Friday, September 09, 2016

Britney Spears recorded a good album...and that's bad!

Britney Spears: Glory (RCA, 2016)

Glory just might be Britney Spears' most consistent album ever. And you can tell she wants us to bear down on it as an album because it kicks off with two slow tracks forcing our attention as if it were Tusk. Luckily for us, the work pays off. Except for the ballad "Just Luv Me" and the 2:21 French lesson tacked on to the Deluxe Edition, there's nary a bad cut on it. "Private Show" and "What You Need" give off an erotic tension by beginning over and over again with no middle eight or tight song structure as an escape valve. "Slumber Party," "Love Me Down," and "Better" suggest a welcome Ace of Base revival is just around the corner. And each song feeds off one another small pleasure for small pleasure. A job well done.

Wait a minute. Consistent? Album? A job well done? Isn't this pop music? We should take our pleasures where we can get them. But this is a journeywoman's album and Spears has thus far had no journeywoman in her. The genius of "Oops!...I Did It Again" and "Work Bitch" (from her previous and easily worst album) lied in the shamelessness with which they acknowledged the minimal effort and formula duplication that can go into creating great pop music (and pop stars). There's nothing so scandalous on Glory and for the first time Spears is finally sounding her age (hasn't she always seemed younger than Gaga?) and feeling the weight of her career (I mean, come on - check that album title). We can now expect her to settle into the unmomentous seigneury Madonna discovered around Erotica. But crappy as it is, I'm taking Britney Jean to the desert island so I can access the low energy Hi-NRG of "Work Bitch" and became enraged and exhilarated all over again, neither of which happens with Glory.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Ten Women in Black (Kon Ichikawa, 1961)

A television producer has a wife and nine mistresses and makes room for a tenth. Exasperated at his philandering ways, they all conspire to kill him and even the man himself gets in on it in a desperate disappearance scheme. The précis alone for Ten Women in Black (or Ten Dark Women as IMDb has it) is outrageous enough to make a weak film lover like me succumb. But Ichikawa uses it to launch a satirical critique of an overamped society addicted to work and inundated with television. Television screens, television boxes, television technology, a mise-en-scène cramped with television television television, outrageous enough to make a weak television agnostic like me succumb. And note - the film was released the same year Newton Minow made his famous "vast wasteland" speech "Television and the Public Interest."



 

  
 It's a world where headphones command just as much visual real estate as people...


...and the most cluttered nook can provide narrative information. 
Even a lone book falling in a messy office speaks with as much significance as any of the characters.
It might get all a bit hippieish (or proto-hippieish?) as in this nevertheless remarkable shot of a nature that remains inaccessible to the goal-oriented principals.
But other compensations include a Hawksian code of honor between the women who care for one another after a fight,
 a ghost who share the same frame, ineffectually, with the living,
and a literally incendiary ending.



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Fave albums of the 1970s


1. New York Dolls: In Too Much Too Soon (Mercury, 1974)
2. Sly & The Family Stone: There's A Riot Goin' On (Epic, 1971)
3. Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones, 1972)
4. X-Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents (EMI, 1978)
5. Big Star: Radio City (Ardent, 1974)
6. Steely Dan: Can’t Buy a Thrill (ABC, 1972)
7. Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS-Sony, 1977)
8. Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band: Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band (RCA Victor, 1976)
9. Culture: Two Sevens Clash (Joe Gibbs, 1977)
10. The Stooges: Fun House (Elektra, 1970)
Cheater’s option 1: The 1977 repackaging of both 1970s NY Dolls albums
Cheater’s option 2: Tom Zé: Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1990), a compilation of 1970s album tracks
Cheater’s option 3: Disc One of Can: Tago Mago (United Artists, 1971)
*Discogs tells me that the 1987 Shanachie CD I've been listening to for over two decades programmed Side Two first! My world is all discombobulated now.
** Although I still take "L.A. Blues" as an opportunity to gather my things, pick up my popcorn bucket, and leave the theatre.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

15 Fave Classical Hollywood Films!

A friend asked for my 15 fave classical Hollywood films. And since the world is in love with film lists lately, I was happy to oblige. Some of these don’t honor the Bordwell/Staiger/Thompson 1960 cutoff date. But I insist they’re of the classical era, if only apocalyptically. Still, I provided four titles to honor the date if I must...

1. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
2. Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952)
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944)
4. 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)
5. Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
6. Red Line 7000 (Howard Hawks, 1965)
7. The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis, 1961)
8. Paradise Alley (Hugo Haas, 1962)
9. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
10. The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943)
11. Day of the Outlaw (André De Toth, 1959)
12. Liliom (Frank Borzage, 1930)
13. Female on the Beach (Joseph Pevney, 1955)
14. Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951)
15. Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Thunderbolt (Josef Von Sternberg, 1929)
Sylvia Scarlett (George Cukor, 1935)
Curse of the Cat People (Gunther von Fristch and Robert Wise, 1944) 
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears, 2016)

The combination of Stephen Frears, my favorite middlebrow director (I'm fast approaching my 50th viewing of The Queen), and Florence Foster Jenkins, the high-Cs-murdering "coloratura" who set a mid-twentieth-century Manhattan on fire, seems like a match made in gay heaven. But there's something unbalanced about Frears' biopic Florence Foster Jenkins. I got first frustrated then sleepy trying to determine the precise contours of the relationship between Madame Jenkins (Meryl Streep, fine as usual, ho hum) and St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant in a career performance). Exactly why was Bayfield so devoted to Jenkins that he could never pull her aside and gently let her know that, in fact, she cannot sing? After all, wouldn't a truly devoted husband do so? As such, Frears' Jenkins comes off rather monstrous, someone to be indulged and never questioned. And was it just ever more self-delusion that prevented Jenkins from knowing that Bayfield had a mistress, presumably because they had never consummated their relationship due to Jenkins' having contracted syphilis from a previous marriage?

These questions are central to the narrative given that Frears takes the stance that Jenkins was absolutely unaware of her terribleness (in more ways than one) when the reality was more nuanced. But his disinclination to provide answers becomes a problem not because a more realistic portrait could have been had. Rather, the film doesn't step back enough from the enormous wealth and privilege that allows such indulgence to occur in the first place. Indeed, Frears pampers the bejeweled class throughout. When Madame Jenkins sings for high society, her godawful warbling is met with politeness and even baffling admiration. But when the general public, including rows of butch GI proles, are invited to witness her legendary October 25, 1944 performance at Carnegie Hall, they hoot and holler at Jenkins' indifferent relationship to pitch. The film's low point occurs when a formerly unsympathetic nouveau riche dame (Nina Arianda) interrupts the performance to excoriate the audience for chortling so loudly after which they stifle their laughter in line with vrai riche standards of comportment.

But as usual with Hollywood product, there's a much more democratic film lurking within Florence Foster Jenkins that the need to tell a protagonist-focused story and solicit Oscar nominations prevents from fully flowering and that's a portrait of "the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation," to borrow Michael Warner's words from his magisterial "Publics and Counterpublics." The film comes alive in its second half when recordings of Madame Jenkins' arias start to float around Manhattan. They're heard on the radio, in bars, and we witness the early scrapings towards a different mode of reception - camp (it's no shock to learn that Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead attended the Carnegie Hall performance). For sure, Frears underlines this development by peppering the narrative sidelines with gay characters. But as Warner reminds us, the queerness of this kind of public lies just as much in its own unknownable contours which stymie even the richest individual's ability to conceive of (much less control) it. And so Bayfield can no longer head off the New York Post columnist whose scathing review leads to Madame Jenkins' death. Such is the power of publics, so powerful, in fact, that it can energize an entire film, e.g., greatest film of all time contender M (Fritz Lang, 1931). The shortcomings of Florence Foster Jenkins, then, are summarized by the headline of the Post's review: "The Post is the real star of Meryl Streep's new movie." It's that tension between star-centered prestige and the unruly queerness of publics that mkes the film a qualified success. 
 

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Curt McDowell at Anthology

In Confessions (1971), Curt McDowell asks a friend what's wrong and what's right about him. What's wrong about him, the friend confesses, is whether or not he's aware of other people's rhythms. I had this assessment knocking about my head while watching some of McDowell's films, preserved by Academy Film Archive, at Anthology this week, particularly longer ones like Taboo (The Single and The LP) (1981, 53 min.) and Peed into the Wind (1972, 54 min.). They're taxing, difficult films. McDowell's sister Melinda, on hand for the screenings, even thanked us for sitting through Taboo. I find McDowell much more effective (or do I mean "palatable"?) in the 15-25 minute range and I confess that the obscure Peed into the Wind has already faded from memory (apart from McDowell as possibly latent heterosexual rock star Mick Terrific singing to us from some sort of soft-focus TV screen within the frame and George Kuchar making faces to an...off-screen mirror?).

But much of the avant-garde cinema experience is a question of orienting oneself to different rhythms. And after all, the friend in Confessions says what's right about McDowell is just about everything else. So once I reoriented myself to his intensity, just about everything else in the program was oh so right including Taboo, a film which deserves that hoary old avant-garde descriptor "surreal" (I heard it applied recently to The Hart of London...nope!).

In several public bathrooms, McDowell had come across some odd graffiti which pointed to a family melodrama ripe for McDowellfication, hence Taboo. The graffiti ("Abner slapped hard like blue magic") repeats like an idée fixe throughout the film, especially recited by a beautiful trick named Fahed Martin. So do shots of the trick, sitting shirtless or, most disturbingly, tied up in a shower. Interspersed between all of this are what one can assume are attempts to dramatize the Abner family conflict and it all unfolds if not like a dream than an itchy self-examination.

Still, best in show was Boggy Depot (1973, 17 min.), easily the best American musical of the 1970s. Seriously. I'm not sure how a set of songs about hypnotizing George Kuchar could be anything less than scintillating. There's even an incredible cross-cut ensemble number that beats West Side Story's "Tonight." I adored every nanosecond.
 
 
 

For more, check out Whit Strub here and Michael Guillen here

Here's Melinda McDowell introducing the screenings.

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sudden Fear (David Miller, 1952)

I have always downgraded Sudden Fear in favor of Joan Crawford's masterpieces of the decade - Female on the Beach and Johnny Guitar, for sure, but also campier fare like Torch Song and Harriet Craig and Queen Bee and even the more restrained (on her end) Autumn Leaves. It was her greatest decade so there's tough competition. And I still value these films more since camp intensity functions like oxygen for me. But at the very least, Sudden Fear is taut as a thriller as the 1950s ever coughed up.

Miller's film is alive to sound which contributes to much of its tautness. He creates tension with an unnerving calm and then shatters the peace with a sonic shock. A fine reflexive example comes early in the film when Jack Palance starts to court Crawford during a quiet card game on a train. Palance wants to cut the cards so Crawford hands him the deck and says "cut" at which point Miller cuts (get it?) to a shot of the train loudly blasting through the night.

 The film is choked with such moments which jolt you (and Crawford) out of your complacency. Sound even saves Crawford's life at the story's fulcrum but I won't spoil it. A remarkable scene!

Other noteworthy items:

Some naughty scenes testing the limits of the Code where Palance watches Crawford disrobe and put on a bathing suit and a later moment when Crawford is clearly throwing up in the toilet but you don't see or her any of it.

A terrifying windup toy dog.

The appearance of Bruce Bennett (aka Mr. Mildred Pierce).

This amazing car in the train.
And this incredible shot from the credits.

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