Monday, December 31, 2007

Is This Why Modern Music Sounds So Lame?

In a recent article titled "The Death of High Fidelity," Rolling Stone hypothesizes that some of the blame for current popular music's apparent lack of punch and pizzazz might be more properly assigned to the recording industry's questionable decisions regarding the CD mastering process. I've never been in too much sympathy with audiophiles (who rail about their obsessions in the highly entertaining comments section of this article), mostly because I believe the most important aspect of popular music is the content and not the sound quality. I mean, you can spend all the time in the world trying to make your music sound technically perfect, but if you totally neglect the emotional side of the performance, then all your technical know-how is in vain as far as I'm concerned. Hell, I spent years listening to my favorite music on cassette. Not even commercial cassettes, mind you. I'm talking third-generation, cut-off-in-the-middle-of-the-song-because-the-tape- ran-out-on-you cassettes. But I didn't care because the feeling of the music was there, damn it. Of course, if you can afford options, then by all means, you go for it. I just don't know if it should be the highest priority.

However, I have noticed that albums in the past ten years have mostly come on like a big gloppy pile of armadillo saliva. But is this because of the "loudness war" or just because of bad production to begin with? Or, hell, even just bad songwriting and performing? Is what we have on our hands...the perfect storm...of musical lameness?

I tremble at the possible answer.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Clips [LE]

10. Sophie's Choice (Pakula, 1982)

9. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)

8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)

6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988)

5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)

4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)

2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

End-of-the-Year List Fatigue

Maybe it's because I'm not actually getting paid to be either a film or music critic at this point in my life, but somehow looking over all the year-end best-of lists on all the usual websites, I'm just starting to care less and less. It's all becoming too much of a ritual. Of course, it doesn't help that the studios now almost uniformily withhold their award-worthy films from release until the very end of the year, so suddenly we're inundated with all these critics saying, "Oh you simply must see this movie you haven't had a chance to see at all yet," and "Oh here's another movie that goes into wide release in a couple of weeks that will simply blow you away." I feel like critics are already walking into the screenings wondering how high a particular prestige picture will place on their "Best of the Year" list, instead of just walking into the screening just wanting to enjoy the damn movie. In a way, I'm glad that I don't have to add to the gigantic pile of year-end lists, and that I don't have to sweat about "how many stars" I'm going to give a movie while I'm actually watching it, and I can just enjoy a movie for what it is and worry about categorizing its quality later. Honestly, I think putting anything you've just experienced two weeks ago on a list is slightly ridiculous. I'm not above list-making, as anyone can tell, but I think good lists need a little more time to properly gestate. Sure, we did our Best of the '80s list, but some time has passed, you know what I'm saying? Some of these lists seem to operate on the questionable principle that the ten best movies of any year are roughly equal to the ten best movies of any other year. But honestly I think the best movie of 2006 would probably be about the 14th best movie of 1976. Yet these lists don't account for upward and downward trends in cinema and music. So no matter how good or bad a year it has been for movies, you're going to get ten films that are being presented to you as flamingly great. I'm starting to trust my own instincts more and saying to myself, "Hey wait a minute, that movie probably isn't going to be as good as the number of film critic awards it has accrued would suggest." Ready for some skepticism? This is probably a laughable exercise but here we go:

No Country For Old Men: The Coen Brothers have excelled in making movies that I've really liked without ever making a movie that I've really loved. I'll see this one anyway but I doubt it's as good at the critics say it is.

Sweeney Todd: Almost the same story here - so many of Tim Burton's movies are enjoyable but none of them would I include among my all-time favorites. So he's got great production design, big whoop. If I creamed myself over production design, then maybe I'd give a shit about Tim Burton, but otherwise forget it. I'm sure this is a competently entertaining movie but I'm not falling over myself to see it.

Atonement: I just read the book and thought it was a flaming pile of exhausted overly-literary pseudo-profundity (perhaps more on this later), so I'm not exactly lining up to bow down to its apparent cinematic greatness. But I could be wrong of course.

There Will Be Blood: Now here's a movie that I'm actually looking forward to seeing. Not all of Paul Thomas Anderson's films have been great, but as far as I'm concerned, they've all at least aspired to greatness.

Seriously, though, are these reviewers asking themselves this question: how good will these movies be in twenty years? Some recent examples (and of course no one will agree on such matters of taste, but it's my opinion so hey): After I saw Memento, I said to myself, "This movie will be just as good in twenty years." After I saw Chicago, I said, "This movie will not be just as good in twenty years." Ebert in particular is going nuts, writing: "It was a time of wonders, an autumn of miracles, one of the best years in recent movie history. One great film after another opened, and movie lovers found there were two or three, sometimes more, must-see films opening on a weekend. I gave up rationing my four-star ratings and went with the flow." Uh, have we been watching the same movies? It's been a while since I've seen anything that totally blew me away but maybe that's just me. I haven't even bothered to read Ebert's list, so at odds do I feel with his enthusiasm.

Then there's the end-of-the-year music lists. I looked at Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2007 list and giggled, because I had only heard of about five albums out of 50, and had actually heard about zero. The worst part was that I felt the desire to listen to about zero as well. Their number one choice, Panda Bear's Person Pitch, was described by Yoggoth thusly: "It's like that song 'Broken Arrow' on Neil Young's Decade, except without all the other, really good, songs on Decade." So I can't exactly call that a recommendation. Much more interesting, and much more successful, in my opinion, was Pitchfork's 20 Worst Albums Covers of 2007 list. Now here's a list that truly captures the spirit of our age.

More list overkill:

Allmusic Editors Pick Their Top Ten of 2007

The Year In Film 2007 - The AV Club

The Top Ten Movies of 2007 - Slate

RT Editor's Best Movie Picks of 2007 - Rotten Tomatoes

The Best of 2007 - All Movie Guide

The Top Ten Films of 2007 - MSNBC

Sunday, December 23, 2007

How Do Other '80s Movie Lists Compare?

I thought it would be interesting to take look at a couple of other "Ten Best Movies of the '80s" lists and see how ours compared.

First I looked at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They, a website featuring a reasonably well-compiled list of the 1,000 greatest movies ever made, according to various film critic polls (we might call it the "snobby" list). Out of their 1,000 greatest movies list, I extracted the ten highest films from the '80s, which generated the list below:

1. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
2. Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
3. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
4. Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
5. Decalogue (Kieslowski, 1988)
6. Shoah (Lanzmann, 1985)
7. Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)
8. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982)
9. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1989)
10. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)

Then, over on the Internet Movie Database, I did the same with their own "IMDB Top 250," which generated this list (you might term it, by contrast, the "popular" list):

1. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
3. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
4. Das Boot (Petersen, 1981)
5. Aliens (Cameron, 1986)
6. Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
7. Amadeus (Forman, 1984)
8. The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980)
9. Full Metal Jacket (Kubrick, 1987)
10. Cinema Paradiso (Tornatore, 1988)

From here we can make several observations:

1. Only two films that appear on the They Shoot Pictures list also appear on either of our lists: Blade Runner and Brazil. Both appear on Yoggoth's list; no films from this list appear on mine.

2. Two of the films on the They Shoot Pictures list are films which neither Yoggoth nor I have ever seen: Decalogue, a ten-hour, ten part meditation on the Ten Commandments by Red, White and Blue trilogy director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Shoah, a 570 minute documentary on the Holocaust consisting almost exclusively of interviews with Holocaust survivors. Suffice to say, I don't anticipate either of these films being viewed by us any time soon.

3. Only three films that appear on the IMDB list also appear on our list: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Shining. Only one film, The Empire Strikes Back, appears on both my list and either of these lists. This means that either I am out of touch with the current consensus on '80s cinema, or my opinions are blazingly original.

4. One film on the IMDB list I have never seen: Cinema Paradiso. I am not sure if Yoggoth has ever seen this.

5. The They Shoot Pictures list and the IMDB list, despite their wildly divergent compiling methods, are in truth not all that different. Yes, only one film overlaps between them (Raging Bull), but the IMDB list is actually quite respectable considering how it might have turned out. It swaps one Spielberg blockbuster (E.T.) for another (Raiders), while it swaps one David Lynch cult hit (Blue Velvet) for another (The Elephant Man). Kubrick and Forman films are nothing to frown upon either. In fact, if one continues down the They Shoot Pictures list, one will see many of the IMDB picks waiting in the wings (and vice versa with the They Shoot Pictures picks on the IMDB list).

6. These lists also confirm my opinion of the relative merits of '80s cinema when placed into the context of cinema history as a whole. Raging Bull, the top choice on the They Shoot Pictures list, is the 19th greatest film of all time according to their larger ranking. However, Fanny and Alexander, their second choice, is only the 62nd greatest film of all time. It's almost the same story over at IMDB: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark come in at 7 and 18, respectively, but The Shining doesn't come in until 57.

And finally, I thought I would provide a brief explanation as to why I did not include each of these films in my own top ten list.

Raging Bull: You'll notice that I managed to include two Scorsese movies in my list, and neither of them happened to be Raging Bull. Critics seem to have a big boner for this movie, but I don't even think it's one of Scorsese's best movies. Sure, it's obviously good by ordinary standards, but it just doesn't seem to have very much to say about life, at least not the way Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and The King of Comedy do. As Yoggoth put it back in January, "I didn't care about the boxer. You get to the end and you say to yourself, 'Yeah that guy was kind of an asshole but he kept on an asshole, aaand so what?'"

Fanny and Alexander: This is the obligatory "movie made by a great master of cinema at the end of his career about his childhood" (see Amarcord). As such, it's very enjoyable, but I guess I didn't find it one of Bergman's more passionate, immediate works.

Blue Velvet: I remember being disappointed with this when I saw it; however, it definitely has stuck in my memory and I will probably watch it again sometime. Honestly, though, I have to say that if this is a movie anyone would want to put on a top ten list, then some people are just batshit crazy.

Ran: Here's a very handsomely made movie that hits all the right notes and yet, for me at least, lacks the oddness and specificity that I look for in my favorite epics. It's exactly the kind of movie that would have seemed really great in the '80s but comes off as just sort of pleasant now.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial: Sure it's cute but I have very little desire to see this again, and that's got to be a bad sign.

Close-Up: Abbas Kiarostami is the Godard of Iran - heavy on the film theory, light on the story. He singlehandedly owes his career to snooty film critics. That said, this is the only movie of his that I've seen, and I actually liked it. I am not in any rush to see more of his films, however.

Das Boot: Basically a Hollywood-style film that happens to be in German. Nevertheless, it's like a really intelligent, subdued Hollywood-style film. A very, very good movie - that I barely remember watching.

Aliens: Here is the one arguably questionable choice on the IMDB list. Yoggoth always expresses his annoyance that this film receives more attention that Alien, which he feels is really the true masterpiece of the Alien series (and which I've never seen because it gives me the creeps). As for Aliens, I have seen it, but not in years, so I don't remember what I think. I will say that James Cameron is very good at what he does, though.

Amadeus: This is very, very close to a great movie, but somehow by the time it gets to the end I just don't care about Mozart anymore. Still, I reference it all the time and it contains some priceless insights on the nature of the artist (in particular its observations on artistic jealousy).

The Elephant Man: Great atmosphere, interesting story. A little too cold for me to truly love.

Full Metal Jacket: I must confess that I've never actually seen this all the way through in one sitting - but seeing as though it's basically two separate stories spliced together, I've never felt this was much of a problem. And I've always had the sense that its popularity has been inflated by young males who like this movie mostly because the first part is so "hardcore" and the second part has the "me so horny" line.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Runners-up [Y]

1. Ghostbusters - This is one of those concepts that you simultaneously wish you had thought of while wondering how anyone ever thought of it. A group of PhDs dedicated to fighting paranormal activity in a humorous way--what possible precedent is there for that? I was very, very close to including this on my list but decided on Baron Munchausen instead.

2. Do the Right Thing - A good movie, but at the end I didn't really know what Lee was trying to say to me. What was the right thing? Is the answer that there was no 'right thing'?

3. The King of Comedy - If I had had more to drink while coming up with my list this would definitely be on there. De Niro's finest hour.

4. Top Gun - My brother and step-mom like it and recommend this for a first date. I haven't seen it.

So Whose Mojo Is Doing The Working Anyway?

Having been on a bit of a Chicago blues binge lately, I've taken a peek at some articles on Wikipedia about Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc. Apparently there have been several copyright disputes over Waters' macho classic 'Got My Mojo Working." A judge eventually ruled that "the concept of 'mojo' was public domain, and that the existence of references to mojo was not sufficient to justify a finding of infringement."

You decide. Here's the first version:

Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so till I don't know what to do
I got my black cat bones all pure and dry
I got my four leaf clovers all hanging high
I got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so till I don't know what to do
(repeat format, with varied spells: hoodoo ashes, black snake boots, red hot tips, etc.)

Here's Waters' version:

Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
Got my mojo working but it just won't work on you
I want to love you so bad I don't know what to do
Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand
I'm going to have all you women, getcha under my command
Got my mojo working, ...

Now, I have never heard the first version, but I have to say that its lyrics offer a little more practical advice. You do have to wonder, though, if "black cat bones," "black snake boots," and "red hot tips" really increase one's mojo - and if so, by how much? Also, the first version says "I want to love you so till I don't know what to do," which is a much different sentiment than Waters' proclamation, "I want to love you so bad I don't know what to do." Maybe I'm splitting hairs but this is mojo we're talking about people.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Came Back Alive

Well, as Ninquelote hinted at below, our trip was a success, although due to the rain and the convenient availability of an empty and well-equipped cabin at our campsite, we did not exactly go "camping" as I had suggested. Hey, it's December in Northern California, what can I say? I don't know about anyone else, but I left with two basic goals in mind: to get the hell out of the city and to win at least one round of Settlers of Catan. And I am proud to say I accomplished both goals. Highlights:

1) The Chicken Soup

Yoggoth and I stayed up late on Saturday night in order to cook the world's most bottomless chicken soup - Yoggoth having done a top-notch job of rounding up all the key ingredients (except, that is, for the chicken broth). The hearty concoction ultimately managed to feed four people, two times. And we didn't even have time to stir-fry the mushrooms!

2) The Cabin

Much hand-wringing was done on the way to the campground in anticipation of rain. Would we have to set up a tarp in order to cook? Where would we play our board games? How many people would fit in Ninquelote's tent? Such questions swiftly evaporated as we gazed upon...The Cabin. With a table, two bunks, and a woodstove, the only convenience it lacked was electricity. Ninquelote insisted we set up a tent, but Yoggoth turned to me and said, "Come on, is there any question about using that cabin?" Although it hovered around 40 degrees outside all evening, with a woodstove and a propane lantern running for hours the cabin actually had a propensity for becoming too hot. Now that's what I call roughing it.

3) The Marshmallow Cookie

In a supreme act of late-night indulgence, Yoggoth built for himself a sandwich out of roasted marshmallows and two Keebler's "M&M rip-off" cookies. I had been watching Ninquelote and the Mysterious Mister Ed take photos of every third redwood tree the whole day, but finally, I had seen something that was truly worthy of capturing on film, and I commanded them to get out their cameras and make Yoggoth's gluttony immortal.

4) Settlers of Catan

Many of you may be familiar with this new board game that is currently all the rage amongst the glitterati. I played it for the first time a couple of months ago and I knew my life would not be complete until I managed to parse its sacred secrets. Thus I was all geared up and ready to go this trip. After one swift initial losing round, I suddenly informed the assembled masses that I had formulated "a new strategy." They laughed, oh how they laughed. In the second round my new strategy was thwarted by a bad roll of the dice. But the third time was the charm, as I managed to build four cities and the longest road to amass the required 10 points for victory. The beginning of a championship run? Or an isolated taste of glory?

5) Powergrid

We consistently alternated all trip between Settlers and this newer game, similar to Settlers in many ways except the game runs about four times as long. Some players thrived while others dived. For my part, I couldn't understand how everyone else kept managing to generate more money than me at the end of each turn.

6) Late breakfasts on the road

There's nothing that makes cooking on a camping trip easier like eating meals at a roadside diner instead. Waffles, pancakes, breakfast burritos, coffee, toast, and eggs over easy taste that much better when you eat them around noon.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gone Camping

We're off to a taste of some bona fide, genuine Cosmic America - of the camping kind. It might be cold, it might be wet, we may have no idea what we're doing, but no matter what, it's sure to be cosmic.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stewie Sings Shatner

Bill Maher Picks His Own Asshole(s)

Dickheads of the Year: My picks for the biggest assholes of 2007 - by Bill Maher (Rolling Stone)

One thing that I've always liked about Bill Maher's sense of humor is that he doesn't just tell jokes, he injects his jokes with his own unique (screwed up?) moral viewpoint.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Morality of Gaming

I enjoyed this article at Gamasutra. It's basically a transcript of a speech given by Jonathan Blow about the present state of the video game industry. I've come to many of the same conclusions that Blow expresses in the speech. Most notably--game designers and publishers haven't acknowledged their major role in American, and worldwide, culture, and the unavoidable moral responsibility that comes with it. And no, I'm not talking about violence in Mortal Kombat, Manhunt 2, or their ilk. Check out the article; I think I'll write more about my thoughts later.


If you don't like Fogerty's political stuff, maybe this is more your kind of thing LE.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Best Movies of the '80s: Runners-up [LE]

Yoggoth and I will now be presenting our own runners-up for each of our ten best movies of the '80s lists. In most cases, for me, what ultimately kept these runners-up from being included among my ten official selections is not exactly easy to pinpoint. Some of these movies I haven't seen in a really long time, and thus I'm not sure if they are as good as I remember them being. Others are extremely entertaining movies that just happen to be missing that extra "depth," however you choose to interpret that. In addition, many of the films that made Yoggoth's list could also very well appear here, despite my having left them out.

In alphabetical order:

The Blues Brothers (Landis, 1980)

Here is a film that fits perfectly into the category of "entertaining movies that don't have anything particularly profound to say." Maybe there's a message in here somewhere: how about "Any amount of criminal activity is worth it as long as you're trying to save an orphanage"? No, it's probably a waste of mental energy to find anything more redeeming about this film other than the endless pile of car crashes, delightful celebrity cameos (Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg), killer lineup of classic soul legends, and jokes about Illinois Nazis. Hell, just seeing James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles in the same movie alone is like the ultimate R&B hat trick. And then there's Cab Calloway's gritty, definitive version of "Minnie the Moocher" (although I'm never been sure what it ever had to do with the "blues" exactly). Oh, and did I mention the endless pile of car crashes?

Born on the Fourth of July (Stone, 1989)

Stone's biopic of anti-war activist Ron Kovic made a big impression on me as a kid; I actually saw it twice and loved it both times. However, having since revisited a lot of Oliver Stone films and having found most of them less impressive on repeated viewing, I feel like I would need to watch this again before I could feel confident calling it a truly great movie. Let me just say that it's probably one of Stone's least sensationalistic, most character-driven political films. And if you're curious whether or not Tom Cruise can actually act, this, as far as I'm concerned, is Exhibit A for the defense.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986)

Just about the perfect archetype of an '80s film, with endlessly quotable references I'll refrain from reiterating for the hundredth time. There really aren't too many ways this movie could have been any better. So why didn't it make my top ten, you ask? Well, it's just that, when I imagine this movie being released in the '70s, alongside M*A*S*H, The Last Picture Show, and Taxi Driver, I just...I's just not quite...there.

Field of Dreams (Robinson, 1989)

A movie so corny it literally takes place in the middle of a corn field - and yet, and yet, it's like the fluffiest, warmest cornbread your sweet Aunt Sally ever baked, or the crunchiest, most perfectly roasted corn dog you ever bought for 20 cents at the Topeka county fair. Truth is, the movie works because it knows it's corny, and the characters are just as skeptical as we are. "If you build it, he will come"? Yeah, sure, buddy, and I've got an iceberg I wanna sell you. Honestly, sometimes crazy, impractical dreams really aren't worth following, but with dialogue and acting this good (especially James Earl Jones as the misanthropic, Salinger-esque writer), who cares?

Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 1982)

A mad dash of German insanity by way of the Amazon, this is the only "foreign" film from the '80s to be mentioned by me in this project, which means that either a) I need to see more foreign films from the '80s, or b) foreign films really stank during the '80s. You decide. At any rate, the story concerns a rubber baron whose dream it is to build a gigantic opera house in the middle of the jungle. In order to do this, he decides to lift an entire ship over a gigantic hillside. Ah, but here's the catch: Werner Herzog actually took a real ship and lifted it up a real mountain in the real jungle in order to film the movie. As you might guess, the filming was plagued with endless difficulties, much like its jungle cousin Apocalypse Now. However, having known Fitzcarraldo only for its gimmick and its tales of a troubled genesis, I was surprised to discover that it delivered a genuinely interesting story with a very subtle, dark humor.

Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984)

Everybody loves an underdog, and what bigger underdog is there than the unemployed scientist? Well, Peter is really only a quasi-scientist, but Egon is the real deal: when their secretary asks him if he has any hobbies, he answers "I collect spores, molds, and fungus." Who could have forseen, then, that when the entire city of New York comes under attack from some kind of paranormal Egyptian Annie Lennox, the ones to come to the rescue would be...these guys? Frankly, every time that theme song comes on, it makes me feel like I can go out and do anything.

Victor/Victoria (Edwards, 1982)

In 1930s Paris, a female singer can't find any work, so her gay friend suggests she try to find a man pretending to be a woman! Matters only become more complicated when a macho Chicago gangster begins to think he's falling for "Victor," even though he very well knows that she's really a man, right? One of the last truly good Hollywood musicals, and one of the most intelligent treatments of homosexuality in a mainstream film, the movie features delightful performances by Julie Andrews, Robert Preston (of Music Man fame), and James Garner (of Maverick fame), among others. Just be sure to keep your glass at a distance when Andrews starts into "The Shady Dame From Seville."

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Little Earl and Yoggoth's Top 10 Movies of the 1980s

Little Earl:

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982)
2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
3. Down By Law (Jarmusch, 1986)
4. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)
5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988)
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989)
8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983)
9. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
10. Sophie's Choice (Pakula, 1982)


1. Brazil (Gilliam, 1985)
2. sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh, 1989)
3. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)
5. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)
6. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
7. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Gilliam, 1988)
8. The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987)
9. Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988)
10. Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985)

Introductory Essay
Runners-up: Little Earl
Runners-up: Yoggoth
How Do Other '80s Movie Lists Compare?
Clips: Little Earl

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Number One: Brazil (Gilliam, 1985) [Y]

"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away"

-Buffalo Springfield, 'For What It's Worth"

If Dr. Stranglove taught us how to stop worrying and love the bomb, Brazil is what happens when you stop worrying and learn to love paranoia. I remember a conversation with Little Earl over the work of Michel Foucault. In the book Discipline and Punish Foucault describes the Panopticon, a prison innovation used to observe all prisoners at all times. He then uses this as a metaphor for modern life. Our response: Who cares if someone is watching you as long as they aren't doing anything?

At some point it seemed novel for the government to spy on its subjects. Now it's old hat. I look at the set design of Brazil, heavy on ducts, and I recognize the local Chipotle restaurant. So does this mean Brazil doesn't have anything left to say to me? On the contrary, I think Brazil is the one movie from the 80's that transcends its decade completely.

The film moves back and forth between the protagonist's fantasys and his mundane life as a petty bureaucrat in a near future dystopia. As the film progresses it becomes more difficult to discern one from the other. The conflict of the film begins when Sam Lowry decides to do something to help a woman whose husband that has been arrested, tortured, and killed after a bug flies into a typewriter and the wrong name is recorded. The government intended to kill an insurgent plumber who fights against government utilities bureaucracy. In case you haven't seen the movie I won't say who plays him, but it's one of my favorite gratuitous cameos of all time. Along the way Sam meets a woman who looks just like a woman in his ever present fantasies and instantly falls in love.

After Sam decides to take a stand he discovers the real evil of the Panopticon. Sam's newfound morality and love attract the attention of the government that he has been trying to avoid through mediocrity. He takes a promotion secured by his influential mother in order to help the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, every time Sam involves himself with the government's machinations he becomes more susceptible to their control. Terry Gilliam is protesting against this inversely proportional relationship in Brazil. As Vonnegut, another paragon of sci-fi dark humor, wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” You can refrain from being bad all your life, Sam. It's when you try to do something good that they get ya.

Love, morality, and social responsibility should be the high points of life, those moments we are most proud of. The totalitarian social system acts upon those elements of our lives because they stand out and make us vulnerable. Terrorist attacks occur regularly in the world of Brazil. Industry has destroyed the natural environment and business advertisements block the resultant vista of ash and smoke. The government responds with bumbling bureaucracy and feel-good consumerist torture, always delivered with a smile.

Brazil presents a mid-way point between 1984 and Brave New World. The future isn't run by an evil ubermensch like O'Brien with his party. Nor is it run by technocrats using biological alterations to split humanity into manageable subspecies. Instead, it's a predictably inept descent into manic nostalgia for past mediocrities. The powers that be don't even control themselves, much less all of society. The do violence out of fear and anger when they realize how little control they have. However, as pathetic as this is, that's real flesh they're destroying.

I can't avoid a short comparison between our current political situation and that of Brazil. The parallels are just too numerous to ignore - vast governmental and corporate ineptitude, strong social pressure to accept mediocrity as triumph, and an absurd and ineffectual response to terrorism.

P.S. I'm about half-way done with Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. I highly recommend it if you go in for Brazil/Catch-22/Dr.Strangelove style dark humor.

He's Working On It, Folks

Yoggoth's #1 pick for best movie of the '80s should be arriving any day people. Do not despair, oh ye of little faith. I can already see a couple of paragraphs in the "draft" section he's already cooked up. Just think, when that moment finally arrives, how much sweeter will it be? I know I, for one, can hardly quell my suffocating anticipation.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Ebenezer Hitchens

Cruising Slate this morning, I caught a new piece by Christopher Hitchens entitled "Bah, Hanukkah." Keeping in mind Yoggoth's words to me a few weeks ago ("I've only been reading the Christopher Hitchens articles that aren't about Iraq"), I thought, "Hmm, this one's probably a good bet." Indeed, the piece, subtitled, "The Holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness," displays Hitchens in perhaps his most suitable role: that of the erudite Scrooge. Sometimes one has to wonder if Hitchens mistakenly thinks he is writing for the Onion. Nevertheless, intentional or unintentional, the man is definitely good for a Yuletide snicker.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Fogerty Testifies

Pitchfork has a great interview with John Fogerty up. I think of Fogerty as a litmus test songwriter: if you don't like his music, I don't have much to say to you other than "De gustibus non est disputandum." Knowing that Fogerty has found peace brings a bit of peace to me as well.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Tough Guys Don't Write Dialogue

AMG writer Mark Deming has a rather entertaining piece on the All Movie Guide blog about Norman Mailer's film career. I have to say, it sounds pretty hilarious. If our own loose little Cosmic American clan ever made movies, they probably wouldn't be too far removed from this.

Just Take a Deep Breath, Guys

Ebert has a piece on his website about a really well-reviewed indie movie that failed to find any distribution and failed to make any money. Apparently Ebert received an e-mail from the movie's director, Tom DiCillo, in which the director apoplectically pulled his hair out in disappointment and frustration, and finally posed for Ebert a series of questions, which Ebert then attempted to answer in an exasperated tone. I enjoyed the general nature of the conversation, but felt that both Ebert and the director lacked a larger sense of perspective. Some observations:

1) People only have so much time in their day to watch obscure indie movies

I like watching movies, but in addition to working, and in addition to doing all the other things I like doing such as eating, sleeping, talking to other people, listening to music, surfing the web, and so on, I only have so much time to watch movies. Of that time, about 40% of that time is spent watching movies I either own or have already seen, and another 40% of that time is spent watching older movies I have not yet seen, of which there are many. Now that leaves about 20% of my moviegoing energy for current movies playing in movie theaters. Despite the marketplace being saturated with crappy blockbuster sequels and horror movies I don't want to see, there are still a large number of semi-intriguing "indie" releases coming out every month. Now, out of all those indie releases, the ones I am most likely going to see are the ones that either receive so much press coverage and critical buzz from places like Ebert, the AV Club, the Bay Guardian, Rotten Tomatoes, etc. etc., that I simply have to see the movie so that I can read all the reviews and form an opinion for myself, or the ones that are by directors I already admire and have the hunch I'm going to get my money's worth. I think we're experiencing an age of serious cultural oversaturation. This guy's movie might have been great, but when people like me only have time and energy for so many movies, there has to be something about this movie that says, "Hey, watch me before you watch all the others." One or two positive reviews is really not enough. The director should probably not take this personally.

2) Theatrical release means almost nothing anymore.

Ebert frets that this movie's inability to find a theatrical distributor means that it "has disappeared," although he does suggest at the end of his rant, "Maybe DVDs and Netflix and Blockbuster on Demand and cable TV and pay-per-view and especially high-quality streaming on the Internet will rescue you and your fellow independents." Maybe? How about yes? I'm pretty sure that films are no longer "dead" if they flop in the theater, or even if they fail to get released in the theater. As far as I can tell, even the big blockbuster movies barely manage to pay off their budget from the theatrical run. The reason why there's no huge demand to see a small indie movie in a theater is because there's no huge rush; people know they can just catch it on DVD. I also believe that indie films make almost all of their money off the DVD release, and that the theatrical release at this point is basically just advertising.

In sum, Ebert and DiCillo might want to calm down, take their heads out of the sand a little bit, and save the nihilism for something more worthwhile. It's going to be OK, folks.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bay Area Football Teams Finally Show Up To Play

So last weekend both the Niners and the Raiders managed to win their respective games. On the same weekend! No, I'm actually serious. I only saw a glimpse of the Raiders game but I managed to catch the last half of the Niners game, and boy, let me tell you, it was something.

It seems to me that a team can never end a losing streak with a big blowout victory. They have to crawl their way tooth and nail over the other (usually crappy) team to finally put an end to their pathetic ways. And so it was with the Niners on Sunday. I look on the internet to see the score, and at the start of the third quarter it's 24-21 - with the Niners winning! Holy beeswax. So I turn on the TV to catch the drama. The Cardinals get another touchdown to take back the lead at 28-24. Suddenly it's the fourth quarter and there's only two minutes left in the game. The announcer says, "The Niners have not scored in the final two minutes of a half all season long." Not just the final two minutes of the game, but the final two minutes of a half! So it would have seemed that history was not on the Niners' side. But somehow Frank Gore rushes for a first down about three times in a row, and then he rushes for a touchdown with about a minute-and-a-half left, making it 31-28 Niners.

So now all the Niners need to do is keep the Cardinals from getting into field goal range. Not an outrageous task considering their defense is their strong suit. However, the Cardinals keep making first down passes near the sidelines and then falling out of bounds, keeping the clock from running. With six seconds left, the Cardinals find themselves basically at the goal line. They throw to somebody in the end zone, and the receiver pretty much catches it, but a Niners player reaches right under there and tips the ball out of the guy's hands. The play happened so fast, however, that there's still two seconds left on the clock. The Cardinals go for a field goal and the game heads into overtime at 31-31.

Now the announcer says, "Out of eight overtime games this season, the home team has won six times. That's not good news for the Niners." In addition, the Cardinals start overtime with the ball. "If the Niners can just get the ball back, then they've got a chance, but otherwise, it's gonna be tough." The Cardinals make it into field goal range, at about the 27-yard line, on second down. They kick the field goal and it's good, but apparently the refs call a "delay of game" penalty, which I've never heard of before in my life. So not only does the field goal not count, but it's third down with a five yard penalty. Anyway, you say, OK, so a 32-yard field goal instead of a 27-yard field goal, no problem right? The guy misses it. The Cardinals punt on fourth down.

The Niners don't do squat with the ball, but when they punt, they tackle the Cardinals all the way back at their own 3-yard line. This was like the world's greatest punt. On the next play, the Cardinals quarterback takes too much time, gets hit by a Niners player, the ball goes flying loose, another Niners player jumps on it and since he's in the Cardinals' end zone, the Niners score a touchdown and the eight-game losing streak is over.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joe Boyd Interview

I just stumbled upon a really enjoyable interview in the Pitchfork archives with a guy named Joe Boyd. I knew Boyd mostly as "the guy who produced Nick Drake," and also as "the guy that R.E.M. got to produce Fables of the Reconstruction because he'd produced Nick Drake." But it turns out he actually did a lot more than that. According to Pitchfork:

"In his 40-year career as a manager, promoter, organizer, errand boy, executive, and hanger-on, Boyd has produced Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nico, the Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, Fotheringay, R.E.M., and 10,000 Maniacs. He also toured with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Rev. Gary Davis and was backstage during Bob Dylan's fateful electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Before there was an ABBA, Boyd hung out with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. He also worked with Eric Weissberg on the Deliverance soundtrack; hung out with Marty Scorsese; went through Scientology classes with film producer Don Simpson (as a lark); oversaw the first, only, and legendarily unreleasable Jimi Hendrix documentary; and played fetch with Man Ray, William Wegman's famous weimaraner."

In short, the guy probably has a pretty interesting perspective on the rock era and reading this interview makes me actually want to read his whole book. It also doesn't hurt that he seems to share many of the same positions I hold on the current state of rock vs. the music of the '60s. Since he was actually there, maybe his opinions hold a little more weight than mine. Or maybe that would mean he's more biased, and that my analysis of the period is a little more clear-eyed and free of personal motivation. Who can say?

Some highlights:

Pitchfork: One of my favorite sections of the book was talking about Aretha Franklin in New Orleans. You write, "Waves of self-congratulatory affection passed back and forth between [Franklin and the audience]: she claiming credit for recognizing what they wanted to hear; the audience adoring themselves for being so hip as to want the real thing.' The music was caught in the middle, lifeless and predictable." Do you think it's possible for singers and artists of that generation to connect musically anymore, or do you think there's just too much baggage and history?

Boyd: It's pretty tough. I don't know. I had a wonderful experience when I went to the folk alliance in Memphis. I went over and visited Willie Mitchell at his studio. He's working on a new Al Green record for Blue Note, and he played a couple of tracks, which sound really good. A lot of places like New Orleans for many years has had great stuff still going on. But in a way, the key to that, unfortunately, is poverty. Areas that are not as economically developed are capable of keeping their traditions real a lot more easily than places that are prosperous. I think places like New Orleans and Memphis are kind of unusual. I can't remember if I put this in the book or not, I don't think I did, but in New Orleans I went to a Second Line parade about seven or eight years ago. I was distracted listening to the band and watching the dancers. It was a very traditional band-- brass and percussion. And this SUV pulled up on a side street with bass booming and somebody playing a hip-hop track so loud that it rattled the whole street. I looked around kind of angrily and then they turned the key, and these two guys in bib overalls and headrags got out of the SUV, went around to the back, pulled out their trombone and saxophone and joined the band! That's New Orleans. But it's not everywhere.

Pitchfork: What part of that period is such a magnet even 40 years later?

Boyd: I do think there's a little bit of a problem for people making music today in the sense that there aren't many new forms. Obviously hip-hop is a new form that's been invented since the 60s and that's had a lot of energy and has cleared a space for itself in a way. But the guitar-bass-drum rock band and the singer-songwriter with a guitar-- those forms are getting a little tired. And it's hard for people to come up with something really original, I think. Which is why-- and I haven't really listened to them that much-- you get the feeling that groups like the Arcade Fire, who are playing around with rhythmic feels and different instrumentations, have a better chance of coming up with something fresh. You can walk down 6th Street at South by Southwest in Austin and hear that same snare-drum backbeat and that same rhythm-guitar pattern coming out of one bar after another. You're not feeling optimistic that you're going to walk into one of those bars and hear something that you've never heard before. Most of the ground has been covered.

Pitchfork: Do you think there's anything else on the horizon? Or do you think it will keep advancing in revivals?

Boyd: Well, you have to believe that there's something new around the corner somewhere. But it is difficult because I think what we had in the sixties, however illusional or delusional it was, we were optimistic. And when you're optimistic, you can create more stuff that's new. You feel like you're looking forward into a great, big, open, warm, sunny space, and you can go in there with positive feelings of being able to do something new. Today, people are looking backwards. It's like, "Don't tear down that old building," because you feel like if you build something new on that site, it's going to be worse than what was there. Same thing about a lot of or whatever. These quotes from the past dominate what's new, because people don't feel confident in being able to take a blank piece of paper and being able to draw something freehand and coming up with something that's better than before. Whereas we did! When you have that confidence, it's very different. It creates a very different atmosphere. It opens up things that don't get opened up otherwise.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm Sure He Means Well...

William Saletan has an ongoing piece up on this week about racial intelligence. I have to say, this seems like a completely pointless topic.

First, there is the problem of obtaining relevant data. It is impossible to raise a child in isolation, separated from a community. Even if you somehow managed to do this you would have created an artificial environment that doesn't tell you much about real world conditions. Everyone knows that schools vary widely in quality (and not strictly along private/public lines either). Studies have consistently shown large gaps between the races when it comes to income and parental education. Saletan cites studies of adopted children but this still doesn't account for the behavior of other in these communities. Saletan recently cited another study showing that social expectations have an effect on weight gain. If your friends think it's okay to be fat then you will too. I'd wager that the same applies to IQ.

The second big factual problem is that race doesn't necessarily correlate with genetics. Why not just study genes that affect intelligence? Why even bring race into it? If you find a gene that directly affects intelligence and you develop a pill or a shot that will help people with or without this gene I don't think many people will be worried about which race has more of the gene than another.

Even if you ignore the factual problems you're left with the question, so what? What sort of positive social policy could you possibly base upon this information? I think Western society has reached the conclusion that human life is to be respected regardless of intellect. We allow inequality because this inequality allows even the lowest members of society to be better off than they would be under a system which forced equality through authoritarian means. Supposedly, equal opportunity is our goal rather than equal result. Given the vast and obvious inequalities in our educational system, why don't we worry about that before we start worrying about Nigerian breast feeding Mr. Saletan?

To reiterate, even if you could show that some races are generally smarter than others what are you going to do about it? Are you going to encourage some people to have more kids than others? Are you trying to justify a system that sticks some kids in terrible, violent inner city schools while others go to new clean suburban institutions? Saletan mentions 'truth' but this just seems like so much personal aggrandizement. If the only thing your truth does is make you feel superior to another it's not worth much.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

1. Gandhi (Attenborough, 1982) [LE]

That's right. Motherfuckin' Gandhi.

The skinny brown guy in the loincloth. Oh yeah.

This is not a particularly hip choice for best movie of the '80s. It may not even be that exciting of a choice for best movie of the '80s. But the truth is that, for me, this movie is pretty much the only movie of the '80s that manages to feel like so much more than a movie. It has a reality all its own. I do not watch this movie and think, "Wow, Ben Kingsley is really good." I think, "Man, Gandhi was kind of a self-righteous freak, but I guess somebody had to be." Some movies simply transcend the medium, and I think this is one of them.

The critical line against Gandhi is that it's essentially a hagiography, a nice piece of Oscar bait. You know, "Let's all pat ourselves on the back for having the good sense to recognize how great Gandhi was, because it's easier than actually going out and doing something meaningful." Sort of like the college kid who puts up a poster of Bob Marley on his dorm room wall and thinks he's done his part for peace and justice. You know what I say? If you want to grind that axe, you can grind it all you want to. But it's not Gandhi's fault that it happened to be about a relatively "sympathetic" historical figure. In other words, I don't think it's fair to hold its Oscars against it.

Then there's another line, relating to the movie, against Gandhi the actual person - often spouted by jaded intellectuals with an innate distrust of figures who are worshipped by the general public as if they were saints. Apparently Gandhi did and said some things that prove he was actually a jerk and not a saint, and thus he's not an admirable figure at all. To be honest, none of the things these Gandhi haters have ever said about Gandhi actually sounded all that bad to me. Let me tell you something. Nobody is a saint. But sometimes, at certain moments in certain societies, a person can get a lot done and have a positive effect if he or she tries to act the part of a saint. I think Gandhi understood this.

Besides, I don't think it was this movie's responsibility to rake the sacred Indian leader over the coals with some kind of withering post-modern analysis. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., or like John Lennon, I'm sure there were two Gandhis: the public Gandhi and the private Gandhi. This is a movie about the public Gandhi. Besides, you can't cover everything. Like the text that opens the movie says:

"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its alloted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way to the heart of the man."

Of course, if you come into the film feeling that the heart of the man was sick and disgusting, then you're probably not going to like the movie. But I came into this film without any baggage and I have yet to be convinced that what I've seen is somehow misleading or dishonest. You also have to keep in mind that Richard Attenborough could not have made this movie, in 1982, in India, with the gigantic budget he wanted to have, if he'd taken a more critical view of Gandhi. Is this movie worse than no Gandhi movie at all? I seriously doubt it.

But you know, all this assumes that Gandhi is a hagiography, which I don't think it is anyway. Let's take a look at a couple of scenes:

Scene 1) Gandhi's priest friend visits him in jail. Gandhi is dressed in a loincloth and that's it.

Priest: Did they take your clothes?
Gandhi: These are my clothes now.
Priest: You always had a puritanical streak Mohan.
Gandhi: If I want to be one with them, I have to live like them.
Priest: Yes I think you do but...thank God we all don't.

So here we have Gandhi: manipulative imagemaker.

Scene 2) Having been finally granted its freedom by Britain, India is now splintering into two factions along Hindu and Muslim lines. All the leaders meet.

Gandhi: My dear Jinnah, you and I are brothers born of the same India, if you have fears I want to put them at rest. Begging the understanding of my friends, I am asking Panditji to stand down. I want you to be the first prime minister of India, to name your entire cabinet, to make the head of every government department a Muslim.
Nehru: Bapu, for me and the rest, if that is what you want, we will accept it. But out there, already there is rioting, because Hindus fear you are going to give too much away.
Patel: If you did this, no one would control it. No one.
Jinnah: It is your choice. Do you want an independent India and an independent Pakistan, or do you want civil war?
Gandhi: [clutches chest, has no answer].

So here we have Gandhi, naive idealist.

In fact, the most interesting part of Gandhi is the end, because it shows the limits of Gandhi's philosophy, and Gandhi's power. He has freed India but he can't have his India. Suddenly he's out of his depth. Like a petulant child, he decides he would rather fast to death than live in a world where the fate of an entire nation hasn't spun the way he'd planned. And yet, when news of the fasting spreads, his pouting gets results. This leads to one of the movie's most moving scenes:

Narahi: Here, eat! Eat! I'm going to hell, but not with your death on my soul.
Gandhi: Only God decides who goes to hell.
Nahari: I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Nahari: Because they killed my son! My boy. The Muslims killed my son!
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed, a little boy about this high, and raise him as your own.
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.

Suddenly, a few mornings later, Gandhi is shocked to discover that the fighting has stopped throughout India. Not shrunken. Not reduced. Stopped. Everywhere. Now, did Gandhi end the civil war between India and Pakistan forever? No. But did he end it for at least a moment, just by sheer force of will? Yes.

Ultimately, Gandhi isn't really about the man anyway, it's about an idea. Now what if you had an idea that would just blow the world away? What if this idea went completely against the grain? Would you have the self-discipline to follow through with it? Would you have the debating skills to sell the skeptics on it? Here's a pivotal early scene in the film:

Nehru: Mr. Gandhi, I'd like you to meet Mr. Jinnah, our joint host, member of Congress and leader of the Muslim league...
Gandhi: How do you do?
Nehru: ...and Mr. Prakash, who I fear is awaiting trial for sedition and inducement to murder.
Prakash: I have not actually pulled the trigger, Mr. Gandhi, I have simply written that if an Englishman kills an Indian for disobeying his law, then it is an Indian's duty to kill an Englishman for enforcing his law in a land that is not his.
Gandhi: It's a clever argument. I'm not sure it'll produce the end you desire.

I've heard this tone before. I've heard it within myself. It's the tone of frustration with other people for not being able to see the whole picture. It's like, "Hey, listen, I know it sounds counterintuitive - somebody hits you and you hit him back, right? But just hear me out for five seconds and I'll explain the limitations of that age-old philosophy." Gandhi's idea is the exception. The rule is that if someone punches you, you have every right to punch them back. But Gandhi forced people to ask themselves, "Well, what does that really do?"

Critics of Gandhi love to quote his statements about using non-violence against Hitler. Obviously I don't think some amazing statement from Gandhi would have meant jack shit at that point. When a situation progresses that far down the road, I think the time to act has passed; it's the time to clean up and learn from your mistakes. Besides, was Gandhi supposed to have the answer to everything? Cut the guy some slack, for crying out loud.

Anyway, all that's just philosophy; Gandhi the movie is a vibrant photographic creation. One reason why Gandhi may not get too much critical respect is that its style is not progressive. To put it bluntly, Attenborough ripped off David Lean. But I can think of worse people to rip off, frankly. Besides, he ripped off David Lean better than David Lean did; Lean's A Passage to India came out two years after Gandhi, and while it's pleasant, I find the basic story simply not as powerful. In a small twist of irony, Lean was originally going to make a movie about Gandhi before he decided to make Lawrence of Arabia, so in a way Attenborough finished the job for him. To say that Gandhi is not as good as Lawrence of Arabia is in no way to knock it; no movie is as good as Lawrence of Arabia. But the Lean tricks are powerful tricks, and I only wished more movies tried to employ them. It's all here: intimately silent scenes followed immediately by shots of noisy crowds, a narrative that begins at the end, well-chosen dialogue that compacts the action, etc., etc. Maybe you could just call it good filmmaking. Indeed, the movie might get more respect if Attenborough had gone on to create a more distinguished filmography (instead, he showed up in bit parts like the fat old scientist guy in Jurassic Park). As it is, it's simply the last of a certain style of movie rather than an influential work in its own right.

Which leads me to my final point: a film like Gandhi would never be made today. Because the studios would just insist on using CGI and saving the money. Well you know what? I can tell the difference. When you see a shot in Gandhi of a crowd of 300,000 people, you know why it looks real? Because it is. Apparently people will settle for a fake shot of 300,000 people, but I won't. Gandhi had the good fortune to be made at a time before special effects became remotely passable. I may sound like an old fart, but the truth is, they sure don't make 'em like this anymore. They didn't even make 'em like this in 1982. In fact, there's not a single trace of the '80s in Gandhi.

Which is probably why I'm calling it the best movie of the '80s.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Almighty Cleanse

So I was watching an interesting biography of John Cleese. He was talking about how funny authority figures are because you can often tell that they are acting out of some unresolved issue from their childhood and how funny most of our problems are once you become attuned to the essential silliness of life. It was really adding to my respect for the guy, and then the Cleese gave way to...The Almighty Cleanse.

Before I could change the channel I witnessed a 50-something man in a suit describing the bowel movements of average Americans in detail. Two infomercial hosts questioned the man about the benefits of a cleanse. Then he started talking about a black, oily layer that prevented nutrient uptake. All medical problems could be traced to the colon. He explained that the body's sewer has become a cesspool. And here I was thinking those were the same thing.

After about 30 euphemisms for crap had been exhausted in the first 3 minutes I decided it was time to change the channel. It's the kind of the product that makes you hesitate for a moment and think, "What if all my problems are really due to that?" I think I know exactly what Cleese was talking about.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Going To Mexico? Check Your Insurance

The walls of my apartment, by some odd decorative choice on the part of my master tenant, are covered with maps. Maps of the U.S., maps of Japan, maps of the Boston commuter rail system, you name it. Right outside my room there's a map of California, and I was staring at it last night, when I suddenly noticed a little box in the right-hand corner, near Arizona, that I'd never noticed before. It read as follows:

"Check your insurance before entering Mexico

U.S. automobile insurance is not valid in Mexico. Motorists should arrange for full coverage, including property damage and public liability, with a reliable Mexican insurance company that has complete adjusting facilities in cities throughout Mexico. The Mexican government has no minimum requirement for insurance; choose the level of protection that best suits your needs. Make sure you read the English translation of the policy carefully to discern what is and is not included. Mexican automobile insurance is available at AAA offices in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas."

And to think: I was going to entertain myself next weekend at all the Tijuana brothels I could handle, and I hadn't even considered the matter of auto insurance! How silly of me. Honestly, how many American tourists are actually going to worry about whether or not they have Mexican auto insurance before they drive into Mexico? I mean, isn't that the whole point of going to Mexico - that nobody gives a shit about that sort of thing? Just thought I'd ask.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Number Two: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Soderbergh, 1989) [Y]

I didn't know much about this film going in and I was surprised by how good it was. I watched Sex, Lies after Soderbergh's masterpiece, Schizopolis, and was prepared to be disappointed in his other movies. But in its own way, I think this movie is just as good.

The performances of Andie MacDowell and James Spader stand out immediately. Many people expressed surprise that Andie could act. It's not so surprising. Acting really isn't that hard. Here's Yoggoth's quick guide to convincing performances: 1) Don't be embarrassed by a camera/audience. 2) Act like yourself. If you've got a role that allows you to do 2 and you don't have a problem with 1 then you're set. James Spader seems to be playing a role that is also somewhat close to his actual personality, which helps. There really aren't that many actors who can deviate much from their personality. Brando comes to mind. He was actually weirder than any of the characters he played. And given the movies he was in that's saying something.

But we know those guys can act, or at least they look pretty. The surprising performance for me is that of Laura San Giacomo. I only knew her from "Just Shoot Me." She didn't stand out in that venue. But then, who would stand out acting opposite that dramatic powerhouse, David Spade? In Sex, Lies she plays Andie's slutty sister who is having an affair with Andie's husband. And somehow she still comes across as a sympathetic character.

This brings me to the final thing that makes Sex, Lies, and Videotape so good - Soderbergh's portrayal of that first titular subject. Most Hollywood movies reserve the sex for the beautiful leads or the soon-to-be-dead villains. In this film the 2 stars are dysfunctional oddities. One has never had an orgasm even though she's been married for years. The other gets himself off watching his taped interviews of women about their sexual preferences. The actual sex is mostly reserved for the creepy lawyer husband and the odd sister who is less attractive than the woman the guy's already married to. Emotional release comes not from wild conquest of the alpha-male or -female, it comes from the characters' shuffling stumble towards some semblance of normalcy.

Maybe that seems like a shallow basis for a film. It's not. Our culture is still stuck somewhere between Puritan fear and Roman bloodlust, on the scale of cultural salaciousness. Sex, Lies marks the boundary of the 80's and the 90's. Greed and hyper-shallowness subsided for a brief period in favor of grunge and awkward hipness (think Nirvana and the Ben Stiller Show vs. Miami Vice and, well, Don Johnson). Soon enough we'd have Ken Starr's $70 million report and the Young Women's Exploitation League (Britney as the founder, Lindsay as the reigning champion). But for a while there things looked more reasonable, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape was one of the high water marks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Department of Pathetic Indignation -- Music Snobs 'R' US

Last week Slate ran a dialogue called "Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands." I clicked on it thinking, "Hmm, this could be interesting." Then when I actually started reading it, I realized that what they really should have called the article was, "Let a Classical Critic Have a Chat with a Jazz Critic."

I will make no bones about it: I am a fan of "rock," or, more accurately, "popular music from roughly 1955 to the present." I have enjoyed classical music in bits and pieces all of my life. I have never particularly enjoyed jazz, although occasionally I have moments where I understand why other people would. That said, my understanding is that classical music essentially exhausted itself creatively somewhere around the 1920s/1930s, and that jazz exhausted itself creatively at some time in the mid-1970s. The two critics in this dialogue spend a whole lot of time wondering whether or not the jazz and classical scenes are "fringe" scenes in today's world. Well let me answer that question really quickly by saying "Yes."

The first critic's opening statement seems to me to be a bit of wishful thinking: "People tend to listen to various kinds of music over the course of the day: rock at the gym, jazz on the drive home, maybe a little Vivaldi while waiting at the dentist's office for the root canal." Not me. I pretty much listen to rock, rock, and more rock. If that's a musical island, then hey, I find my musical island pretty satisfying. I mean, does anybody really listen to music in the fashion that he's suggesting? He then goes on to basically say that, "Yeah, I'm hip and not one of those elitist guys you think I am, because even though I think classical music is 'real' music and rock is kind of boring, I can still appreciate certain rock acts, especially the ones that remind me of classical music, or the rock acts that classical people are finally 'OK' with after all these years of insulting rock." Here:

"I'm a freakish case in that I started paying serious attention to nonclassical music only in college. While all my friends were listening to Pink Floyd, I rocked out to Schubert and Brahms. Then, during a prolonged immersion in the classical avant-garde—at my college radio station, I subjected a minuscule audience to György Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes and John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radiosfriends instructed me to listen to Cecil Taylor and Sonic Youth, which is where my 'pop' collection started. For years I steered clear of hummable tunes and polished production; I bought into the punk-modernist notion that any band selling over a thousand or so CDs was worthless. By age 25, though, I'd expanded my horizons to accommodate the Beatles and Bob Dylan."

Well congratulations buddy, you worked your way up to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Buy some ABBA and then we can talk. He name-drops Radiohead, Bjork, and Oasis, but somehow I'm not convinced that he really likes these bands, or rather, whether he likes them for the reasons I do: because of their personality.

My favorite musicians are the ones that I really feel are sharing themselves with me in their music. Perhaps I've so strongly grativated toward rock because of its emphasis on lyrics. Rock has a literary quality that classical and jazz really don't seem to have (although I'm sure some classical/jazz nut would argue with me on some grounds I can't anticipate). Rock also seems a lot more willing to be tasteless and ridiculous, which I like.

Also, my personal feeling is that in the late 1960s rock managed to absorb the best of both classical and jazz to essentially become the most relevant/exciting/effective mode of musical expression in that age, and that after this point, all the people who still consider classical or jazz to be interesting and progressive are pretty much walking down a blind alley. I love it when these guys start naming all these people like Steve Reich or John Cage or Osvaldo Golijov. Come on. The great "composers" of our time have been people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, etc., etc. I mean, who are they kidding?

For me, the point of music is to reach as wide of an audience as possible without compromising itself as art. This is what I believe rock has done so well - at its best. As far as I can tell, proponents of contemporary jazz and classical music do not seem to share this artistic goal. In fact, I'm not quite sure what their goals are. I've always been wanting to meet the "Little Earl of jazz" or the "Little Earl of classical" - you know, the guy who had as much of a desire to get people interested in their genre the way that I like to think I try to get people interested in my genre. It always seems to me that jazz and classical fans don't really care whether I like their genre or not. It's like, "Either you get it or you don't." I actually want to help people enjoy their lives more by introducing them to music they haven't heard but might enjoy. That's a very important part of the process for me.

Ultimately, to say that my taste in music is "better" than other people's taste in music is to slide down a slippery slope. The most useful observation I could make is that for reasons that remain slightly mysterious to me, certain other people seem to share my taste in music and hopefully they will be interested in some of my thoughts on that music. To say any more than that is probably to invite ridicule.

Related: Notes On Music

Sunday, November 11, 2007

This Preview Wears Prada

Yoggoth and I attended a matinee screening of Michael Clayton yesterday. Before the movie (which was quite good, by the way) began, we were treated to a pair of previews for two upcoming romantic comedies named, if I'm correct, R.S.V.P. and P.S. I Love You. Near the end of the preview for R.S.V.P., a credit came on the screen saying, "From the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada." Near the end of the preview for P.S. I Love You, a credit came on the screen saying, "From the producer of The Devil Wears Prada." Yoggoth turned to me and said, "Wait a second, didn't they just say that for the last movie?" I responded, "No no, the last one was the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada, this one was the producer." Laughter, and a comic riff, immediately ensued:

"From the casting director who brought you The Devil Wears Prada!"
"From the key grip who brought you The Devil Wears Prada!"

I mean, do people even care about that sort of thing anyway? Or do people just go, "Wow, honey, it's Julia Roberts. Let's go see that." And since when did The Devil Wears Prada earn such a brand-name value? It's like, "From the people who brought you 3:10 To Yuma!" To be fair, I haven't even seen it, so maybe I should before I talk smack. Or maybe I should go slaughter a flock of endangered geese instead.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Speaking of...

A Catholic priest has been charged with stalking and harassing Conan O'Brien. His conversion to Catholicism came in the middle of viewing La Dolce Vida. Pretty damn cosmic.

I'll have to be more careful when I watch Fellini movies. If La Dolce Vida can turn you Catholic what horrors could result from Satyricon?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

2. The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983) [LE]

If the '80s gorged upon itself and became so sick and nauseous from its own rancidness that it vomited itself right back up all over a movie screen, it might look something like The King Of Comedy. Here is a movie that is hypnotic in its vitriol, mesmerizing in its pure unfiltered hostility, completely absorbing in its utter refusal to allow its characters even a single moment of joy or understanding. It's like watching your two favorite mean old spinster aunts bicker with each other over Thanksgiving dinner - you want to look away but it's all too fascinating.

As many of you know by now, I have a low opinion of the '80s. Apparently, so did Martin Scorsese. After riding the artistically challenging wave that was the '70s, Scorsese suddenly found himself in hostile waters. New York, New York was a big commercial flop, and while Raging Bull was a strong critical success, it hardly put Scorsese in the same league as his buddies Lucas and Spielberg at the box office. So what did he do? Did he turn right around and make a blockbuster? No, no, he would do that later. Back in 1983, he simply grabbed De Niro, found the world's most bitter, nasty script, and he railed.

But Scorsese railing is not the same as, say, Oliver Stone railing. When Stone rails (as in Natural Born Killers), it's pedal to the metal. But when Scorsese rails, it's like a long, slow burn. I mean, you can laugh off Natural Born Killers as soon as it's over, but The King of Comedy crawls under your skin until you really feel it. You don't realize how dispiriting it is until the next morning, and then you're sitting there munching on your corn flakes thinking, "Wow, from top to bottom, there's not an ounce of goodness in the entire human race."

The portrait the movie paints of American culture is not a flattering one. The masses are desperate, greedy idolators, the idols they worship empty shells who have nothing to offer their subjects but contempt. No one has any answers for anybody. No one is capable of connecting with anyone else. Ladies and gentlemen: the '80s.

In one corner, we have Rupert Pupkin (De Niro), who is very much a Travis Bickle Part II: just another social misfit looking for happiness in all the wrong places. In the other corner we have Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a seemingly affable late-night talk show host who, when not on television, manages to come off like a cold, heartless showbiz creep. It's hard to say who, between the two of them, is the more likeable character. You hate Rupert because he's such an abusive stalker, but you hate Jerry because he is so completely disinterested in helping Rupert with his problems. Of course, it's not really Jerry's responsibility to help every abusive talk-show host stalker with his problems. But the movie does such a good job of making you understand Rupert's need that you can't help but take his side a little when he is faced with Jerry's rejection. I mean, let's see a show of hands here, who hasn't fantasized about being famous? Who hasn't sat in their basement and figured that if only they somehow managed to achieve instant fame, all their problems would be solved? Who hasn't daydreamed about being interviewed on a talk show, revealing their brilliance piece-by-piece to the adoring masses? Count me in. The difference between most of us and Rupert, however, is that Rupert is unable to exercise patience. He wants the fame...without all the hard work.

What makes the movie such an incisive analysis of media and celebrity is that it calls attention to the discrepancy between the celebrity and the fan. You see, the fan sees the celebrity every night on television at 11:30 and thinks, "Hey, I know that person. That person is my friend." But the truth is that the celebrity doesn't know you from a shit stain on a wheelbarrow, and probably doesn't even care to know you. The closeness is an illusion. If you understand that, then you realize what a big waste of time shows like Leno and Letterman are and you'll spend your viewing energy on something worthwhile. If you don't, then, well, you're Rupert Pupkin.

The King of Comedy is, in its own sneaky way, one of the most unpleasant movies you're ever likely to see. So then why do I love it so? Well, I guess sometimes, when you're sick, it feels good to vomit.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Rolling Stone's Almost-Impossible Music Trivia Quiz

I dare any of you so-called music fans to dive into the murky waters of what Rolling Stone calls its "Almost-Impossible" Rock & Roll Quiz. Let me tell you, from someone who considers himself a knowledgeable scholar of that ignominious genre, this one is a doozy. I scored a 51, which apparently means I'm an "expert" and that I "know (my) Bowie from (my) Bambaataa," and yet I hardly feel reassured of my pop music mastery. Every now and then I hit a question that just made my brain freeze with absent-minded horror, like the proverbial student who knows he would totally be acing the final if only he'd bothered to study the night before. The questions are quite humorous on the whole, although the questions they came up with for the 2000s will tell you a lot about what Rolling Stone thinks is the canonical music of our current decade.