Saturday, January 28, 2017

Another Year Another set of Obituaries

Well, it took a while to get going, but 2017 seems to be taking up were 2016 left off, as far as celebrity deaths go. This week, we've lost Mary Tyler Moore and John Hurt, and those of us who are krautrock fans, lost one fo the great German rock musicians, and one of the greatest rock drummer so all time, Can's Jaki Leibezeit. All this against a backdrop of Donald Trump doing all he can to make the US a laughing stock in the world. Yeah...

Well, I'm not going to dwell on Trump. I am going to dwell on some people I admired very much,a nd who made the world a better place.

John Hurt in the Elephant Man - I am a human being!



And, some particularly fine work from Jaki Leibezeit, and a reminder that sometimes, all of Can feels like an elaborate percussion instrument:



And Mother Sky....



And finally, in memory of Mary Tyler Moore - here's Joan Jett, making it after all...



And Husker Du...



And, I suppose the most famous bit from the Mary Tyler Moore show - Chuckles the Clown's funeral:



The whole episode here...

Monday, January 23, 2017

Films of 2016

2016 in movies, a bit late, though not as bad as last year, and it does let me get some some films in that are taking a while to get to the theaters. I did not have a great year going to the movies - it's a trend that's been building, and one I suspect is going to get a lot worse next year (for reasons maybe to be discussed.) The last couple years have been underwhelming film years - not bad, exactly; there are plenty of enjoyable films, but not as many transcendent ones, it seems. And the transcendent experiences sometimes seem to come from some detail in the film, some resonance, more than from the quality of the film itself. Maybe. Looking at what I saw - there are some fine films on there: plenty of pleasure, all the way down the list - and a few moments that brought back all the joys of the movies. I think I enjoyed this year's bunch of films more than I thought I did...

Whether that's so or now, I have done a terrible job of writing about films. I haven't written a thing about new films in a couple years - not a word last year. (Barely anything the 2 years before that.) Not much about old films either - unless it's for someone else (thank god for Polls!) Anyway: let me try to make up for that, with a few lines about these films - at least the top 10. And so without further ado -

Released in 2016:

1. Paterson - Beautiful and enthralling, based on the wonders of the everyday world - William Carlos Williams its obvious guiding saint - rooted in the world, and the way the world filters into one man's mind. Full of imagery - twins, writers and artists, performances, lovers - doubles and puns and internal rhymes. With nods to other films - Nagase at the end (from Mystery Train), Method Man rapping, Gilman and Hayward talking on the bus about Gaetano Breschi, the anarchist weaver who shot the king of Italy.

2. Certain Women - sharp ensemble piece, three stories almost entwined. Things happen, though nothing too dramatic, and even if something dramatic does happen, it does so quietly, almost apologetically; full of silences and looks; people working; people thinking. Beautiful film with a stellar cast.

3. Silence - best Scorsese film in 2 decades. Intense and driven, and carried by superb performances by all concerned. (Tadanabo Asano's character - weak, constantly betraying, trampling the cross and informing, and constantly coming back, begging for absolution - might be the most interesting.) A very interesting historical film as well - giving voice to the Japanese, in a fascinating tangle - a film by Americans of a novel by a Japanese about Portuguese priests...

4. 20th Century Women - Handsome clever film about a middle aged single mother trying to raise her son - another film bursting with brilliant performances: Bening and Gerwig and Crudup and Faning and Zumann the kid - Bening at the center, but first among many greats.

5. Love and Friendship - Whit Stillman adapting Austen directly, early, obscure Austen - which he describes on the DVD as an Oscar Wilde play written by Jane Austen. Kate Beckinsale is front and center - one of Stillman's monsters, the kind of character Chris Eigenman used to play - completely self-absorbed and likable anyway, you can't turn away, she's so brazen at what she does, always both completely honest and completely false. With a very cool ending, everyone getting what they want - including Lady Susan, who appears to have landed in the middle of a perfectly successful threesome...

6. Loving - Story of the Lovings, whose marriage and lawsuit ended miscegenation laws in the United States. Seen through the couple's eyes, his and hers, with their complimentary virtues, their love. It is beautiful, quiet, building tension without anything really overt happening - the fear and their ability to live around the fear, the way Edgerton squirms around the sheriff, the way they fight back. Not that it's needed, but more proof that Jeff Nichols is one of the great contemporary directors.

7. The Witch - A man is banished from his New England town in the early 17th century. He takes his family into the woods and carves out a farm there alone - but things are not well. The baby disappears - secrets and lies are revealed through the family's misfortune, and they all start going mad. Accusations fly - who is the witch? is Black Phillip the devil? A cool, brooding little film, tight and gripping - family disfunction, religious lunacy, the dangers of the frontier, madness and hormones, all add up to disaster of biblical proportions.

8. Mountains May Depart - Story in three parts: 1999 - a worker and a rising capitalist chase the same girl, until she chooses the money; 2014- the son visits his mother, whose long since divorced the capitalist; 2025 - the son, in Australia, as alienated from his father as his mother, has an affair with an older woman (Sylvia Change, so thus believable)... Melodrama of sorts, a story of misery and loss, a death as the main emotional foundation, with failed love affairs and children who don't talk to their parents the content. Everyone suffers - the rich guy ends up a pathetic loser, collecting guns in Melbourne; the worker - probably dead; the girl alone with her dog - which comes off as rather a triumph, in this context.

9. Elle - tour de force for Isabelle Huppert, who plays a rich woman, owns a video game company, and is raped to open the film - but reacts with a kind of cool numbness that we soon realize is her natural state. The story works in the backstory - her father was a mass murderer, who dragged her into his crimes, making her infamous, creating her shell. She never quite comes out - never quite becomes clear to us - stays strange throughout, as is her way.

10. Moonlight - film in three parts about a black boy/man in Miami (and Atlanta) - Chiron/Little/Black. He's a quiet sensitive boy who runs a gauntlet of trouble for it - called faggot at 9, beaten for it as a teenager, and crusting it over in street hardness as an adult. Revolves around three scenes at the ocean - learning to swim with Juan, a drug dealer who becomes his friend; smoking a joint and experimenting with sex with a friend as a teenager; then talking to the same friend, now a cook, at his house by the ocean as adults. Beautifully shot, acted with grace by the whole cast - handsome, very moving film.

11. Our Little Sister
12. Midnight Special
13. Fireworks Wednesday
14. My Golden Days
15. Little Men
16. Lo and Behold
17. Hail Caesar
18. Things to Come
19. Too Late
20. Jackie
21. The Handmaiden
22. A Bigger Splash
23. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
24. Manchester By the Sea
25. Krisha

Made in 2016 - an interesting list, because most of the best films released were in fact new last year. Usually you get a lot of the best foreign films from the year before showing up sometime in the first 2-3 months of the new year. ast year didn't have as much of that - or I didn't see them...

1. Paterson
2. Certain Women
3. Silence
4. 20th Century Women
5. Love and Friendship
6. Loving
7. Elle
8. Moonlight
9. Midnight Special
10. Little Men

And the annual look back a year - 2015. What I posted at the beginning of 2016:

1. The Look of Silence
2. The Forbidden Room
3. The Assassin
4. Tangerine
5. The Wolfpack
6. Taxi
7. Youth
8. Carol
9. The Big Short
10. Diary of a Teenaged Girl

And how it looks now - not much changed to be honest:

1. The Look of Silence
2. The Forbidden Room
3. The Assassin
4. Tangerine
5. The Wolfpack
6. Taxi
7. The Witch
8. Mountains May Depart
9. Our Little Sister
10. Carol

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Future, Where We Will Spend the Rest of Our Lives

I guess so.

It's kind of a sad thing to revive this poor blog with a post about politics and despair, but that's the world we live in. Boy, 2016 was a shitty year. That seems to be the consensus, and I'm not one t argue. All the famous people dying - and all the great artists who died - all the interesting people who died - it was a year that seemed to bring an endless stream of obituaries and loss... That has picked up in 2017: an online friend died; I found out that one of my closest friends for much of my life, who I'd lost touch with for the last decade or so, had died a couple years ago - been plenty of bad news this year too...

Though let's not kid ourselves: what makes this year look even scarier than last year is Donald Trump. His election put the finishing touches on 2016 - and now we're stuck with him. Of course he makes any day worse when you hear about him - there has never been a time when I knew he existed and didn't wish he did't - but as president? Dear god. How did he win? Like everything else he's ever done - he failed, and was bailed out on a technicality. I worry, though - he's gotten to a point where he can't hope for generous bankruptcy courts and 18th century racists to undo his failures - as president...

Dear god. Friday, Donald Trump is going to become president. The contrast to this and Obama's inauguration in 2008 is almost to much to think about, I remember how that felt: it was a day of wonder - it was hard not to feel optimistic, joyful. The USA had done something we could be unambiguously proud of - we had elected an African-American president - we had addressed, directly, America's original sin, and come out on the right side! Well - fat chance! Obama's election flushed the racists into the open - they howled and gibbered for the next 8 years and gave the Republicans the spine to cripple the country for electoral gain, culminating in what is hard to distinguish from a slow motion cup in the last year. Not confirming Merrick Garland comes awfully close - and then Trump sneaks into the white house, probably with the active connivance of the FBI and Russia - great. A loathsome little braggart pretending he routed his enemies - picking fights with people )John Lewis) whose boots he is not worthy to lick clean - sucking up to fucking Vladimir Putin.... We are well and truly fucked.

Though given how extraordinarily unpopular Trump is, he might do more to strengthen his opponents than to enact his (and the Republican party's) evil deeds - who knows. I'd rather not have to find out.

So that's the world outside. And me? It's odd, in that 2016 was not all that bad, for me, objectively. Things were all right for me, nothing bad happened to anyone too close to me, no relatives or friends dying or getting sick, nothing like that. It could have been all right - but it felt like shit. All the reasons up above, but there's more to it. Some of it, I won't deny, is work - Im not saying much about it, but suffice it to say that I have had my fill of it... But that might just be a side effect.

This blog is not, really, my life, but it does tend to reflect how things are going in my life. Look at those numbers, over there on the right of the page, going down, year over year - does that not signify? It can - I know what I have been writing. I know, back in 2011-13 what I was writing - weekly music posts, simple and routine - weekly film posts, screen shots, similar to the music videos.... Plus director of the month posts for a year, which were basically replaced by band of the month posts in 2013. And film posts - collections of capsule comments, some longer reviews; occasional essays - not just more posts, but more substance. Plus history - especially during the 150th anniversary of the civil war - and the usual occasional politics, sports and whatnot. But over the years, from 2014 on, these things have fallen away - the film posts first - then the history posts (the Civil War wrapped up; I started doing the same with WWI anniversaries, but never as ambitiously) - and finally, last summer, the band of the month posts - and then even the weekly music videos. Since summer, it's been a ghost town here - other than essays for Wonders in the Dark, there isn't much - and when their science fiction countdown ended - it's done. Some lamentations re the election, and a couple anniversaries... and silence.

Easy to blame Trump. Tempting to blame work. I don't know. Something has enervated me, something that has been going on longer than those things. Which has, I think, mostly convinced me to uproot myself, move back up to Maine, see what I can find to do up there. Which is a strong temptation, not to be dismissed. Some of it is the realization that I am not really doing anything in the city I can't do elsewhere - my movie going has declined almost as much as my movie writing. (Maybe not that radically - but it's not anywhere near as much an obsession as it used to be.) I stay at home more - don't eat out as much, don't go to museums as much. I stopped playing softball a couple years ago - the knees and hips were starting to insist - but that's cut down my exercise, and the time I spend hanging around with people. These days, when I hang around with people, it's mainly my brothers and some of their kids online, playing games and sooting the breeze - and they mostly live up in Maine. So - there's a theme...

But whatever I do in the atom world, here among the bits, I have to start writing more. This is not one of those "I'm still alive" posts, "See you next year!" - I hope. There's only so long you can feel sorry for yourself (or your country) - you have to do something. So - you know - nice to see you again! (anyone who might come by here), and I promise to try not to be quite such a stranger. What form these miraculous new literary emanations may take, I don't quite know yet - but I shall try to emanate them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pearl Harbor 75

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A carrier fleet sent planes to attack the American navy base there, and achieved complete surprise, and devastated the American fleet there. It as not just a surprise, but illegal, since translation and decoding difficulties delayed the Japanese embassy's delivery of its declaration of war until after the attack had taken place - probably not very important practically, but important propaganda... At about the same time, Japan launched attacks across the Pacific, in the Philippines and other American possessions, on British Hong Kong and southeast Asia (Malaya), and so on. They swept all before them - by spring they held the Malay peninsular and Singapore, Borneo and New Guinea, they'd taken the Philippines, the Allies were driven back to Australia, and it was in danger. But that was as far as they got.

In the end, Pearl Harbor did the Japanese no good. They did terrible damage to the American battleship fleet, but there were no carriers present - so it did little more than inconvenience the Americans. The attack itself showed this change: a carrier based air force wrecked a host of surface ships - that was the way the war was going to go. Carriers and their planes were going to do the major work: everything else was support. The Japanese made it worse, by concentrating on the ships, and neglecting the harbor - they did not bomb supplies or ship building and repair facilities or oil or armament stores - the port and its facilities were far more important o the Americans than the ships. Attacking the ships had the biggest psychological impact on the Americans, but all of it bad for Japan - it's easy to identify with ships; attacking ships meant casualties were probably a lot higher than if they had attacked facilities - all pissing the USA off and keeping the infamy of the attack in the front of their minds. Attacking facilities would have been far more useful strategically, and probably less harmful politically - though probably not by much. As it was, the US never lost the use of the port, and got most of the ships back in service before the war was over - they ended up pissing us off without doing the country any real harm.

It brought us into the war. We immediately declared war on Japan - a few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on us - almost as big a folly as Japan's attacks, probably. They might have gotten away with not fighting us for a while had they not declared war. Though we were pretty overtly committed to Britain by that time, so we'd have been in the shooting soon enough. And in the event - we took a licking from Japan in those early months, finally stopping their advances at the Coral Sea and Midway, before pushing back, starting at Guadalcanal, and moving on from there, with ever diminishing effective resistance. Though dug in Japanese could exact a terrific toll on their attackers - but they were increasingly isolated as the war went on, as Japan's navy and especially their naval air forces were destroyed. It was a carrier war - though lots of infantrymen had to die to convince the Japanese they were beat...

Friday, November 11, 2016

Remembrance

Armistice day is on us again. 98 years since the war to end all wars ended, and the world immediately began preparations for the next war. It's a hard week to find anything good to say. World War I isn't the central event of American history the way it is in modern European history - the Civil War is. But we're still fighting the Civil War - Trump ran and won as much against the results of the Civil War as anything else. When both the Civil War and WWI ended, the losers set about instantly to try to undo the results, and refight the wars if they need to. This country still hasn't accepted the results of the Civil War...

All right. This is about Armistice Day - Veteran's day in the US - we can, should, honor veterans today, but we should also keep the spirit of early remembrances of the day, and the hope that somehow, this horrible cataclysm might move people to work against wars. Remember the sacrifices, remember the sheer horror of The Great War, and try to do something to stop it from happening, over and over again.

And, today - remember Leonard Cohen. This year - it's parade of good and great people dying (as well as a few monsters) just never seems to stop. Cohen was another of those musicians with a long, deep career and a massive body of work that I dipped into almost at random, never quite embracing the whole thing - but loving the parts I knew. So - we're heavy on the early stuff below, because I had them going obsessively there for a while... He's also someone who's songs could absolutely transform a movie: McCabe & Mrs. Miller is the most obvious, but everybody knows in Exotica was a jolt as well... He will be missed; and reading this new, this week, is a fucking stab in the gut...

So: video - start with Cohen doing his part for Remembrance day, from last year - reciting In Flanders Fields:



And songs - the ones that got me, and kept me the longest. Suzanne:



Bird on a Wire:



The Stranger, from McCabe and Mrs Miller (the title sequence):



And the Partisan:

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What Now?

I don't know how this happened. You could see it was close, there were plenty of reasons to panic, but generally speaking, the polls still favored Clinton coming into yesterday, and everything I could see that might not show up in the polling seemed to favor her even more. Turnout - her GOTV operation, and general campaign competence - early voting - the increased numbers of blacks and hispanics voting, the gender gap - all things that might not be obvious, but should nudge the numbers a little bit her way.

But none of them paid off. What happened? I don't know - all I have are that white people really are evil, and more of them are evil than I thought... and decades of making politics seem meaningless have paid off in an electorate that places identity politics and weird talk about "change" or whatever the fuck Trump people voted for ahead of self-interest. That core of poorer, less educated white people that voted for Trump are hard to take - they will suffer and suffer badly in the next four years, and they will probably still find ways to blame the Democrats. I think the core of this problem is that Trump convinced people it was more important to make the other guy suffer than to benefit yourself. That and working very hard through the years to obscure the policies that do benefit people, and how they benefit them. Well - they will have to live with their votes now - though I'm sure the GOP will continue to work very hard to make them blame someone else, while the people in charge clean out the till.

As for the results: good god this is terrifying. The markets are already plunging. I don't know if it would have helped Hillary Clinton all that much to run on the fact that Wall Street wanted her to be elected - but - the economic and financial professionals obviously did want her elected. She did promise as much stability as a government is able to give to the economic world - easy as it is to demonize capitalists, money is going to change hands - keeping that system functioning is a good part of what governments do. What will happen now? It's hard to see any good coming of it: the GOP is likely to gut many of the safeguards against economic collapse, they will certainly stop the progress being made toward a real economic recovery (like movements to raise the minimum wage). The recovery is decent, but it's always been fragile, making do without the kind of help governments should be providing - now, the government will begin actively working against it - it bodes ill. I think the question is not will there be a recession, but when will the recession start? and will it turn into a depression? Republicans have no idea how to handle economic collapse - they turn to "austerity" and make them worse, almost by instinct.

Or maybe worse. Maybe Trump isn't as stupid as he acts - maybe he (like more conservatives than are willing to admit it) knows perfectly well that Keynsian economics works, that you spend your way out of a depression. But the right wing method of spending your way out of a depression is to start a war - at least, ramp up your military. They are as Keynsian as any liberal, when push comes to shove, but they have to wrap their spending in the prospect of killing foreigners. This is not a recipe for long term success as a country. Who will we invade? Mexico? Syria? Iran? Jesus Christ....

That is that. Let's attempt something optimistic: how does this not end in the apocalypse? (I guess people were right about the Cubs and the world series, huh?) Well - this is certainly going to heighten those contradictions - 4 years of Trump and the GOP could bring out Democratic voters in droves. It's happened before - Hoover led to FDR, Bush led to Obama - that, plus the natural tendency of politics to oscillate could have the Dems back in charge of the Senate by 2018, and might bring another Democratic landslide in 2020. It's possible... Or - being forced to govern might change the GOP, or more likely, break it. It's one thing to obstruct and resist and manipulate voter anxieties for your own electoral gains: it's another entirely to make the decisions and have to face the consequences. If they repeal Obamacare, and people see just how much good it did for them - they might find out you don't always want what you think you want. Or even before - it's not as easy as they think to go after social programs - Bush couldn't do it after 2004, even with all three branches of government - being in charge again might start breaking up some of the party discipline the GOP has maintained in the last few years. Could happen. Add in the fact that Trump is incompetent, lazy and likely to wish he'd lost before the week is out, and things might not degenerate as much as they could.

But those are thin threads to hang on. And looking at this election, the lesson the GOP might take is that they can do absolutely anything, cause any amount of suffering, and be able to blame it on Moslems or Mexicans of blacks or Jews, and keep their core voters voting for them.

That is terrifying.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Election 2016

Well, election season is down to the end. I vote tomorrow. I'm voting for Hillary Clinton, which should be obvious. It's easy to get caught up in how bad Donald Trump is - and he is very very bad - but this is a positive vote too. Clinton was never my first choice, but she was always a solid pick. Most of what she will do I support whole heartedly - even when she doesn't go as far as I'd like, she'd move policy in the right direction. (Sure I'd prefer a real, universal, public health insurance system - but I'll happily take a better hybrid system...) Even where I don't like her policies (She is far too bellicose for me - she was dead wrong on the most important vote of her life, the vote for the Iraq war, and still seems more inclined to favor war than other Democrats...) she is almost unimaginably better than any Republican she could run against. The personal stuff against her is almost all bullshit - people have been trying to find something against her for decades,a nd never manage to find anything more than some carelessness with email - a problem almost everyone else in Washington shares. At her worst, she's still better than any Republican, and plenty of Democrats.

So I'm with her. And yes - I'd be with her even if she were far worse than she is. Parties matter more than people - that's always been true, and party politics have become hard as a rock in the last 20 years or so. But I'd be with her even if the parties were a lot less rigid than they are - she's better in every way than anyone else in this race from day one except Bernie Sanders, and maybe Bill Weld. (Though she'd get my vote over Weld on politics.) One of the effects of the Republicans doulbing down every 2 years on their neo-confederate authoritarian robber baron core is that almost all the serious political disagreement and policy debate occurs inside the Democratic party. The race between Sanders and Clinton raised interesting choices - policies vs. experience, incremental vs. drastic changes, which economic issues to address first - all those are real choices. None of the Republicans offered useful policies in the least. Tax cuts and threatening minorities and women is pretty much the sum total of their platform. That and refusing to govern, unless they are completely in charge.

(I have to expand on that a bit: when they hold the presidency, they work very hard to concentrate power in the hands of the president. They did so all during Bush's years, giving the presidency more and more power all the time. When Obama won, they carried this on, through the simple expediency of refusing to participate in government. They obstruct what Obama and the Democrats tried to do - and they continue to concentrate power in the presidency. f they win it back, things will not go well for the Republic. It's not just the horror of Donald Trump that would make it so - it's their theory of government. They are, genuinely, neo-cofederate authoritarian robber barons - they want a strong, single source of power; that is their model. That has to change, as much as their commitment to racism, xenophobia and misogyny, is they are to be worthy of holding power again...)

So I guess this is an easy one. Vote for Hillary Clinton; elect a woman president, and make history; be proud of your country; and give us a fighting chance to actually be a country worth living in.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

World Series and Crazy Christians

I am getting lazy lazy about blogging, but have to come in here for this - the World Series starts tonight - with some good old fashioned curses on the line. Cubs and Indians! Though for me, it looks like a Red Sox intramural game - Tito, Napoli, Miller, Coco Crisp vs. Theo, Lester, Lackey, Anthony Rizzo (probably why Theo is in Chicago - if AdGon had worked out in Boston, he and Tito might still be there...) Fun times!

All logic dictates the Cubs to win. If the Indians had their full compliment of pitchers, it would be close to a toss up, since with Kluber, Salazar, Carrasco and Tomlin, they would be a match for anyone. As it is - Cubs just have more at their disposal. And some big game players in there - Lester going for his third ring, Lackey too... But still - I think I might root for the Indians. Underdogs - and not the Cubs. Much as I like this edition, they are the Cubs...

Meanwhile - as far from that as you can get - I read that Jack Chick has died. Well - not completely unrelated. Chick's tracts - the little ones, the ones people handed out at camp meetings and on the streets - have always been around me, and I got to read a good sample fo them when I was a kid. I always remember This Was Your Life - some smug asshole gets struck dead at a party and goes before the throne of god to be confronted with his sins. Typical camp meeting style scare mongering "evangelism" - with a line I couldn't ignore. At one point our damned hero is sitting in church - he's all excited - "see! I went to church!" - but god can read minds: "I wonder who's winning the ball game?" That's a burning offense! And poor me, sitting in some church service, wondering who was, in fact, winning the ball game, or who would make the all star game, or whatever occupied my mind, thought, well - I guess I am one of the damned too....

So: now he is dead, Mr. Chick. Im not sure if it's more surprising that he was still alive, or that he existed at all - there is something about those little tracts that suggests an elaborate joke of some kind. Dark dungeons, in particular, has taken on a pretty strong half life as a camp classic - but a lot of them have that effect. Even when I was a kid and subject to that kind of pressure more than I care to admit, Chick tracts were almost amusing, and somehow extremely compelling. I think it's the art - the simple, crude, mostly realistic style - it was within my reach, maybe. I wished I could draw, tell stories in pictures (and words), and those tracts showed a way to do it. Maybe. I know that - here's an irony for you - the look of those comics had the same effect that the art in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books had, especially the incidental art in the DMG - "no honor among thieves" - the same pen and ink drawings, clear and quick points, little mini-narratives in every picture... like marginal doodles. I have a soft spot for that kind of art generally - illustrations in Hardy Boys books do the same thing. Great stuff. So - I could smirk at the heavy handed fire and brimstone stuff and admire the form, even in high school or before....

Though that didn't work so well when I came across some of the comic books he published. The Crusaders - sweet holy fucking Jesus! The tracts are fairly standard issue high pressure Repent or Go To Hell! "evangelism" or cheesy culture war stuff (taking on evolution, D&D or whatever). But the comics? I saw some of those when I was in high school still - fairly innocuous things about smuggling bibles into Russia or whatever - but in college, I came across the harder stuff. One of the guys had a pile of them he'd let people read - and these... I guess it's the "Alberto" stuff that really took the prize: a former Jesuit who found the truth and revealed the inner workings of the Catholic church. Yikes: they invented communism, evolution, satanism, nazism, homosexuality and rock and roll (if I remember it right), all while priests and nuns fucked like rabbits and filled tunnels with aborted fetuses.... I don't think that is hyperbole. They were astonishing, those comics - both for their virulent anti-Catholicism (in 1979! I still heard some ant-papists running around in the 70s and 80s, but even the worst of them weren't accusing the pope of founding both the communists and nazis), and for the batshit insanity of it all. It was stuff straight from the good old days, 19th century know nothing anti-catholic propaganda (rather specifically: I saw the same stories in 19th century anti-Catholic tracts)... horror show stuff, played - kind of straight. Though like a lot of things, it's hard to tell the difference between someone trying to seriously argue that the pope founded the communist and nazi parties, and someone parodying the idea, to make a good horror story...

Anyway. I can't deny, I found those things fascinating - the tracts anyway. The comics, trying for a more sophisticated style, plus their plain evil, were less interesting. Read them once and walk away... But the tracts - people still hand them out on the streets once in a while and I look them over with that odd mix of amusement and revulsion, and, well, envy - at some weird level, making art, no matter what the purpose, offers something like redemption, even for evil people and evil art. Maybe that attitude goes back to Chick, just a bit - the split between the stupidity and viciousness of the content, and the inherent value of being able to express yourself is very strong in some of those tracts. I suppose I am one of the damned - damned to formalism. There are worse things, though.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

Bob Dylan has won the nobel prize for literature. This is surprisingly moving to me - fills me with more delight than I could have imagined. There will be complaints (that one isn't stupid, just a complaint that Dylan is a musician, not a writer; or something), but I don't care. Dylan's art is made of words, and words are literature, and that's enough for me.

I wrote about him recently so I won't go into depth again. The relevant part of that essay might be this paragraph - Bob the writer:
Leave it then. Let's get to the good stuff. Because there is no denying his genius: as a writer at least, though he is not slouch as a songwriter, and though he is not what you would call a singer - he is most definitely a voice. But it is the words that make him what he is. I sometimes come across people who doubt the Bob - who try to show he wasn't so good after all - they are incorrect. They might complain about some aspect of his writing - the obscurity and obliqueness of some of his songs - but they complain about those things by ignoring the songs that are nothing like that: that get to the point and fast. What's obscure about Hurricane or the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll? But plain or obscure, conventional or experimental - he was always sharp, dazzling, surprising and careful. The words make him what he is, the words and how he uses them. It's there in those piles of words, lines, images in the early songs - in the clear, direct statement of songs like the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll - in the meandering narratives of 70s songs, from Desire or Blood on the Tracks. He uses words to make music - the way they clash and throng, jammed together out of time, their mysterious pauses and transitions, repetitions, all the poetic tricks he uses - rhymes and internal rhymes and alliterations and assonance - While preachers preach of evil fates/Teachers teach that knowledge waits... lay slain by a cane... (or those three tables, also in ...Hattie Carroll...) - they all add up. However they read on the page, he always wrote these words to be sung - or performed, anyway - they are rhythmic and propulsive, ragged (usually), fitted to his voice. It's as if the words were a musical instrument.
For the full appreciation, I would recommend Edroso - he's far more eloquent... But for me - this makes perfect sense. Song writers deserve to be honored as writers once in a while. It is good to have people appreciate words across different media. As for Dylan himself: I like him, though he is probably not my favorite songwriter, even considered purely as a writer. I always liked Lou Reed more; I have my own little pantheon of heroes - Richard Thompson, David Thomas, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey - and in more conventional styes, Mick Jagger (And Keith Richards, whatever their division of duties is), and, maybe most of all, Smokey Robinson. But those are my preferences, undoubtedly idiosyncratic in places - and Dylan has the advantage over all of them in terms of the length and breadth of his career, his influence, both on the world and other writers/singers/musicians. He did indeed strike out in new directions as a "pop" songwriter - the others followed. Most of them (the ones I named) explicitly following Dylan. So - you bet he deserves this prize.

And so? some music, huh? A beautiful video for Don't Think Twice, It's All Right.



Something about the roots - where he comes from, where he took it - and, you know.. Dylan on TV, singing Man of Constant Sorrow:



And - influence: Richie Havens covering All Alongthe Watchtower:



And deeper influence, I guess - a school of rock band covering the Minutemen's Bob Dylan Wrote the Propaganda Songs":

Friday, October 07, 2016

Baseball Playoffs and Weather

So the sox lost last night, Porcello giving up three gopher balls in quick succession - yup. I should have written some predictions on this stuff - maybe I will after all. I don't know what the Red Sox are going to do - the starters are very good - but I don't trust any of them. I don't know. The offense cruised along, but sort of took the last week or so off - Bogaerts looks tired - so I don't know. Said that too much. I want them to win, but I want the Indians (and Terry Francona, and Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller, Coco Crisp, etc) to win. So - still think the Sox might be slight favorites, even down a game, but they could be done in three.

Since I'm doing this - I think the Blue Jays will win their series. Obviously got the right kind of start. Texas is a strange team - best record in the American league, but barely outscored their opponents - that is not a recipe for beating any of the other teams in this post-season.

I think the Sox would beat the Jays, if they play in the next round; I think the Jays will beat the Indians (who are missing too many of their pitchers) if they play...

And NL? I think the Nats will finally win something, beating the Dodgers. I certainly hope so.

And the Cubs? I mean - they're supposed to win the world series, and if they don't, well - but they are playing the Giants and it is an even numbered year. The Cubs can take comfort in the fact that Bumgarner isn't likely to start more than one game, though who knows how many relief innings he'll throw. Yep.

After that? Cubbies should still win through. Though, you know - Bumgarner. Unless the Cubs hold their regular season form, this is a pretty open post-season.

World Series? if the Red Sox can beat the Indians, they should win the series. If they don't - Cubs are the obvious pick; Giants though - what can you say? You mean I have to commit? Sox if they win this series - Cubs if they don't.

I really want to see Nats and Indians, and Tito get another one. But hey...

Meanwhile - here's Bob Dylan offering advice for those in the path of the hurricane - stay safe! (And gotta say: man, this is a scorching take on the song.)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Alphaville

(Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark.)



Alphaville is the first Godard film I ever saw, way back in the mid-80s. I saw it on a double bill with Alexander Nevsky, if my memory is accurate after 30 odd years. I remember liking Nevsky, though finding it all a bit strange; but Alphaville was a revelation. I had ideas about what Godard was supposed to be like - he was supposed to be difficult, possibly blasphemous (this is back around the time of Hail Mary - which I think was the second Godard film I ever saw, and came a bit closer to what I had been led to expect.) Instead, I saw this astonishing science fiction noir...



It is a beautiful film, with its rich play of light and dark, its bodies in rest and motion in overlit antiseptic spaces and dingy dark hallways, its faces, its eyes, especially Anna Karina's face and eyes. It's an overpoweringly romantic film - I walked out enthralled by Eluard and the staging of his poetry, Anna Karina’s voice, the light and dark, hands and faces, the strange contrast between Karina and Eddie Constantine - that sequence is, by itself, one of the most romantic, achingly sensual, passages ever put on film. I had never seen anything like it then, and haven't seen much like it since. But what might have been even more surprising was how funny the film is. Full of jokes, full of wit, visual, verbal, jokes coming out of the material, the references, the performances, staging, the setting. (That machine that asks you to insert a coin, then gives you a thank you token.) It's always serious, but never takes itself seriously - a pretty universal trait in Godard’s films. They are funny - they are full of serious things, conversations, ideas, images - but they are packed with jokes, visual and verbal puns, in jokes, references and allusions that become comical in context. (And it gets even funnier when you start spotting the things Monty Python stole - it's tattooed on the back of their neck!) It was a fine introduction to Godard - it conditioned me to look for beauty, romanticism, sensuality and wit, as well as Deep Thoughts and Art. (Which it has; don't discount that.)



And even more - it worked quite well, when I saw it the first time, as straight up science fiction. It holds up as science fiction now, both as pop fiction and for its ideas. It's ideas are legit, it’s image of the future: artificial intelligence, technology and technocracy, its particular brand of dystopia - a cool vicious embrace of science and logic, a technocratic tyranny, power diffused and de-personalized, a cruel, violent regime uncluttered by charismatic monsters. Dr. Von Braun is a cold dead eyed technocratic sadist, surrounded by dull technicians who follow him around like nervous interns. The only villain with any personality is Alpha 60 itself, a thing of rhythmic flashing lights, slide shows, and a mechanical voice. People have become zombies in this world, responding automatically - "Yes, I'm fine, don't mention it" - to any conversation; clapping politely at executions - their responses as automated as machines. Against this comes Lemmy Caution violent cool in a trench coat, cigarettes, and 45 automatic, crashing through this world with passion, emotion and art. This might be Godard's most Romantic film, too - in the sense of Romanticism as the embrace of passion, art and beauty, emotion and disorder against logic, order, science. Lemmy comes bearing pop culture props and poetry and represents the artist very well. He represents Godard very well - this is his quintessential mixture - pop culture and high art, science fiction tropes (high and low science fiction), plus noir, plus comics, plus high art, Eluard and Celine, and Cinema, always cinema - and maybe some general semantics to boot. All of it is fed in, all of it is taken seriously, and all of it is material for jokes. Nothing is allowed to settle in Godard's films - and it's that settling, that insistence on control, predictability, order, that Godard (and Lemmy) object to under the rule of Alpha 60.



Though in fact even the computer is more complicated that that. It is commanding and charismatic, in its way - almost Romantic, in a strange sense. A Satanic figure, undone by the hero - but compelling in itself. Satanic in Mick Jagger's sense, which itself is a Romantic notion of the devil - Satanic like Lucifer, bringer of light, trying to take the place of god, to rule all creation - not a bad description of Alpha 60.



And yet it’s a very ordinary monster, that computer - represented by just what you see there - lights, wires, boxes; sometimes by fans, or a simple flashing light, and always by a disembodied, mechanical, voice. This is another extraordinary quality of Alphaville - it is a very convincing science fiction film made up entirely of things in the real, contemporary (1965), world. It is probably the epitome of the type of film I referred to writing about Face of Another, films that shoot the real world to look and feel like science fiction. Alphaville is shot on the streets of Paris, in the buildings of Paris - but the glass and steel Paris, the modern Paris, of lights and machines and clean, modernist design. It looks other-worldly.



Godard constructs a futuristic world from this. Streets and cars and most of the actual technology are all contemporary, though shot and combined to look alien. Godard treats the world as it is like a science fiction place: flying in from New York (6000 miles away), becomes intergalactic travel. Only the computers are not part of the everyday world - but they are perfectly normal contemporary (1965) machines. Rooms full of banks of processors, wires, with keyboards and switches and card slots and flashing lights. You don’t see a lot of computers from 1965 - though it's interesting to consider that the back rooms where the real computing lives aren't that commonly seen now. We see the desktops and laptops and screens, keyboards and mice, the phones and tablets and all the other things people use - everything that interfaces with humanity. But even now, we don’t see the back rooms, where the infrastructure lives. Even now, it seems a bit alien when you see it (in Werner Herzog’s new internet film, say) - and not much different from what it looked like in 1965. Routers and processors and disk arrays and wires haven’t changed that much.



Though Godard does imagine the interface with humanity, though this didn't exist so much in 1965. It's an odd mix of analog and digital - invisible technology, disembodied voices, pervasive surveillance, microwave ovens - all made of sound and light. He warps it out of the real world, combining things in strange ways, showing pieces of the world, showing a world of sound and light, reflections and window panes, that subtly distort the world. Inside and outside, up and down, intermingle - it's an odd, translucent world, up on the surface....



And when the chance comes to use cinema to transform the world, he’s ready:



And so it is. A beautiful film, funny, fairly exciting, as adventure yarn (at least containing action scenes, half joke and half real excitement), imagining a dystopic future and what might be done about it, arguing what we have to protect - art, love, words - without quite (quite) disavowing what we could get from technology. And at times, almost exploding from sheer passion, desire and loss. Alphaville, the Capital of Pain, indeed...


Friday, September 30, 2016

Music for a Friday

Yikes, but I have neglected this blog. There have been reasons: a holiday, then a trip to Canada, then some work obligations (a big Friday meeting), etc. - but I can't rule out sheer laziness. I suppose plenty has happened I could write about, but I am not going to write about it, not today. I am just going to post some music videos and a list, to remind you - and maybe more importantly, me, that I am here and still exist.

1. Grateful Dead - Easy Wind
2. Half Japanese - Frankenstein Must Die!
3. Al Stewart - You Don't Even Know Me
4. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
5. Big Star - Take Care
6. The Cars - My Best Friend's Girl
7. Charlie Parker - Cool Blues
8. AC/DC - Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution
9. The Jodimars - Clarabella
10. Lightning Bolt - King of My World

and some video: a nicely obscure list, which makes it hard to dig out video... Here's Marshall Lytle from the Jodimars, singing Clarabella:



I suppose finding live Dead is neer too much a challenge:



And, give in to the hits, huh? Here's the Cars, 1979:



Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Face of Another

Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of their fantastic science fiction countdown.



Science Fiction can come in many forms. There are the big world building SF stories imagining whole worlds different from ours, however rigorously they might work out how they got to be different. Think Metropolis, Star Trek, Brazil, Children of Men. There are smaller world building exercises, where something alien or some invented technology is dropped into the world, and we see how the world reacts: think The Thing from Another World, or Under the Skin, or Midnight Special. But there is another type that isn’t, really, about world building at all. In these stories, something is changed – technology, usually, something that doesn’t exist in fact – and it is used to tell an intimate story, about a small group of people, with no direct implications for the world at large. (Though with indirect implications, maybe.) The Face of Another, a 1966 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, is this kind of story. It is science fiction because of one detail – the face itself – a detail used to justify what is mainly a psychological study, with horror overtones.

The story is this: a man (Okuyama) is burned in an accident, his face ruined, forcing him to wear bandages the rest of his life. He broods, alienated from his wife, his co-workers, everyone. He has a doctor, a psychiatrist who dabbles in science (making prosthetics) who says he will make him a face that will look exactly like a real face. He does so, all the time speculating on how this different face will change Okuyama’s psyche. Okuyama puts it on, and starts establishing a second life – but his ultimate intention is to try to seduce his wife with the new face. He tries it and it works all too well – he is horrified at her unfaithfulness. (He has made himself jealous.) When he confronts her, though, she says she knew all along, and thought he knew – thought this was a shared masquerade, to get past the complications of his bandages. She thought he was being considerate of her. (He is not considerate of anyone.) After that, whatever claims he had to sanity are gone – he attacks a woman in the street, and when the doctor bails him out, put him out of his misery – and then? Good question. This story is intercut with another story, a young woman with a terrible scar on her face, probably from Nagasaki, though half of her face is beautiful. She suffers and becomes increasingly anxious about the coming of another war, until she pulls her hair back and walks into the sea.





This is presented more as a psychological thriller, or horror, than as science fiction. It’s themes are mainly from horror – bodily integrity (and its loss); questions of identity itself; the sense of the darkness inside us being given an external form, that turns on us. The Self and The Other is one of the great themes of horror, and the main theme of this film. Its precedents are familiar horror situations – doppelgängers and Faust type stories – doubles, tempters and tempted, the chance to become someone else. The science fiction here essentially replaces the supernatural or psychological motivations of classic horror – Okuyama doesn’t go mad (as in Dostoevsky’s The Double) or make a dealt with the devil (as in Faust) – he gets a prosthetic face. This is, in fact, a rich tradition within science fiction itself, especially early science fiction. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau all tell stories that feel closer to gothic horror than to science fiction, and explore themes associated with horror, while using technologies as the justification for their marvels. All involve doubles, secret identities, divided selves, tempting, corrupting figures, bodily monstrosity and so on – as does The Face of Another.



It has all of it in fact – with the Doctor serving both as Okuyama’s doppelgänger and his Mephistopheles. It’s a double function (of course it’s a double function) that recalls the plot of The Student of Prague, where the devil takes the student’s mirror image for his own purposes, and foreshadows works like Bad Influence and Fight Club (though Fight Club resolves the double/tempter back into one character), and especially Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Doppelganger. (A film definitely influenced by this one.) The doctor enables Okuyama to live a double life; he urges him to take advantage of it, though he imagines the freedom as corrupting. He pushes Okuyama to act, and begins to seem to urge him to act out his (the doctor’s) desires. The doctor come off even more sinister than Okuyama – he is a Dr. Jekyll who is not willing to swallow the potion himself; he pushes Okuyama to act out his own darker urges, while keeping himself out of it, trying to eschew responsibility for what he pushes Okuyama to do. Though as doubles it’s hard to say who is corrupting whom – the doctor allows Okuyama to follow his worst instincts while telling himself the doctor put him up to it – as much as the reverse. But that constantly switching perspective is what the film is about.



Teshigahara is a stylist, and the film’s themes are given rigorous formal treatment. It is a film about masks and doubles, about reflections and reversals, about unstable identities, and it is made up of all those things. Doubles: Okuyama and the doctor; Okuyama and the scarred girl. Repetitions: scenes – Okuyama arriving at the apartment, first with his bandages, then with his Face, encountering the super’s daughter, then her father, in just the same way, touring the rooms in just the same way; situations – arriving at his boss’ office, scenes with his wife; shots – Okuyama facing the camera with his wife behind him, then his wife facing the camera with Okuyama behind her. Scenes, shots, situations repeat, reverse, reflect one another. This is most consistent and extreme in the relationship between Okuyama and the doctor, of course. Every device appears: the two as doubles of one another, as parts of one another, overlapping, as mirror images of one another, either specially or in color (one in white, the other black, which happens repeatedly); scenes are repeated – they go to the beer hall twice, where they talk and drink – while reversing their positions (right and left) and their suits (Okuyama wears dark, the doctor light the first time, they reverse it the second time) between visits.



They are the strongest pairing in the film, but not the only one. Okuyama is linked to the scarred girl; all the women – Okuyama’s wife, the doctor’s wife, his nurse, the boss’s secretary – form a series of displacements of one another, visually, structurally. They haunt the film – recognizing Okuyama, not recognizing Okuyama, flitting around the edge of the frame (the doctor’s wife tucked off in the back of the frame as he and the nurse talk and flirt), erupting, now and then, into something fully uncanny. No one is quite who they seem – or quite who they are. (Though some are more aware and accepting of this than others.)



Finally, all this style does one more thing – it makes the film look like science fiction. This is especially so in the doctor’s office, with its glass shelves and windows and reflections, its floating body parts and instruments, its shifting perspectives, its pristine futuristic strangeness.



But it extends the look to the rest of the film as well. Okuyama’s apartment, his office, the airport where they buy his face, the streets of Tokyo, all have a similar alienating modernity. It’s a look common in films of the 1960s – as if filmmakers discovered the modern (and modernist) city, and found it as surprising and foreign as any science fiction city. The idea of the contemporary city as a kind of science fiction setting appears in many ’60s films – sometimes explicitly, as in Alphaville or the shots of Tokyo in Solaris – sometimes implicitly, as in Antonioni’s city scapes, or Playtime, or any of a host of stylish thrillers. They emphasize the alienating modernity of the glass and steel city, making it as sterile and alien as the future everytown in Things to Come. The sense, which is very strong in this film, especially in the doctor’s office, is that actual science fiction would be almost redundant. The world itself is already science fiction – they don’t need complex world building to create an alien world: they just need to show the streets and offices and people as they are. (Maybe with some extra floating ears…)

This was, of course, especially true in Japan, in Tokyo, a city wiped off the map twice in the first half to the 20th century (by the 1922 earthquake and World War II), and rebuilt twice, more modern and ambitious than before. And a population rebuilt as well – remade after the war, a country and culture largely reimagined after the war. That sense of alienation runs through so much of post-war Japanese films and literature, giving it tremendous power. The nation itself had to confront who it was, what its identity was, what was real and what not – and find ways to enact the new selves it was supposed to inhabit. That tension – the sense of human beings as aliens – it embodied (very literally) by Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance as well. In the bandages, he has to act with his body and his eyes; with the mask, he has to perform both the performance of normality and the fact that it is a performance, that his face is a mask. The way he moves – his control of his face – the way he sits, while he is being fitted for the mask, is one of the most alienating physical performances on screen. He’s an alien, as off, in everything he does, as a robot or space man – he is fantastic.



And so, to end, with one more note, about one more bit of doubling. There are two stories in the film – and the second story, of the scarred girl and her brother, looks quite different from the strange modernism of Okuyama’s story. She moves along older looking streets, through older parts of the city. The psychiatric ward where she works is old and shabby, with none of the modernism of the Doctor’s rooms. When she and her brother leave the city, they go to the sea – they walk on the beach, they explore caves, they stay in a conventional looking seaside resort. They are contrasted with the new Japan of the doctor and Okuyama – but they hardly fare any better. She carries the scars of the wars, dreading the next war, losing herself and coming apart as surely as Okuyama does. There is no comfort in the old, any more than the new; no sense that authenticity will save you any more than masquerading will.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Loss

This year has been a rough one for pop culture - more than that: for film culture, music, any kind of culture. This week is no exception, bringing two more deaths - Gene Wilder, for pop culture... And in my own little niche of online film nerds, the almost impossible to process news that Allan Fish, co-founder of Wonders in the Dark, has died.

This feels a lot like when I heard Edward Copeland had died. Another person I only knew through the internet, who holds an outsized place in my world. I mentioned then that Wonders in the Dark reminded me of Copeland's blog in its hey day - it's true: the sense of community, the importance of the conversation, and the devotion to the art forms being discussed were very much alike. Wonders in the Dark goes on, and Allan's influence will remain - but his voice will be missed.

I didn't have a lot of direct interaction with him - occasional random conversations in comment threads - my interactions with the blog have mostly been with Sam Juliano. (Not unusual: Sam is one of the world's great interacters.) I know Allan could be prickly when he was arguing about film, but I didn't have a lot of reason to disagree with him - his tastes seem to have run in the same vein as mine - and he'd seen so much more than me - or almost anyone - that there wasn't much profit to be had in disagreeing with him. There was, however (and still is, as long as the writing is online, or if it is published), great profit to be had in his writing. He shared the breadth of his knowledge, writing about films from everywhere, his essays clear, sharp - he tells you what the film is, what's in it, what it's worth - his reviews feel definitive.

He shaped the nature of the blog with those writings. He and Sam made a somewhat odd pairing - Sam is almost impossibly outgoing and enthusiastic - Allan could definitely be abrasive when he wanted - but they complimented each other. (You can get a good picture of it from Allan's tribute to Sam - Sam's personality, Allan's, and Allan's writing style - his clarity, his directness, his dry understated wit - I know both of them better from reading it.) I sometimes picture their blog as being like a playground, where an ongoing pick up ball game is going on: Sam's there telling everyone, of course you can play! everyone can play! - and Allan's always there as well, saying, But you better have game.... A lot of us have contributed there - and I don't think I'm alone in feeling like whatever you publish there better be up to the standards of the rest. You better have game...

And so... It is Friday, after all, and I have my traditions to uphold. So let's give the video portion of this post to Gene Wilder: with his most famous song....



And a bit of soft shoe from Young Frankenstein....



And a wild card - Soop! of the EEEveneing! from Alice in Wonderland...