Sunday, December 30, 2007

...and then there were none

...which has nothing much to do with this post, does it?

I admit that I am living a few centuries in the past in my reading habits. The best thing I read all year (late getting around to it, I admit) was a little volume called "The Iliad" involving a lot of ill-tempered people sulking and going into battle and finding out that the Gods are even more sullen and bad-tempered than they are...
But of the slightly more than 100 books I read in 2007, around 20 were actually published within the last 14 or 15 months or so - rather than recited from memory or etched into stone tablets or shouted out at dirty mobs in the Globe.
The best, in the order I read them and not in order of preference:

"Popeye: "I Yam What I Yam" ' by E.C. Segar (the first volume in Fantagraphics reprint of the original comic strips..)
"Mere Anarchy" by Woody Allen
"Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar" by Dori Hadar
"Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock’n’roll’s last stand in Hollywood" by Domenic Priore
"Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl" by Steven Bach
"At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches" by Susan Sontag
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling
"Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have" by Bruce Dern with Christopher Fryer and Robert Crane
"The Uncommon Reader" by Alan Bennett

Also of note:
"Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" by Neal Gabler
"I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon" by Crystal Zevon
"Spook Country" by William Gibson
"Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector" by Mick Brown
"The Book of David" by David Steinberg
"Diaries 1969 – 1979: The Python Years" by Michael Palin
"Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life" by Steve Martin

... powers of ten

The lists keep coming. I admit that, being Extremely Old and Irrelevant, I don't keep track of new releases in music as much as I did back in the days when I was a Highly Desired Demographic with Flammable Money. But I was a bit perturbed last year at around this time to discover that all of the new recordings I had liked most in 2006 were by people who first stepped up to a microphone at least 30 and in some cases almost 60 years earlier. My favorite new recordings this year were not entirely as biased by old age, but I'm sure you'll still see a few signs of Creeping Historicism on the list.
In no particular order, with appropriate video links....:

Arcade Fire - "Neon Bible"
Bryan Ferry - "Dylanesque"
Jarvis Cocker - "Jarvis" (Bonus track here)
Amy Winehouse - "Back to Black"
Bruce Springsteen - "Magic"
Radiohead - "In Rainbows"
Bob Dylan "Modern Times"
Neil Young "Live at Massey Hall 1971"

And my favorite song of the year:

Coming up next: books of the year...

Counting to 10

I was recently asked by a local web publication to contribute a top ten list of my favorite films of the year and while I am always reluctant about these things, I complied. I was given specific instructions that it had to contain exactly ten items, no more, no less, and that they all had to be 2007 releases. I've bent the rule here to add two more titles, one of which I hadn't seen at the time I made the list. Here it is, with a few annotations.

Best of 2007
(roughly in order of preference, though once you get past the first 3 or 4, it gets blurry)

1. I'm Not There (Todd Haynes)
2. Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)
3. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
4. Sicko (Michael Moore)
Everything else, in no logical order:
3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold)
The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz)
Romance and Cigarettes (John Turturro)
Hairspray (Adam Shankman)
Once (John Carney)
Zodiac (David Fincher)
The Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright)
The Landlord (Adam McKay)

Not a very good year in all, but far above the norm for musicals and westerns - and in the case of No. 1, both.
After much thought, I finally decided that I couldn't quite justify adding "Redacted" or "Helvetica" to the list. The former stays off because it's ultimately muddled, the latter because I suspect my fondness for it has more to do with my own font obsession that with the film itself.
Still haven't seen at least a few films that I'm told have a shot at a top ten list ("Sweeney Todd", "The Assassination of Jesse James", "Persepolis", the Joe Strummer documentary), but you have to draw the line somewhere...

Best DVD release: "Popeye the Sailor Volume One: 1933 - 1938" (Warner Home Video)

(I'll add a list of music and books later....)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

In a Safe Place

The 2007 National Film Registry list has been announced by the Library of Congress:

• Back to the Future (1985)
• Bullitt (1968)
• Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
• Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
• Dances With Wolves (1990)
• Days of Heaven (1978)
• Glimpse of the Garden (1957)
• Grand Hotel (1932)
• The House I Live In (1945)
• In a Lonely Place (1950)
• The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
• Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
• The Naked City (1948)
• Now, Voyager (1942)
• Oklahoma! (1955)
• Our Day (1938)
• Peege (1972)
• The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928)
• The Strong Man (1926)
• Three Little Pigs (1933)
• Tol’able David (1921)
• Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-71)
• 12 Angry Men (1957)
• The Women (1939)
• Wuthering Heights (1939)

You can find the complete press release here, and a list of all of their previous selections since 1989 here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

This is my happening...

...and it freaks me out.
For no particular reason, I found myself thinking of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" this morning. "BVD", as it's affectionately known to its fans, is one of those movies that hooks me every time, and now - in light of the more recent events in the life of Phil Spector - even seems creepily prescient. Roger Ebert may have a lot to answer for (I date the decline if film discussion and the rise of the blockbuster/Box-Office mentality from the day he and Gene Siskel turned criticism into the modern equivalent of the Roman coliseum, but that's another subject for another day) but he'll always have a special place in movie history for this melo-comedic gem. I've never met him - well, that's not exactly true, since I shared an elevator with him at the Rihga Royal in New York once. I regret not having thanked him for scenes like this:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Birth of the Cool

...made in Japan? James Bowman, writing in The American, suggests that the kind of cool detachment we associate with Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade found its strongest cinematic depiction in the post-war films of Akira Kurosawa.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Theology, authority and bears

There have been a lot of articles about Philip Pullman in the last few weeks, due - obviously - to the release of The Golden Compass. And of course the rather silly objections calling on a boycott of the film because it might actually encourage children to read the books. This interview from "moreintelligentlife" is one of the best I've seen in a while.
My own feelings about the film are that despite the obvious elisions and compression in turning a complex book into a movie - and a movie intended to become a money-earning franchise, no less - , it's a visually stunning and exciting companion-piece to Pullman's extraordinary books, and if it does well enough to a) introduce new readers to His Dark Materials and b)get the next two films made I'll be very happy indeed.

You can watch the first five minutes and other clips from the film here.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Birdie Num Num

Thanks to and Bedazzled for digging up this early short film directed by Robert Altman somewhere around 1964 or '65. Released as a Scopitone for the Herb Albert track "Bittersweet Samba", it's also known as The Party, and has quite a few points in common with the great Blake Edwards film of the same name.

A slightly better quality copy can be found here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Color of Money

Whether you call it a 10 minute commercial in the form of a tribute to Hitchcock, or a 10 minute tribute to Hitchcock in the form of a commercial for a Spanish wine company, this new short film by Martin Scorsese is a lightweight but amusing parody, not only of Hitchcock but of Scorsese himself. It's amusing if insubstantial, but redeemed by the final shot.

And while we're on the subject of world-class filmmakers selling upscale wares,here's
Wong Kar-Wai launching a new perfume from Dior (with Eva Green as Cinderella), a competing scent from Lancome (with Clive Owen) and a High Definition TV for Phillips, all released earlier this year. The Phillips spot is easily the best, a garishly colored Science-fiction/detective mini-epic with a nod to Godard's "Alphaville".
(Warning: The Dior and Phillips sites are both very slow-loading and pop-up heavy, so be prepared to wait a while...)
Busy guy, that WKW. In addition to the above and My Blueberry Nights (which is his first English language feature, now scheduled to hit US screens next February) he also directed Brad Pitt in an ad for a Japanese cell phone company - but it seems to have been eradicated from the internet completely!

Meanwhile, here's a PSA that I don't recall ever seeing before..

And as long as we're diving into the Youtube advertising pool, here's a blast from the past, Baz Luhrmann's Chanel ad with Nicole Kidman, from a few years back. Hard to believe that this is the only thing he's made since Moulin Rouge.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

In memoriam: Norman Mailer

Check here for the NYT's large collection of articles by and about this great American writer

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Words are pouring out like endless rain into a paper cup

The following was written not as a formal review but as a letter to a friend discussing Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. Rather than try to prod it into a more formal piece of criticism, I'm putting it up here as is...

"I don't know that I've seen anything this year that I've liked nearly as much as "Across the universe", but, as I mentioned earlier, I was originally skeptical. First of all, the trailer raised comparisons with Milos Forman's misguided 1979 version of "Hair", a movie that was either 10 years too late or 25 years too early. (There are a few similarities in the storylines - and it's not unrealistic to think that Taymor is probably familiar with a production or too)..
Secondly, when you think of some of the awful liberties that have been taken with the Beatles catalogue over the years, by literalists who think that they have to make a live-action version of "Yellow Submarine" (as in the Bee Gees "Sgt. pepper" and a very shortlived mid-70s Broadway disaster of the same name) or, even worse, reduce the songs to cliched background jingles for lots of kids in bad wigs and exaggerated fringe-y hippie clothes flashing peace signs and carrying on like a group of street mimes on laughing gas (see Milos Forman's "Hair"....)
I should add that there was also a 3rd thing that made be a little doubtful; I heard parts of the soundtrack and was put off by the working-class accents ("Close yer eyes and I'll kiss yer, tomorrow I'll miss yer"), the desperate, plaintive opening of "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the chamber-like arrangements - all things which turned out to work much more effectively in the film than I would ever have guessed.
With those serious doubts (slightly lessened by having watched "Frida" a few week ago . I still haven't seen "Titus", but it's been on my order list with the library for months...) I have to admit that I was won over by the film almost instantly, from the introduction of parallel narrative lines during "It Won't be long now". By the time of "All My Loving" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand" came around, it was clear that the film wasn't just a nostalgic trip through the Beatles repertoire and that the songs were going to be placed with the context of the characters, accents, plaintiveness and all.
Which is one of the first really original things about Taymor's approach. While the film is obviously very stunning visually, it's NOT just a string a music videos or, even more importantly, a series of isolated episodes designed to illustrate the songs (see again the Bee Gees movie, "All This And World War Two" etc...). . You have to buy into the characters' lives first - their accents, high school crushes, family issues, etc... . The songs - and this is especially tricky, given their familiarity and frequent ventures into surrealism - have to make the movies emotional points work too or else they'll stop the story dead still...
Which is not to say that the film isn't also about the Beatles or ignores the fact that just about every song in it has its own substantial legacy - artistically, culturally, historically. But one of the most brilliant things that Taymor does is to consider all of those factors as a kind of collective unconscious, a shared backstory that the audience has with the characters. I cringed at first when I realized that the characters all had names derived from Beatles' songs (Max, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie, etc..) thinking that this would be another example of the dead literal-mindedness of the BeeGees film (Of course, "Yellow Submarine" does a little of the same thing with puns, etc...but gets away with it ), but because Taymor understands or assumes our familiarity, she doesn't have to be so bone-crushingly obvious. In fact, she doesn't even actually have to include "Sexy Sadie" or "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" or "She Came In through the Bathroom Window" for the audience to register those songs.
Let me digress for a minute: Several years ago there was an absolutely awful movie based on "The Mod Squad", arguably one of the worst movies of the last 10 or 15 years. At the end of the film, when the heroes are sitting around without much to do, one of the cops walks up to them and says "What do you guys think you are, some kind of "Mod Squad"?" It's a weird cultural reference point, because the cop and the audience know what the characters themselves don't; In a sense, they're the only people in the universe that have never heard of "The Mod Squad".
You might think that "Across the Universe" might have that same kind of problem. how do you put your characters into some kind of archetypal "1960s" world in which they've never heard of the Beatles or those songs? But you don't get that sense of absence in the film. Rather, it's a kind of alternate 1960s in which the recognizable songs become a kind of ethereal vapor running through their lives and through the universe itself. It doesn't matter that we have "Let It Be" being song in 1964 or 65, 5 years before it was written. The film operates in a realm where memory reconstructs history.
Which brings me to a final clever thing that the film does really well. Yes, it's about the "1960s" with all the pertaining cultural baggage that entails. But it references the key points of the period - civil rights, Vietnam, the Columbia uprising, the Weathermen,etc. - in a very clever way that avoids banality and nostalgia or the kind of superficiality that many accuse "Forest Gump" of using in its approach to history. Taymor does a very shrewd thing in relying on the viewers interest/boredom/awareness/ in that era by making it alive yet almost secondary to the characters and their lives. Thus, we have these familiar events but played on a different scale. A Hendrix figure who is obviously not Hendrix, referencing the idea of Hendrix without resorting to a banal roman-a-clef approach. The Bono figure, who is Tim Leary and Ken Kesey and yet not really either of them. The famous "Let It Be" rooftop concert, used in a completely new context, yet not really having to carry any of the historical weight of the actual event... (No band breaking apart, no Yoko), This too is a refreshing approach to the history, a sense not of name-checking the events and names of the period but of trying to address the emotional issue of what it was like to live through such things.
Funny that you should mention favoring the "Come Together" and "I Want You" sequences, arguably the most surreal in the film. I think my reaction was a little different. And despite the appearances of Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Bono, I don't think the film gives the sense of dropping-in-famous-guest-stars-to-keep-the-audience-busy (a la "Tommy" or "Sgt. Pepper"). I think I was more drawn in by the principals and their stories, the way their lives were never shoved aside by the spectacle or the music. That's why in the middle of all of the more fantastic elements it's still a nice surprise when Prudence reappears, Sadie resolves her problems or Lucy turns up across the rooftop at the end. The movie gets to the heart of how music (and especially this music) and emotion and intense cultural events change the way people think and behave.
Yes, I'm rambling on pretentiously, but this film grabbed me straight in the heart in a big way, not just once but probably with about every other song. I react emotionally to musicals (and children's movies) but this was more than the usual response, which can probably be defined as how-can-anything-be-so-perfect? (as Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds getting together or Pinocchio coming back to life)? There's that too, of course, but I think that what "Across the Universe" touches is that magical and elusive sense of possibility that is so well defined by the Beatles' music and their cultural significance. yes, it's easy to dismiss "All You Need Is Love" as a corny statement, but when you hear those odd harmonies and irregular time signatures and daft counterpoints, it's just as easy to wish that it was some sort of organized movement because , damned if you're not ready to sign up. "Nothing's gonna change my world"? Hardly.

Okay. I'm all pontificated out."

Saturday, September 29, 2007


James Ellroy on Dashiell Hammett.

Wim Wenders on Sam Fuller.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Crazy world

If it's true, this may be the singularly most unusual "old Hollywood" story I've ever heard. But I'll just direct you to the source. For the last few weeks, a gossip blogger who uses the name "Ent Lawyer" (is that some kind of Tolkien thing?) has been drawing attention with his story that an award-winning actress was actually a man. Here's the original blind item as it appeared on his blog "Crazy Days, Crazy Nights" three weeks ago, and here's the wrap-up where he tells the whole story.

I suppose you know this means war...

The first of these has been around for over a year, and the sequel's been up since March, but I just ran across them. Some of the best Flash animation I've seen, and a sort of contemporary "Duck Amuck". The artist's name is Alan Becker (according to his web page, he's only 18) and you can find more of his work here.

Animator vs. Animation by *alanbecker on deviantART

and the sequel:

Animator vs. Animation II by *alanbecker on deviantART

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde and Ingmar and Harry

It wouldn't be much of a weekend without an arts overload from the New York Times, would it?
A.O. Scott looks at the 40th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde and feels guilty...
Woody Allen recalls Ingmar Bergman,
Martin Scorsese weighs in on Michelangelo Antonioni,
and Christopher Hitchens holds forth on the latest and last Harry Potter book.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912 - 2007

..And just on the heels of yesterday's news comes another obituary. It's the end of an era for the giants who reshaped international cinema in the postwar years.
Details and appreciation here, plus a guide to scenes from his films on YouTube.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

One of the true giants of international cinema has passed away. There's much to read and remember from the New York Times and the Guardian.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

...having a cow

Ignore the usual sour-grapes that are bound to follow anything that has been around as long as it has. The Simpsons isn't just a long running tv series; it's mankind's greatest achievement! Says so right in The Onion's A.V. World, where they're commemorating the release of The Simpsons Movie with an entire week of Springfield-related content. For starters, try this list of "15 Simpsons Moments that Perfectly Captured their Eras" . I couldn't agree more with No. 6, which sums up the post-ironic age perfectly when Homer goes on the road with Lollapalooza (his act consists of being hit in the stomach by a cannonball), prompting this audience exchange:

"Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool."

"Are you being sarcastic, dude?"

(after a desparate pause...)
"I don't even know any more."

Below, one of the great Simpsons guest star appearances:

Monday, July 23, 2007

First things

"First things are always beautiful", as the critic and novelist Gilbert Adair accurately said of this film. More than eleven decades have passed since the Lumiere brothers first presented this work to the public, but it's lost none of its magic. Look! it says. Here is the real world of people and animals and bicycles and traffic. It's alive, it's real and above all, it moves!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

New Royalty: the Purple Edition

The Artist Still Known as Prince has been very busy lately, launching a new fragrance (scratch here for a sample), opening a club in Las Vegas,playing lengthy sold-out engagements in Los Angeles and London (What? He's only playing in cities that start with "L"?), preparing for a religious sabbatical sometime next year, and - this week - releasing a pretty darn good new album, "Planet Earth", which marks the return of former Revolution-mates Wendy and Lisa. In the New York Times, Jon Pareles explains that Prince could pretty much rule the world if he wanted to, while Time and the Guardian explain why he's giving the record industry fits. Though it seems to me that the clip below might be a pretty good reminder as well.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A lot of nerve

Besides his own excellent work as a solo artist and with Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry has always been one of the most gifted interpreters of other songwriters' work, his smooth and subdued lounge-lizard vocals bringing an air of world-weary melancholy to everything from The Velvet Underground to "You Are My Sunshine". From the blistering version of "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" that opened his first solo album, 1973's "These Foolish Things" to the pairing of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" on 2002's "Frantic", Ferry has revealed a surprising affinity for the work of Bob Dylan, culminating in what seems in retrospect like an inevitable event, his latest album "Dylanesque". Browsing through the Dylan catalog, Ferry explores everything from light-hearted pop to Hendrix-inspired noise to make even such familiar and inimitable songs as "Simple Twist of Fate" and "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" into a personal cabaret. The highlight is this poignant, haunting resetting of one of Dylan's most bitingly angry songs, "Positively 4th Street".

Friday, July 20, 2007 on

It's punk-nostalgia time for the Guardian's Film and Music Weekly. The highlights: Alex Cox offers a punk-movie manifesto and Laura Barton traces the route of one of the greatest pop songs ever. Also feature: the original rude boy, Derek Jarman's Jubilee and Christmas with the Sex Pistols.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Just like a woman...

Finally, some footage from one of the most anticipated films of the year, I'm Not There, in which director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) sets his sights on Bob Dylan, with The Man From Hibbing played by six different actors of varying race and gender, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere among them. The clip below features Cate Blanchett as the Don't Look Back-era Dylan, with David Cross as Allen Ginsberg.

(A big thanks to Hollywood Elsewhere and The L.A. Times' Gold Derby for the link, though I have to take exception to the latter's complaint that Blanchett isn't "believable". Whatever Haynes' is up to here, it should be pretty obvious that it's not realism.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Have you seen me?

You may recognize the lovely lady to the right from the cover of Gore Vidal's classic "Myra Breckenridge", but before securing that modeling gig she was a fixture of the Sunset Strip, perched on a giant coin as part of a billboard advertising the Sahara Casino and located in front of the legendary/notorious Chateau Marmont.
Raquel Welch duplicated the cowgirl's costume in the excruciating 1970 film version of Vidal's novel (which also included footage of the original statue).
But an even odder appropriation of the cowgirl statue has been brought to my attention, courtesy of Domenic Priore's "Riot on Sunset Strip" (reviewed below).
In 1961, cartoonist Jay Ward unveiled a statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle in front of his Sunset Blvd. studio, directly across the street from the Chateau Marmont. (The studio is gone, as is Ward's neighboring gift shop, The Dudley Do-Right Emporium, which operated from 1971 to 2005, but the statue remains a Hollwood fixture to this day.) And as both Priore's book and this picture clearly show, Ward's statue was a mischievous (but subtle) parody/homage to his lovely, patriotic neighbor.

Speaking of Hollywood landmarks, a friend directed my attention to Hollywood Lost and Found, a modest but entertaining selection of Southern California history, movie lore and other miscellany, including this rather disturbing image (Warning!: Contains Clowns!)

Is it really possible that both of these satirical classics are out of print?

Finally, here's an apocalyptic theme song for the day:

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"To smoke and have coffee...and if you do it together, it's fantastic!"

The almost indescribable Wings of Desire ("Der Himmel uber Berlin") is 20 years old this month. On his website, director Wim Wenders is justifiably proud of his much-loved creation. If you haven't seen it (or if you've had the misfortune of seeing the American remake), ..what are you waiting for?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Heard you missed him, now he's back...

I was fortunate enough to see Sly and the Family Stone perform live in 1973, right on the heels of their last great album Fresh and they were amazing. Sly's rapid decline and gradual withdrawal from the music world has made him the last of the legendary recluses in music but, as this interview in the current Vanity Fair reveals, the musician's long absence from the public eye may be coming to an end. Hot fun in any season.


Thanks to an item at Trio for introducing me to Literary Traveler (even though it's been around since 1998!), a website about books and authors and the places they lived and wrote about. Each month is devoted to a particular theme, currently "Western Literature" (as in cowboys and covered wagons). Recent subjects have included children's books and pirates, and the individual articles on the site run the gamut from the Victorian England of Beatrix Potter to the Puerto Rico of Hunter S. Thompson's "Rum Diary".

Thursday, July 12, 2007

There's a Riot Going On

The Riot on Sunset Strip (the historical event) was a spontaneous protest that erupted one night in November 1966 when Los Angeles police, prompted by local business interests, tried to enforce a curfew law in order to drive out the teenaged crowds who had dominated the area’s club scene for the previous few years.
Riot on Sunset Strip (the movie) was a quickly-produced exploitation film with production values slightly lower than an episode of “Dragnet” but with performances by some of the authentic Sunset Strip bands of the period (The Standells and The Chocolate Watchband among them). Cult starlet Mimsy Farmer falls in with a bad crowd, to the dismay of her estranged father, policeman Aldo Ray.
Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood” (Jawbone Press, 288 pp., $29.95) is probably the definitive look at the period that lead up to the above two items, but for author Domenic Priore the real riot of the period was a cultural breakthrough that produced an onslaught of significant music in those strange few years before AM top 40 gave way to unprogrammed FM.
Priore's premise is that after the immediate shock of the British invasion Los Angeles responded in kind by becoming the musical and cultural capital of all things young and new. Besides obvious heavyweight acts like The Byrds, Frank Zappa, Love and the Doors, it was an environment in which all kinds of music from surf to psychedelia, from the feel-good pop sounds of the Turtles and The Mamas and the Papas to proto-punk garage bands like The Seeds and The Knickerbockers flourished and encouraged each other.
Priore is a pop culture historian and enthusiast with an encyclopedic grasp of the period as well as, I'd guess, an extensive record collection and a complete run of "Hit Parader" back issues. He can tell you not only how many different bands recorded "Hey Joe" but how many recorded "She Sang Hymns Out of Tune". Hardly an aspect of pop culture of the era, from art to appearances on. Hanna Barbera cartoons escapes his attention. The result is an exhaustive, handsomely designed volume that not only recreates the spirit of that brief period in L.A. history but will have you scribbling lists of obscure tracks and forgotten bands worth tracking down. His grasp of the period is strong enough to defend even the most commercial projects of the time (Hey, Hey, they're the Monkees) and as well as to define the Sunset Strip period within history and distinguish it from the later excesses of the San Francisco sound and the rise of FM-radio Album-oriented rock. His is a lively, informative and always entertaining history of a microcosmic teenage culture that burned brightly and disappeared too fast.

a love letter straight from the heart..

Dennis Hopper is older and wiser and, reassuringly, still just a little bit crazy.

And speaking of obsessions, it's easy to get hooked on this guide to The Number One Hits of the last 115 years...

What was number one when I was born? Don't ask...

We all shine on...

It's pretty simple: Amnesty International - an organization which already deserves your support - wants to draw attention to the horrors currently taking place in Darfur, Sudan. They've released an album of a few dozen musical heavyweights (U2, Green Day, R.E.M., Aerosmith, Jackson Browne, Lenny Kravitz) performing cover versions of John Lennon songs. Like most such projects, it's all over the map musically , but most of it is pretty good. All you have to do is go here and sign their petition and/or buy the CD.

More than a Contender

For at least three decades, he was the standard by which other actors were judged. In the London Review of Books, Michael Wood looks at the legacy of Marlon Brando.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Excitable Boy

Though he wrote sensitive and intelligent songs that earned the admiration of such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon’s reputation as a hard-drinking wild man couldn’t help but leak through into his work. To most listeners, he was the monster howling at the moon in his only real hit record “Werewolves of London”, the psychotic necrophile of “Excitable Boy”, the sexual adventurer of “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”. Even songs that created fictional characters that are less likely to be autobiographical – like “The Envoy” (inspired by diplomat Philip Habib) or “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, a collaboration with an ex-mercenary turned bartender in Spain - hinge on sudden violence and a sense of paranoia.
In the last year of his life, when his incurable cancer became public knowledge and his many friends and admirers in the music industry stepped in to help him produce his final album “The Wind”, the public saw a much softer Zevon, humbled but courageous as he tried to remain focused on his music in the face of deathI’m OK with it” he told a reporter. . “But it’ll be a drag if I don’t make it until the next James Bond movie comes out.” (Unfortunately, that turned out to be Die Another Day…)
The real story behind Zevon - the public troublemaker of the 70s, the mellowed realist of the end and everything in between – is far more complicated, as Crystal Zevon, his wife from 1974 through 1981, reveals in her vivid, messy and compulsively readable biography “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon”(Ecco Press, $26.95).
A child prodigy who studied scores with Stravinsky, Zevon escaped a broken home (He claimed that he and Sam Peckinpah were the only people who ever really made it out of Fresno) and entered the music business in a fairly conventional way, cutting a few records in the 60s, working as an in-house songwriter for White Whale Records (he wrote the B-side of the Turtles’ hit “Happy Together”) and gradually finding his own musical voice while working as bandleader for the Everly Brothers. As his own songs started to get noticed, he launched a solo career that won critical acclaim (he was named “Songwriter of the Year” by Rolling Stone in 1978) but never quite received the commercial success he deserved.
But at the same time that Zevon’s career was peaking, he was also giving in to alcoholism in the worst way. He was a mean drunk, eventually becoming violent and suffering from blackouts that prevented him from knowing just how far he had gone. His wife left him (and later faced her own drinking problem, as she reveals in the book), his record company lost interest and he more or less gave up on music and life, moving to Philadelphia (where he had an occasional girlfriend) and refusing to communicate with former friends and family.
Somewhere in the middle of the ‘80s, a new agent managed to revive Zevon’s interest in music, get him into rehab (it took more than one go, needless to say) and revive his career, although his audience would remain relatively small and loyal from that point on. But “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” isn’t the standard how-he-fought-his-demons-and-won story. Far from it. While sobriety probably kept Zevon from an early grave, he was hardly the typical AA success story. (Though he remained sober for 18 years, he became disillusioned with the traditional 12-step organizations, once telling someone that “I felt like my reward for getting sober was I didn’t have to see those people again”.) The drinking had stopped, but Zevon managed to replace it with other flaws and addictions, a running stream of female conquests and an emerging case of obsessive-compulsive disorder that had him wearing only grey clothing, making sure that the only money he carried was “lucky” and sending assistants out to buy cigarettes but making sure that the Surgeon General notice on the package didn’t mention “the C-word.”
But in spite of his compulsions, Zevon continued to write excellent songs and make records that some would call his finest. When he was finally diagnosed with untreatable cancer in 2002, it was almost painfully ironic, given the laughing-at-death persona that had shaped so many of his earlier songs. His response was typically complex, on one hand focusing on producing an exceptional album “The Wind”, which would serve as his final artistic testament, on the other, lapsing back into drinking after nearly two decades of sobriety. He lived long enough to see his first grandchildren born, died before “The Wind” received two Grammys (he had told Crystal that his death would earn a Grammy nomination). And so it goes.
Crystal Zevon’s book, drawn from interviews with friends and excerpts from Zevon’s own journals, is brutally honest, admirably nonjudgmental and, in the long run, remarkably evocative of just how difficult and brilliant Zevon was. Though ultimately limited by the boundaries of its Rashomon-like approach and plagued by a few minor editorial flaws (It’s Al Kooper, not Cooper!), it makes Zevon’s crazy genius come alive and sends you right back to his best work, the great songs that reflect and reveal his sad, troubled and ultimately excitable life.

"We search for the pure in film...

... as we search for the first real tear of love." So wrote Norman Mailer 37 years ago in explaining why he had made a brief and courageous entry into the world of cinema, In one of the most unexpected retrospectives of the year, New York's Walter Reade Theater and the Film Society of Lincoln Center are hosting a long overdue revival of the great writer's journey behind the camera, with screenings of all four of his films as well as frequent collaborator Lawrence Schiller's adaptation of "The Executioner's Song". (What? No King Lear? The current Film Comment offers an interview with Mailer and, from their archives, a report on Tough Guys Don't Dance, the most underrated of the late-80s cycle of pseudo-noir.

Sicko: getting a second opinion

While not quite hitting the level of controversy of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's Sicko is predictably being attacked for ...the usual reasons. Moore is putting up a defense on his website, with a rebuttal to a CNN report on the film, documentation of some of the film's statistics and, of even greater interest, a leaked memo from a BlueCross executive acknowledging the film's persuasiveness. Best quote: "You would have to be dead to be unaffected by Moore's movie."

And for a (slightly) dissenting view on Moore, Stuart Klawans offers a review in Film Comment.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Some movies are more equal than others...

The Halas and Batchelor version of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" has never been regarded as anything more than mundane adaptation, the sort of thing that English teachers would show to help students get through their required reading. But it may have been produced with entirely different intentions, as J. Hoberman explains in the current London Review of Books.

You can see for yourself here:
This is the first of 8 segments, You can find 2 - 7 here.

Friday, June 29, 2007

"What does vulgar mean anyway?"

Happy 80th Birthday to Ken Russell!
Sight and Sound offers an admiration of his work; I'll just sit back and try to imagine what a party at Ken Russell's house would be like.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Inside the Labyrinth: Tours given daily.

Perhaps it's ironic that Jorge Luis Borges, whose own stories tend to be concise and epigrammatic, should have one of his closest relationships documented in a massive volume the nearly equals his own collected works in size. Adolfo Bioy Casares was a friend and frequent collaborator for over 45 years; from 1947 until Borges' death in 1986, he also played Boswell to the great writer, transferring their almost daily conversations into a diary, a hefty portion of which has been published in Argentina. David Gallagher's review in the Times Literary Supplement plumbs the depths of this gossip-laden gold mine and suggests that 1,663 pages of literary small talk may be a little too much of a good thing.

See also: the Borges Center at the University of Iowa.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back in her most dangerous adventure yet!

You're going to see it eventually. It might as well be here.
Good Cop, Baby Cop

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Saturday, June 23, 2007


This world needs Michael Moore.

If you want to learn about how an individual community can be destroyed by an economic crisis, and about how badly the powers-that-be can behave when faced by the same thing, you can do no better that to watch Roger and Me.
If you have any doubts about the way the gun-loving cult takes advantage of personal tragedy and plays on fear and prejudice, you need to see Bowling For Columbine right away.
And there's no better account of the idiocy of the current administration than Fahrenheit 9/11.
But as much as I admire Moore's earlier films, I don't think any of them completely prepared me for his latest Sicko, a populist epic that needs to be seen by anybody who has or will find themselves lost in the health care morass of this country.
I can't imagine that anyone needs to be told that health insurance is a complicated, expensive, frustrating and time-consuming mess, and I initially thought that the idea of a film on the subject would be just as tedious as two hours of filling out forms and haggling over deductibles.
I was wrong. For the first 30 minutes, Sicko had me cringing and seething. And by the end, I was in tears. (Which is strange, really, because it actually ends with a pretty good joke...)
Moore's film is to a large degree a surprisingly warm and optimistic proposal about health care that really works: Patients getting reliable, affordable treatments. Doctors who are more concerned with their patients condition than their coverage (and even make house calls).
The problem is that Moore has to go a little bit out of his way to find these examples. Not just out of the way, but out of the country. To Canada. To England and France. To Cuba.
(It's that last leg of the trip, of course, that will most likely give folks an excuse to trash the film without addressing any of the issues it raises.)
It is hardly news that Moore has a gift for provocation, but what will stun people about Sicko most of all is that he has abandoned or at least seriously reined in much of his usual arsenal of tricks and tactics, the very things that have so frequently divided his critics. The big goofy innocent persona developed so skillfully in the opening segment of Roger and Me has become a quiet patient observer. The ambush interviewing tactics that have made some of his subjects call him unfair are absent. Even the offbeat, even whimsical sense of irony is held in check (though you have to give him credit for an ingenious use of the classic Serge Gainsbourg record "Je t' nom plus".)
And strangest of all, Sicko is a film in which Moore has no real enemies to track down. Where his previous films have delighted in confronting bureaucrats, humiliating stuffy corporations and exposing hypocrites of every stripe, one gets the sense that here Moore has, of necessity, found a different way of looking at things. Yes, the insurance companies can be evil and Hilary Clinton made a mess of things, but Moore has found a bigger picture. He's critical of health industry abuses but more impressed by the idea that, with enough public support, health care could be made to work.
And that may be the thing that will drive Moore's enemies - the ones just waiting to leap out at the first misstep - absolutely nuts. (There are a lot of professional Moore-haters out there, one of which actually the subject of a surprising turn near the end of Sicko). Because unlike corporate greed, gun control or the Iraq War, Moore's film isn't about taking sides. We will all get sick, have accidents or produce babies, and Sicko is a powerful look at how we have gone about doing (and paying for) those things - and how we could do a lot better.

See Sicko immediately.
Visit Moore's website.
And be grateful that we have filmmakers/muckrakers/citizens like him.

(Update: 6/28/07. This review - really just a spontaneous outburst immediately after seeing the film - can also be found here at Playback. Thanks guys!)

Friday, June 22, 2007

New Hope, still featherless

While it seems to be fashionable to raise a critical nose to much of his current cinematic output (a tendency which I do not share, I must add), the arrival of a new collection of short pieces by Woody Allen - his first in over 25 years - is being welcomed as a Very Good Thing. The New York Observer lets Scott Eyman tell you why, while in Esquire, Mark Warren gets to the heart of the matter: Will it help you attract women?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Legend in his own mind...

By way of Bedazzled, here's information on Mingering Mike, a legendary soul singer who makes James Brown look like a slacker. "Hey Godfather, did you ever make 15 albums in a single year? Maybe they should call you the "Hardly-Working Man in Show Business"!"

Monday, June 11, 2007

Call me Rosebud

From filmmaker Alex Itin, via The Daily Reel, comes a very nice bit of video that combines two of my near-obsessions, Orson Welles and Herman Melville.
It seems to have something to do with Led Zeppelin as well....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Comments: Something to do with death

It's the 25th anniversary of the death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a Pantheon figure if there ever was one, and GreenCine Daily sorts out the continuing controversy over his legacy.

I don't like making comments on films I haven't seen, and I doubt that I will be making an effort to catch up with Hostel: Part Two, but I respect the opinions of blogger Filmbrain and find his comments on the film well worth reading in these violent times...

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sunday Morning Coming Down

I know people carry on about the ritual of devoting your Sunday morning to The New York Times, but I let my subscription go five years ago this month and I don't really miss it. I wonder if I'd feel the same way living in London with the many pleasures of The Guardian? Fortunately, it's available online. And today, for example, it offers features on:
John Cassavetes
the vastly underrated Alan Bates
"Radio On" director Chris Petit on road movies
Roky Erickson
The Gorillaz
and the incomparable Jarvis Cocker who isn't running the world yet, but has least taken control of the Meltdown Festival...

I'm already exhausted...

Spoiler Alert!

How many times do we have to tell you? Soylent Green is People!

I love this t-shirt guaranteed to irritate the Spoiler Police....

Previously spoiled items here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Fascist Statement

It's one of the longest-running arguments in film history, second only to debates over the racism of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation: Can you take the Nazi-loving content out of Leni Riefenstahl's films and admire them strictly for their formal virtuosity? The debate rages anew thanks to the publication of two new biographies of cinema's most fascinating fascist. The New York Review of Books offers Ian Buruma's analysis of them, and even raids the archives to post the 1975 Susan Sontag essay that rekindled the whole fire.

...and incidentally, if you want my opinion, the answer is: No.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

No, but I read the book...

Movies have been based on real events, operas, plays, tv shows, comic books, songs, video and board games, amusement park attractions, even bubblegum cards, but no form of adaptation remains as constantly controversial as that of the cinematic transformation of a novel. Some authors fret over the slightest alteration of their work, many others take the money and run. A small few have even learned not to worry about the issue at all, like William Gibson, who recently wrote (in a slightly different context) "I no longer get very wrought up over the liminals, myself, except to be annoyed by people who seem to assume that feature films are the ultimate stage of novelistic creation, thereby relegating the book to the status of dull gray chrysalis".
In the current Bookforum, Philip Lopate tracks the line between the written word and the celluloid frame and finds more to defend than to condemn. In sidebars, various literary and film folks tell their own experiences in seeing a work made cinematic and list a few notable adaptations.

Brief notes: Zizek, Cult directors unearthed

For those who can't get enough Slavoj Zizek, The Philosopher's Magazine offers a short and typically stream-of-consciousness outtake from a recent interview in which the critic/philosopher/amateur prophet chews on the subject of fundamentalism.

Ever wonder what happened to those filmmakers who made some modest impact and then disappeared into a rabbit hole so deep that only IMDB can find them? In The Guardian, Zoe Williams manages to track down Robin Hardy, director of The Wicker Man, and manages to politely ask just what he's been up to for the last 34 years. The answer: making money, writing novels and scoffing at his cultish reputation.

Alex Cox made a punkish splash in the 80s with Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, then almost willfully sabotaged his shot at breaking into the mainstream with the back-to-back raspberries of Walker (Hey Universal! I'm going to take all your money and give it to the Sandinistas!) and Straight to Hell (And then I'm gonna take even more of your money and spend it all on drink while my friends and I play cowboys out in the desert!). Cox still makes films - though U.S> distribution has been minimal - and has just put the wraps on something called Searchers 2.0 for Roger Corman. He's also a frequent talking head and columnist in the British media, holding forth on favorite subjects like Leone and Peckinpah. His wonderfully eccentric website offers film, politics and strong opinion, and you can even download his 1978 book on Spaghetti Westerns, "10,000 Ways to Die".

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Great moments in promotion:

From the top secret underground lair of super genius Ted Turner:

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The OutKast lunch box!

And in case you're wondering just what to put in Andre 3000's lunch, he's in the running for being named PETA's "Sexiest Vegetarian". Vote responsibly!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

All you need is...

It's the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love. You know what they say: If you can remember it, you weren't there. And if you weren't there, you can read this lengthy look back courtesy of Peter Weir, Country Joe McDonald, Bob Weir and others, as recorded by Ed Vuliamy for the Guardian.
And more on the institutionalization of 1967, via the New York Times.

Friday, May 18, 2007

It's only fair.

Looking for an explanation of copyright that gets to the point while simultaneously forcing the whole "fair use" issue by deliberately exploiting the work of its biggest opponent? In this mash-up from the Media Education Foundation at Stanford, Woody, Buzz, Jasmine, Ariel and all their friends break away from their attorneys just long enough to explain it to you.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Then and Now. And Later.

Using "Babel" as a starting point, David Denby has some interesting thoughts on the current popularity of non-sequential narrative in "The New Yorker". (Read it quick; it won't stay on line forever.)
By the way, I share his suspicion of "Babel", a film which pretends to a kind of humanism while depicting almost all human behavior (except that of his primary protagonists) as brutal, uncaring and suspicious.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ryan Larkin

Green Cine Daily, Movie City News and several other places have already reported this, so I'm just passing it along. Ryan Larkin, the Canadian animator whose award winning "Walking" was an art-house staple in the 70s, and who was himself the subject of the brilliant and disturbing film "Ryan", has died of lung cancer. Those who have seen "Ryan" will be relieved to know that Larkin had managed to pull his life a little closer to normalcy in the last few years and had recently produced short "bumper" films for the Canadian version of MTV.
The obituary from "The Toronto Star" is Here.
You can watch "Walking" on the National Film Board of Canada site, read more and view clips at "Cartoon Brew" and see an excerpt from "Ryan" at Movie City News.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

All Yesterday's Parties

I've been trying for weeks to write something about George Hickenlooper's Factory Girl, but there's really nothing much to say about this lazy biography of Edie Sedgwick, which plays like a superficial, generations-removed-from-the-facts account of a life which leaned too heavily on the side of superficiality to begin with. You probably know the outline of the story, its cult like status due largely to the popularity of Jean Stein and George Plimpton's exhaustive 1982 oral history "Edie: An American Biography": Poor Little Rich Girlfalls in with the Andy Warhol crowd, becomes the Flavor of the Week but quickly makes a sharp descent into drugs and mental illness. It's a tragedy of sorts, but there's not enough in "Factory Girl" to overcome the film's gossip-driven "People Magazine" view of history.
Yes, there are entertaining moments. Sienna Miller provides many of them, even though the script often makes her sound like a bubble-headed freshman art student. Guy Pearce also has a few good scenes as enigmatic Warhol, but just as many in which the film simply has him mimic some of the artist's familiar tv appearances. Warhol utters some naive quip, Edie gushes about what great work he's doing and the filmmakers hope that creating a resemblance to an old photograph of the Factory crowd will pass for substance.
For a few scenes, it almost works (though the depiction of Warhol's film work is completely off-track)but the credibility factor is strained. That strain becomes completely and irrevocably unsalvageable with the appearance of Hayden Christensen as a character labeled only "Musician". (Earlier versions of the credits called him "Billy Quinn". Perhaps the change was intended to make him more mysterious, but I prefer to think that all of the world's real-life Billy Quinns raised an objection..) It doesn't take much more than a look at his album-cover inspired wardrobe to realize that he's a thinly disguised Bob Dylan, but Christensen seems to have gotten his Midwestern rebel icons all mixed up and falls into an confusing imitation of James Dean. To the degree that "Factory Girl" has a coherent storyline, it seems to be that "Musician" is the serpent to Edie's Eve, placing doubts in her mind about Warhol and causing the artist to banish her from his silver-lined Eden. (This may be a slight exaggeration of whatever real relationship existed between Sedgwick and Dylan; at any rate, it merits only two-and-a-half pages in the Stein and Plimpton book.) Once the bubble of the Warhol Sixties has popped, neither the film nor its version of Edie has anywhere to go but down.
The real Edie's decline was no less rapid, but it's been well-documented, not just in the Stein/Plimpton book but in "Ciao! Manhattan", a stoned mess of a film that she was working on in her final days. Completed after her death and released almost a decade later to benefit from the book's popularity, it's an unpleasantly exploitative film, but so blatant in its use of the brain-fried actress that it reveals as much about her sad end as you would probably ever want to know. It would be interesting to see it placed side by side with one of her Warhol performances, like "Poor Little Rich Girl", a lengthy close-up of the young woman rambling on about very little on a typical day at the height of her Factory career (It actually adds to the effect of the film that more than half of it was shot out of focus..). Exposed for the camera, these two films might serve as bookends to her short and unfortunate life, the Edie in her prime no less (or more) shallow than the stumbling, topless train-wreck of the final work.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Vice. Versa

Performance - which will be getting its long overdue DVD release shortly - is also the subject of this exhibit..