power and the lack of same

Here in Northern California, our local power company, PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy earlier in the year after suffering huge losses the last couple of years due to wildfires, has started planned power shutdowns. Up to 800,000 people might be affected. I don't pretend to know the science behind these proposed shutdowns. I do know that they have provided a map that tells me that my block is not scheduled for a shutdown. I live in the flatlands ... most of the shutdowns in Berkeley will be in the hills.

This has given me a chance to think about what I would do without power. Of course, like most people, I am powerless on a daily basis, but I'm talking here about electricity. Again like most people, I rely perhaps too much on being plugged in.

Oh, a little of the danger is potentially life-threatening, if I want to get dramatic (insulin in the refrigerator), although I can work around that pretty easily. And there is an earthquake kit if I need it. But since it seems highly unlikely that our power here will get turned off, it's mostly academic.

I have to accept the fact that my life is decent enough. I am weird enough that this bothers me, somehow, but that doesn't change the situation. My wife did a good job of setting up our retirement, and since she worked the last fifteen years for an HMO, even our medical finances are OK even if this stupid country doesn't get around to universal health care.

All bets are off if there's an earthquake, though.

Now a life of leisure and a pirate's treasure
Don't make much for tragedy
But it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin
And can't stand the company
Every fool's got a reason for feelin' sorry for himself
And turning his heart to stone
Tonight this fool's halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell
And I feel like I'm comin' home
These are better days baby

Bonus for anyone who's read this far. Here is a famous video from a few years ago. The question: what is the connection between this video and the previous one with Bruce?


film fatales #62: a woman, a part (elisabeth subrin, 2016)

This is the sixth 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." This is out of order ... I already watched the Week 5 movie, Craig's Wife. This is from Week 31, because it won't be available to stream after the 11th. Week 31 is called "Contemporary Women Directors Week":

Last Season Challenge, there was a weekly challenge that focused on women directors pre-1960's. But this year, I thought we should focus on the women creating films today. Its no real secret that the film industry has not offered a lot of opportunity to women, though that seems to be slowly changing. So, in order to support these women currently creating films, we're gonna spend this week watching films directed by them. And hopefully someday there won't be such a divide in the industry that we won't need to push for more women helmed films, it'll just be happening already.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by a woman released in 2010 or later.

This is writer/director Elisabeth Subrin's first feature, although she has been making independent shorts for more than 20 years. Her experience means A Woman, A Part is missing the "first time out" problems that sometimes plague first features. This is a confident movie ... you never get the feeling Subrin isn't sure of what she's up to. I haven't seen her shorts, so I don't know how A Woman, A Part fits into her past work, but she offers an easy coherence to her story of a successful television actor, Anna, suffering from burn-out, and her attempt to get back to her roots in theater. The cast features several actors I know best from television: Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), Cara Seymour (The Knick), John Ortiz (Luck), Khandi Alexander (The Corner, Treme). They are all great, which comes as no surprise. It's nice to see Siff in a leading role ... she's in virtually every scene, and she plays her part with a complicated balance of the character's uncertain neurosis about her profession and Siff's certain ability to make the most of this meaty part.

Subrin keeps things moving, and I suspect editor Jennifer Ruff has something to do with that. The film suffers from the dreariness of its main character ... Anna is mopey at times, she's coming off an auto-immune disease, she's abusing drugs, and she's not sure what she wants for her future. It's hard to complain, though. To properly give us Anna, Subrin knows she has to avoid any flashiness we might associate with a TV star. And Siff is so good, she gets us through the slower segments.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


what i watched

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth 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 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":

With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.

Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.

John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)

The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"

Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.

Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:

Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on www.jaywoelfel.com. My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.

I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.

Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.

Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.

I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.


music friday: noel gallagher (happy birthday, robin!)

I am aware of Oasis, and I don't hate them. I barely have an opinion about them, but I know they were a big deal and I should probably come up with an angle. For me, they were a few great singles at a time when I was getting older (I turned 40 in 1993) and my ability to "keep up" with new music was lessening. I was confused about why Oasis was compared to The Beatles. I was probably in the same place as Robert Christgau, who wrote later:

One of the many things I never got about this band was where the Beatles were. Where was the ebullience, the wit, the harmonies, God just the singing, and, uh, the songwriting? Cotton Mather made me understand that when Oasis say they love the Beatles they really mean they love the post-Help!, pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles. Since that span encompasses Rubber Soul and Revolver, many would say tally ho, but (a) not me 'cause I love the Beatles start to finish and (b) only if you're writing songs as good as, uh, "We Can Work It Out."

This is coming out too negative. Mostly I'm trying to explain why I am more clueless about Oasis than I should be.

Their biggest hit was "Live Forever":

Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live I don't want to die
Maybe I just want to breathe
Maybe I just don't believe
Maybe you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever

In the following video, Noel Gallagher talks about writing songs, pre-and-post fame. "When I was writing in the early days of Oasis, I was in the same circumstances as the audience. You're writing for the people that are coming to your gigs. And then there will come a period where the big checks arrive."

He wrote "Live Forever" pre-fame, when he could say, "Maybe you're the same as me."

This video is from the YouTube series Hot Ones, a current obsession of mine. The never-wrong Wikipedia tells us that "Its basic premise involves celebrities being interviewed by host Sean Evans over a platter of increasingly spicy chicken wings." The trick is two-fold: the hot sauces make the celebrities increasingly vulnerable, which opens them up to an arguably more honest conversation, and Sean Evans is an excellent interviewer, always well-prepared with great questions. This week's guest in Noel Gallagher, and to be honest, it's a so-so episode ... I wondered if I should post it here since newbies might decide the show isn't any good. But it's Music Friday, so here you go:

Here is one of the best episodes, where Halle Berry shames every other participant with her Hot Ones greatness:

Finally, since this is Music Friday, here is fellow Manchester native A Guy Called Gerald, mentioned by Noel in his episode:


geezer cinema: end of the century (lucio castro, 2019)

End of the Century features a slight story that sneakily turns into something else. It takes quite awhile for anyone to speak ... my wife noted that it didn't seem to need subtitles, and the first time someone says something, it's "Kiss", which is helpfully subtitled as "Kiss". After that slow but not boring beginning, End of the Century turns into something of a rom-com, with more rom than com. It's pleasant, and co-stars Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol are well-matched as the potential couple. Barcelona makes a nice setting for it all, and while I've only been there once, it seemed to me that Lucio Castro (who directed, wrote, and edited the film) chose to feature less-familiar places.

And then ... here I need to offer a spoiler warning, although as is my usual, I'll try to avoid being explicit ... we learn something startling about the two men, and Castro instantly takes us back in time 20 years (without anything specifically telling us he has done this). It's jarring at first, but we quickly settle into the "new" time frame. Mía Maestro (The Strain) turns up and is a strong addition to what is now something of a threesome.

Just as Castro blends 2019 and 1999 without quite drawing attention to itself, he presents sexuality as a blend that doesn't quite draw attention to itself. When we first meet the men, they jump into bed, but both seem to have had a relationship in the past with Maestro's character, and Castro doesn't make a lot of this. There is nothing transgressive about anyone's behavior, they just are.

But Castro isn't done surprising us, and at this point, I don't need to avoid spoilers, because I'm not sure myself what happens in the final section of the film. This is usually a sore spot for me ... I don't like confusing narratives for the most part ... but it all works as part of an examination of love and memory. I may not know what "happens", but I get a lovely sense of how people experience their lives. Real life doesn't always make sense, either, and memories are always questionable. Castro has given us an impressive first feature.


losing it at the movies: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Picking this up after a break of three months, this is the seventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Jaws:

It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you. The film belongs to the pulpiest sci-fi monster-movie tradition, yet it stands some of the old conventions on their head.... When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.... The director, Steven Spielberg, sets up bare-chested heroism as a joke and scores off it all through the movie.... The fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself by fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody. The shark’s cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to. This primal-terror comedy quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Kael also told the following anecdote:

While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.”

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

Since this is a Pauline Kael-related post, I should include a link to one of her most famous essays that addresses some of the above: "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers" from 1980.

#91 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: concert history

This one's making the rounds, so I'll jump in. What's your concert history?

First concert: Judy Collins, 1967

Last concert: Pink, April

Next concert: Sleater-Kinney, November

Best concert: Any of the Springsteen concerts I saw in 1978

Worst concert: probably the Winter Brothers in San Diego. Forget what year, in a big arena, sound awful, left early.

Seen the most: Bruce

Haven't seen but want to: Elvis, 1968


geezer cinema: downton abbey (michael engler, 2019)

If this were a consumer guide, I'd have the easiest job in the world. If you liked and watched the TV series Downton Abbey, you will like this movie. If you didn't like the series, don't bother with the movie. The only tricky area is for people who have never seen Downton Abbey but are curious. My suggestion would be to start with the TV show ... I'm not sure that the movie will appeal to someone who doesn't already have a history with the characters. But the film is more like a bonus episode than it is a standalone.

The differences are still worth noting. Primarily, Downton Abbey has always looked scrumptious, and it benefits from a big, wide, screen. (We saw it in Dolby Cinema, which wasn't all that noticeable for sound but which made scrumptious look even more so.) A couple of the new characters are interesting, largely because of the actors involved. Still, it's Downton Abbey, and no one acts too much out character, so it's a feel-good movie for the fans. Given the fairly conservative nature of the show, it is no surprise that there are no drastic changes here.

The similarities are such that I can cheat and cut-and-paste from what I wrote about the TV finale in 2016:

Julian Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

All of the above is true of the movie. Barrow experiences a personal moment that is heartening. Tom's past as a socialist is used for a weak and unnecessary side plot (this matters because in general, things move too quickly in the movie ... all of the characters get their turns, but for many of them, those turns are far too brief).

Of the newcomers, two stand out. Imelda Staunton, a veteran who I loved in Another Year, is the latest member of acting royalty to share dialogue with Maggie Smith. And Tuppence Middleton, one of my many favorites from Sense8, has a substantial role that seems to guarantee her presence in any future sequels.

I've gone on long enough. Once every three years seems about right to me ... I really don't need more seasons of this show.