Thursday, October 31, 2013

World Series Day After

I want to write some more about the World Series - having had a day of sober reflection, you know...

This year had an odd sense of of inevitability about it. I remember the first week of the season, playing the Yankees - thinking about how well everything seemed to have worked out. The team got off to a fast start - playing well in the field, getting good starting pitching, and just murdering people out of the bullpen. You could see they were loaded - Uehara and Tazawa were the first guys out of the pen, and were shutting people down - the guys pitching the end of games, Hanrahan, later Bailey, looked just as good. They looked invincible. But Hanrahan got hurt; then Bailey got hurt; then Andrew Miller (lefty specialist) got hurt - and the guys pitching the 6th and 7th started pitching the 8th and 9th and they barely missed a beat. And got infinitely better when Uehara took over closing full time.

It reminds you how much of this year was, really, luck - especially the macro scale kind of luck. They had plenty of the game to game luck, walk off wins and the like, but their real good fortune came in the fact that they were able to basically play the year with the team they expected to have. I've mentioned before - my doubts about the team came from the fact they were assembling too many guys in their early (or late) 30s, who'd had an injury here or there, and could be about ready to start to decline - Napoli and Victorino and Uehara all fit that bill, as do Ortiz, even Lester and Buchholz, going on last year's performance. All of them with a very good track record - but so many of them with questions. And basically, they all stayed healthy, got healthy (Lackey), performed as expected. That hasn't happened for a few years - the Sox in the 2010s have had a run of pretty awful luck, to tell the truth. Young guys getting hurt - Beckett in 2010, Buchholz in 2011, Ellsbury in 10 and 12, Pedroia and Youk in 2010, Crawford in 2011 - formerly reliable older players breaking down - Lackey, Beckett, etc., Wake and Tek reaching the end of the road, crazy people in positions of importance (Alfredo Aceves, closer? Bobby Valentine, manager??) This year made up for that - the good players with health or age concerns all stayed healthy and performed...

The big exception was the bullpen - but that serves to illustrate the nature of this luck - it's luck the organization made, as much as you can make your own luck. They managed to lose 2 closers and a top setup guy for the year, and not really miss a beat - because they had assembled a very deep pool of arms to choose from. They had Bailey, with hopes he could come back; they acquired Hanrahan (though I imagine they wished they'd had Malancon back...) and signed Uehara; they had a deep pool of options on the roster - Tazawa, Miller, Breslow, Morales - and had rebuilt the farm system to the point of producing real talent. And it paid off. They were right - they had enough depth to survive losing half their bullpen. A big part of it was, frankly, last year's debacle - the one good thing that came from that was the development of Tazawa and Miller - Miller finally found his niche last year; Tazawa came back from Tommy John surgery, and turned into an excellent reliever. Across the board, the team tried to do that - collect players - build depth everywhere, to make sure they had good players on the field, and more good players to cover injuries.

Though in the end - without Lester and Lackey doing what they did (and Buchholz, for the half season he was healthy), without Ortiz healthy, Pedroia being Pedroia and Ellsbury coming back, they weren't winning much. The stars came through. The rest of the team came through. Most of them stayed healthy and were able to deliver what they were there to do. It's been a beautiful thing.

And it's worth reflecting on what an impressive post-season they put together. The pitching, specifically. They went up against some of the scariest pitching you can imagine - Cy Young award winners, past and present, super-rookies, hard throwers, pitchers - and they out-pitched the lot of them. True, the Sox have a great offense, but the Tigers and Cards score runs - but not against the Red Sox. The starters shut them down, mostly; the bullpen might have been even better. Other than Craig Breslow (who had been quite superb in the first two rounds, but apparently missed a payment on his contract with Satan for the world series), they gave up almost nothing. Meanwhile - the Red Sox faced the win leaders in the AL and NL, twice each - and won all 4. Beat the last 2 Cy Young award winners in the American League. Basically, outpitching them, in every one of those games (except maybe the first Scherzer start - Jim Leyland did help the Sox immeasurably...) It was a dominant performance, that just got better in the world series.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sox Win!

One more time! Red Sox win the world series, third time in 10 years - after all the angst of being a Red Sox fan in the 70s and 80s, and the knowledge of the decades of angst before that - it's strange and wonderful.

The first one was almost unfathomable - the second one just satisfying. This one is something else - it's been tougher than the other two, for one thing - they were both anti-climactic, after the league championships. This has been the culmination of a great year - a wonderful year, really, for a Red Sox fan. This team has been a joy to watch, has been tough and smart and effective, a complete team from beginning to end. You could tell from the start - shutting down the Yankees on opening day, opening week - the starters solid, the bullpen unhittable from the beginning - and they kept it up. I guess what I mean is, this has been a hugely satisfying season, from beginning to end, and winning it all just tops it all off. A very wonderful thing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October's Auteur - Yasujiro Ozu

It is time for October's Director of the Month - and the end of my little countdown of favorite Japanese filmmakers. We have reached the top - Yasujiro Ozu. For most of these, I have written up an essay - but the truth is, I've written so much about Ozu here, it might be easier just to point. Particularly to this one, summing up my love of Ozu - I can't really add much to that. He is, I say, the greatest filmmaker of all - an almost endless source of awe and beauty.

Maybe in place of a top 10 films I could list the top 10 reasons he is the best - or my favorite:

1. His formal brilliance

2. His Humanism
3. Space - the way he slices it up and recombines it
4. Every screen is impeccable
5. His editing - which is where his formal brilliance lies, I think - no one puts a film together like he did. The cuts on motion, the matches, on motion, on actions, or just on the images, the graphic match. And his disregard for the usual rules of editing - or more properly, his disruption of the normal rules of editing - he quite deliberately disorients the viewer, while teaching us to put an Ozu film together.
6. His range - I mean, to extend on those remarks about editing - the fact that all the things Ozu does, formally, can be done for emotional resonance, for a pure formal effect - or (and this happens a lot) as a gag.
7. His humor - the way his comic skills (of all kinds, physical humor, verbal jokes, character humor, formal gags with cuts and set design and what have you) are always there, worked into the fabric of the film, even when it's not a comedy. Though most of them are, at least partially, comedies. And some of them - Good Morning maybe most of all - are absolute comic masterpieces. The old lady and the knife gag....

8. His subtle, but unmistakeable and unmissable once you notice it, attention to economic and social issues. Really - attention to how people live, and how people live within their specific economic circumstances, is everywhere in his films.

9. Death - I have read that people don't usually die in Ozu films - but that is not right. His films are full of death. Seldom on screen (though there are a few - you can find just about anything in an Ozu film somewhere) but it is always there, offscreen - people are haunted in film after film by the people who have died - sons in the war; mothers, wives, children, young and old - there is no getting around it.

10. The way he runs changes on situations - the way he explores a theme, by circling it in a series of films. Take the obvious question of marriage in Japan - and all the different possibilities - arranged marriages, love marriages, sad marriages, happy marriages... Or running through parent child relationships: mother and son, father and son, father and daughter, mother and daughter....

And I could probably add this - that I can almost follow the dialogue in a lot of them.

So - that is that. As for the films - up to now, I've stuck to top 10s, but for Ozu, I am going whole hog - all the complete features I have seen, in order. That leaves out A Mother Should be Loved - I have seen it, but it is missing at least the first and last reels. It would come in near the bottom - it's a nice enough film, but a bit of an over the top tear-jerker. Still - there's nothing here that isn't a very well made piece of work...

1. Early Summer
2. Late Spring
3. Tokyo Story
4. I Was Born But...
5. The Only Son
6. Good Morning
7. Passing Fancy
8. An Inn in Tokyo
9. Tokyo Chorus
10. Autumn Afternoon
11. What did the Lady Forget?
12. Early Spring
13. Story of Floating Weeds
14. Woman of Tokyo
15. Tokyo Twilight
16. That Night's Wife
17. Floating Weeds
18. Record of a Tenement Gentleman
19. Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice
20. There Was A Father
21. Equinox Flower
22. Days of Youth
23. Brother and Sisters of the Today Clan
24. Late Autumn
25. Where Now are the Dreams of Youth
26. Hen in the Wind
27. Walk Cheerfully
28. Dragnet Girl
29. I Flunked But...
30. The Lady and the Beard
31. End of Summer
32. Munekata Sisters

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed RIP

Lou Reed has died. I guess it is not too surprising, but... that gets pretty close to the center of the musical universe, you know.

Here he is, playing Sweet Jane, with Robert Quine.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Music World Series Edition

Here we are, Friday, middle of the World Series - people were thinking the Sox were going to run off with it after the first game, but things have come back down. All tied up and off to St. Louis. It's going to be a tight one.

And so? let's go straight to the tunes...

1. Neil Young - Long May You Run
2. Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention - Absolutely Free
3. Pere Ubu - Postcard
4. Love - Listen to My Song
5. Red Krayola - Farewell to Arms
6. Johnny Cash - Rock Island Line
7. George Michael - Look at Your Hands
8. Pavement - Perfume (live)
9. Grinderman - Depth Charge Ethel
10. T. Rex - Jeepster

Video? It's starting to feel rather Canadian out there - good an cold... so let's start with Young Neil on the pump organ:

And how about Absolutely Free played as a duet for guitar and clarinet?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Problems of Command

On October 23, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant arrived in Chattanooga, to take over command of the effort to rescue the Army of the Cumberland, which was sealed up in that place.

After the battle of Chickamauga, the Union army had retreated, in great disarray, to Chattanooga. Half the army, and William Rosecrans, its commander, were completely wrecked - the rest, which had made an epic stand under George Thomas, retreated during the night. All of them were in a bad way. The Confederates came after them - but not at full speed. The Yankees were able to dig in around the city, though in the valley. The Rebels dug in along the hills ringing the city. The Union men were not exactly trapped in Chattanooga - but they were cut off from easy contact with the rest of the world. The Rebels could block the river, most of the main roads - food had to come in over the mountains, there in southern Tennessee. For the next month or so, the Southerners tried to starve the Yankees out. While this was happening, Grant was put in charge of everything from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, Rosecrans was replaced by Thomas, and Grant set out to save them. He worked his way through the wilderness to Chattanooga, followed by reinforcements - his own Army of the Tennessee, now led by Sherman, and a detachment from the Army of the Potomac, the XI and XII corps, led by Fightin' Joe Hooker himself.

Grant didn't waste any time getting to work on a plan (or accepting a plan that Thomas and Baldy Smith had already worked out) - but that can wait for now. I want to write about Command, right now. Especially, the difference between how the Union and Confederacy handled command problems after Chickamauga. The north we've seen - they were whipped and whipped bad at Chickamauga. Rosecrans himself could be blamed for the defeat, and was - and his indecisiveness after the battle sealed his fate. Lincoln put Grant in command, and gave Grant the authority to decide who commanded the Army of the Cumberland - Grant dismissed Rosecrans and appointed (or rather, accepted Lincoln's appointment of) George Thomas. Things went differently in the south.

Let's start with this - was there a more troublesome general on either side than Braxton Bragg? He was a strange case - it is not that he was incompetent, or even particularly unsuccessful; he acquitted himself well in his Kentucky campaign of 1862, and you could say that he actually won all three major battles he had fought to this point (Perryville, Stone's River and Chickamauga). But he had a knack for failure. He might have carried most of the field at Perryville and Stone's River, but he abandoned the field in both cases, and they went down as Union victories. He won clearly at Chickamauga, but it is hard to see how any credit could go to him - Rosecrans' and Wood's blunders, Longstreet's attack, and the Confederate division and brigade commanders deserve the credit there - and at the end of it, he did not pursue aggressively, and a wrecked Union army got back to Chattanooga intact, and dug in, to hold the town.

Bragg's underlings certainly blamed Bragg, and wasted no time before they started scheming against him. MOre or less openly. The usual suspects - Polk and Breckinridge and Buckner, joined now by the easterners, Longstreet and D.H. Hill - writing their political allies in Richmond, writing to Jeff Davis, writing open letters, anonymous letters.... And that is the real problem with Bragg. Whatever he was on the battlefield, Bragg was an astonishingly unsuccessful leader of men. From top to bottom. The men in the ranks hated him. His generals hated him and openly schemed against him. Politicians hated him. Everyone hated him, except a few toadies, and Jefferson Davis. It is hard to imagine what Jefferson Davis was thinking. Bragg's generals were lobbying for his replacement after Chickamauga - which is bad enough, except they did exactly the same thing after Stone's River and Perryville - and every time, Davis left him in charge. It is very hard to see why - you are left thinking that either Davis was a terrific fool, or he simply despaired of the situation.

It isn't as though he didn't have options. After Stone's River, Davis was prepared to let Joe Johnston take over, sent him to decide whether Bragg should go or not - but didn't order Johnston to take over. After Chickamauga, Davis had even more choices - Johnston again, with the added option of having Johnston bring his army east to combine with Bragg's. And Longstreet - who was on the scene, and seems to have been scheming for the job. Longstreet's behavior, especially, was rather unseemly - but then again - he was just about the only one of the lot willing to take the job if it were offered. Either general brought problems - Johnston was a resolutely defensive minded general - though for a siege, that might have been just what was needed. He had the added advantage of being able to bring reinforcements with him - the south outnumbered the north at Chickamauga, and could have maintained that, by adding Johnston to Bragg and Longstreet. Longstreet's politicking might have been unseemly, but he was a real general - men followed him, Lee trusted him, he was willing to act on his own - he would have been well suited for the job.

But Davis left Bragg in charge. He couldn't bring himself to make the change - even after Stone's River, he wouldn't make the decision, he left the choice to Johnston - a man very unlikely to make a decision if he didn't have to. So Bragg stayed in command, though by this time, he was an obvious liability. He had lost the confidence of his officers, and of the men in the ranks; he showed no sign of being able to run a campaign. He had to go.

It is ironic: there is a legend that the South went to war with far better soldiers and leaders than the north. Most accounts grant that the Union learned the business of war as they went along, and by the end had leaders who knew how to win with overwhelming odds. You could put it that way, but it misses the point, even of what you have just said. This story illustrates it: the fact is that the Union, when it failed, changed commanders. More in the east than in the west, but they failed more in the east than the west. The whole point is that Lincoln, once he got going, was willing to change. The Union high command - Lincoln and Stanton and company - were ruthless. They expected success and chased it hard. They found it. It took awhile - took a year’s worth of campaigning in the east, to basically shake out the lesser men and give the better ones time to learn their trade. By 1863, even in the east,m where things had gone so badly, Lincoln had men to choose from. Meade, Reynolds, Sedgwick - all of them had drawbacks, mostly their lingering McClellanisms, the institutional caution and ponderousness the Army of the Potomac never shed - but all were strong leaders, willing and able to fight, and any of the three, at least, would have won the battle of Gettysburg, as Meade did, for the reasons Meade did. They did their jobs. They knew what they had. They knew their underlings and knew how to use them (Meade’s decision to rely as heavily as he did on Hancock was inspired - it’s like Grant’s decision to rely on Sheridan at the end of the war, or on Sherman in the west. You could almost say that the difference at Gettysburg is that Meade had Hancock, and used him - Lee no longer had Jackson.)

The Union had better luck early in the west - Grant had an army by 1862, Sherman and Thomas were in positions of authority, and did well - though there were still bumps in the road. Rosecrans was a mixed bag - brilliant at some things, overwhelmed at others - after Chickamauga, he'd lost the confidence of much of his army and the Union high command... But again - the important point is that the Union high command was willing to act. It's true, Lincoln had had Grant and Thomas and Sherman on hand to take over - men he trusted, and who were, themselves, willing to take on the responsibility they were given. (Joe Johnston was not willing to relieve Bragg when given the option; Grant had no problem replacing Rosecrans with Thomas when given the authority.) The Union got there by being willing to change.

That refinement did not happen in the south. Partly, to be sure, because Lee found those men in 1862 - Longstreet and Jackson, the division commanders - A. P. Hill and Ewell and Hood and the like, people like Gordon and Rodes and Early, all very fine officers, who were identified fairly early. The Union found some good officers at the beginning of the war, but not as many, and they never quite managed to get them in position. The first round of leaders - Franklin and Porter, Sumner and Keyes - were not quite up to it. The next round - Hooker and Kearney, Richardson and the like, died or drifted - it’s the third generation, and the fourth - Sedgwick and Meade and Reynolds, Hancock, Howard, Gibbon, Birney, Barlow, and so on, who really distinguished themselves. BUt the emergence of strong officers later in the war in part of the difference - in the south, even in Lee’s army, as the top men were killed or disabled, the men moving into their place did not expand to their new responsibilities as often. Generals like Hill and Ewell, Early, Anderson, Rodes were all good men, but none of them as good as the men they replaced, none of them as good at higher levels as they were with their brigades and divisions. People like Sherman and Sheridan, meanwhile, got better as they rose through the ranks - they were better with more responsibility than less.

But all of this was far, far worse for the Confederacy in the west. You can imagine the way the north would have reacted to some of those battles - Bragg would have been done at least after Stone’s River. Lincoln, pulling a sad face, would tell him about the old farmer he knew, and his favorite cow, that wouldn’t give, and send him home. He’d have tried Polk or Hardee - he’d have given Breckinridge or Buckner a shot at it - he might even have been willing to bring back Beauregard or put Johnston in charge - but he’d have found someone, and if they fucked up, he’d have found someone else. They’d have gotten to the men who knew their jobs - in the Union army, men like Cleburne or Stephen Lee or Forrest, who had real talent, would have found their way to high command, the way Sheriden and Sherman and McPherson and James Wilson did. It is fascinating - in the long run, the Union did a far, far better job of identifying talent, developing it, keeping a fair stream of talent occupying high positions. And you have to say - that the Union did a much better job of moving people up successfully. The Meades and Hancocks and Warrens, later Humphreys - the Logans and Blairs, the Sheridans, Wilsons, etc., all made the transition from brigade to division to corps command, successfully. Yes - often with the institutional problems of their armies intact (which is a reason why people like Howard and Slocum seem so inept in the east and thrived in the west, maybe), but still, far more successfully than Hill or Ewell or Hood moved up.

In the end, if all comes back to Jeff Davis. He has to take a lot of the blame for this. He sustained Bragg in the face of universal condemnation, and in the face of Bragg never accomplishing anything. He sidelined Beauregard, marginalized Johnston, because he did not like them. He did insanely self-destructive things like putting John Hood in charge of the most important army in the “country”. He did many things - he pushed to hold all of Mississippi when it was impossible; kept Pemberton in command in the face of universal distrust; he could never act decisively - to concentrate, to scatter, to give Lee unqualified support, or to force Lee to support someone else. He let feuds and personal bickering simmer, never removing the people complaining or the target of their complaints, and nothing he did helped.

The closest comparison to Bragg's position in 1863 might be Burnside's at the beginning of 1863. It's true that Burnside had failed far more than Bragg. His army was melting away (as was Bragg’s). His officers were in open revolt (as were Bragg's). Burnside himself, usually a generous, good man (no one ever said that of Braxton Bragg), was on the warpath against them. What to do? Lincoln got rid of Burnside. He bit the bullet and turned to the most talented and successful general on hand, Fightin' Joe Hooker, even though he was also a self-aggrandizing blowhard who was openly (and surreptitiously) campaigning for the job (Lincoln's as much as Burnside's, I suspect. Giving interviews about the need for a military dictator?) It didn’t work out all that well - Hooker choked at the key moment. But Lincoln did it. And when Hooker failed - Lincoln turned him out and put Meade in. It's not hard to guess what would have happened in the south if Lincoln were their president - he would have sent Bragg home and put Longstreet in charge. There is no doubt. And the war might well have lasted another year.

Monday, October 21, 2013

World Series, Here We Come!

I am happy to report that I got the playoffs right so far - we've got Boston and St. Louis in the World Series, the two best records in the game, and pretty clearly the two best teams. So it should be pretty good. Sox got there rather predictably, by staying close, and taking out the Tiger's bullpen - winning two games late that way. Cards won mostly by shutting down the Dodgers, though they did rise up and smite Clayton Kershaw in game 6.

They look pretty evenly matched - the Cards with great young arms, deep and strong, and a deep, balanced, tough lineup; the Sox with a run of proven starters, a couple of them in fine form (Lester and Lackey), backed by a solid bullpen in front of a nearly unhittable closer. Plus a lineup a lot like the Cards' - everyone hits, everyone brings something; they hit line drives, they hit for power, they have some speed - and it's all anchored by David Ortiz. Which isn't too far from what the Cards bring - maybe less power, but plenty of high average hitters - and Carlos Beltran, who, it should be noted, is a better post-season hitter than Ortiz.

The last time these teams played was 2004 - the Sox came into that one on a more or less unmatchable high, and took the poor Cards (and their 105 wins) apart. But that was a different kind of team - different pitching - the Cards ran out 4 solid journeymen starters, none of them lights out arms. None of them with the kind of history Boston's worse starter had (dear old Derek Lowe, who took the whole year off, until the team was behind 3-0 in the playoffs, when he reverted to his 21 game winning 2002 form.) The Sox just put it to them. Of course - the 2004 Red Sox were a pretty notable bunch of underachievers most of the year - they never really got going until August, though after that they almost ran the table. They let the Yankees take 3 from them, and had to fight an almost supernatural battle for the next two wins - but really, after the Bloody Sock game, there wasn't much room for doubt. That team wasn't about to lose.

This year is another matter. This Red Sox team has not underachieved at all. It's tempting to think they overachieved, since they weren't exactly expected to be this good - but mostly, that's a matter of people staying healthy, and performing to expectations. Well - hopes; but reasonable hopes. I think one of the things Ben Cherington did right is see that he had good players, 93 losses notwithstanding, and didn't need to rebuild fromt he top. Ortiz (if healthy), Pedroia, Lester and Buchholz (if healthy) were quite capable of anchoring a good team - they needed a roster to go with it. So he added players that filled out the roster, all of them proven players, with good track records; added arms in the bullpen (to their salvation). It is a 25 man team - everyone on the roster brings value. It's impressive. This Cardinal team, meanwhile, is just as good - not many holes in the lineup; a bench; lots of good young power arms (unlike the 04 version), plus an ace, in Wainwright (the 2004 St. Louis ace was Chris Carpenter, who was injured - when he was healthy, he was 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in the World Series.) They have a tough, deep bullpen. This is going to be a tight series, I think - 6 or 7 games, and I'd expect most of them to be nail-biters. In the end? I'm going with the Red Sox because I have to, and also - their resiliency. Grinding out every at bat, inning, game; they never seem to break...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Musical Friday

Welcome back to business, US Government! I am very relieved to see the government back in action, and without the Democrats giving anything up. It has been very obvious that as long as the GOP House kept getting things from their antics, they were going to continue driving us to the edge of demolition - that has to stop. Granted - by "stop" I mean, put off until winter or spring. But - the fact that the Democrats did not bend is a cause for optimism. Having found the limits of what they can get by extortion, maybe they will try politics...

Anyway - that's that. Right now? a random selection of musical tunes for your contemplation:

1. Motorhead - Fast and Loose
2. Hoodoo Gurus - Bittersweet
3. Built to Spill - Conventional Wisdom
4. Johnny Cash - Wreck of the old 97
5. Tom Verlaine - Balcony
6. U2 - Bad
7. Boredoms - House of Sun
8. King Crimson - The Power to Believe II
9. Saint Etienne - Like a Motorway
10. Ray Charles - Drown in My Own Tears

Video: I have had the misfortune recently to get Air Supply stuck in my head... this is terrible, and enough to make one consider reprisals against our antipodean friends; this, I hope, can counter such horrors - this is a song that would make a very welcome ear worm...

And Ray Charles of course.

Monday, October 14, 2013

2000s WITD Poll Votes

Over at Wonders in the Dark, they have almost reached the present in their yearly polls, hitting the 2010s. I imagine, in a couple weeks it will get interesting, as we find out what will be the best films of 2014 and 15 and beyond. Better get my time machine going...

Anyway - here are my votes for the 2000s, my posted votes by year, and my overall choices. I notice that I have changed the order of a couple films since I voted - I have posted most of these votes as I went along, but I am not going to look to see how that has changed. Orders of merit tend to be pretty arbitrary, beyond the absolute top, usually....


PICTURE: Inland Empire
DIRECTOR (single): David Lynch, Inland Empire
(decade): Pedro Costa
LEAD ACTOR (single): George Clooney, O Brother Where Art Thou?
(decade): Song Kang-ho
LEAD ACTRESS (single): Laura Dern, Inland Empire
(decade): Emmanuelle Devos
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Bae Doona, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
SHORT: Heart of the World, Guy Maddin
SCORE: Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood
CINEMATOGRAPHY: William Lubtchansky, Regular Lovers

Plus bonus picks::
Script: Outside of the top 20? Mother... overall?
1. Secret Sunshine
2. Kings and Queen
3. Yi Yi
4. Mother
5. O Brother Where Art Thou?
Music: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Sound: Shirin
Martial Arts: House of Flying Daggers
Documentary: Los Angeles Plays Itself - though this might be the best decade for documentaries yet - so deserves a top 5 at least:
1. Los Angeles... (Anderson)
2. En Construccion (Guerin)
3. Forty-Nine Up (Apted)
4. RR (Bening)
5. Grizzly Man (Herzog)
Animated: Waking Life (plus - Wall E, Incredibles, A Scanner Darkly, Waltz with Bashir)
Musical: depending on your definitions... top 5?
1. O Brother...
2. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
3. Chunyang
4. No One Knows About Persian Cats
5. 24 Hour Party People

1. Inland Empire
2. Yi Yi
3. Kings and Queen
4. In Vanda's Room
5. Colossal Youth
6. Secret Sunshine
7. Death of Mr. Lazarescu
8. O Brother Where Art Thou
9. Los Angeles Plays Itself
10. Memories of Murder
11. 2046
12. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
13. L'Intrus
14. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
15. The Royal Tenenbaums
16. The Headless Woman
17. Mulholland Drive
18. Syndromes and a Century
19. The Son
20. There Will Be Blood


Decent year, 2009, though maybe lacking any great masterpieces. But lots of films in the almost-great range, if that means anything. A contest of Korean films for the top spot...

DIRECTOR: Bong Joon-ho, Mother
LEAD ACTOR: Song Kang-ho, Thirst
LEAD ACTRESS: Kim Hye-ja, Mother (This is another tough one, with Isabelle Huppert and Kim Ok-bin to think about...)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Melanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds
SCORE: Alexandre Desplat, Fantastic Mr. Fox
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Antony Dod Mantle, Antichrist

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Mother
Music/Sound: No One Knows about Persian Cats

1. Mother
2. Thirst
3. A Serious Man
4. Police, Adjective
5. White Material
6. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
7. Inglourious Basterds
8. Limits of Control
9. Antichrist
10. The White Ribbon


This is something of a step back, though there are still plenty of decent films....

PICTURE: The Headless Woman
DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh, Che
LEAD ACTOR: Benicio del Toro, Ché
LEAD ACTRESS: Maria Onetto, Headless Woman
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lina Leanderson, Let the Right One In
SCORE: Thomas Newman, Wall-E
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Steven Soderbergh, Ché

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Beaches of Agnes
Music: Sita Sings the Blues
Sound (& editing): Shirin
Documentary: Man on Wire

1. The Headless Woman
2. Che
3. Tokyo Sonata
4. Liverpool
5. Birdsong
6. 24 City
7. Hunger
8. Christmas Tale
9. Wall E
10. Night and Day


This is one of the best years of the decade - great at the top, and a deep run of good films.

PICTURE: Secret Sunshine
DIRECTOR: PT Anderson, There Will Be Blood
LEAD ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis
LEAD ACTRESS: Jeon Do-yeon (though this is a very strong year for actresses - Juliette Binoche, Sylvie Testud, Jeanne Balibar, Nina Hoss...)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Kurt Russell, Grindhouse
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
SCORE: Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Harris Savides, Zodiac

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Secret Sunshine
Music/Sound: Darjeeling Limited - Kinks baby!

1. Secret Sunshine
2. There Will be Blood
3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
4. Flight of the Red Balloon
5. Zodiac
6. California Dreamin'
7. No Country for Old Men
8. RR
9. In the City of Sylvia
10. Mourning Forest


Another very good year. With a couple of the really great films of the decade...

PICTURE: Inland Empire
DIRECTOR: David Lynch
LEAD ACTOR: Song Kang-ho, The Host
LEAD ACTRESS: Laura Dern, Inland Empire
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
SCORE: I rather like the electronic hum of Syndromes and a Century, I think.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Akiko Ashikawa, Retribution

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Woman on the Beach, Hong Sang Soo
Music/Sound: Inland Empire
Design: I have to add this category to get The Fall mentioned somewhere. If there were an Exceeds Expectations category, it would win the all time award.

1. Inland Empire
2. Colossal Youth
3. Syndromes and a Century
4. The Woman on the Beach
5. Retribution
6. Still Life
7. Letters from Iwo Jima
8. Children of Men
9. Brand Upon the Brain
10. Triad Election


PICTURE: Death of Mr. Lazarescu
DIRECTOR: Hou Hsiao Hsien, Three Times
LEAD ACTOR: Issei Ogata, The Sun
LEAD ACTRESS: Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Rob Brydon, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
SCORE: Richard Thompson, Grizzly Man
CINEMATOGRAPHY: William Lubtchansky, Regular Lovers

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski
Music/Sound: Three Times (for both, music and sound)
Documentary: I think I have three of these in my top 10 - 49-Up, Grizzly Man and Into Great Silence

1. Death of Mr. Lazarescu
2. Forty-Nine Up
3. Regular Lovers
4. The Squid and the Whale
5. Grizzly Man
6. The President's Last Bang
7. Magic Mirror
8. Three Times
9. L'Enfant
10. Into Great Silence


This is another very good year.

PICTURE: Kings and Queen
DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou, House of Flying Daggers
LEAD ACTOR: Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine fo the Spotless Mind
LEAD ACTRESS: Emmanuelle Devos
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Owen Wilson, Life Aquatic
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lily Tomlin, I ♥ Huckabees
SHORT: Sombre Dolorosa, Guy Maddin
CINEMATOGRAPHY: 2046, Christopher Doyle, Lai Yiu Fai, Kwan Pun Leung

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sound: Tropical Malady
Editing: Notre Musique
Documentary: Darwin's Nightmare
Scene: The grocery store robbery in Kings and Queen.

1. Kings and Queen
2. L'Intrus
3. 2046
4. House of Flying Daggers
5. Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
7. Los Muertos
8. The World
9. Innocence
10. Nobody Knows


PICTURE: Los Angeles Plays Itself
DIRECTOR: Tsai Ming-liang, Goodbye, Dragon Inn
LEAD ACTOR: Song Kang-ho, Memories of Murder
LEAD ACTRESS: Toni Collette, Japanese Story
SUPPORTING ACTOR: James Urbaniak, American Splendor
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Hope Davis, American Splendor
SHORT: Phantom Museum
SCORE: Kevin Shields, Lost in Translation
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Harris Savides, Elephant

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Memories of Murder
Music/Sound: A Mighty Wind
Editing: 21 Grams
Documentary: a very good year for it, but Los Angeles Plays Itself is in another world...

1. Los Angeles Plays Itself
2. Memories of Murder
3. Goodbye, Dragon Inn
4. Doppelgänger
5. Cafe Lumiere
6. Elephant
7. Blind SHaft
8. Morning Sun
9. Crimson Gold
10. Story of Marie and Julien


Kind of an odd year - solid films, lots of very interesting not quite great films, the likes of Zatoichi and Dolls and Secretary and the like, and somewhat muted at the top. Though I suppose not too muted - the top three - Mr. Vengeance, The Son, and the Pianist are very good...

PICTURE: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
DIRECTOR: Park Chanwook, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
LEAD ACTOR: Adrien Brody, The Pianist
LEAD ACTRESS: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Secretary
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Song Kang-ho, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Bae Doona, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
SHORT: The Skywalk is Gone, Tsai Ming-liang
SCORE: Elmer Bernstein, Far from Heaven
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Mark Li, Springtime in a Small Town

Plus bonus picks:
Script: The Son
Music/Sound: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

1. The Son
2. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
3. The Pianist
4. Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
5. Man Without a Past
6. Blissfully Yours
7. Gerry
8. Unknown Pleasures
9. Ten
10. Springtime in a Small Town


Another strong year; this was a particularly good year for actress. I feel almost guilty about adding another vote for Mulholland Drive though - looking at the results, it seems to be moving rapidly into the realm of the overrated. It's a clear enough favorite for 2001, but not by that much of a margin - this isn't 1986 or 2006, years where Lynch has no competition.

PICTURE: Mulholland Drive
DIRECTOR: David Lynch
LEAD ACTOR: Gene Hackman, Royal Tenenbaums
LEAD ACTRESS: Jeanne Balibar, Va Savoir
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Bill Nighy, Lawless Heart
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laura Elena Harring, Mulholland Dr.
SHORT: In Public, Jia Jian-ke
SCORE: Angelo Badalamenti, Mulholland Dr.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Peter Deming, Mulholland Dr.

Plus bonus picks:
Script: The Royal Tenenbaums
Music/Sound: The Royal Tenenbaums, again.
Best Takashi Miike film (I saw three of them from 2001, after all): Ichi the Killer (and Tadanobu Asano is a pretty close runner up to Hackman for best actor, I'd say. Best makeup anyway.)

1. Mulholland Drive
2. Royal Tenenbaums
3. Ichi the Killer
4. Va Savoir
5. En Construccion
6. Donnie Darko
7. Waking Life
8. Distance
9. La Cienega
10. Pistol Opera


DIRECTOR: Edward Yang
LEAD ACTOR: George Clooney, O Brother Where Art Thou
LEAD ACTRESS: Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Ziyi Zhang, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
SHORT: Heart of the World (on the very shortlist for best ever)
SCORE: Mihaly Vig, Werckmeister Harmonies
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan and Mark Lee Ping-bin, In the Mood for Love

Plus bonus picks:
Script: this is a tough one: Yi Yi and O Brother Where Art Thou are as good as you could ask.
Music/Sound: O Brother...

1. Yi Yi
2. In Vanda's Rom
3. O Brother Where Art Thou
4. Platform
5. Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors
6. Songs from the Second Floor
7. The Circle
8. Eureka
9. In the Mood for Love
10. The Gleaners and I

Friday, October 11, 2013

A Sort of Homecoming

Well, it's October, and the trees are stripped bare of all they wear - so it's time for another post on a favorite band - this time, U2. They are another band I embraced in college - and maybe the first band that I embraced almost in real time. I heard U2 - I Will Follow, specifically - on the radio, sometime in the spring of 1981 I think, senior year of high school. There were a lot of new wave type bands on the radio those days, and I can't say U2 sounded all that different at first - but the more I heard it, the more impression it made. They didn't sound like everyone else - the echoey production, the rattling percussion, and the riffs - the guitars - the guitars... they jumped off the radio, they stopped me cold, made me listen. I am a sucker for a riff. I remember at first, they were not that big - bands like the Police or The Knack (a couple years earlier) or, shoot - Flock of Seagulls - were in heavy rotation at times; you couldn't escape those songs. U2, at the beginning, were just one of the songs on the radio, a modest hit I guess - but every time they came on I turned it up and stopped to listen.

I went to college in Boston about the time October came out. In Boston, they were in heavy rotation. I Fall Down was the single (I believe) - but stations played both records, all the way down - though especially I Will Follow, Out of Control, Electric Co., maybe Stories for Boys, Gloria, Rejoice, I Fall Down, October.... that was enough. It is probably pretty obvious that I loved guitar music all along - U2 was the first new band (punk, new wave, etc.) that really caught my ear, and it was the guitar that got me. I liked them as much as I liked anyone, and unlike all the other bands I really liked, they were still around,, active, making music, engaged with the world as it was in 1982. They struck me, over the first three records, as the obvious successors to the Who - the insistent rhythm guitar, the energy, the power - I had become a fanatical devotee of the Who - U2 seemed like their modern equivalent...

It felt like I had them to myself the first couple years of college. My friends were mostly into either classic rock or mainstream pop - some of them were actively hostile to new wave or punk. Somehow, the ones who were into newer stuff didn't seem to be into U2 - one guy (the Springsteen fan) loved Elvis Costello, X and XTC; another guy listened to The Police and Prince all the time. (That's how I remember it, anyway - a couple years later, he drove a bunch of us to Worcester to see U2 - he must have been a fan all along - I guess neither of us mentioned it until War or The Unforgettable Fire came out.) There were more U2 fans later - after War - but the first year or so, they were really just mine.... And they were - I didn't have a lot of money in college, I didn't buy many records - just U2's records, the day they came out (if I could). Going by record stores until they did come out. Then making my poor brothers listen to them until they were as enthusiastic as I was...

And then? I saw them live, spring 85 I think, at the Worcester Centrum. That was something - but for some reason, it seemed like it opened the door to doubts. Maybe they were too professional by then - maybe their live act sounded too much like the records. Not that I was an expert on live music, but I was spoiled, listening to Live at Leeds all the time - and having seen a real guitar hero (however obscure) in Phil Keaggy - as great a show as they could put on, I guess I probably wished there was more to listen to. I shouldn't make too much of this - seeing U2 live was truly a peak experience in those days... But it didn't quite hold - and where seeing other favorite bands tended to seal the deal (The Replacements, REM, things like that), seeing U2 seemed to make room to find fault. Though it's probably just this - when I got out of college, I hit another of the periods when I started discovering music. I changed radio stations; I read different magazines; I discovered underground music (the Replacements and Husker Du), and older bands - punk, the Velvets, the Stooges, country... U2 got left behind, maybe. Or maybe, they just took three years to get a new record out, and I spent it with those bands and REM. That happens.

But Joshua Tree came out - a record I looked forward to as much as their earlier records - and though it sounded fantastic, it did not satisfy. I am going to say - it is the funniest record this side of the Song Remains the Same. It is not meant to be funny - but the lyrics - "I see the stone set in your eyes" - lord lord. On and on and on with that stuff.... I do not think that record would pass a Turing Test. Someone has fed a bunch of Rock Cliche Symbols (stones, rocks, rivers, fire, red, sky, snow, sleet, driving rain) into a computer and had it generate lyrics. I swear.... But even then - they can sound so good. Joshua Tree makes me wish I didn't speak English - because those songs, Bono included, sound fantastic. Great riffs (though they do get a bit repetitive), a propulsive beat - they never stopped sounding great. But - in his early days, Bono's songs almost make sense - and by the time of Achtung Baby, they're almost neutral again... But the damage was done. I didn't care all that much anymore...

But those early records still pack a lot of punch. And the later ones retain The Edge's riffing, and the propulsion of the rhythm section. I noticed, listening to them the last week or so, to prep for this, that they never lost that propulsion, from start to finish. Their songs race along - they lock into a groove, and they don't let up. Those early songs all have a break in the middle, a swirly abstract bit, where Bono mewls and the Edge noodles and Larry and Adam step back and Steve Lillywhite drops plates on the floor - but they never lose the beat in those sections, never lose the pulse, not on record, not live... I don't know if they were the best rhythm section, necessarily, but they were locked in (and The Edge is most definitely part of the rhythm section), and they never faltered. They are still a joy to listen to. And The Edge - he never seems to come up with more than one idea per song - but he comes up with an astonishing number of ideas, and he rides 'em into the ground. And that works for me.

Okay then - to the list: top 10 U2 songs.... you will note the heavy concentration of early stuff - I won't deny it or apologize - they started at the top, and never matched it, lyrically, musically, anything. But they have some high moments along the way...

1. Out of Control
2. The Electric Co. - 1 and 2 were obvious; the order less so. Musically, I think I prefer Electric Co. - it rocks out about as much as anything they did. But I think Out of Control gets the top because it is a better song, because it just sums up everything on the first record - and has such a great riff to it. They are, though, both of them, exhilarating.
3. Bad - they got a bit spacy on this record - and the lyrics start to get really lost. Bono trying to do improv on some of those songs - ugh... but still, when they were on - and there's this, too - for some reason, when he got to writing about dope, Bono almost starts to make sense. I notice it on the Joshua Tree - Running to Stand Still works about as well as anything there, the imagery connects to something - people, places, and it fits the themes... like Bad does. I noticed, over the years, how much this song owes to Heroin, the song (in structure at least) - and to Joy Division's Atmosphere (pretty much everything - the drum patterns, the verse structures, half the lyrics)... But hey - steal from the best. And I cannot resist the sound of this song - the way it builds, the guitar sounds, the drums coming in and building up, it is just fantastic.
4. All I Want is You - I suppose Bono's lyrics and singing are not terrible here, but this is here because of the guitar. God, I love those open chords...
5. Gloria
6. I Will Follow
7. New Year's Day - it might be my imagination, but isn't Bono singing this song from the perspective of Jesus Christ, debating whether he should come back yet or not? whether we are worthy of him? it's any easy mistake to make, I suppose. Bono makes it rather often.
8. Sunday Bloody Sunday
9. A Sort of Homecoming
10. Mysterious Ways - I give short shrift to the later records, but they still have their merits, especially Achtung Baby. Though less character...

And so - video. Might as well start where it started for me - though I don't think I saw this actual video until the advent of YouTube. Still...

And a couple fairly early live performances - Out of control:

... and Electric Co.

And finally, first - an unembedded version of Bad, from 1984 - harder than later, more bite - I think part of what started to disappoint me about U2 was that I always heard their songs in my head harder than they played them. I would imagine Bad taking off in concert - the guitars tougher, everything faster, more violent - more like the Who. The records hinted at The Who - the concerts never delivered The Who. And over time, the music tended to slip inot the background - Bono seemed to take over more and more of the group, the sound - and I loved them for the Edge. Alas.... Still - here is Bad, from Live Aid... they were the band I watched that thing to see, not Led Zeppelin or Queen - and they are still far, far better than what those old timers offered up (however generous memory is)... This performance is starting to bloat, I'm afraid - Bono's starting to pretend he's a cowboy, he's quoting Lou Reed and Mick Jagger and seems confused by the security between him and the audience - and for most of this, the band is just vamping while Bono does his thing.... But boy, they could command a stage.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Western Countdown Link and Notice

Wonders in the Dark is running another countdown, this time, the top 50 Westerns, as voted by the site and its readers. It is sure to be a fun series.

I would have posted a link sooner, except that I volunteered for one of the first films to go up, and have been rather obsessing about it - it's up now - the Coen Brothers version of True Grit, which came in at #49... a lovely film, and a fascinating one, I think, which is why I was quite happy to grab it.

I somehow got through the essay without mentioning the simple fact of how beautiful it is - quite a bit there about attention to detail in the film, but not so much about it's straight aesthetics. So let these extra pictures give you an idea...