Thursday, September 29, 2005

All work and no play....

Poor Jack needs a change in this life. If you haven't seen this revised trailer, a brilliant send-up of movie trailer cliches, check it out immediately. (Requires QuickTime)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Gently down the stream...

As I have said before, I am not particularly good at sharing personal details. Though I have thought about creating a blog that would deal more directly with my own life (and actually even started one a long time ago – it’s out there somewhere if you look for it), I have to admit that I’m not all that comfortable with the idea. But my friend Jessica, who has a very open and direct blog about her life here, has thrown down the gauntlet for a series of What-I’m-Into-Right-Now lists. Fine, I’ll bite. (Beware the mixed metaphor or you might end up biting a gauntlet. Ouch.) Here are a few of the things I’ve been interested in lately. Nothing all that new, by the way, but see if you can follow the path of associations.

1. Bruce Campbell

Okay, this was kind of forced upon me by circumstances. I just wrote a small piece about the actor which will be appearing later this week. And by the way, is there anything quite as intimidating as being told by an editor to “just make it light and funny”? And having just watched “Bubba Ho-Tep”, you can see where that might lead to ….

2. Elvis

Okay, granted, there’s never really a time when Elvis isn’t part of the cultural landscape, like it or not, And the current interest actually predates my viewing of “Bubba Ho-Tep”. I was listening to recordings of the 1969 concert appearances recorded for the documentary “That’s the Way it Is” and have an increased respect for the much-derided final part of Elvis’ career, the white-jumpsuit performer of his final six or seven years. This was the period that produced his best movie (the 1972 “Elvis on Tour”) and what are, in my opinion, his two best recordings, “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love”. What’s interesting about the “That’s the Way it Is” performances is that they show Elvis at a crossroad. . The movies of the 1960s had brought in large paychecks, but you could sense that the cycle of increasingly bad vehicles like “Easy Come, Easy Go’ and “Stay Away Joe” was just going to get worse. The music industry had changed. As the FM vs. AM chasm widened, one thing was pretty much certain; Elvis didn’t have a “Sgt. Pepper” in him. While he would still find a place on the top 40 charts from time to time on the strength of his name alone, making records wasn’t something that particularly interested him. His management and handlers had made the process so difficult and conflicting that studio time was regarded mostly as a dull obligation. What else could he do? So he returned to live performances and created the Vegas persona that would dominate the remainder of his public life. On “That’s the Way It Is”, it hasn’t solidified yet. No “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, no “American Trilogy”, no karate moves. And while the hipper-than-thou crowd would deride his song selection and the whole Vegas showroom ambience, Elvis’ playlist – everything from current hits of the day like “Sweet Caroline” to torch song standards like “Love Letters” - is perhaps most interesting for it’s absences. When he performs his own hits like “Love Me Tender” or “Hound Dog”, it’s almost out of a combined sense of duty and embarrassment, as if he suspects that both he and his audience have outgrown the hysteria of the 1950s. Listening to him work his way through familiar numbers, you sense that Elvis is less interested in establishing or living up to his own legend and is simply trying to function as a professional singer, subtly leading the band and actually trying to sell the songs as sincerely as possible. Given the essentially tragic and chaotic nature of his personal life, the stage became the one place where he still had some kind of control.

3. Billboard yearly Top 100 lists

I’ve been downloading collections of “Billboard’s Top 100” for various past years, and reading over the lists, especially those prior to 1975, a few things stand out. First, of course, is the great sense of variety that Top 40 radio once offered. It was a format where Bob Dylan could sit alongside Perry Como, as did Jerry Butler and the Ohio Express, the Rolling Stones and the Singing Nun. Of course, there was a lot of garbage: If ever a corollary to Sturgeon’s Law could be found, it’s in these charts. But there’s also a sense of openness and experimentation that today’s overly formatted radio could certainly use.

4. Simon Pegg and “Spaced”

I finally got around to watching “Shaun of the Dead” a few weeks ago and discovered that it really was as good as everyone had told me. So I became interested in “Spaced”, a short-lived British tv series from the same source and featuring many of the same players. The premise of the show is that two people pretend to be married in order to get a decent apartment. But f that sounds a little too “Three’s Company”, the real premise of “Spaced” is no premise at all. The apartment and the pretense are just centering points for episodes that cover everything from alien invaders to performance art. Evidently many jokes in “Shaun” are references to “Spaced” episodes (my favorite is when Pegg and his zombie-hunting team run into an identical team headed by his former roommate) – but don’t that let that dissuade you from checking it out. Alas, I’ve only been able to find the first season of “Spaced” (I think there were only two…) and am hungry for more.

5. CS Blues

I’m being polite and using only the truncated version of the title of photographer Robert Frank’s fascinating documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 America tour. The film faced immediate distribution problems and has generally only been available for screening when Frank was actually present. (In the late 70s, the Stones attempted to suppress it altogether, concerned that its relentless depiction of sex, drugs and rock and roll would work hurt Keith Richards’ defense against drug charges in Canada Frank, who also shot the cover photos for “Exiles on Main Street”, was evidently given free access to every part of the tour, (– and one could just as easily ask why, after “Gimme Shelter”, would they even give a filmmaker such a free rein in recording ttheir backstage behavior?) and while this is by no means a conventional concert film, it provides a pretty strong portrait of all of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. As the tour progresses, a sense of decadence-for-it’s-own-sake takes over, and Frank’s unrecoiling camera records it all not only as a testament to access, but as a parallel to the dark vision of Nixon’s re-election, which provides a backdrop as seen through tv news reports.

6. Sigur Ros
Okay, I have to admit that 18 months ago I had never heard of Sigur Ros until about a year and a half ago when I went to a Kronos Quartet concert that featured an arrangement of one of their songs. , After that, I started running across references to them everywhere, They’re an Icelandic band with an ethereal quality that sounds something like a cross between the ambient albums Brian Eno made in the 1980s and Radiohead. Of course, the songs are all in Icelandic, so I have no idea what any of them are about, but the music is simultaneously scary and majestic. Their new album is called “Takk” and is well worth a listen.

7. Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046”
Wong Kar-wai’s films are hard to explain, hard to absorb in a single viewing and far too melancholy for all tastes. Fine. But “2046” , while probably not in the same league as “In the Mood For Love”, is a haunting footnote/appendix to the earlier film, a disturbingly believable look at failed love and other misunderstandings….

8. Sugar Free Popsicles

Do I really have to explain?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

"Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot"

My review of Batman Begins can be found here, though the link will probably only work for the next week or so...

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Pre-montage scribbles

Though he's best known - and deservingly so - for splitting cinematic hairs as the leading theorist of montage-based cinema, Sergei Eisenstein was also an enthusiastic artist and cartoonist, as this new website launched by the Daniel Langlois Foundation demonstrates. It's a very flashy display of cartoon-filled notebooks kept by young Sergei as a teenager, long before he ever dreamed of dialectical materialism and the montage of attractions.
We're at a place called Vertigo...
There is a moment that many rock performers have reached, the perilous point just after they have been named The Big New Thing . For many, the next step is a disastrous one, the stage where they Believe Everything That Is Written About Them, and the list of BNTs who crashed on its rocks is a long one. In fact, it’s not even necessary to fall for your own press releases; Simply having the public think that you do is sufficient.
The members of U2 have, almost miraculously, avoided such a disaster, though there was a time (somewhere around Rattle and Hum and through the early 90s) when it looked otherwise. Their response to the tightrope-walk set up by their own success has been to stay hungry, to continue producing new and original music of the caliber of 2000’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” or last year’s “How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”. Is there another act old enough to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but still functioning as a significant contemporary act rather than cruising through tours on the strength of their greatest hits? A few – Springsteen, Prince - but there aren’t too many other names from the early 80s hat haven’t already walked the slow crawl from MTV to VH1 and on to “classic rock” oblivion.
Having said that, I’m sure there are plenty of cynical folks who resent U2’s success and find it easy to denigrate Bono’s image as a globe-hopping do-gooder. Needless to say, the new book “Bono, in conversation with Michka Assayas” is not going to appeal to them. For fans and those interested in the singer’s increasingly significant role as a diplomat, this lengthy interview provides many answers as to how the band has survived for so long as well as well as to the sincerity of his work for debt relief in Africa. Assayas, a French journalist, knew the band in their early days but had just renewed his acquaintance with them after a long absence when he decided to approach Bono with the idea of collaborating on a book.
The project must have grown in ways that Assayas didn’t expect. It’s not the “life story” of the singer, despite the claims of the jacket, nor is it particularly strong on celebrity gossip or sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll anecdotes, yet neither of those absences prevent the book from being an intelligent and illuminating portrait of a thoughtful and innovative artist.
What seems to take Assayas by surprise, and what ultimately comes through as the book’s strongest theme, is the sincerity and the informed nature of Bono’s commitment to African relief. By the final chapters, when every conversation seems to somehow lead into Africa, the interviewer seems just a little frustrated and tries to poke holes in Bono’s idealism, but the singer usually manages to provide commonsense answers to every one of Assayas’ doubts. Make fun of him, call him “St. Bono” if you will, but the man has done his homework and isn’t just signing on to a celebrity-cause-of-the-day. What ultimately surfaces from Assayas’ book is the portrait of a serious and sensible man who has achieved fame as a rock star but has used the privileges his musical career has provided to ask hard questions about the economic realities of the world.
If you’re already U2 fan, Assayas’ book is a useful guide to understanding some of the directions that the band follows. If you’re not necessarily interested in U2, you should at least take a look at some of the relief projects Bono has sponsored and see if they’re deserving of your support.
Check out DATA (Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa)
The One campaign..

Monday, June 06, 2005

Salman Rushdie on atheism.

Here's a short and simple note on the "intelligent design" controversy from Salman Rushdie, someone who know his share about facing down the forces of fundamentalism.....

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Loving the Alien: The Very High Notes of Klaus Nomi

The first time I saw Klaus Nomi perform was in the 1981 punk/new wave concert anthology Urgh! A Music War where his unusual collage of styles – electronic space opera with a touch of Cabaret ( I remember being reminded of some of the Blue Meanies in Yellow Submarine as well)– stood out even among the self-consciously trend setting New Wavers. That one brief appearance wasn’t enough to make it clear if Nomi was a put-on or a genuine avant-garde crossover, but a great new documentary The Nomi Song (now in theatres and coming to DVD on June 14th) makes an indisputable case for the latter. Andrew Horn’s excellent account of Nomi’s brief career (he died of AIDS in 1983) on the fringe of art/pop tells the story of a lonely, slightly eccentric young German man with a distinctive falsetto voice and a love for opera who came to New York, fell in with the punk crowd and grew into an unusual and unclassifiable performer of highly theatrical operatic techno-pop. Of course, the pop music industry rests on its ability to pigeonhole performers, so Nomi remained a minor figure for most of his brief life, his widest public exposure being a guest slot as back-up singer for David Bowie on “Saturday Night Live”. With personal recollections from his band members and friends and a generous assortment of musical performances, The Nomi Song suggests that his work deserves reassessment, but also offers a strong look at the art-meets-punk cultural landscape of the early 80s.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

This group deserves your support and encouragement.
Film Aid International is an organization which helps people around the world by using movies, first by presenting educational films to help people deal with health issues and other concerns, secondly by providing film screenings to entertain the millions of people currently living in refugee camps and recovering from the effects of war, poverty, starvation and disease. Sounds like a simple idea? Yes, and a brilliant one.
On July 3rd Turner Classic Movies will use their annual screening of The Wizard of Oz to draw attention to their work of Film Aid International, with the organization’s founder Caroline Baron introducing two showings of the film. This is a great opportunity to draw attention to their work and to remind the audience for this much-loved film of the power of cinema to make the world a better place. Don’t miss it. And in the meantime, check out their website and consider making a donation.
(The website also features a link to a Sarah MacLachlan video called "World on Fire". Even if you're not a fan of MacLachlan, this short piece makes a powerful comment on charity by comparing the budgets of charitable organizations like Film Aid to the production costs of a typical music video.)

Thursday, May 26, 2005

As far as I can tell there are no nice round-numbered anniversaries at play here, and the man's still living, so evidently the editors of Bookforum decided to pay tribute to America's best living reclusive author just for the hell of it. (The print issue feature of cover photograph of Professor Irwin Corey, of course. )
The whole thing is well worth your time, but the real highlight, and the centerpiece of the whole issue, is Gerald Howard's account of the publishing history of "Gravity's Rainbow", written from the perspective of a professional editor. There's much to enjoy here, though not in the way of gossip or candid photos.
But is Pynchon really all that reclusive? I sometimes suspect that the Salingeresque reputation is exaggerated: Just because you don't show up on "Entertainment Tonight" doesn't make you a hermit. Given recent reports - there were even rumors of a book tour to promote "Mason & Dixon' - I'd like to think that Pynchon has developed a sense of humor about his so-called reclusiveness after all these years. If he ever decides to drop his vow of no-publicity, I hope he bypasses the usual talk shows and makes his first public appearance on "The Simpsons".

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


If anyone's interested, you can find my review of The Longest Yard here.(They use frames, so you'll have to look around for it...)
My interview with documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles won't be hitting print until next Friday, but due to a misunderstanding of some sort, it's already online here and here.
Meanwhile, lists of the "greatest films of all time" have made a sudden resurgence.I suppose it was about time. It's been ten years since the American Film Institute released their all too predictable list of the "100 Greatest American Films", so Time Magazine's Richard Corliss and Richard Schickel have stepped in with their choices here. I respect both Corliss and Schickel, but, as they more or less admit, list-making is just a parlor game.
The New York Times, not to be outdone, has come up with their own list, only ten times as long, here.
Yes, I could quibble about the fact that their list of 100 titles doesn't duplicate my hypothetical list of 100 titles, but that, as Corliss and Schickel argue, is part of the appeal. So all I can really say is that if you're the sort of person who enjoys this kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing you will enjoy.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A great disturbance in the Force...

No, I haven't seen Revenge of the Sith yet, though I imagine that I'll get around to it eventually. (Actually, I haven't seen Attack of the Clones either; I tried watching it on tv about a year ago but found it unbearable.) But in keeping with the spirit of every other media source, here are a few Star Wars items online worth the wasting a minute or two:

First, there's Store Wars. Yes, I know there's really nothing here that wasn't done over twenty-five years ago by Hardware Wars, but I laughed anyway. Especially at the organic version of R2-D2.
(Hardware Wars isn't online, but you can see an excerpt here.)

Meanwhile, the folks at MoveOn have created a fairly good Star Wars parody of their own to challenge the current Senate showdown.

And then there's the new collection of Star Wars toys at Burger King. Check out the demos at their website, especially the spitting Jabba the Hutt, the wind-up Han Solo and - this one really shouldn't be missed - the Princess Leia Image Viewer.

A few changes to my network may make it possible for me to post more often - okay, I don't believe it either, but humor me, okay?. Anyway, you can find my recent reviews of Days of Being Wild and Mondovino here at Playback, but you'll have to look around for them. I'll have a few more links to some other recent pieces soon.

Friday, April 15, 2005

We love Ted!
A shameless plug:
Hey, I don't care what Jane Fonda or the folks at the WWE say about him; Ted Turner is on our permanent list of all-time media good guys. Oh, I know he can say crazy things and threaten to apply crayons to every old movie in his library, but he just does that because he likes the way it makes your face turn all purple. In his heart of hearts, Billionaire Ted is a genuine hero. Why? Because no matter what else he may have done in his life, he brought us Turner Classic Movies, the classiest act on cable.
While the once-praised "American Movie Classics" has become so unwatchable that it's not even worth bothering to check its listing, TCM sticks to its artistic guns and exceeds expectations time and time again.
The evidence:
Tomorrow's five-film tribute to Jean Renoir;
A four part "Star of the Month" feast of Orson Welles films in May, including screenings not only of the obvious Kane and Touch of Evil, but also of The Immortal Story, Mr. Arkadin, F For Fake and Othello;
and a Cinco de Mayo salute to Luis Bunuel featuring Los Olvidados, Nazarin, Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

"Do you know anything about a guy going around playing the harmonica? He's someone you'd remember. Instead of talking, he plays. And when he better play, he talks..."

I don't know about you, but my Sergio Leone obsession hasn't brought me anything but a stack of Ennio Morricone albums and a wish that I could find a nice long duster. Lucky Christopher Frayling got a knighthood for his... The Independent talks to the man who wrote the definitive book of Spaghetti Westerns.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Rescuing Ryan

In the early 70s, Ryan Larkin's animated short films like "Walking" and "Street Musique" were heralded as small masterpieces of personal expression, lively free-style displays of movement and color that gave the impression of an impressionist's sketches brought to life. Thirty years later, Larkin's successes have largely been forgotten and he's been reduced to living on hand-outs. In this year's Academy Award winning Ryan, Chris Landreth uses a very different style - imagine an animated version of Cronenberg's Naked Lunch - to tell the chilling story of Larkin's fall from grace. The Guardian tracks the animator down and suggests that Ryan may have been just the boost his dormant career needed.

(Ryan was viewable online earlier this year but seems to have disappeared. If anyone knows where to find it, let me know...)

Saturday, April 09, 2005

"If... my films are in contradiction with the age I live in, it's perhaps in the sympathy I have for anybody who must struggle to enter a world from which he's been excluded."
Though he's been dead for more than two decades, Francois Truffaut's films are as fresh as anything you'll see released in theatres this year. Gilbert Adair offers a brief assessment in the Guardian.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Capsules: Facing/Faking Reality with Herzog and Nessie
Call it the aftershock of The Blair Witch Project if you like (not that anyone's thought much about that film lately): With Incident at Loch Ness director Zak Penn (a screenwriter on such big-budget projects as X-Men 2 and Elektra) turns the Blair Witch aesthetic into a witty commentary on self-referential filmmaking, Though it flirts with self-indulgence, Incident is redeemed by the fact that the man at the helm of the film-within-a-film crew is Werner Herzog, no stranger to grand projects and artistic ordeals. Herzog plays himself – engagingly, as always – venturing to Scotland to make a film about the susceptibility that allows people to create myths like the Loch Ness Monster. As Herzog talks about the will to believe in the nknown, the film also investigates a more familiar form of mythmaking: When the crew begins to notice strange things in the water, Herzog’s immediate suspicion is that it’s the work of Penn, trying to make the project more commercial. . Echoing the brilliant Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Penn’s film plays on film-set emotions and Herzog’s reputation as an eccentric and driven visionary, bogging down only at the end when his shaggy-dog story of a film crew reaches the point of its payoff. And even then Herzog’s warm presence adds much,to the film’s credibility, lending a streak of authentically romantic vision to what might otherwise have been a colossal in-joke.
(Incidentally, Burden of Dreams will be released in May in a shiny new DVD edition from Criterion!)
And speaking of mockumentaries (is that what we were doing?), the long-delayed Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch, finally seeing the light of day thanks to anticipation of the Broadway opening of Spamalot, is a mixed blessing at best. Though there are amusing new interviews with Bonnie Raitt, Steve Martin, Conan O’Brien and others, the film is essentially a remake/re-edit of the classic All You Need is Cash, making liberal use of the earlier footage but not really doing much to expand the original Beatles parody in any noticeable way. If you’ve never seen All You Need is Cash, you’ll probably take a more generous view.
Lenny Bruce: Take Two

Filmmaker Fred Baker takes exception to my recent review of his film Lenny Bruce Without Tears. I may have more to say about this later, but for now I'll let his remarks stand on their own:

"Gotta say this to you man!......

I think your 7 Deadly Arts review of "Lenny Bruce Without Tears" fairly bogus in its carping about "it's not the real Lenny--the heavy Lenny" or whatever it is you're actually not saying in the review as to what is "heavier" about Lenny than depicted in my film--or whatever you think so many of his enthusiasts (your readers) think his "depth" was that they will miss seeing in my film!..That's pretty personally relative, isn't it? You know it's a film man--it's not a collage of phonograph recordings & still photographs you can listen to or look at while listening--that period was not yet a videotaping era, his club work and concerts were not on film, unfortunately.

But what I did do & faithfully tried and succeeded doing--a lot more than you seem aware of or, at least willing to give me or the film credit for--was to give it's viewers every fucking piece of live footage ever done that I could find on our very funny very persecuted friend. Of course his were guarded performances on TV-but they were his live working performances man--and brilliantly funny in their mimicry and social awareness of all of the shams going down. Ferreting out every inch of his arrest footage, courtroom footage, police photographed death footage, all unearthed in this film and this was the film to find all that. It/I made interviews with heavyweight thinking people of that era (Hentoff, Garbus, Muggeridge, Tynan) who saw into his persecution and his inate comedic genius much deeper and politically meaningful than what I think you think--but can't seem able to express in words, nor can anyone else I might say--was "heavy" about Lenny. Because what he sp[oke of was personal and each one of us felt his weight albeit can't express what that is.
I hope you are not saying, oh heaven forfend--that for you "the real Lenny" are the (tee hee)"smutty" words that he could not use on TV, or chose not to use in or outside courthouses?

I certainly hope that's not where you're at in your somewhat shallow, carping review of my film? I think you can do better than that."

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Time Captured! Love Lost!

Okay, give me a moment to boast. After more false starts than I can remember, I recently finished reading Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and am now recovering from a post-reading madeleine-induced literary hangover. Coincidentally, on the same day I finished reading the final pages of “Time Regained”, I ran across this article in “Slate” about troubles facing the recent Penguin translation. (Incidentally, I read the 1981 revised translation.)
But while following the adventures of the obsessed Marcel and his high society friends, I’ve let a few other reviews fall by the wayside. I’ll try to get most of them placed in this spot over the next few days, starting with this:

Like many people, my knowledge of the story of Abelard and Heloise was limited, brief - and largely incorrect: Gifted medieval teacher falls in love with student; Angry family members force them to separate and punish the teacher by castrating him. She goes into a convent, he to a monastery. End of story.
The details, as revealed by James Burge in “Heloise & Abelard: a new biography” are much more complicated and compelling than the shorthand version that simply places the pair on the list of Western cultures Great Doomed Love Affairs. Abelard was a prodigious philosopher and, according to Burge, the most famous man of his time (at least within the world of French religious philosophy). Heloise, his star pupil, was nearly his equal. And despite the scandal and misfortune, Abelard continued to have a prosperous career, at least until his own egotism brought him into disfavor with better-placed figures within the church. Despite the relatively sparse information available about them, their intense love affair and later efforts to reconcile their indignation over personal tragedy with the demands of religious life upholds the story’s reputation. In Burge’s account, one gets a sense not only of historical perspective but of a personal drama reconstructed from a respectful distance but passionate nonetheless.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the story is that after years of separation (Abelard appears to have forced Heloise into convent life after their marriage, even before being assaulted by her relatives) the pair actually ended up living and working together. But rather than reaching a peaceful and happy ending to their story, Burge’s account reveals a recognizably modern sense of frustration in the couple’s history. Abelard comes off as a bit of a self-righteous prig, while the ever-faithful Heloise, rising to prominence within the cloistered life, seems almost desperately looking for some confirmation that their romance was the most meaningful experience of their lives. Alas, it was never to come. Burge’s book gives us a new perspective on the oft-told story, giving us a version that is neither romantic nor tragic (although it contains traces of both) but unexpectedly modern, a story about a displaced and unattainable desire.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Lenny Bruce Without Tears

So many people know Lenny Bruce only through his reputation as St. Lenny, the martyr of free speech, the victim of his own drug habit as well as of moralistic prosecuting attorneys, that it’s easy to lose sight of one of the most important things about him: he was a very funny guy. Copping a feel from the zeitgeist at exactly the moment when the Eisenhower 50s turned into the swinging Kennedy 60s, Bruce found his voice after more than a decade floundering in strip clubs and promoting ill-conceived movie projects. Suddenly his almost childlike fascination with the world – a world in which the maneuverings of presidents and popes seemed as fanciful as that revealed on “The Late, Late Show” (the used car ads as well as the old movies).
Suddenly Lenny was swinging on the mike, creating elaborate bits in which high-placed religious figures and mythic heroes like the Lone Ranger opened up to reveal their human side, their petty neuroses and their secret desires. Listen to Lenny’s album with classic sketches like “Religions, Inc.”, “Thank You Masked Man”, or “How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties” and you’ll find a gifted comedian, a hipster showman just on the cusp of genius, happily riffing on his own imagination and allowing the audience to come along for the ride.
And then on October 3, 1961, everything changed. Lenny got busted for obscenity in San Francisco. While the complaint mentioned several portions of his act, the most damaging part of it was a ten letter word, a reference to a sexual practice described in court as “related to homosexuals” but now so common a part of contemporary parlance that you can hear it on tv sitcoms or read about it in government reports.
The arrest, the first of many, changed Lenny. He made bail in time for his 1 a.m. performance, where he closed with a line that would come to define the rest of his career. “I’m sorry if I’m not very funny tonight” he apologized to the audience, “but I’m not a comedian, I’m Lenny Bruce.”
After that moment, Lenny’s performances changed from nightclub shtick to a more personal combination of soul-baring and free association. At his best, as with the Curran Theatre and Carnegie Hall concerts (both available on cd), he was funnier than ever, but more inclined toward improvising meditations on his legal problems than to deliver the popular routines from his records. (Later, of course, he would become obsessed with is legal problems and his live appearances became rambling arguments about legal minutiae. )
(Bruce’s troubles with the law are given an excellent interpretation through the perspective of subsequent obscenity cases in the recent book “The Trials of Lenny Bruce”, which also includes a CD with pertinent excerpts from his act.)
Fred Baker’s Lenny Bruce Without Tears, just released on DVD by First Run Features, isn’t the most thorough account of Bruce’s life, but for Bruce aficionados it shows the comedian at a rare moment in his career, making the rounds of tv shows designed to validate a hip audience, playing the showbiz game but pushing the boundaries and reveling in his new status as “obscene”. (Baker, a friend of the comedian, was the director of the underground hit Events and a veteran of tv jazz performances. He made his tribute to Bruce hoping to sell it to PBS.) Taken largely from Bruce’s appearances on television, it offers a slightly sanitized view of the comedian, clearly enjoying his new notoriety but recognizing that the “Sick comic” label is a way of getting attention but is not without its drawbacks. Bruce fans won’t want to miss this though they won’t be able to help noticing that it stows only one side of the comedian as he tempers his act for the sake of reaching a wider audience, talking about “how I became obscene” but safely avoiding the blunt honesties that made him a legend as well as a felon.
That said, Lenny Bruce Without Tears pays tribute to Lenny’s short and tumultuous life, but it’s best appreciated by those who already know the man and his work. It’s respectful and maybe even a touch too reverent, but it’s no substitute for the real, raw thing. It’s worth a look, but`check out a few of Bruce’s recordings first and get a taste of the real thing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

By way of introduction (a few months late)...

For those of you loyal observers out there (Hi, mom!) who are wondering just what this is all about, I've decided to make some changes to this blog. First of all, I've decided to make it more personal and subjective, less of a series of links to other articles and more of an account of my own impressions on the cultural landscape. This is not to say that it will be an intimate diary, a confessional, a cry for help or a collection of pictures of my cats. There are other places for that sort of thing, and in all honesty, I am too private (some would even say secretive) a person to comfortably reveal much of myself. Also, I tend to side with Fran Leibowitz' statement that "spilling your guts is as attractive as it sounds."
(In the interest of full disclosure, my mother doesn't actually read this blog.)
I’ve been writing about movies (and occasionally other things) for almost twenty-five years, teaching film studies for a little over fifteen years and for a variety of reasons have come to a point where I am no longer interested in practicing the kind of publicity/gossip/dollar-watching that passes as critical commentary in most places these days. I’d rather just make my observations in this informal capacity and make them available to anyone who passes by.
So while I’m dropping the pretense that this is anything other than a reflection of my own interests (unless anyone else wants to contribute), it will still be primarily about movies, books, music and the arts - or any other items from the world of ideas that seem worth noting.
What else does this mean? More frequent posts, more reviews and a more consistent presence...once I get a few technical issues worked out.
A few other things:
Why the Amazon links? Well, why not? I assume that if you’re interested in reading about a particular subject – say, the DVD of L’Age d’Or, you’ve probably had the idea of buying a copy cross your mind anyway, so why not hit one of the links I provide and let Jeff Bezos throw a few pennies in my direction? The idea that this blog could be self-sufficient – in theory – amuses me, but I promise not to abuse it.
Perhaps you stumbled across this blog through a search or you saw my reference to it in the signature line of an e-mail. If you are actually out there looking at this (and I’m by no means certain that a single soul on this planet has ever read a word on this page), send me a comment. If you’re a blogger, let me know and I’ll post a link to your site over on the left.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Straight Shooting
Orson Welles reportedly said that The Outlaw Josey Wales would have been recognised as a great film "if the director's name wasn't Eastwood". It's hard to believe that nearly thirty years and a few dozen great films later, there are still commentators would roll their eyes at the idea that Clint Eastwood is a filmmaker to be taken seriously. Fortunately, this group obviously doesn't include his peers; The Director's Guild gave him a well-deserved recognition as Best Director for Million Dollar Baby a few days ago. If you haven't seen Eastwood's latest film yet, do so immediately. But prepare to be left shaken by a film that makes even the bleak atmosphere of Mystic River seem like a day at the beach.
Eastwood is one of the last masters of a classical mise-en-scene, a director who doesn't put a single thing into a shot unless he means it. His films are lean and exact, and while he's not above reaching for a shpwy effect, he's not likely to draw attention to it; no flashy 360-degree turns or MTV editing here. He's also good at getting his actors to underplay, finding meaning in their pauses and silent moments rather than reaching for emotional crescendos: Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Eastwood himself have rarely been as good as they are in Million Dollar Baby.
And that's all that I really need to say about it. I'm not much of a fan of the current need to shout about "spoilers", but I'll reverse my position and simply state that Million Dollar Baby is a devestating, heartbreakingly poignant story about human beings pushed to emotional and ethical limits. If you haven't seen it, do so - but be prepared.
Then read Amy Taubin's interview with the director over at the "Film Comment" site.

They had faces then....
The good folks at Milestone Film and Video have just announced their plans to release Beyond the Rocks, a 1922 film, long believed to be lost and starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson at the height of their respective careers. The announcement isn't on Milestone's site yet, but should be soon.... Go on and take a look at their other fine selections anyway...

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Realism is the new experimentalism....
Digital video may have created a monster (or a few hundred, plus the whole gamut of robots, dinosaurs, hobbits and super-heroes) but it's given new aesthetic life to the "redemption of physical reality" theorised by Andre Bazin and others.
CTheory offers an interesting perspective from Nicholas Rombes...

An earlier but still interesting piece on Bazin as part of Sight and Sound's "Innovators" series appears here...

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Lots of miscellaneous cultural news coming in from every direction...
Don Quixote turns 400!
Terry Jones turns political,
and Picasso and Warhol fight for title of King of the Art World... (You can read about it here in the New York Times - until they archive it away - or check out the rankings here.)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

How Arnold Won the West : Pumping Irony

In the summer of 2003, the world witnessed an unprecedented media spectacle when fading movie superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that he was running for Governor of California. The announcement – like everything else about the campaign – was aimed not at the electorate of California, where an obscure law allowing the recall of a previous election was being manipulated by a wealthy Republican congressman to overturn the results of Governor Gray Davis’ re-election, but at the entire world; suitably, it took place on “The Tonight Show”, whose host, Jay Leno, would later appear at Arnold’s victory party.
Schwarzenegger’s campaign was a made-for-tv event and the media cameras turned their heads and drooled in response. Alex Cooke’s documentary “How Arnold Won the West”, which comes out on video on January 25th, is a part of that Pavlovian reaction, even as it tries to maintain a tongue-clicking disapproval of the absurdities of the recall. Shot with that eye-rolling “you won’t believe what those Americans are up to now” tone that only British journalists can master, the film documents a bizarre interlude in American politics but only hints at its real meaning.
The recall was an open door to marginal candidates and anyone who could come up with the necessary fee was an authentic candidate, - including some who campaigned solely to point out the ludicrousness of the election. The 135 recognized candidates became part of the show – in fact they even had their own show, a quickly devised competition on the Game Show Network – and while Cooke seems to look down at the spectacle, her film gives far more time to publicity seekers like former child star Gary Coleman and porno actress Mary Carey than to Arianna Huffington or Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente, the challengers who posed a legitimate threat to Schwarzenegger’s ambitions. Though the film derides the media circus, it can’t help standing in the sidelines and gawking.
And who could? Part of the genius of Schwarzenegger’s success was that he and his handlers clearly knew how ridiculous the spectacle was, even while pretending to keep a straight face. Even the media efforts to ridicule the movie star’s past was hijacked by the campaign, who seized upon making puns using the titles of his own films before the headline writers got a chance..(The obvious title for the entire election?: “Total Recall”)
Though many would like to look at Schwarzenegger’s election as the kind of aberration that could only happen in California, “How Arnold Won the West” raises two issues that will be of increasing importance in politics over the next few years, neither of which speak well of the future of democracy. The first is the tendency to use political clout or plain old buying power to overturn election results, whether through the long quest to find some reason to impeach President Clinton, the play of an almost unknown law to unseat Gray Davis (if Cooke’s film has a villain, it’s clearly the smarmy Darrell Issa, the congressman who financed the recall motion to further his own career, only to have his plan hijacked by the Terminator) or the ever-growing battles over how votes are counted and delivered. The second is that argument over the media “packaging” of politics, a favorite for pundits ever since Nixon sweated his way to defeat in 1960, is over and the answer isn’t a pretty one. The secret of Schwarzenegger’s success lies within the circus it generated. He knew it all along and kept stirring it up even while pretending to stay above it. While reporters and other candidates remained stirring about in the dirt of ordinary political concerns, Arnold looked high over their heads, directly into the tv cameras, and dominated the moment. He deflected debates, ignored questions, and skillfully turned potential scandals into talking points, all the while giving a pretty good performance as a man too busy campaigning to address his critics. It was a campaign designed to stir emotions and ignore issues. As we continue in a political climate where a presidential administration can dismiss its critics as “reality based”, don’t think that the lessons of Schwarzenegger’s success are being ignored.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Another day, another censorship squabble
Last weekend innocent television audiences in England were subjected to a live broadcast of ... an opera! (Gasp!) But not just any opera. It was Jerry Springer: The Opera, a musical version of the once controversial and now merely desperate talk show. Though the performance drew only slightly more viewers than the average televised opera, the BBC received thousands of complaints, mostly of the organised click-here-to-wail-and-moan variety. How offended were right-thinking Britons by the programme, which featured, among other things, a liberal use of the F-word and a Jesus impersonator? Well, since most of them sent their complaints before the program aired, it's hard to say. But the estimable Timothy Garton Ash - not a likely Springer guest - offers a common-sense endorsement of sorts and says that a society needs to be shocked every once in a while. Read it here.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Mystery of Luis Bunuel
Dead for two decades, still missing

I'm sure that many people have been in a Bunuelian mood lately due to the welcome DVD releases last month of Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. To add to the surreal mood, this story from the Guardian adds a twist that the master himself could have created.