Monday, December 31, 2012

Turn the Calendar Over

Let us bid farewell to 2012 - I will not miss this year. It was full of personal loss - not only my father, but the mother of a close friend died, and several relatives and friends had serious health issues. We are all getting old I guess. On a less painful, but still very annoying note - I was perfect murder on machinery this year. My main computer died - then I dropped a camera into the Atlantic - then my video camera stopped working (the automatic lens cap won't open)... I bought a new camera, a nice DSLR - but the flash stopped working on that thing over christmas - resulting in lots of orange cats....

Here is where my old camera went in, crossing this stream....

With all the other stuff going on, I did not get as much writing done as I would like - and saw a shockingly low number of films. I'm working on fixing that - watched Heaven's Gate already - will end the year with more Jeff Bridges - True Grit I think... and will start the new year with Django Unchained. Get things going right. The one area where I did more or less do what I hoped to do was in reading and writing about the Civil War - relevant to the Tarantino film (and somewhat to the Coen Brothers) - and relevant here, because, well - today is another battle anniversary. Stone's River - one of those strange bloodbaths out west - here, both sides planned to attack - the Union on their left, the Confederates on their left - the rebels got started first and caved in the Union right completely... But the north was able to pull back into a strong defensive position - the Confederates were stopped. Both sides were fought out the first day - they did very little on New Year's day - resumed the battle on the 2nd, but nothing changed - and finally, Bragg and the rebels gave up and left. It was an odd fight - like Perryville, the south won the fighting on the field, as much as anyone won it - but Bragg pulled out anyway, and gave up the campaign. The biggest effect of the battle might have been that it helped Phil Sheridan build his reputation - he was one of the leaders whose men put up a strong fight on the first day of the battle, helping to save the army.

As far as the war goes - it was a nasty battle - one that the Union had to win, coming so close to Fredericksburg - and with Lincoln making the Emancipation Proclamation official on January 1, 1863. It was a close thing, but the Yankees held the field - and the war went on its way...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fall Film Round Up #3

And finally, the last (well, almost) Fall round up post, this one featuring films that stand out - I cam't quite say they are the best, even the most important, even from an auteurist point of view (Ira Sachs seems to me to be a far more interesting filmmaker than the Wachowskis or Tom Tykwer, even at their best) - but they are the most interesting to gas about. (The "almost" up there refers to mostly to Lincoln, a very big film by any standards, which I have yet to write about. It is well worth gassing about, all the more so since it fits into my ongoing Civil War obsessions - so I am leaving it until I can work up something much more substantial. Maybe until I have seen Django Unchained, since there might be some thematic overlap there.... And of course, films are still coming out, including what might now be the best non-Anderson film of the year, Barbara - I have to think some more about that... I may never catchup...)

Killing them Softly - 12/15 - Andrew Dominick, director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has come back with another artsy take on American tough guys and genre pictures, this one about small time gangsters in the Boston environs... A card game gets knockled over - masterminded (if that's the word, and it probably shouldn't be) by a dry cleaner, handled by 2 schmucks - the point being that the guy running the game did it before and bragged and everyone will think he is doing it again. So Brad Pitt comes in to clean things up, meeting with Richard Jenkins in a car under a bridge - Cogan (that's Pitt) says they have to kill them all, Liotta's character included; the bosses are waffling... The schmucks talk, as schmucks will - so Pitt goes for the drycleaner and the schmucks as well. James Galdolfini comes in because Cogan knows the dry cleaner - but he ain't what he used to be... So, you know... The novel (George V. Higgins) was written and set in the low-70s; this is set in 2008, with the financial meltdown and bailout, and the election, playing in the background - this is mainly for the audio, though; the film looks like 1973, not 2008, and the time shift doesn't make much difference to the story. Mostly, the political soundtrack provides a comical counterpoint to the lowlifes in the film - the lowlifes, I suppose, providing a comical counterpoint to the grand politics as well. As serious political commentary - well, it's a bit too on the nose. But that's all right. It's a tight, nifty little film, mostly talk, but such talk - with a creeping sense of dread and inevitability to it all. As short and efficient as the Jesse James film was long and languorous... very nice work.

Holy Motors - 10/15 - Return of Leos Carax, starring the very magnificent Denis Lavant. Mordant, funny, surreal, strange film... There's a prelude in a movie theater, with ancient films, audiences reacting to sounds (like Shirin), then Carax himself wakes up in a room, and uses a key in place of a finger to go into the theater, where it all changes. Lavant as many people - Oscar, a banker who leaves his house, talks about bodyguards and guns, etc - then has appointments: 1) as an old lady beggar; 2) in a body motion suit, pretending to fight, run, and fuck a woman in a suit; 3) "Merde" from Tokyo!, who bites the fingers off an american photographer's assistant, kidnaps Eva Mendes, turns her gown into a burka, then strips and cuddles in her lap (with a very large very erect penis). 4) picks up a mopey teenager at a party and drives her home.... Then there is an EntreActe where he leads a mob of accordian players around a church... 5) he kills a doppelganger in a warehouse, and is stabbed while trying to turn the other man into himself; 6) he kills the banker from the beginning in a cafe; 7) he plays an old man dying, and hopes to meet the girl playing his niece again, 8) (maybe - hard to say if this is meant to be an "appointment" or a chance meeting) - meets an old flame, who is his reverse - a woman, driven by - Lavant - playing parts... or 8) he dresses as a working class man, goes home to his family in a development - chimps... then - the driver returns the car and leaves and the cars talk to themselves like the Waltons. All this seems to amount to something about the end of the movies - characters pop up like in Cosmopolis to talk to our man in his limo, usually about movies, acting, identity, I guess - notably Michel Piccoli... Movies, acting, identity, image - it's all in there. I can't say it all adds up to much - but it is quite clever and amusing as it goes along. And lovely looking - though what's with all the big C's?

Cloud Atlas - 10/15 - The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer team up to make a big strange sprawling thing, that seems to have bombed completely in the theaters. Convoluted structure (sort of) - 6 stories, intertwined: 1849: a Maori slave stows away on a ship and is helped by a lawyer who is being murdered by Tom Hanks... 1936: a homosexual is chased out of Cambridge, goes to Scotland to help a composer write, does so, but ends badly, shoots the man, finishes his piece and kills himself... 1973: a blaxpoitation film manque - Halle Berry as a reporter, tracking down a series of murders, a nuclear scandal... 2012: Jim Broadbent as an editor who gets rich when his writer kills a critic, but he spends it all, and the writer's gangster pals come collecting, so he runs - he is put in an old folks home by his brother, though it turns out to be a prison - he and some other old timers run away, and he finds happiness... 2144: neo-Seoul, a fabricant (artificially built person) gets a soul, is rescued by a hero, gives a speech, tells her story and dies... 2321: civilization is gone - an advanced woman meets a primitive man, he guides her to an old observatory and they send a signal to the stars; meanwhile, his village is attacked, but they save each other and a child - etc...

All this is very clever, but a bit underwhelming. When it came out, there were some claims that it was confusing, but I can't see why - the stories are intercut, but they are all internally linear, and even with the same actors in all the sections, there isn't much attempt to throw anyone off. Everything makes perfect sense, really - and more, it is all tied together with gimmicky hooks - the cloud atlas sextet, a musical number; a tattoo; the way characters connect across the sections, etc. It does some interesting things with actors - as the same people appear in all the stories - crossing race, gender, age, and so on in different stories... The stories themselves, though, are pretty standard issue stuff. They're all about freedom and the like - love, sacrifice, sentimentality, with a dollop of goofball Buddhism thrown in. Even more disappointing, the film doesn't really do much with the genre possibilities at its disposal - all the sections are recognizable film genres (except maybe the 2012 one, though the comical-shenanigans-of-old-Englishmen type is not unknown), but only the 2144 one really uses the possibilities. This is especially noticeable in the 1973 section - it's got all the makings, the 70s paranoia plot, the blaxpoitation references - and there's almost nothing made of it. Hardly a zoom to be seen! The result is that you get the cliches, but you don't get the pleasures of the in jokes (except maybe in the 2144 one, though event hat is pretty bland) - in the end - the 2012 episode is the only one that really seems remotely fresh. In fact - it is quite good, and not like much of anything else. A lot of that is down to Jim Broadbent, who is just great - but the story is far more satisfying than anything else. Though the film deserved better than it got - all these complaints aside, it was an enjoyable enough affair, with some nice work. Just, nothing special.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fall RoundUp Number 2

Continuing to catch up through the year.... Another batch of film capsules. At least one more to come this week - I've left out a number of the most "important" films I've seen this fall - figuring I can find a bit more to say about some of them... Anyway: here's another bunch of movies seen this fall...

Silver Linings Playbook - 7/15 - all very well made but so desperate! guy gets out of rehab, goes home, his father is just as bad as he is, OCD, obsessed with the Eagles - our hero was in the nervous hospital because he beat up his wife's lover, but is still obsessed with his wife. Meets a girl, sister of a friend, as fucked up as he is - she starts stalking him - eventually offers to help him get to the wife if he dances with her in a contest... etc. Then end up in love. Hooray. Hard to say why it's so irritating, though mostly - it's just noisy and desperate - a kind of endless hysteria until the end when it goes all gooey. Kind of like Dark Horse with a happy ending and - on speed instead of barbiturates. Not sure if that is praise or damnation. It also reminded me, especially the beginning, of Oslo: August 31 - that's not so good. It's not a good thing when the comedy leaves you more depressed than a film you know going in is going to end in suicide. (Sorry for the spoiler there, but Oslo is based on a 50 year old film and an 80 year old novel, so there you go.)

My Worst Nightmare - 9/15 - rather irritating French comedy about an uptight gallery owner with a lazy son and a lousy home life - she runs afoul a man, a sometime handyman, whose son is a bit of a genius, and a great friend of her son. Doesn't take long before the handyman is renovating the flat and hanging around with her live in lover - who promptly takes up with a tree hugger, leaving the woman and handyman to do whatever mismatched pairs are supposed to do in French comedies.... Cultures clash, but both of them, Patrice the apparently Belgian ne'er-do-well and Agathe the snobby Parisian, have a taste for drink and tend to bond by getting falling down drunk... and so on. It ends well, I guess, though it grinds along getting there. Truth is, it's mostly just 4 horrible people (Francois and Julie - the hippy - are no better) irritating one another and us, except that one of them is Isabelle Huppert, and she is Isabelle Huppert. She's worth all 9 of those points; nothing else in the film is worth seeing.

The Sessions - 9/15 - John Hawkes as a writer paralyzed with polio - he can't control his muscles, but he can feel things - so he can have sex. He is a virgin at 38, and after some talk hires a sex surrogate to teach him how. 6 sessions. Inevitably things get emotionally out of hand, so they break it off - but he meets a volunteer at a hospital and all is well. The film is amusing, Hawkes is magnificent, Helen Hunt gets naked, the thing ends sentimentally, there's fun to be had counting the Deadwood alum, and William H. Macy turns up as a hippy priest - it isn't terrible, though it's not much of anything, really...

Argo - 10/15 - When the US embassy was taken in Tehran, 6 of the employees escaped, and were hidden by the Canadian embassy. There they stayed for a couple months, but things were getting tough, so the US plans to get them out. The plan they came up with was to pretend to make a movie - Argo. They set it all up running, so that Ben Affleck's character could go in as location scout and get them out. He does this - funny stuff setting it up (the thing was quite elaborate - including story boards by Jack Kirby himself), then he goes. He gets the permissions, he has to take them on a scouting trip to a marketplace - where they are photographed and threatened, but they get out - but then the mission is canceled. But he insists on continuing. And they escape at the last possible second. All told - it is a first rate thriller, witty and well constructed and written - a nice mainstream film, as good a mainstream film as I have seen this year. Some nice story twists - one guy, who thinks he's smarter than the rest - he talks them into running - then when they are leaving, he tries to talk them into staying - but at the airport, he saves their bacon - he speaks Farsi, so gives a story about the film, about why he dreamed of shooting in Iran, he makes it all make sense. Nice twist. Now, as it happens, a lot of the suspense in Iran turns out to have been invented - but it's very interesting suspense, and seems to turn the film into Argo the film in the film, more than the reality - which isn't all bad...

Alps - 10/15 - Giorgios Lanthimos' follow up to Dogtooth.... a group of people substitute for the recently deceased, ostensibly to help them with the grieving process, though most of their assignments turn rather nasty at some point. They take a while to get intense - the actual replacements seem rather benign at first - reading to a blind woman; taking swims in the ocean, talking about diabetes to a man who owns a lighting shop, etc. Meanwhile, a tennis playing teenager is killed in a car accident, and one of the women in the Alps group, a doctor, impersonates her on her own, without telling the others. About that time, the other stories start coming apart (the blind woman catches her husband and friend in bed; the women with diabetes is obliged to let her lover lick her pussy, etc.) - and the doctor is caught, though by that time she has gone well beyond her role - taking the girl's boyfriend home, etc. So she is replaced, by someone else in the group, and she ends up breaking into the house, then, after she's chased out, hanging around outside the family's door, trying to get in - like a ghost - a fairly clear but of symbolism... It plays like a rather more surreal version of some of Atom Egoyan's films, with live action role playing instead of video, maybe - similar themes - faulty grieving, compulsive repetition of trauma and so on.... This is not quite so brilliant as Dogtooth, but Lanthimos is clearly a filmmaker to watch.

How to Survive a Plague - 11/15 - story of Act Up - particularly the treatment group, which later became Treatment Activist Group (TAG) - the film starts in 1987 and continues on, concentrating on the fight for drugs and treatments. A fascinating film. Fascinating people, who hold it together. It is a strange story - the way, in 1993 or so, they all thought they were going to die, sooner, not later - and then, in 1996 or so - they were saved. Quite a few of the people in the film did die, in fact - but the ones who made it to the late 90s made to to the present. A haunting tale. The film also makes it clear how they made it happen - how crucial they were, their tenacity, working, endlessly to get treatments. Not that doctors and scientists weren't working to get drugs and treatments - but that there were hosts of barriers between their work and the people who needed it, and Act-up and TAG were instrumental in getting past those barriers. A very nice film.

Keep The Lights On - 11/15 - autobiographical film from Ira Sachs: a Danish filmmaker meets a lawyer at Random House through a phone sex line - they meet, they fuck, they hit it off, and before long they move in together. But the lawyer is a crackhead - and over time, his drug addiction and erratic behavior ruins the relationship - though we also see some of the passive aggressive behavior of the filmmaker. Film covers 9 years, 1998-2007 - nice subtle charting of the times - from phones to cel phones to blackberries, to ipods. Sachs has long established a fine sense of the dynamics of bad love, and continues that here.

Looper - 10/15 - We're back to the beginning of fall here.... a mash up of Terminator, 12 Monkeys and the like - loopers are people in 2044 who kill others sent back in time from 30 years in the future - the criminals of the future are the only ones with time travel ability, so they send their victims back in time to be disposed of. Anyway - one of the loopers (Paul Dano) sees himself come back - singing a song he recognized - "closing his loop" (the looper kills his future self, and gets a big payoff and gets to live 30 years on the proceeds)... But this guy hesitates - lets the man go - he runs, but mentions the "rainmaker" - a future villain, killing all the loopers, etc. All right - so Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Dano's friend - but he sells him out.... Then his future self comes back - without a mask... he too escapes, or - does, then doesn't - then we follow him through the future to when he is sent back. But he has spent those 30 years becoming Bruce Willis - tough and professional, a real gangster and gunman - so when he goes back, he isn't so easy to kill. So - all right - Bruce WIllis is on the loose in 2044, and everyone is trying to kill him, including Gordon-Levitt, who wants to live to become Bruce Willis, I guess it is.... But Bruce has his own mission - to find the Rainmaker before he becomes the rainmaker! And JGL finds a woman on a farm with a kid who has telekinetic powers - all this is no more than halfway into the film, and by this time it's clear enough who's who in 2074 and just a matter of seeing how they get there... or don't, if that's what they don't do. Anyway - in the end, someone does the Right Thing and thus negates all the Bad Things, or something like that. It's nonsense the second you think about it - but it's all pretty well done on the way. Though it does bog down some, once the Terminator plot kicks in.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Friday Random 10

Friday music time... nothing special today... I have a couple movie posts a-comin' - just roundups, trying to catch up on writing about what I've seen in the last couple months... Then - tis the season, ho ho ho, for spending money and eating chocolate, activities oft inconducive of blogging, even in the minimalistic way I have specialized in lately.... but for now, it's Random Ten time....

1. Jeff Beck - Rock My Plimsoul
2. Minutemen - The Process
3. Beach Boys - I'm Waiting for the Day
4. Interpol - Barricade
5. Outkast - West Savannah
6. Reed/Cale/Nico - Heroin (live at Le Bataclan)
7. Michael Jackson - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'
8. Deerhoof - Odyssey
9. Sleater-Kinney - Ironclad
10. Foals - Like Swimming

Video? The Reed/Cale thing is online, but embedding is disabled... so - here's footage from their dotage:

How about Sleater-Kinney, at a show I should have gone to?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


As we continue to follow along with the events of 150 years ago - today we reach the Battle of Fredericksburg. I've had plenty of occasion to talk about bad generals in the civil war already - but Fredericksburg might top them all...

It was a singularly one sided fight. The Union army crossed the Rappahannock river at Fredericksburg today, December 11, 1862. After a day or so of preparation, they launched an attack on the rebels on the 13th. This started south of town, where Stonewall Jackson was - Jackson was spread out, generally on high ground, but it wasn't a commanding position. The Yankees might have had a chance there - but they never attacked with more than a division (though there were two entire army corps on hand, and more available.) The North had some luck there - they broke through, briefly - but nothing came of it. The main attack came due west of town.

There - the Union soldiers had to march across a small plain into the face of a line of hills - which constituted about as impregnable a naturally occurring line of battle as either side was going to face in the war. It looked bad enough - marching across open ground to attack a hill - but it was worse than that. There were walls and a sunken road on the hill that gave the rebels perfect cover. There were various canals and bogs and whatnot on the plain that funneled the attackers right into the center of the defender's field of fire. It was hopeless - but the Union soldiers went in, and were shot to hell, a division at a time, more or less - and kept going in all afternoon. It was a mind-boggling display of pointless slaughter, and has made the Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, a watchword for military incompetence.

He was a character. He was a dreadful general, but a rather fascinating person. He invented a pretty effective breech-loading carbine before the war, though he'd gone bankrupt trying to sell it. He became a governor and Senator after the war. He leant his name to many things - the Burnside rifle - Burnside's bridge - the side burns (since he sported a magnificent set of muttonchops.) And - he stands out as one of the most overmatched men to lead an army in the war. He knew it, too - he had had some success early in the war in the Carolinas, and was offered command of the Army of the Potomac more than once in the summer of 62, after McClellan had conclusively proven his unsuitability for command, but refused it every time. He tried to refuse it again after Antietam, but was finally compelled to take the position, and do what he could... Which turned out to be the battle of Fredericksburg, and then the "Mud March" - an attempt at a winter campaign in Virginia, undone by rain....

But what ruined poor Burnside, in everything he did, was a kind of helpless stubbornness - the kind of pointless repetition of failure you see in the attacks at Fredericksburg. Though it started even before that. He'd begun the campaign with a scheme for crossing the river (at Fredericksburg) while Lee was off to the north and west. It was a decent plan, and he stole a march on Lee, and he might have gotten somewhere - except that the arrangements for the pontoon bridges were screwed up - they weren't where they were supposed to be, and by the time they were brought up, Lee had occupied the high ground around Fredericksburg, and there was no point in crossing there. But - Burnside's plan was to cross at Fredericksburg, so by god, he was going to cross at Fredericksburg - and then attack. He never seemed to be able to hold more than one thought in his head at a time.

It marked his career - especially the bad parts, and he was in the middle of some really big disasters. At Antietam, he was charged with attacking on Lee's south, to take advantage of the main attack to the north. But he had been placed in charge of 2 army corps until the last minute when one was moved to the other end of the line - but he acted as though he had 2 corps, and refused to take personal command of the one he had, even though it's commanding officer had been killed... He was supposed to cross a bridge - and he spent half the day trying to cross this one bridge, over the Antietam creek, which was wadable more or less everywhere. And so - by the time he got across and moved on Lee's army (which had been utterly wrecked) he gave time for one last batch of reinforcements to arrive and drive him back....

Then there was the battle of the Crater - that was part of the siege of Petersburg in the summer of 1864. And as happened from time to time, in the run up to the fight, you can see why Burnside might have been worth something as a general. (Truth is - everywhere but with the Army of the Potomac, he did pretty well - in the Carolinas at the beginning of the war; in east Tennessee in the fall of 1863 - he acquitted himself well. He was cursed when he went east.) The idea at the Crater was to build a mine under the rebel lines, and set off one hell of a bomb - it was a bold, risky plan, and Burnside supported it - and, in the event, when the thing blew up, it worked like a charm, and might well have broken the rebel's hold on Petersburg..... Except... Burnside, for a variety of reasons, most of them good, had decided to use a division of Colored Troops to spearhead the attack. They were, in fact, prepared very well - careful plans made, their roles defined - they were ready to go. But at the last minute, General Meade decided that they could not use black troops to lead the attack. Burnside argued for them - Grant backed up Meade.... it is clear enough that Meade and Grant were dead wrong on this - but they made the call. And Burnside - had no second thought. All he could come up with was to draw lots among the other units - and got the worst of the bunch, whose commanding officer spent the battle passed out drunk. No one bothered to try to get this unit to follow the plan for a breakthrough - so the whole business failed abysmally. (And the black soldiers ended up being sent in after the fight was lost, and were shot to hell.) That was the end of Ambrose Burnside as a civil war general.

And so.... I should note another thing that distinguishes Burnside's failures (and relates, to my last post about underwear, sort of, because war is not just shooting...) His tenure as commander in chief was marked by simply abysmal logistics and discipline. That's almost as much a mark of his failure as his stubbornness - all these campaigns went south on logistics, staff work, preparation, the details of command. At Antietam, no one under Burnside's command thought to find out if the Antietam creek could be crossed anywhere. The trouble at Fredericksburg started because no one arranged for bridges to be brought to the Rappahannock in time for the army to cross. His orders at Fredericksburg were botched - he might have intended for the attacks south of town to be as vigorous as those west of the town, but that is not what he told his generals. The mud march was - a logistical nightmare, with confusion on the roads in addition to the lousy weather. Desertion and bad discipline were at their worst during his days in command. It is notable - other commanders of the Army of the Potomac had their problems - and the army was always a ponderous and rather inefficient organization.... But McClellan was a master organizer, and trained and equipped the army to the very highest standards... and Joe Hooker, Burnside's successor, proved to be just as good as McClellan, giving the army its discipline and pride back. Burnside stands aloe on that score....

Friday, December 07, 2012

Been a Long Lonely Lonely Time

Today for our Friday music post, something a bit different - just got two DVDs - Celebration Day, the film of the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert, and Color Me Obsessed, a doc about the Replacements. And they have, shall we say, cast my mind back a piece....

They are both pretty good films, for what they are - though this being music day, I do feel compelled to write about the music more than then filmmaking. And especially because they were both pretty important bands, for me - obviously important in the world at large, too, Zep openly, The Mats rather in secret.... but to me... I could probably call Led Zeppelin the beginning of my - mature, call it - tastes in music. I was a typical small town white kid in the 70s, and liked about what you would expect - from top 40 like Elton John to popular rock, like Kiss and Aerosmith, to more sophisticated versions of that, call it Queen, Styx - to, finally, plain old AOR. And while that included the Beatles and the Kinks and the Stones, bands you heard often enough on all kinds of radio stations, since they made singles too - it was defined, for me, and I imagine for pretty much everyone, by the Zep. You did not hear Led Zeppelin on singles stations. They were pretty much the definition of Album Oriented Rock.... I am not saying anything here that people do not know; but that does not make it less true. For me, they signified moving from being a pop fan (however much rock you liked) to being a rock fan. In practice, that usually meant switching to a different radio station. And that brought with it a completely new set of music - as well as a noticeably different format. Longer runs of songs between commercials - less talk - no news... You know. AOR, FM radio, 1979 edition. And this was most definitely tied directly to the radio. I didn't have money to buy a lot of records; I didn't really hang around with other kids listening to their records; I got my music from the radio. We kids talked about music - but if you wanted to hear it, most of the time you had to hear it on the radio.

I don't know how typical that is. Maybe most kids like me bought more records - maybe they traded tapes - I don't know. I imagine, kids living in cities and suburbs had very different options - more radio stations, record stores, concerts, within their reach... But I was well away from that. It was radio. And - for pretty significant periods of my youth, it was me sitting in my room half the night reading a book and listening to the radio, me alone, me and the music. And so - listening to Zep on the radio might have been an experience shared by millions of kids - but it was an experience I had completely by myself. And so - those songs got inside me, somehow, in my head, where they rattle and echo ever since. Not just Led Zeppelin, of course - and by the time I got to college, other bands were starting to be more important to me, and that went on... But for a year or so - my last year or two of high school - they were the best band in the world to me, the absolute center of the rock and roll universe. (Though maybe not the musical universe. I remember when John Bonham died, a terrible thing; but when John Lennon died, I was in shock, for days... But that's - a complicated equation. The music universe and the rock universe aren't necessarily the same things; and THE music universe and MY music universe weren't necessarily the same thing either - the Beatles were the world; Zep was my world, for a while.)

Okay... so how's the film? Not bad, for a bunch of old farts. Not up to their old standards, but how could it be? They are well rehearsed, they have chosen a very fine set list - they look fabulous... Robert Plante and John Paul Jones don't look a day over 45, either of them... Jimmy Page, on the other hand - looks like someone's granddad, pretending to be a rock star. But frankly, that just makes him cooler - with his white hair, thinning a bit, his little paunch - god knows how those other two do it, but he seems more or less willing to just look like his age. And when he wants the stage, he takes it... But still: in the end - it's a good show, but - missing something - no question what. Maybe, the fact that they are as tight, well rehearsed, enthusiastic, as they are just points up the utter indispensability of John Bonham. I think, when you get down to it, the fact is - they were, from start to finish, a duo, plus singer and bass player. Jones and Plante are very good at what they do - but they were always secondary. The band was a duet between Page and Bonham, plus a backup band... and Jason is not John. And so here - you get a very nice record (and video), but you don't get much point in listening to this instead of something like How The West Was Won.

Okay - that was long and autobiographical and barely mentioned the DVD - but wait 'til I get started on the Replacements! The film - Color Me Obsessed - is an interesting one. A documentary about a band that contains none of the band's music, no footage of them, and very little imagery of them at all. No appearances by anyone in the band, either. Instead - interviews, with fans, other musicians and people around the Minneapolis scene (up to and including Greg Norton and Grant Hart - no Bob Mould, though), journalists, from Robert Christgau to David Carr to Jim DeRogatis, the odd record company stooge, the occasional wife. It's an interesting choice - it is disappointing not to hear or see the Mats, I mean - don't you want that? but it's not a bad way to approach the Replacements. They were kind of a secret - they still are kind of a secret - wildly influential, but in ways that let people talk more about other bands... Though even in real time, they were harder, I think, to get a handle on than their peers. Someone mentions it in the film - that with Husker Du, they had a clear idea what kind of band they wanted to be; with the Mats - they never had any ideas. They slipped under the radar... So - talking about them, instead of seeing them - gets at something. Though I'd still love to see some good clean footage of them...

Digging around the web, I found an interview with the director - who says, every interview in the film started with the question, "Why the Replacements?" Well, I suppose like everyone in the doc, I could tell my Replacements story. I came to them late - after college - after Tim. There's autobiography in that - I grew up in the boonies, where AOR was the cutting edge, where Elvis Costello and U2 came off as exotic oddities - then went to college closer to civilization, though still in the suburbs. But I did what you are supposed to do in college, especially fi you come from the woods of Maine - I heard bunches of new bands, bunches of old bands that never got played up there, listened to a lot more depth of the bands I did like... Listened to records, as well as the radio, as it happened. Especially records I didn't hear on the radio - I got obsessed with Live At Leeds for a while there; some of us would listen to The River, all four sides, three times a week... But I heard new stuff as well - I had a buddy who liked X and XTC and Elvis Costello (as well as being a Springsteen freak) - I started taking newer stuff seriously. Nothing particularly radical - I mean - U2, The Pretenders, Prince - but still... not all Jimmy Page wanking, like high school.

But it stopped. I don't know why, maybe there were too many reasons. The X and XTC buddy dropped out; maybe the radio got more conservative, or maybe the music scene got more conservative (I don't rule either out: the turn of the decade, even on fairly mainstream radio stations, I heard the standard new wave bands, Talking Heads, B-52s, Elvis Costello; The Ramones and the Clash getting airplay on mainstream rock stations; U2, The Pretenders, The Police; you'd hear The Damned, Soft Cell, Romeo Void, Gang of Four... by '84 or so the new stuff was dull and derivative - Simple Minds? The Call? Tears for Fears? The Alarm? - not all bad, I guess, but nothing there that would wake you up the way U2 or The Pretenders or London Calling woke me up earlier... There were still songs on the radio I loved as much as ever - but they were usually by groups I already liked, usually discovered in the first year or two of college: U2, Prince, REM...) Maybe it was me - college wasn't a high point, I tended to stagnate while I was there. Did I grow complacent?

Whatever it was, it changed when I left college - I went to grad school, in the big city, and there I started seeing fanzines and underground rock papers, that mentioned bands I had not heard of - and I paid attention. I started looking for college radio or anything else that went away from the normal stuff on the radio, and heard some of them. Somewhere along the line I got wind of The Replacements - I remember a college newspaper running a cartoon using them to beat up REM, and I think I remember some kind of big time magazine (Time?) running a story about punks on major labels, covering Tim and Candy Apple Gray. (And Three Way Tie for Last - though I guess that wasn't actually on a major label, so I might be making this up). The point is - it gave me a target, and when Tim came out, I got it....

Or maybe I heard it on the radio - I think Hold My Life played a bit.... It doesn't matter, I bought it soon enough. What matters is - when I heard them - Hold My Life, specifically - I was floored. There have been some other songs that had that kind of effect on me - not many, though, few as quickly or completely. (I Will Follow; South Central Rain; Slipping (Into Something); Walk on the Wild Side? London Calling?... there aren't a lot...) With the Replacements - they sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Or - maybe they sounded exactly like what I loved already. They had that quality - to sound like rock and roll distilled to its essence, but like they were inventing it on the spot. I don't know. I still feel it when I listen to Tim - the qualities, the songs, the rough way they are played, the way Westerburg sings - it has a kind of immediacy you don't get anywhere else. Except the other Mats records. (I quickly bought Let It Be, and was blown away a second time.) But that record, Tim, especially - Hold My Life, Bastards of the Young, Little Mascara, Left of the Dial, Kiss Me on the Bus, Here Comes a Regular - I am hard pressed to explain, though it comes to being the best written songs for an awful long time either side of it, and given performances that have an almost inexplainable directness. Loose, almost careless sounding, but still, somehow, precise, sharp, completely committed.... I don't know.

I know that for a year or two, probably roughly from the time I got my hands on Tim to the time - christ - til the time I got Pleased to Meet Me - they were my favorite band in the world. The center of my rock and roll universe. They were what I wanted rock music to sound like. It certainly helped that I saw them, right at the end, a couple weeks before Westerberg broke his arm and they cancelled their tour and a couple months before they fired poor Bob Stinson from his own band... They were as advertised - an odd mix of drunken shenanigans, half serious covers, snarky noise, and those fucking incredible songs, given strange, sloppy, but usually completely committed readings. They were funny and mind-blowingly brilliant at once. They ended up playing Mississippi Queen until the cops escorted them off the stage at closing time. My god, they were great.

And - like poor Led Zeppelin before them, I was not faithful to them. I had some money in my pockets and started buying records and found plenty of other music to love - Husker Du and the like - though most profoundly, the Velvet Underground and Joy Division, whose records I bought up that summer and listened to rather obsessively. And then I saw The Feelies. And then Pleased to Meet Me came out, and I saw them again, and despite a stunning rendition of Within Your Reach (immediately becoming one of my all time favorite songs), they were - just a band this time. Great as that record is - they were just a band. And by now I was fairly immersed in the contemporary music scene - going to shows, buying records - finding the Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers and a whole bunch of local bands, and later the Pixies and Jane's Addiction and then Public Enemy and BDP and NWA... and filling in all the old stuff, and finding that these bands - The Stooges - Pere Ubu - The Byrds - Hank Williams and Johnny Cash - as well as the Velvets, Joy Division and the like - that was what I really liked - that is what I meant, all along. And the Replacements - didn't keep up. While I was listening to more and more music, they were putting out more and more mediocre material. I saw them a third time, at a theater even - and remember nothing at all about it, not even what record they were supporting (Don't Tell a Soul? maybe...)

And there you have it. You can probably blame the movie for this long piece - the film is reflective and personal, about music's impact on the listener, the fan.... And it took me back there, 25 years, to hearing them, seeing them.... and, by extension, 30+ years to sitting in my room listening to Ramble On... Nostalgia, nostalgia. And reminders that for a while, both of these bands were completely transformative for me. I still love them - I may be more likely, if push comes to shove, to listen to Fairport Convention or Can - or to the Minutemen or The Feelies or the Meat Puppets, here, today, 2012 - but I don't think, without the passion I felt for Zep and the Mats, that I would have ever have heard of those other bands.

This could be me, right down to the stereo on the milk crates...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Film Notes Catchup (Early Autumn Edition)

All right - it has been forever since I have written anything like a film post. Other than a post on the Master and For Ellen, I haven't mentioned any new films since - August? Since August... So - I don't know. We are into December - I might as well do some catching up. These are just captures - it would be nice to write something longer about some of the more important or interesting or just controversial films - but this will do for now. (Though this post does cover the best non-Anderson film of the year....) This one takes us through somewhere in October.

Restless City - 10/15 - Handsome and sober film about a young Senagalese man in NYC - he meets a girl, but she's a whore - he's beholden to her pimp, and things get worse. It's a great looking film (Bradford Young, who also shot Pariah, is building a neat body of work) but the script is very weak - and the filmmaking itself seems thin. It's all montage, all images - nice, but it has to paper over the story. I think it tries to do so to get around the derivative script - but not quite lively enough. Lots of better films have gotten there first, from Green Fish to Mona Lisa to take your pick. Full of flashes of better films - Breathless or Fallen Angels or Goodbye South Goodbye and so on.

Two Days in New York - 10/15 - Follow up on Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris, same principal, this time her family comes to NY to meet her new boyfriend, played by Chris Rock, in the person of Mingus, a writer and DJ. They are a bit uneasy about their relationship, though mostly happy. The French invasion ruins that. The relatives misbehave, Marion has a show and sells her soul, to the most terrifying person in New York, perhaps.... But it all works out.

Cosmopolis - 10/15 - continuing the run of New York films.... Here, Robert Pattinson is very very rich; he heads out across town in his limo to get a haircut, accompanied by his bodyguard, Kevin Durand doing Christopher Walken. He then interacts with a series of people - a nervous employee, his wife, Juliette Binoche who knows of a Rothko he could buy, a computer nerd, another employee, his doctor, his "ideas" woman, a female bodyguard he fucks, a man he goes to a club with, a friend talking about a dead Sufi rapper, Mathieu Amalric throwing pies... he finally makes it to the barber, takes a gun, then gets shot at from an abandoned building and goes in and has a somewhat frought conversation with a schmuck played by the song of a former commissioner of baseball... All this is very arch - DeLillo's style comes through - Cronenberg likes that style, no denying it, the clipped, not quite meaningless language - "I do not understand this" - the cycling ideas... I can't say it's all that good a film, but it was certainly intriguing.

Oslo: August 31 - 12/15 - superb film based on Feu Follet, The Fire Within, the novel and the film by Louis Malle. IN this version, in Oslo, we follow a young man in drug rehab who goes out on leave, to interview for a job. He visits friends, and tells the first one he is thinking of suicide... The interview breaks down in the middle, because of the rehab - he tries to meet his sister, but she never shows, and after meeting a different friend, then trying and failing to call a girlfriend in New York, he goes to a party.... and starts drinking, and once he starts.... he steals money, buys heroin, goes clubbing with another friend and some girls, up all night, but in the morning, as they go for a swim, he walks away from them. Home, his family's home (being sold - empty), and - what Chekhov said about guns applies to heroin too... It's a very strong film - standard euro-Indie look, but with care to the acting and words, and pieces that do what some art does - he sits in a cafe and we hear what he hears, as he attends in turn to the people around him - snippets of conversation... details of the city... people moving about. It is observational and beautiful - and his despair, his apparent decision to end the day in suicide focuses him and us on this world, which is given life in proportion to his own fading. The best non-Anderson film of the year.

Lawless - 8/15 - John Hillcoat directing anotherNick Cave script, this one set in prohibition Virginia. The Bondurant brothers, Howard, Forrest and Jack, are moonshiners - running their wares around Franklin county VA. Well - the law comes in - a special deputy from Chicago (Guy Pearce, looking like Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners), whose main purpose is to get everyone a kickback. The brothers refuse, though everyone else gives in - trouble and violence results. It's all very archtypical, as one would expect from Cave, but disjointed - a series of episodes: they confront the deputy - the deputy beats up Jack - two men cut Forrest's throat, and he is saved by the girl - Jack starts running shine to the next town and sells it to Oldman's big time gangster - he courts the preachers daughter - a guy gets tarred and feathered - the law finds their stills and blows them up, along with a harmless crippled kid. So they go hunting for blood. It's got its points, but not enough.

Compliance - 11/15 - Rather harrowing fictionalized account of a real incident... At a fast food place, a cop calls and tells the manager that one of her employees stole money from a customer's purse. Over the phone, he convinces the manager to bring the girl in, search her bag and so on - then asks her to strip search her. He manipulates the two of them into all this (using classic manipulation techniques - getting the victim to supply info and exploiting it.) The manager goes along - and it keeps getting worse. The caller pushes the manager to do more and more troubling things - like getting a man to guard the girl; then getting the men molest her.... so it goes, until one employee makes a scene. The horror of it plays alongside the sheer awfulness of the workplace - everyone overworked, underpaid, everybody hassling everybody else...Everyone goes along with what happens in palpable fear of losing their jobs.

Paranorman - 9/15 - Norman talks to dead people and watches zombie movies - his parents disapprove, the kids pick on him, except for the fat kid, Neil. Then Norman is visited by his uncle - who has just died. He passes his mission on to Norman, sending poor Norman on a quest - out to the uncle's house for a book, then off to dig up a witch or something.... soon the dead are up and about and zombies are ready to face off against the inevitable armed mob - but Norman figures things out.... It is witty, sometimes handsome looking, and clever enough, especially where it goes at the end - but nothing really special.