g affairs (lee cheuk-pan, 2018)

We saw this at SFFILM's Hong Kong Cinema series. Director Lee Cheuk-pan and actors Hanna Chan and Kyle Li were in attendance for a short Q&A after the showing. This was the directorial debut for Lee. I'm unfamiliar with the work of the three artists who attended, and only recognized one other name in the cast, Chapman To (Infernal Affairs, Beautiful Country). All of the actors were excellent in G Affairs, with To and Huang Lu the standouts. The latter two played a corrupt cop and a whore-with-heart-of-gold, which is to say, the characters in the film are largely stereotypes. But the style of the film is quirky enough that you don't always notice those stereotypes, and To and Lu do wonders with the material. To say that To plays a corrupt cop is a bit repetitive ... in G Affairs, if you are a cop, you are corrupt. Basically, everyone and everything in the movie is corrupt. Hong Kong society is a mess, from the teenagers at the elite high school to the criminal scum. Chan's character seems sweet enough ... she also gives blow jobs to her teacher, eventually getting gonorrhea. It's that kind of movie. The letter "G" is a gimmick ... everything in the plot is connected in some way to words that begin with a G (gravity, guns, a dog named Gustav), and it was never clear why the English letter turned up in the lives of people speaking Chinese. (This was addressed in the Q&A, and I still didn't understand it.)

Honestly, there was a lot I didn't understand about G Affairs. Some of this can be attributed to the Hong Kong specificity of the film ... I was more certain than usual that I was missing a lot of cultural clues. But Lee also uses a fragmented style that further muddies the narrative. If you are the type who doesn't mind this kind of muddying (or even enjoys it), you will get more out of G Affairs than I did. Good acting and a style that always looked good, even when I had no idea what I was watching, meant I found G Affairs an interesting 105 minutes, and Lee, only 33 years old, seems to have a good future ahead for him. But I wasn't blown away.

And look out for that severed head.

the leopard (luchino visconti, 1963)

Roger Ebert got the best line, when he said that "'The Leopard' was written by the only man who could have written it, directed by the only man who could have directed it, and stars the only man who could have played its title character." That director was Luchino Visconti, who was born into nobility; that writer was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the book on which the film is based ... he, too, was born into nobility. That actor was Burt Lancaster, and he might seem an odd fit ... Visconti didn't want him at first. But once you've seen The Leopard, you won't be able to see anyone else but Lancaster in the role.

The Leopard takes place in Sicily around 1860. It helps to know something of the history of the time, but I think you can pick it up after the fact. The themes are easy to ascertain, and the film's greatness comes from how it works those themes: the gradual fading of the nobility, the rise of the nouveau riche, the meaning of rebellion. Much has been made of Visconti's family tree, as well as his Marxism ... it's an odd blend. It allows Visconti (and Tomasi ... it's apparently hard to tell where the book ends and the movie begins) to see all sides of the story. But ultimately, this is a movie about a prince, and we see events through the eyes of that prince as played by Lancaster. This is a prince who sees what is coming, who doesn't even object too much, but largely because he thinks when everything is settled, nothing will have changed. As the prince's nephew (Alain Delon) says and the Prince later restates, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." In the end, the nephew does want things to change, and the prince is aware that things will not necessarily stay as they were. It isn't played as tragedy (and certainly not as triumph), but the Prince at the end of the film is not the Prince when we first meet him, and we feel for him, no matter what our politics might be, because Lancaster is so great, because Visconti/Tomasi want us to feel as the Prince feels.

Whatever their differences at the beginning of the making of the film, by its finish, Visconti knew what he had. "The Prince in 'The Leopard' was a very complex character -- at times autocratic, rude, strong -- at times romantic, good, understanding -- and sometimes even stupid, and above all, mysterious. Burt is all these things too. Sometimes I think Burt is the most perfectly mysterious man I have ever met in my life."

The Leopard was butchered on its U.S. release ... half an hour was cut, making much of the narrative unintelligible. It was also dubbed into English, which was convenient in the case of Lancaster, who did his own voice on the dubbed version (he is great with someone else's Italian coming out of his mouth in the original, though). It didn't play in America in its original form for 20 years. Now everyone knows it is a classic.

It's a bit unfair to single out one set piece in a three-hour movie that is always gorgeous and interesting. But the ball that takes up most of the last third of the film is stunning, and will always be the first thing people comment on. All of the movie's themes are present in that long scene, and Lancaster is especially brilliant.

I've gone on about Burt Lancaster, because he's great and because he's a favorite. But I'd also note the casting of Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, two of the most beautiful actors in the world at the time. #74 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

For more Lancaster, check out Sweet Smell of Success and From Here to Eternity. Delon is seen to good advantage in Le Samouraï, and Cardinale is one of the best things about Once Upon a Time in the West.

music friday: listening

My nephew got me started on a long ramble when he asked me in an email, "How did your music listening habits change from your 20s to your 30s?" My reply:
My formative years ... well, I'm gonna say for many/most Americans, our formative years for popular music come in high school or a little before. I was in high school from 1967-1970. So, try as I might, part of me is stuck in that era, which is proven by Last.fm, which tracks my Spotify listening. I'll brag about listening to Billie Eilish like that means I'm old-but-hip, except when we run the numbers ... well, my top ten artists for June were Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Sleater-Kinney, The Kinks, Tim Buckley, Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Bowie, and Fleetwood Mac (notably, that last act was almost all the Peter Green years).
I'd extract two things from this. One, I was raised on guitar rock. It's not that weird that I would like Sleater-Kinney, where 2/3 of the band plays guitar. That also means I started disconnecting when synthesizers replaced guitars in pop bands ... outside of New Order, I wasn't a big fan, and that came around the time I turned 30. Two, not sure how it works here, but probably my #1 pop music influence in high school was the birth of "underground" FM radio. That's where most of my current nostalgia lies, and those top ten artists above were either played on those radio stations or were outgrowths of that.
Next, there was no way, at least to me, to predict hip-hop, which long ago replaced rock and roll as the primary pop music. I am appreciative of hip hop, and have my favorites, but really, it was mostly Beastie Boys who connected with me, because they were kinda like Led Zeppelin with rapping. I turned 30 in 1983. That was when Run-D.M.C and Public Enemy and such were beginning, so I caught the beginnings of that, but my favorite was still Bruce Springsteen. And while Prince covered all genres, and I saw him first in 1981, he had strong roots in guitar rock, so I wasn't really stretching out then, either. Beyond that, my favorites were bands like Hüsker Dü.
The only time I fell headlong into an emerging sound was punk. I first saw Patti Smith in 1976, Talking Heads and Sex Pistols in '78, Clash in '79. I could never call myself a punk rocker ... I had a job as a steelworker and was supporting a wife and two kids. But it's really the only time I felt strongly connected to a genre. When did this end? I don't know, I saw the fake-Clash in 1984, maybe that ends that period. And I was 31 in 1984.
So ... I don't think my musical tastes have changed nearly as much as I'd like to pretend. Noisy rock in the 60s, Bruce and then punk in the 70s, Prince and Hüsker Dü in the 80s, first three S-K shows in the 90s, Pink ... well, she's a little different, except when you see her in concert and get past the high-flying acrobatics, she and her band are very traditional guitar rock.
So to your actual question: Listening habits.
From my early youth until the Summer of Love in 1967 (when I turned 14), I listened to Top 40 Radio. Starting in the summer of 1967, I listened to FM radio, and I connected very much to a fantasy hippie world. The early-70s were more random, then Robin and I started going to concerts when we had a little extra money, so my 70s listening included lots of live music. Saw Bruce first in 1975, #1 life-changing artist for us. In the 1970s, the radio station that was once "Underground" was mainstream, but they still played what we now think of as Classic Rock, and I was still very attached to radio. Sometime in the 1980s, I found myself playing music I bought more than I listened to radio, although I had a few years in the mid-80s when I listened to college radio 24/7. And in 1983, I turned 30.
Nothing really changed in my listening habits from the mid-80s until 2002 or so. I was an early adopter of all-you-can-eat streaming services, so starting with Rhapsody and going into today's Spotify, my listening habits are fed by the idea that I can hear anything I want at any time in any place. Been doing that since I turned 50 or so. And while that gives me the chance to sample all kinds of music, see Last.fm above ... I listen to 60s music a lot. Well, 60s music and Billie Eilish (I remain a sucker for young girls/women with attitudes).
The real question is, how much of my changing listening habits came from getting older, and how much came because of emerging technology? Specifically, my listening is related to how radio came to me: Top 40, then FM Underground, then FM mainstream, then college radio, then a hiatus, then finally streaming. But WHAT I listen to, I assume, is tied to getting older. Maybe not so noticeably when I went from my 20s to my 30s (concerts I attended in 1982, when I was 29: Prince, Clarence Clemons, J Geils/U2, Clash/English Beat; in 1983, when I was 30: Prince, Marianne Faithfull), but by the time I was 40 ... well, I didn't go to as many concerts, for one thing. The only two artists I've obsessed about that started after I was 40 are Sleater-Kinney and Pink, and Pink isn't really an obsession.
So changes happen over the years, but they are gradual. And it is possible to stay current in your enjoyment of pop music, but most of my friends who are in their 50s and 60s, even the most music-obsessed ones, struggle to keep up. They want to hear the latest thing, but they'd rather listen to The Cure and Pavement. My glory years of music listening were the late-60s FM radio, and the mid/late-70s of fairly regular concert going. That is, Jefferson Airplane and The Clash have a special place in my heart.

throwback thursday: jim bouton 1939-2019

Jim Bouton died yesterday. I wrote about his classic book, Ball Four, back in 2012. I'll re-post it here.

Ball Four, Revisited

This wasn’t the first time I revisited Jim Bouton’s book about the 1969 Seattle Pilots baseball team. He seems to come out with a new edition every decade or so, and I generally re-read it then. This time around, my birthday came up, I saw there was a Kindle version, I put it on my wish list, and my baseball-loving sister got it for me (thanks!).

Ball Four is of interest, even to a non-fan of baseball, because of its historical importance as one of the first sports books to reveal what the game was “really” like. It wasn’t the first … not sure what is, although Jim Brosnan wrote two similar books in the early 60s, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that have long been favorites of mine. Nowadays, it might seem quaint to realize there was a time (the early 70s) when the baseball establishment could be in an uproar because Bouton (and his co-writer, Leonard Shecter) talked about players cussing and taking amphetamines and getting drunk on their off-days (and sometimes their on-days). Brosnan went through the same thing, although as I recall (not having re-read his books for a few years … perhaps it’s time) his books didn’t have quite as much a feel of exposé as Bouton’s did.

But most of the interest for the non-fan comes from that historical impact. The diary aspects, with its chronicling of the drudgery of a six-month season, are great for baseball aficionados, but I don’t suppose others would care. Having said that, Ball Four ultimately works because it is a book filled with characters, and the fact that they are real people makes it even better. Apparently Joe Schultz, manager of the Pilots, was angered by his portrayal in the book. Which is sad, because Schultz comes across as a great character, someone placed in an impossible situation (managing a poor, expansion ball team that lasted only one season before moving to Milwaukee) who used an idiosyncratic use of language to cajole his team into whatever heights they might possibly reach.

That’s what is most enjoyable about revisiting Ball Four, reading once again about Bouton and Schultz and the rest. The response of the time is historically interesting, but in the end, what I like best is Joe Schultz telling the guys, “Boys, bunting is like jacking off. Once you learn how you never forget.”

For an interesting, positive contemporaneous review of the book from a perhaps surprising source, check out Robert “Dean of American Rock Critics” Christgau’s piece, “Bouton Baseball”:

Bouton is the kind of iconoclast who is so insecure in his chosen isolation that he seems to delight in making other men look foolish. To an extent, this may be salutory. Even the most skeptical fan forgets that those names in the newspapers and figures on the screen are as frail as you or me, and this oversight is compounded by the daily dope from journalists whose living depends on acquiring more dope tomorrow. But it's hard to say how essential such an illusion may be to the continued power of the game. The baseball men who complain most bitterly about this book never claim it is untrue, only unfair--because it examines baseball's errants so steadfastly--and injudicious--because it reveals what the kids are better off not knowing. Unfair it isn't: Bouton obviously loves baseball and despite his snittiness he describes his fellows with generous appreciation. But injudicious? I don't know. Theoretically, a player is judged by what he can do on the field--the game itself is the thing. But even more than other sports baseball requires not just technical esteem but an investment of emotion, and emotion is best invested in people, however faultily perceived. I don't think the glowering visage of Sal Maglie will ever fill me with awe again.

ten years ago today: my first and only no-hitter

A day early for a Throwback Thursday, but I can't change the calendar. Here is my post from July 10, 2009:

Tonight I attended my first no-hitter in 50+ years of going to baseball games.

In my crankier moods, and they are frequent when I’m watching the Giants, I’ve berated fans for giving out standing ovations too easily. A pitcher gets pulled in the sixth inning and he hasn’t stunk up the place, people give him a standing O. I always take that to its logical conclusion: if you give someone a standing ovation for a middling performance, what do you do when greatness occurs, throw yourself off the upper deck?

Tonight, Jonathan Sánchez earned his standing ovation.

How goofy was this? After 8 innings, I texted my wife with an update. You need to understand, my wife doesn’t like baseball. She never goes with me to games, and about the only time she ever comments on the sport is when she passes by the teevee and sees someone with long hair … she inevitably says he needs a haircut. But I was on the verge of seeing something historic, and I knew that would matter to her, even though the actual event wasn’t of interest. Funny thing is, I assumed she wouldn’t even know who Jonathan Sánchez was … I’m not sure she knows who Tim Lincecum is … so I didn’t mention his name to her, but afterwards, when I sent one last text saying I’d just seen my first no-hitter, she replied by asking if the pitcher was our daughter-in-law’s favorite. Sánchez is indeed Sonia’s fave, but how my wife knew that was a mystery.

My brother was at the game with me, and he was feeling a bit down when he got to the park. As the Giants built up their big lead, it became evident that the only story left was the no-hitter, and my brother informed me that the minute Sánchez gave up a hit, he was going to leave so he could drown his sorrows at a karaoke bar. Well, I don’t suppose he’s sorry that he had to stick around for the final out.

Here’s a picture I took with the Pre as the team rushed the field after the game. There’s no zoom function, so it’s very much an upper-deck kind of photo, but it’s better than nothing and proves I was there:

sanchez no-hitter

Here is a video showing all 27 outs:

Andrew Baggarly has an excellent piece on Sánchez today at The Athletic. Not sure if it has a paywall ... I subscribe ... but if you can read it, it's worth it.

On the 10-year anniversary of his no-hitter, Jonathan Sánchez is still pitching for the love of the game in Mexico

by request: john wick: chapter 3 - parabellum (chad stahelski, 2019)

Who knows how long it will last, but now that my wife has joined me in retirement, we decided to go to the movies on Tuesdays (a bargain in some theaters). She got first pick, and chose this movie.

I saw the first film in this series five years ago, although I missed the second. Here is what I wrote about it:

John Wick ratchets up the action, to be sure, but not to the extent the Raid movies manage. Also, most of Keanu’s work involves shooting people, and while the body count is impressive, and Keanu’s got the moves, eventually it gets kinda boring watching yet another gun battle/slaughter. Martial arts movies like the Raids offer much more variety, and thus, much less boredom.

This pretty much describes Chapter 3, which I suppose means it will be a big hit (good guess, Einstein ... it's already made a shitload at the box office). The third outing was fun for awhile, even a laff riot considering how over the top it was, but it went on forever and there were more guns with every scene. Oddly, there was a guy in the theater who kinda creeped me out ... came in late, sat in our row, used his outstretched arms to gauge where he wanted to sit, put a bag down, and sat. A little later, he got up, leaving his bag behind. He left and came back a couple of times during the movie, and I decided he was gonna blow us all up or something. And I thought, how ironic, we're being entertained by gun play, and for all I know, this guy has a gun and is going to kill us.

Coincidentally, I watched The Gauntlet just last week. There are similarities between that movie and John Wick 3, although the body count in 2019 is a lot higher than in 1977. I was also struck by similarities in the acting styles of Keanu Reeves and Clint Eastwood. Both underplay their roles so strongly that it is the defining feature of their acting. They work hard to hide the fact that they are acting.

For comparison, here's a scene from The Raid 2 ... this is John Wick's competition:

t-men (anthony mann, 1947)

Anthony Mann, known for his westerns in the 1950s (The Man from Laramie), made a few noirs in the 40s, of which T-Men is one. It's a compact B-picture, efficient if not exactly thrilling. Done in faux-documentary style, it tells the story of a counterfeiting case investigated by the Treasury Department. Star Dennis O'Keefe appeared uncredited in lots of 30s films you've heard of (Top Hat) before graduating to getting credits in B-movies like this one. He also turned up in a semi-connected radio version, T Man, in 1950. The rest of the cast are "that guys" most people today won't recognize, although June Lockhart of Lassie and Lost in Space has a small role. T-Men has a decent reputation today, but I didn't think it was anything special. Benefits from the work of Director of Photography John Alton.

champions once again

In a tournament where the USA's most marketable player was Alex Morgan, who is in the Mia Hamm mold (pretty, scores goals), it was a "purple-haired lesbian goddess" who was the face of the World Cup. Morgan is so good, she tied for the most goals scored yet seemed to be off her game. But Megan Rapinoe rose to the occasion as few others have. She scored as many goals as Morgan, she was named MVP, and she pissed off the President of the United States. Nothing is more American.

It's a tradition here to post this quotation at the end of a World Cup:

One thing I know for sure about being a fan is this: it is not a vicarious pleasure, despite all appearances to the contrary, and those who say that they would rather do than watch are missing the point.... When there is some kind of triumph, the pleasure does not radiate from the players outwards until it reaches the likes of us at the back of the terraces in a pale and diminished form; our fun is not a watery version of the team's fun ... The joy we feel on occasions like this is not a celebration of others' good fortune, but a celebration of our own; and when there is a disastrous defeat the sorrow that engulfs us is, in effect, self-pity, and anyone who wishes to understand how football is consumed must realise this above all things.

--Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

Image result for megan rapinoe

losing it at the movies: shampoo (hal ashby, 1975)

The sixth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of Shampoo:

This sex roundelay is set in a period as clearly defined as the jazz age—the time of the Beatles and miniskirts and strobe lights. When George (Warren Beatty), the hairdresser hero, asks his former girlfriend, Jackie (Julie Christie), “Want me to do your hair?”, it’s his love lyric. When George gets his hands in a woman’s hair, it’s practically sex, and sensuous, tender sex—not what his Beverly Hills customers are used to.... The script by Robert Towne, with the collaboration of Beatty (who also produced), isn’t about the bondage of romantic pursuit—it’s about the bondage of the universal itch among a group primed to scratch.... The director, Hal Ashby, has the deftness to keep us conscious of the whirring pleasures of the carnal-farce structure and yet to give it free play. This was the most virtuoso example of sophisticated, kaleidoscopic farce that American moviemakers had yet come up with; frivolous and funny, it carries a sense of heedless activity, of a craze of dissatisfaction.

Once, in a class I taught at Cal, I assigned the novel Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran. I had read it a few years earlier and liked it quite a lot, and thought it would be a good way to diversify the reading lists. When I reread the book as I prepared for the course, I found I still liked it, but ... well, it's not that I had forgotten how much sex was in the book, but I hadn't considered how the graphic descriptions of Fire Island might affect my young students. I worried that those students, who grew up in a post-AIDS world, might have a negative take on the gay sex if they didn't put it in the context of the pre-AIDS 1970s. My "solution" was to also assign Shampoo. The idea was that the film would show that everyone was fucking around in the 1970s, not just gay people. Looking back, I'm glad I assigned both novel and movie, but I'm not sure what I think about the rationale I used.

In any event, yes, there is a lot of fucking in Shampoo, which is, as Kael described it, a "sex roundelay". Jack Warden's rich businessman, Lester, is thrice cuckolded by George: the hairdresser has sex with Lester's wife, Lester's mistress, and Lester's daughter. George has something resembling a code ... when accused of using sex like a gigolo for financial gain, he's hurt ... "I don't fuck anybody for money. I do it for the fun." And in the film's most famous dialogue, George says ... well, this is an odd way to show it, but I came across this video and I can't resist showing it here. Amy Adams, Greta Gerwig, and Michelle Williams doing a faux-tryout for the part of George where they read his famous confession:

Lee Grant won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this movie. The film is full of Oscar winners: Hal Ashby, Robert Towne, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Tony Bill, and later, Warren Beatty. It was Carrie Fisher's first movie (perhaps appropriately, given how the film goes, her most memorable line is "You wanna fuck?"). László Kovács was the director of photography.

Shampoo got decent enough reviews. It was a success at the box office. Yet I feel like it's mostly forgotten today (I'm happy to be proven wrong). Being set in its own past (made in 1975, takes place in 1968), it looks doubly archaic now. I don't think of Shampoo as a film that resonates with the 60s. It's a bit closer to the mid-70s. It's an odd combination of ambitious and mellow ... it's somehow too laid back to be called pretentious, but the filmmakers don't do enough with the 1968 setting (more specifically, it takes place on Election Eve, 1968). I can come up with some deep-sounding analysis ... the Nixon election marked the end of the free-wheeling 60s, or something. But I never felt certain why it took place when it did. And since all of the characters ignore the election (even though two scenes near the end take place at separate election result parties), the audience is welcome to do the same (although watching Nixon on TVs in the background is scary enough). Yes, yes, the point is that these characters are so self-absorbed they don't care about stuff like elections. But that doesn't come across as a great political statement. Shampoo is a movie about George the hairdresser and his various partners. It's a bedroom farce that isn't always funny.

This may sound as if I don't like Shampoo, which isn't true ... I like it just fine. But I saw it when it came out, I've just watched it again, and if this is a classic, I'm completely out of touch (then and now). It's a good movie that hints at bigger things without reaching them, and the leads actors are gorgeous: Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Lee Grant, and prettiest of all, Warren Beatty.

Here is Lee Grant accepting her Oscar. She was nominated in 1951 for her first movie. She was a regular on television for many years (I first discovered her on the nighttime soap opera Peyton Place), but didn't really establish a film career until the late-60s. She refused to testify against her husband during the HUAC hearings, and was blacklisted for more than a decade.

music friday: top ten janet weiss sleater-kinney tracks

"Dig Me Out"

"Not What You Want"

"Get Up"

"Youth Decay" (these are in chronological order, but this would be my #1)

"One Beat"

"The Promised Land" (the Bruce Springsteen song, w/Janet on drums and harmonica)

"The Fox"

"Modern Girl"

"Let's Call It Love/Entertain" (New Year's Eve 2016, the last time I saw them together)

"No Anthems"

Bonus: Wild Flag covering Television and Patti Smith:

And a Spotify playlist: