sense as a landing spot for Richman in the mid-70s. Richman recorded one of his many versions of "Roadrunner" for a Beserkley single, backed anonymously by Earth Quake (who also recorded the B-side). By the time we saw Richman and the Modern Lovers, he had formed a new version of the band, who appear on this video, recorded a year or two after we saw him:

Here is the version of "Roadrunner" with Earth Quake:

Lawrence Hammond and the Whiplash Band, Rio Theater in Rodeo, 2-26-77. Far as I know, there is no connection between Lawrence Hammond and Beserkley. We saw Hammond and his band at a converted movie theater. It was a memorable night for many reasons, none of which really involved Hammond. But as the band played their version of country rock ... well, I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Here is a cut from an album Hammond cut in 1976:

My friends and I were at this concert to see Naomi Ruth Eisenberg, who was mostly known as one of Dan Hicks' Hot Licks. My wife and a couple of the others in our group that night worked for Naomi Ruth's brother. The headliner was Hicks himself, accompanied by Eisenberg. I've told that part of the story many times, so I'll skip it here. Anyway, my friends, not knowing anything about Hammond, assumed he was a typical country rocker (which in fairness, he was). I, however, knew a different Hammond, a man who had once led the band Mad River. I owned their first album, played it a lot. Trust me, it was not country rock.

I lost track of Mad River. Apparently their second album was much more countryish ... it even included a vocal by Richard Brautigan. If I had heard the album at the time, I might have better understood the Whiplash Band. In any event, back in those days, I was an even bigger asshole than I am now. I was intrigued by my friends' surprise at what I told them of Hammond's musical past ... they decided he wasn't "authentic" or something. So, in between songs, I shouted out a request for "Amphetamine Gazelle". Hammond rightfully told me to "crawl back into your time capsule".

It's amazing, but that wasn't even the worst we acted that night.

geezer cinema: no sudden move (steven soderbergh, 2021)

We're up to 104 films in our weekly Geezer Cinema, going back to July of 2019, and Steven Soderbergh becomes the first director to get four movies on the list. (Earlier choices were Contagion, Logan Lucky, and Haywire.)

I've seen nine of his movies, now, and I guess you could say I like him. Toss in his TV series, The Knick, and count me impressed, even if I've never found any of his pictures superb. (In my recently-updated ranking of directors, he finished #52.)

I know more informed people than I who can recognize a Soderbergh film as soon as they start watching. I can't say the same, but only because I sometimes forget to pay attention to directorial style. I will say that I am rarely lost in a Soderbergh movie ... OK, the plot of No Sudden Move is complicated to say the least, but Soderbergh always makes sure you know where people are in a scene, a talent that is more rare than it should be. I've assumed that actors like him, because he always seems to have these amazing casts, the kind you don't get if you have a bad rep. No Sudden Move's cast includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, Frankie Shaw, Bill Duke, even an uncredited Matt Damon. It must be said that there is an extreme male tilt to that list. (He did direct Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role, and managed to get a decent performance out of Gina Carano, a former mixed-martial artist in her first leading role.)

I watched a few interviews with the cast of No Sudden Move, and I was taken with how often they would mention the experience of having a director right there as you acted. (Soderbergh famously does his own camerawork and editing, using pseudonyms.) They all felt this helped them ... that's not something I would have thought of on my own.

There isn't anything new about No Sudden Move, but what's there is well-done. It's easy to recommend to anyone who likes noirish movies with great casts.

Finally, I have to mention this. I'm going to quote Jeffrey Wells, since he raises this issue while adding something I also found odd: few to no critics even mentioned this (link also includes images):

Soderbergh apparently used some kind of spherical wide-angled lens that occasionally delivers what looks like a 2.2:1 aspect ratio, and which compresses images on the sides.

In other words, Soderbergh doesn’t seem to be delivering a standard 2.39:1 (or 2.4:1) Scope aspect ratio but something closer to the slightly distorted cinematography seen in portions of Around The World in 80 Days — i.e., portions that used a spherical bug-eye lens.

The No Sudden Move visuals also struck me as similar to the distinctive framings that were seen in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s The Current War, which was shot by Chung Chung-hoon. Lots of headroom and elbow room. Objects squeezed on the sides.

And yet very few critics have even mentioned this curious (or certainly noteworthy) visual approach.

I noticed this. I didn't think it mattered, and I wouldn't avoid the film just because some of it looks slightly off. I don't know why Soderbergh did it.

fundraiser for charlie and sky

I don't often do this ... in fact, this may be a first. But I'm posting a link to a Gofundme effort for a long-time friend of mine. Here's the write-up:

As many of you know, Charlie Bertsch has been navigating a tremendously challenging home situation. He is now quite ill, and in hospital care. No matter what happens, Charlie and his daughter Sky need our help to raise money for MANY basic expenses in the immediate future. Please consider donating what you can towards this person who has selflessly given so much. All funds will go directly to Charlie and Sky for living, health-care, and educational expenses.

Charlie has been a constant presence on this blog (literally ... there is a photo from a visit to his house I posted on the very first day of the blog). You can visit the fundraiser page here:

Support for Charlie and Sky

Here is an old picture of Charlie and our beloved cat Starbuck:

Charlie starbuck 2

when we were kings (leon gast, 1996)

I decided to revisit this film about the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. It was as engaging as I remembered, although flawed enough to prevent it from being a classic.

I have told the story many times of our experience the night of that big fight. At the time of the match (October, 1974), we lived over Moe's Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, half a block from People's Park. Telegraph Ave. runs for more than 4 miles from Oakland to Berkeley, ending at the UC Berkeley campus ... we lived a few blocks from campus. Haste Street ran north of People's Park. Our apartment was on the Telegraph side, and we spent many an afternoon just taking in the street life from our window (if memory serves, we were on the second floor). The fight ended ... oh, around 9:00 at night our time, give or take. I hadn't found Berkeley to be a big boxing town, but I recall a few car horns being blown as the news of Ali's victory was revealed. We could hear some serious crowd noise, and took to our window to see what was up. To our right, we saw an impromptu parade of people heading towards campus, chanting "A-LI! A-LI!" While our view was blocked by buildings, we could also sense a different impromptu parade of people on Haste Street, heading towards Telegraph, also chanting "A-LI!" Neither group knew about the other, although we had an excellent view from our window. The Haste Street crowd reached Telegraph just as the Telegraph crowd arrived a block from Haste. Upon discovering each other, the chanting, doubled in number of participants and multiplied immensely by the ecstatic recognition of the other group, become wonderfully loud.

I tell this story to help illustrate the way Ali was always more than just a boxer. Among many things, he was a folk hero to many in Berkeley.

When We Were Kings does an excellent job of showing this aspect of Ali. The people of Africa loved him, and he was happy to play that up. He was one of the most famous people in the world, and especially in the U.S., his story was well-known. When We Were Kings is so enamored of Ali that the film borders on hagiography. And it's easy to understand why. While George Foreman eventually became a beloved figure, in 1974 he was a mostly-silent man who let his fists talk for him, while Ali was irrepressible from the first time he came to the public's attention. In short, Ali was the perfect charismatic figure to place at the center of a film. Foreman was not. Given the historical fact that Ali won the fight, and that he was such a great screen presence, it makes perfect sense that When We Were Kings centers on Ali.

There are attempts to place the story in a wider context, mostly provided by interviews conducted in the mid-90s. A good portion of the interviewees are white, and while they have bonafide credentials (Norman Mailer wrote a book about the fight, George Plimpton covered it at the time, Thomas Hauser has written several books on Ali), it feels odd to see these old white guys pontificating about the great hero of African-Americans. Spike Lee is also interviewed, and all of these men have interesting things to say. I just wish there was more Spike and less Norman.

When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Feature Documentary (to be honest, I've never seen any of the other nominees).

revisiting the 9s: before sunset (richard linklater, 2004)

[This is the third in a new series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. By rough count, I have only given the top rating to 17 non-documentaries from the 21st century. (For some reason, I don't have a problem giving tens to new documentaries.) So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I last wrote about Before Sunset in 2011, when I said that since it had stood the test of time, I was raising my rating from 8 to 9. Before Midnight had not yet come out, but later, when I saw that third film in the thus-far trilogy, I felt it was even better than the first two. Part of that was the accumulated experience of the three, and I think in a rating sense that I found this perhaps too attractive ... if Midnight was a 10, and Sunrise was an 8, then clearly Sunset was a 9. There is a certain logic to this, although it also shows the silliness involved in ratings movies at all. I think I'd give the trilogy a 10, even if the average rating for the three is 9.

And seeing Before Sunset for a third time, I'm still content with that 9 rating. There is something to be said for that accumulation. I realize that if they ever make a fourth film in the series, my rating system will break because I can't give the new movie an 11.

I recently updated a Letterboxd list that ranked directors by the ratings I gave their movies. Richard Linklater is #36 on that list, between William Wyler and Michael Haneke. (In an earlier version he was #35 ... Wyler has since passed him, although I'm not sure why.)

My earlier reviews of Before Sunset covered most of what I thought. I did make a couple of new-to-me observations this time. The Before series is rather like a fictional version of the Up series, documentaries which looked at the same people in 7-year increments. In the Before movies, we catch up with Celine and Jesse every nine years, but of course, they aren't real people, so Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can play with the characters' biographies in ways you can't do in a documentary. Also, there is a scene that seems to foreshadow Before Midnight, although obviously this wasn't actually happening since that movie hadn't even been planned when Sunset was made.

In terms of accumulated power, the greatest scene in all three movies is the long stretch near the end of Before Midnight, when the two, married by that point, have a terrible fight that puts everything on the table. Watching Sunset again, I saw premonitions of that scene in this one.

I would welcome a fourth installment, although it's probably too late to make the usual nine-year deadline. There is talk of another sequel, but the possibility seems mixed. Even if the fourth film never happens, the Before trilogy stands as a great achievement. Throw in Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, and Boyhood, and you see why I rate Linklater so highly.

music friday: the cramps, willie nelson

The Cramps, Kezar Pavilion, 10-13-79. They followed local faves The Dead Kennedys as openers for The Clash. The Cramps were the earliest (or one of the earliest) practitioners of Psychobilly.

Willie Nelson, Berkeley Community Theater, 9-22-04. Willie seemed ancient then ... he was 71 years old ... that was 17 years ago, he's still at it! Lucinda Williams was his opening act ... we were seeing her for the bazillionth time ... among other things, she was born the same year as my wife and I, so when you see her in this video, imagine us in the audience, looking like we're the same age as Lucinda:

what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.

police story 2 (jackie chan, 1988)

The first Police Story was Jackie Chan's favorite of his movies, and it's a good one, to be sure. Police Story 3, which goes by Supercop, is my favorite of the series, mostly because of the awesome Michelle Yeoh. Police Story 2 falls in the middle, not just in the order they were made, but in the quality it offers. It's passable, with a couple of Chan's set pieces, as usual, but it falls far short of the other two.

First, to address some confusing matters, there are several different versions of Police Story 2 out there. (This is often the case with Hong Kong films when they are released to the American market.) For brevity, I'll stick to the two basic versions on the Criterion Blu-ray, the original Hong Kong version and the longer version ... not sure what to call it, to be honest. That version gets a 4K restoration from Criterion, while the original, which is presented as an extra on the Blu-ray, is "a new digital transfer of the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2 ... created in 2K resolution from a subtitled 35mm print supplied by the American Genre Film Archive. The transfer is presented with minimal restoration, leaving scratches and damaged and missing frames intact, to convey the character of the film element." I didn't want to watch a scratchy print with burned-in subtitles, so I opted for the longer one. Also, the people I was with wanted the English-dub, which didn't suck, but which resulted in things like Chan's character, Chan Ka Kui, being called "Jackie Chan".

Most of Police Story 2 is, well, kinda boring. Chan movies always revolve around the set pieces, but there are only two memorable ones in this two-hour version, so there are some dry spells. Those set pieces are classic, no problem there.

Also, the great Maggie Cheung is less annoying here than she was in PS1 and PS3. She also fell victim to something Chan goes through in virtually every movie: she got hurt in a stunt, bad enough that she couldn't finish the movie (her part was played by a different actress who didn't show her face).

Police Story 2 is not the place to start if you want to see what all the hubbub is about Jackie Chan. I'd go with either of the other Police Story movies, either of the Drunker Master movies, or maybe Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (which goes by many names). If you are an American, I'd go with Supercop.

a clockwork orange (stanley kubrick, 1971)

You can say about most Stanley Kubrick movies that they will be made in an exacting manner, that they will look good, and they will get people's attention in ways other filmmakers do not. Honestly, I have no idea why the latter is true. My father-in-law once got me a book about Kubrick. It was a thoughtful gift ... he knew movies were one of my interests. And there was no reason why he would know that I am not the biggest Kubrick fan. The best I can figure is he decided to get a book about movies, saw Kubrick's face on the cover, recognized the name, and bought it. Because Stanley Kubrick was well-known.

Why? When I think of directors the average moviegoer might know by name, I think of Tarantino, Scorsese, Eastwood I suppose, Spielberg. I wouldn't be surprised if that hypothetical moviegoer were ask to name a director, they would say "Hitchcock". The Best Director Oscar has seen some welcome diversity in recent years, but are those directors household names? Chloé Zhao, Bong Joon-Ho, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Ang Lee ... some of my favorite directors are in that list, but if my father-in-law were still alive, I doubt he would think to get me a book about any of them.

But Stanley Kubrick is a movie director that people have heard of.

A Clockwork Orange certainly got people's attention in 1971. It was a box office success. It got 4 Oscar nominations. The look of the film still grabs the eye. And Malcolm McDowell is iconic. It was Kubrick's first film after 2001, and I suspect people were ready for a masterpiece. The movie is unforgettable in many ways, with scenes you can call up in your mind to this day. It is currently #77 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

It seems to be about something deep ... free will or something ... but it works on the level of Straw Dogs, setting up a situation that forces us to agree with its conclusion. Malcolm McDowell's Alex is basically the only interesting character in the entire movie, and he is in every scene, as far as I can recall. McDowell plays Alex with such cunning charisma (helped by the fact that Alex narrates the film, as well) that we side with him, even as he and his droogs perform disgusting acts. One member of his gang is called "Dim", and you can see why, just as you can see why Alex is the leader: he has so much more going on in his brain than the others. And how bad can he be, after all? He loves Beethoven!

Kubrick doesn't care about any of the other characters. Patrick Magee, a decent actor, is directed to overact so badly that you can't believe your eyes. (He plays a man who was crippled by Alex and the gang when they forcibly made him watch while they raped his wife, so he has reason to be over-the-top, but as presented, he just seems like a lunatic, far more dangerous than poor Alex.) Alex tells the story, Alex is more charismatic than the rest of the cast combined, he's smarter than everyone ... of course we root for him. That he is also a thug, a rapist, a murderer, and who knows what else, is forgotten, other than to serve the function of Kubrick's arguments about free will.

You can't call A Clockwork Orange ugly ... it looks too good. But it feels ugly. Kael brings up one scene in particular:

Do people notice things like the way Kubrick cuts to the rival teen-age gang before Alex and his hoods arrive to fight them, just so we can have the pleasure of watching that gang strip the struggling girl they mean to rape? Alex's voice is on the track announcing his arrival, but Kubrick can't wait for Alex to arrive, because then he couldn't show us as much. That girl is stripped for our benefit; it's the purest exploitation.

I am not immune to the pleasures of A Clockwork Orange, although I can't say I reach the level of a friend who watched with me back in the early-70s. He laughed through the whole movie, thought it was a comedy. But I can't escape the feeling that the main thing we get from Kubrick movies is that Kubrick is a supremely accomplished filmmaker. Sam Peckinpah made movies that were usually a mess. His movies were violent in confusing ways. But at his best, his movies were also about people, about life ... there was nothing cold about his films, the way that Kubrick's often feel. Of course, Peckinpah was also capable of something as scummy as Straw Dogs. He might be the least-perfect great director of all time. Which, I guess, makes Stanley Kubrick the most-perfect mediocre director of all time.

Yet, he did make Paths of Glory.

music friday: screaming gypsy bandits, pearl harbor and the explosions

Screamin' Gypsy Bandits, Town Cinema Theatre, Bloomington Indiana, April 1972. They opened for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I wrote about that show last year. The band, and their lead singer Caroline Peyton, were big on the local scene at the time. Here is a Spotify playlist of their 1973 album, In the Eye:

Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Berkeley Community Theater, Old Waldorf, 1979. The first time we saw them, they were the opening act for The Clash's United States debut concert. We saw them a couple of months later opening for Graham Parker and the Rumour, and we saw them a third time, although I can't remember anything about that show. They were a popular local band (my wife liked them) who made a little noise locally. Lead singer Pearl E. Gates has had an interesting life (see this 2013 interview). She was in The Tubes and also in a side project of theirs, Leila and the Snakes. Then came the Explosions. Somewhere in there she was married to Clash bass player Paul Simonon. Here is their biggest hit, live a few weeks before we saw them:

Here she is with The Clash in 1982. You've got a half-Filipino woman named Pearl Harbour singing "Fujiyama Mama" in front of a Japanese audience. Somehow it works: