Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Item: Flowers of Shanghai better than Mad Max: Fury Road!

Hey I didn't plan to watch Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998) mere moments before I believed the hype and took in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Blame the exigencies of teaching Flowers today for clouding my reception of Mad Max last night. But even if I hadn't bathed in Hou's masterpiece yet again, Miller's reboot still would've left me pondering Kracauer's "Boredom" (pdf here) and this terrific IMDb comment by one amirdash1 on Hou's Café Lumière (which I've pumped before but since learned permalink):

"You know how sometimes you see a film so big and full and immersing that by the time it ends you feel kinda empty (for most people it's the Lord of the rings or Matrix or Star wars type of films)? well, [Café Lumière] is so empty that in the end, it makes you you feel full. I remember feeling more refreshed and alive after this film, than any other film i had ever seen."

Mad Max is certainly so big and full and immersing. Devoting barely any time to explaining when and where (and why) we are, Miller dunks us into the freezing bathwater of his narrative with all the patience of a Centurions cartoon. In the opening sequence, the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) seems to be conveying key story points to some sort of slave class. But he does so via microphone over a huge canyon, insuring that his speech becomes lost in the echoes. Max (Tom Hardy), a characterization of brilliant perversity, contributes little towards pushing the narrative forward. With five pages max of dialogue, much of it garbled, Max makes Ethan Edwards sound like Woody Allen. It shall join Warren Beatty's McCabe and Ralph Fiennes' Dennis Cleg (in Cronenberg's Spider) in the ranks of great mumble performances. And all the better to set off  Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a narrative agent with desire, a history, and a band of sisters who have no trouble beating down Joe's pack of pasty, perfectly chiseled goons (what, no carbs in this time/space continuum?).

But now that it's over, I'm at a loss for something to discuss. Well...that happened. More to the point, I'm left with no desire to find a way for it to resonate beyond its running time. I could praise Miller's expertise in directing action sequences. Like John Woo, he lays out the space in question before the action kicks in so we know what's at stake in all that velocity. And I could suggest that the film could've used more preposterous touches like the pasty goon dangling in front of a wall of amplifiers and playing a fire-breathing guitar in battle, a hilarious attempt to give a source to Junkie XL's chest-heaving score. But if I didn't get all that down now, I'm not sure I'd remember to tell the world about it a year from now.

In many ways, Flowers of Shanghai mangles storytelling even more, at least on initial viewing (it took Robin Wood six screenings to figure out Hou's scheme). Titles situate us in various late 19th-century brothels in the English Concession of Shanghai. But Hou does little to differentiate one Sternbergian hothouse interior from another. Important events are told not shown, sure to get lost in the endless roundelays of gossiping courtesans and their patrons. There are no cuts, only fades which fail to convey how much time has passed. Characters are difficult to tell apart. There's one point-of-view shot and one brief voice-over. The camera floats at a distance in long shots and long takes, never suturing us into the space. Our frustration at gaining any sense of firm narrative ground quickly turns into boredom. Nothing...happens.

But as Kracauer so perceptively pointed out nearly 90 years ago, boredom preserves the possibility that something genuinely new might still happen instead of a conveyor belt of new pummeling us at every corner of our lives. Watching Flowers of Shanghai may be an empty experience. But it continues to haunt. You can't shake it as you start to ponder how a Taiwanese viewer would receive this film set in China by the premier Taiwanese filmmaker. Or how a Chinese viewer would receive a film set in the English Concession of Shanghai. When Mad Max: Fury Road is over, it's over. You've had your fill and now the next new awaits.

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Saturday, May 02, 2015

I finished Middlemarch!

Reading George Eliot's Middlemarch was like being trapped in a well-appointed but claustrophobic room with an intimidatingly capacious mind for a looooooong time - in my case, many, many months. I had an easier time getting through Ulysses. The person who suggested it to me "compared it to a diamond: a pure, beautiful, brilliant thing that compels attention and admiration, but that is also somehow hard and icily cerebral. I[t] certainly never struck [him] as a warm novel." Attention and admiration it got. But I received not much pleasure in return, especially in the first half.

No doubt some of my agitation stemmed from Eliot's tough-mindedness, her disinclination to suffer fools lightly. She even says as much at the book's snootiest, if not deadliest, point: "I am less uneasy in calling attention to the existence of low people by whose interference, however little we may like it, the course of the world is very much determined. It would be well, certainly, if we could help to reduce their number, and something might perhaps be done by not lightly giving occasion to their existence." And how, pray tell, should we reduce their number? Is she getting all Raskolnikov on the minor but narratively crucial character Raffles here?

But maybe Middlemarch is supposed to remain pleasureless, like heavy metal. And like metal, maybe we're to use it to reveal the fool within, the fuckup in us all ('cept for Eliot) that we are loathe to confront but that the power of the riffs (literary and otherwise) are meant to whip into shape. The Middlemarch/metal connection reminds me of a recent exchange on ILM. Someone was whining about not wanting to start a zine to which Scott Seward (crucially, a metal expert) replied in a manner most Middlemarch-like: "duh, i'm not talking about you slackers. people with energy. and pep." Certainly, there have been times in my life when I could feel myself in Fred Vincy's "dead men's shoes" (where Idleness resides) with Mary Garth admonishing him/me for reneging on a loan guaranteed by her father Caleb. "What does it matter whether I forgive you?" says Mary, passionately, Eliot tells us. But also icily - her family will be now be in ruins. The utility of "I'm sorry" or "you're forgiven" evaporates in the need for action to make things right. I read much of Middlemarch at the gym, a locale that was holding me back, or so I was informed, from loving the novel. But in retrospect, it seemed entirely appropriate. Steel never forgives. But work hard and you'll get a six pack. And pay back that loan. And get through a 900-page behemoth.

And then you'll get rewarded in those moments where you feel as haughty and worthy as Eliot herself as when she drops a line that you muttered just yesterday about cell phones: "The bias of human nature to be slow in correspondence triumphs even over the present quickening in the general pace of things." Or when she quotes one Sir Thomas Browne to support your thesis that "back in the good ole days" dorks are forever with us: "It is the humor of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condemning the vices of their own times, by the expressions of vices in times which they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both." Or when Dorothea Brooke gives up her fortune for love, i.e., the hunky-you-just-know-it Will Ladislaw (I'd never been so elated at the formation of a heterosexual couple). Or when Eliot revels in the connectedness of the universe: "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determine by what lies outside it." Or in the very last line when Eliot finally comes down to our level and gives it up to all the fools, fuckups, and slackers: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

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Friday, May 01, 2015

So you're curious about Joan Crawford's General Electric Theater work...

Well, don't be. All three are risible attempts to generate Twilight Zone-style suspense and godawful twist endings by having characters act in ways antithetical to their nature. In "The Road to Edinburgh" (1954), Joan gives a ride to a drifter who fixed her flat tire. He confesses to her that he has just been released from prison after 17 years for murder. But he behaves like a complete psycho, becoming belligerent and obsessing on her appearance. Naturally, Joan tries everything to get away, especially when she learns that the police are on the lookout for an escaped prisoner. She does 80 to attract the police but when she's pulled over, they inform her that the man in her car couldn't be the escaped prisoner since he's just been caught! The poor innocent guy just needed a ride. He even gives her the money to pay for her speeding ticket leaving a tearful Joan to admit in voiceover, "I've never been so ashamed in my life." So he acted like a psycho...why?
In "Strange Witness" (1958), Joan and her wiry boyfriend Tom Tryon (future horror novelist and partner of gay porn icon Casey Donovan) bump off her husband (John McIntire). But the husband's blind friend stops by for a visit before the couple has time to hide the body. They manage to maneuver him around the corpse before eventually shooing him away. But later, he calls her from a police station to inform her that, oh hai, he had an operation and can see! So he pretended that he's still blind...why?
In "And One Was Loyal" (1959), Joan is an abused wife who cannot speak. A poisonous snake is planted in her husband's bed. Thinking Joan is trying to kill him, he charges at her, falls off a balcony, and dies at which point Joan can suddenly speak again. But who planted the snake? Was it Joan? Or was it the art-loving visitor who fancies her? Or how about the Malaysian house boy? Much the best of the three but the least dramatic, one hopes Newton Minor had this in mind when deemed television a vast wasteland in 1961

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche à Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005)

Unpublished review of one of my fave records of 2005:

The few records Amadou & Mariam, “The Blind Couple of Mali,” have released stateside underscored their status as hip, globetrotting world music stars. So it’s perfectly natural that their music skipped from the Paris café to the Delta back porch. This fabulous new disc strays even further from any pure Malian genre if such a thing even exists. The title translates as “Sunday in Bamako,” the capital of Mali. But it actually sounds like Sunday all over the world. This is less a function of genre hopping as it an immersion in sounds that are indigenous to most places on earth – crowds, overheard crosstalk, police sirens, music off in the distance. Thanks for the new direction can be given to polyglot musical genius Manu Chao. His production transforms even the longest songs into off-the-cuff, ridiculously catchy snippets. Awash in French folk song, Ali Farka Toure-style blues, and mild ska pulsations and yet as bright and slick as Sheryl Crow soaking up the sun, this is one mighty fine all-night festival.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho

Well after taking in Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012), I finally caught up with Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the book on which the film...well, actually, had I read Manohla Dargis' NY Times review before watching, I'd have known that the film is only tangentially related to the book. It pretzels up some facts and centers much of the dramatic energy on a blossoming affair between Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Whitfield Cook, a story which gets no play in Rebello's tight historical account of Psycho's controversial journey to screen. That leaves Gervasi's film a fun but rather empty exercise. Rebello's book is much more useful while never stinting on the fun. So below are the choicest quotes therein starting with a knockout simile concerning the media storm surrounding Ed Gein, the Wisconsin murderer who inspired Robert Bloch's 1959 novel on which Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece was based.

The press and the ambulance chasers attached themselves to Plainfield like piranha on a drowning sumo wrestler.

In private Hitchcock railed. To the public he made light, as when he told the New York Times about his frustration in finding suitable material: “Newspaper headlines tell too many outlandish stories from real life that drive the spinner of suspense fiction to further extremes. I always regard the fact that we’ve got to outwit the audience to keep them with us. They’re highly trained detectives looking at us out there right now.”

Stefano perceived that the way to engage Hitchcock's imagination was to conceptualize and verbalize the story in terms of visuals. According to Stefano, "He was not interested in characters or motivation at all. That was the writer's job. If I said, 'I'd like to give the girl an air of desperation,' he'd say, 'Fine, fine.' But when I said, 'In the opening of the film, I'd like a helicopter shot over the city, then go right up to the seedy hotel where Marion is spending her lunch hour with Sam,' he said, 'We'll go right into the window!' That sort of thing excited him."

Once Hitchcock and Stefano had completed the breakdown, it was all over but the shooting. "We had lunch and toasted the project with champagne," said Stefano. "He looked very sad, and said, 'The picture's over. Now I have to go and put it on film.'"

After the director had arranged a private showing of Vertigo at the writer’s request, Stefano believed he had at last glimpsed the man who hid behind the mask. “Here was this incredibly beautiful movie he had made that nobody went to see or said nice things about it," Stefano said. “I told him I thought it was his best film. It brought him to near-tears."

Only Dean Stockwell strikes one as a viable alternative [to Perkins].

Miles remained philosophical about losing the chance for stardom in Vertigo. “Hitchcock got his picture," she said. "I got a son."

Stefano and Hitchcock had deliberately layered-in certain risqué elements as a ruse to divert the censors from more crucial concerns: primarily the action that took place in the shower and bathroom.

“Wimpy” was used as a substitute moniker for all in-house communications regarding the film. The story perhaps stems from the fact that the name of the second-unit cameraman on the picture, Rex Wimpy, appeared on clapboards and production sheets, and hence in some on-the-set stills for Psycho.

"We did between fourteen to eighteen setups a day, which, for a major motion picture director, is a lot."

Hitchcock suppressed any synopsis of the plot for public consumption. No other director had done this since Cecil B. DeMille on The Ten Commandments.  [Is this a joke? Don't we already know the story?]

Bass: " By modern standards, we don't think that represents staccato cutting because we've gotten so accustomed to flashcuts. But to have, in those days - I don't know what it was, two minutes, three minutes, whatever the sequence ran? - forty or sixty cuts, whatever it might be -was just a very new idea stylistically. As a title person, it was a very natural thing to use that quick-cutting, montage technique to deliver what amounted to an impressionistic, rather than a linear, view of the murder."

On-set wardrobe supervisor Rita Riggs elaborated about stand-in Marli Renfro and her director: "Because of makeup, of course, the model could not wear even a robe. But she became so comfortable, I recall her sitting quite nude except for this crazy little patch we always put over the pubic hair, talking with Mr. Hitchcock."

Hitchcock, throughout his career, maintained a healthy irreverence toward the guardians of law and order, and his view of Arbogast - smug, glib, tenacious, slightly dull - is no exception. In film after film, Hitchcock challenges his audiences to cry out "Why don't the hero and heroine go straight to the police?" Because, implies Hitchcock in answer, all that they will find is a universe of Milton Arbogasts. As the director so often put it, "Logic is dull."

Hitchcock and his screenwriter knew that the [headshrinker-explains-all] scene, the bane of creative types, was “obligatory”: a chance for the audience to catch its collective breath while the “logic” buffs among them got their fill of the facts.

"I still thought it would be clever to have a male voice reading the lines [of Mrs. Bates], which is why I suggested Paul Jasmin to Hitch,” Perkins said. Jasmin, then twenty-three, a Montana-born budding actor who stormed Hollywood with hopes of becoming the next Montgomery Clift or Gary Cooper, was a natural mimic, a practical joker, and a friend of Perkins.

“I was studying to be an actor,” recalled Jasmin."I did this old-lady character named 'Eunice Ayers,' a no-bullshit, Marjorie Main kind of gal. Tony [Perkins] and [Broadway and film star] Elaine Stritch used to egg me on, so I’d call up big stars like Rosalind Russell and put her on with this voice for hours. Stanley Kubrick was directing Spartacus at Universal at the time and, through a press agent, he heard about our little pranks, loved them, and began to tape the conversations. Then, Tony told Hitchcock about me and gave him some of the tapes.”

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Miranda Lambert: "Automatic"

Wherein I try to salvage the low point from Miranda Lambert's Platinum.

"Automatic" is gross nostalgia, pining for the days when folks wrote letters and read maps and stayed married. But Lambert only co-wrote it. It seems the true culprit is frequent collaborator Natalie Hemby who in a Rolling Stone interview defended the staying married line ("Everybody wants a quick fix, and sometimes that's not the best thing for you") although she'd never jettison her GPS. For some, Lambert's willingness to cede the songwriting to someone else compromises her authority, especially to someone who doesn't fully believe her own sentiments. And indeed "Automatic" feels dislocated as if her voice cannot account for the song's construction, e.g., how the anthemic chorus is incommensurate with the rote nostalgia of the lyrics. Why this music with that sentiment?

But I prefer to hear it through John Leland's typically genius theory of a transgressive pop music that incorporates, even actively solicits, errors and imbalances. In Leland's example, the weak voices of Madonna, Lisa Lisa, Exposé, Cover Girls, Janet Jackson, Stacey Q, Company B, etc. were no match for the outsized emotions they attempted to convey. But because of the mismatch, they wound up accessing a different kind of authorial voice, a mystical one that might know something but isn't telling. Instead of assuming that these pitch-challenged disco princesses surrendered all authority to their producers and/or hired songwriters, Leland finds an epistemological uncertainty more radical than the assurance that an auteur like, oh, Bob Dylan knows exactly what he's doing. What possessed Taylor Dayne to pronounce on night explosions better left to the rafter-shaking abilities of Martha Wash or Jocelyn Brown? And later, why did TLC use (or acquiesce to?) melancholic synths to convey their desire for "No Scrubs"?* Down such rabbit holes goes music of a perpetual becoming. With the personae unsettled, the songs can go in any direction and avoid the one-way street of the auteur's meaning.

And so it is with "Automatic." How will this recording artist which is not one expend the energy she uses to power into the chorus? Who exactly is she talking to? Even if we could divine an interlocutor, what will they do with their nostalgia? Like the most captivating pop music, "Automatic" is poised before action in a thrilling inbetweenness.

*Carly Carioli wrote beautifully on this aspect for the 1999 Pazz & Jop list in the February 22, 2000 issue of The Village Voice, p. 80: "As with [Anal Cunt] or the Crystals, the emotional delivery and mundane subject matter are utterly at odds - schoolyard complaints turned into high gospel-operatic drama, fanzine grammar dressed up in limousine sass."

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Friday, March 13, 2015

I Forgot These Singles! Feat. A Preliminary 1960s List!

For years I've been keeping track of the great singles I either forgot to include on my decade top 100s or hadn't heard yet. So seeing as how it's been a decade since I compiled them, I figured it's time for an update. I've listed them below in rough preferential order with some brief comments. I've updated the singles lists with links to each. And, perhaps to prevent me from continuing with such an insane project, I've included a preliminary 1960s singles list also in rough preferential order although numbers 1 and 2 are pretty firm...for now.

She Trinity: "Climb That Tree" (President, 1970) - A glimpse of a woman-centered prog-psych aesthetic we should have heard more of and a top ten single for me.

Prime Time: "Good Times Theme" (Motown, 1978) - Greatest TV theme of all time.

Middle of the Road: "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep" (RCA, 1971) - Thank you, Breakfast on Pluto.

The Osmonds: "Crazy Horses" (MGM, 1972) - The most criminal omission from Xgau's 1970s Consumer Guide book was Phase III because more music fans should know how these boys could jam like Sabbath. In fact, it was a trip to inform some metal-freak friends that they were not listening to unreleased Sabbath but rather this bubblerock nugget.

Wire: "A Question of Degree" (Harvest, 1979) - These boys knew their disco with de facto breaks and a sticky money shot.

Joe Walsh: "Life's Been Good" (Asylum, 1978) - I'm still waiting for Don Henley's version: "Life Hasn't Been As Good As You People Seem To Think It's Been, Ya Know."

Culture Club: "The War Song" (Epic, 1984) - My favorite Culture Club song until I read Boy's autobio Take It Like a Man and learned that "Time (Clock of the Heart)" was about gay unrequited love whereupon it tore my heart out.

The S.O.S. Band: "Just Be Good to Me" (Tabu, 1983) - The 9:00-minute version, please, the better to highlight the most obsessive psychogroove of the decade.

Tight Fit: "Fantasy Island" (Jive, 1982) - The most exact, and sparkly, ABBA clone extant.

Bucks Fizz: "My Camera Never Lies" (RCA, 1982) - Another ABBA clone with demented lyrics for people who think pop music is just so darn assembly line.

Paul McCartney: "Press" (Capitol, 1986) - Another classic money shot and the man's finest solo single ever.

Kenny Loggins with Steve Perry: "Don't Fight It" (Columbia, 1982) - Steve Perry should have gotten out of Journey more often.

Stacy Lattisaw: "Attack of the Name Game" (Cotillion, 1982) - Kack it back, I gotta Kack attack
I gotta Kee Ky Koe the Kack a jack
Turn the Tevin, gotta move the Mevin
Gotta wham-bam funkify the Fevin, my name is Kevin
Well, can you picture that?
Also, can Mariah Carey pick 'em or what?

USA For Africa: "We Are The World" (Columbia, 1985)- Steve Perry should have gotten out of Journey more often, Part 2.

Crown Heights Affair: "You Gave Me Love" (De-Lite, 1980) - The Utah Saints picked the best parts. But the intro and outro are still eeeeevil.

Too low: Debbie Deb: "When I Hear Music" (Jam Packed 1983) at #22

Overweight Pooch: "Hip House Party" (A&M, 1991) - Only a shade less gravity-defying than "It Takes Two" and a top ten single for me.

Daphne and Celeste: "Ooh Stick You!" (Universal, 1999) - Dada bubblerap so threatening that they had water bottles thrown at them during some live event. Pop - it's so punk!

Satoshi Tomiie: "Sneaky One (Original Mix)" (SMEJ Associated, 1999) - In his essential "In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco," Walter Hughes demonstrates how disco empties out language to shake off all remnants of textuality. But house took that aspect even further, e.g., this post-verbal screech party. It lifts you right up to the ceiling of the club. Also try the Nevins Club Mix of Angelica: "Quando M'en Vo" (Atlantic, 1997). The opera queens on your floor will lose it.

Donna Blakely feat. Ralphi Rosario: "Take Me Up" (Underground Construction, 1997) - Ralphi's Original Club Mix is a peak record. But also try Légo's Mix for a bumping party starter.

Azari & III: "Reckless (With Your Love)" (Permanent Vacation, 2009) - I didn't hear this until the teens but this is all I could up with for the Aughts. What did I miss?


The Trashmen: “Surfin’ Bird” (Garrett, 1963)
The Tammys: “Egyptian Shumba” (United Artists 1964)
Wilson Pickett: “Land of 1000 Dances” (Atlantic 1966)
Gino Washington: “Gino is a Coward” (SonBert 1964)
The Flirtations: “Nothing But a Heartache”  (Deram 1968)
Pebbles & Bamm-Bamm: “Snow Flake” (Hanna-Barbera 1965)
The Crystals: “He’s a Rebel” (Philles, 1962)
The Remains: "Don't Look Back" (Epic 1966)
Lou Christie: “Lightnin’ Strikes” (MGM 1965)
Lou Christie: “Rhapsody in the Rain” (MGM 1966)
The Elastik Band: "Spazz" (Atco 2967)
The Calico Wall: “Flight Reaction”/“Beep” (Turtle c. 1966)
John’s Children: “A Midsummer's Night Scene” (Track 1967)
The First Gear: “Leave My Kitten Alone” (Pye 1964)
The Bluestars: "Social End Product" (Allied International 1966)
The Music Machine: "Talk Talk" (Original Sound 1966)
The Balloon Farm: "A Question of Temperature" (Laurie 1967)
The Marvelettes: “Twistin’ Postman” (Tamla 1961)
Gene Pitney: “Every Breath I Take” (Musicor 1961)
The Exciters: “He’s Got The Power” (United Artists 1963)
The Shangri-Las: “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” (Red Bird 1964)
Ginny Arnell: “Dumb Head” (MGM 1963)
Claudine Clark: “Party Lights” (Chancellor 1962)
The Chiffons: "Nobody Knows What's Goin' On (In My Mind But Me)" (Laurie 1965)
The Equals: “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” (President 1969)
Love: “My Little Red Book” (Elektra, 1966)
The Idle Race: "Days of the Broken Arrows" (Liberty 1969)
Episode Six: "Love Hate Revenge" (Pye 1967)
The Calico Wall: “I’m a Living Sickness” (Turtle c. 1966)