Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Last Trip to Tower

Like a lot of people, I had mixed reactions to the demise of Tower Records. It's always bad to lose another B&M especially when they carried such an array of commercially marginal material but I didn't buy much from them mainly due to the prices. It was the only place in town to get Songlines (may have to subscribe now) so I'd made a trip every two or three months and apart from magazines would only occasionally pick up a Proper/JSP box or a Naxos disc. Even the prices would have been easier to accept if it wasn't a chain and one that had infamously poor service at that. (The old location consistently bombarded the most aggressive industrial/metal they could find.)

So I went right after the sale was announced expecting that with those prices the discount wouldn't make much difference and that was true. Picked up two Proper sets, Ham Hocks and Cornbread and the Bechet, but that was it. A bit over a week ago went back when the DVD discount had dropped to 40% and even that wasn't as tempting as I thought it might be. There were still a few Criterions but coupled with their high prices as well those slipped away. Got a John Wayne set just because it had a letterboxed version of Sternberg's Jet Pilot (not even remotely his best but hey it's still Sternberg), Switchblade Sisters and a bunch of CDs: new Klezmatics, Rough Guides to Rebetika (amazing) and Gypsy Swing (have several other similar comps), Art Brut, Blackalicious and that Andy Fairweather Low retrospective even though I have all the original LPs. And now this last time pretty much all the obvious stuff was gone so I ended up with a small stack of NoShame DVDs including Bertolucci’s Partner which I’ve wanted to see for years. Plus a disc that’s supposed to be a sequel to Django but I haven’t yet tried to ID what it really is. Stuff that normally I would have rented but 50% off created the psychological OK.

The thing about Tower, though, is that I really miss Pulse both because in its prime it was about the best music magazine around but also because it was the first place I really got freelance (paid!) exposure. I can’t remember now the first piece I wrote for them, probably either a Peter Stampfel profile or a piece about Henry Kaiser’s Crazy Backwards Alphabet. Also can’t even remember what else I did for them though a beginner’s guide to hardcore punk does stick out as well as an interview with Marshall Crenshaw about rock ‘n’ roll movies and an extended piece during the late 80s about labels pushing more peculiar music (Nonesuch, Cuneiform, Pangaea and a couple of short-lived major-label boutiques). Was Pulse where I interviewed Thurston Moore? Perhaps. Those issues are all packed away and I haven’t seen them for years. Writing for Pulse was how I always imagined freelancing would be like: tossing out ideas (some quite esoteric) and then running with a “yes.” The editor even called once to pitch an idea at me which had that you’ve-arrived feeling. Unfortunately it was about a flat-picking guitarist and while I could easily fake the piece (a talent quickly learned by any freelancer) I decided to pass.

Knowing that you didn’t have to ID every reference was one of the fun things about writing for Pulse (as with Option and a few others). Didn’t have to explain what Cagean or Eno-esque meant, that calypso was a very political music, differences between say Ellington and Basie, the purpose of free improv or whatever. Not that this is a burden with more general publications but sometimes you just have more to say to presumed peers than to students. At its peak Pulse seemed to cover everything and was one of the few magazines I read cover to cover, even about subjects I wouldn’t expect to like. The classical coverage kept getting bounced around until eventually put into a separate (and thin) magazine before finally being deleted altogether. But by then Tower was already starting to have financial difficulties and y’know Golden Ages never last.

Tower’s final plunge now has inspired more eulogies, including a quite typical one in the Washington Post. He hits all the usual points and doesn’t stick to anything: that technology today is good but we’re still losing something, that Tower was good but not so good, that nostalgia itself is not good unless of course it is. And maybe that’s the point after all (though I have no idea what that might be).

Sunday, December 10, 2006

We don't need no stinking Arians

This weeks what-the-hell story is that Thomas Nelson Publishers is including in all contracts a clause that the author agrees with the Nicene Creed and Philippians 4:8. Now I'm not up on the current theological controversies so for all I know the Nicene Creed is being bitterly debated - my knowledge of it pretty much ends in the 4th century - but I can't find anything suggesting that. It occured to me later that maybe this is some backdoor way to avoid Da Vinci Code believers, who it'd be hard to imagine writing for Nelson anyway. And as for the Philippians verse I'm at a loss since it seems a pretty innocuous "be good" statement.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Film questionnaire

Most questionnaire memes are pretty pointless but I couldn’t resist this one:

1) What was the last movie you saw, either in a theater or on DVD, and why?

The Stooge, because I’m reviewing the Martin & Lewis box for TCM.

2) Name the cinematographer whose work you most look forward to seeing, and an example of one of his/her finest achievements.

Christopher Doyle, Fallen Angels (Ashes of Time looks impressive but I’ve only seen it on video). Can’t skip Gregg Toland or John Alton.

3) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson?

Joe Don, if only because Walking Tall looked like it was filmed around my home town and because I can’t think of any Svenson films at the moment.

4) Name a moment from a movie that made you gasp (in horror, surprise, revelation…)

I’ve never actually gasped but closest might be In the Company of Men, the moment when Aaron Eckhart tells the woman that they were just kidding about the whole thing.

5) Your favorite movie about the movies.


6) Your Favorite Fritz Lang movie.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, possibly for the snobbish reason that I’ve seen the completely uncut restoration that’s STILL not on DVD. (The Kino disc is shorter.)

7) Describe the first time you ever recognized yourself in a movie.

Never? That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

8) Carole Bouquet or Angela Molina?

Don’t know either.

9) Name a movie that redeems the notion of nostalgia as something more than a bankable commodity.

Probably none but maybe Zelig or A Christmas Story. Also the Pennies from Heaven movie attempted that and I have high hope for the series which I bought but have yet to watch.

10) Favorite appearance by an athlete in an acting role.

None. Oh I’m sure I could come up with names but with very few exceptions they’re people I know because they’re actors and not because they’re athletes.

11) Favorite Hal Ashby movie.

Don’t care.

12) Name the first double feature you’d program for opening night of your own revival theater.

Breathless & Kiss Me Deadly.

13) What’s the name of your revival theater?

The Langlois. How's that for film buff arrogance? Couldn't be pronounced or remembered by most Americans and would have to be explained constantly.

14) Humphrey Bogart or Elliot Gould?


15) Favorite Robert Stevenson movie.

That hack? Another “who cares?”

16) Describe your favorite moment in a movie that is memorable because of its use of sound.

I’m a sucker for overlapping dialogue such as His Girl Friday or MASH. TV should be a natural for this but everything is so clear and separate now that at times it gets annoying. (And to digress further it’s really annoying on so many current dramatic cop shows that the writers can’t do anything better with big chunks of exposition than to spread it out among various characters. The end result is that everybody in the room sounds like they know the whole backstory but are just rehearsing a press conference.) & yeah I know this isn’t what the question was about but that’s how I’m answering. For pure sound I’d have to go with Rear Window or perhaps any Godard film.

17) Pink Flamingoes-- yes or no?

Yes, but Desperate Living more.

18) Your favorite movie soundtrack score.

Vertigo. Also Contempt, Citizen Kane, Crash (the Cronenberg one) and Once Upon a Time in the West. For purely nostalgic reasons I have to mention Star Wars.

19) Fay Wray or Naomi Watts?

Watts because of Mulholland Drive. Haven’t seen the new Kong.

20) Is there a movie that would make you question the judgment and/or taste of a film critic, blogger or friend if you found out they were an advocate of it?

No. Even though eccentric taste can be overdone (cf Chuck Eddy), refusing to consider anything would be pretty smug and actually not very fun. Showgirls is obviously very bad but Rivette’s praise makes me wonder if in fact it is an attack on the ravages of late capitalism. Almost certainly not but you never know. Kael used to claim that she never changed her mind about a movie and though she was clearly not telling the truth even thinking this is something worth saying is one reason she was a critic only worth reading in fragments.

21) Pick a new category for the Oscars and its first deserving winner.


22) Favorite Paul Verhoeven movie.

Definitely not Showgirls. Starship Troopers is still vastly underappreciated, probably because so many viewers take it at face value (actually a somewhat scary thought considering the fascist aesthetic that it toys with). His Dutch films I saw so long ago that I don’t have much memory of them.

23) What is it that you think movies do better than any other art form?

A complete, focused involvement. Theater always presents you with the reality of performance, reading requires a translation, TV is dwarfed by your home, etc. Now even though movies may do this better that doesn’t mean this is something positive, even if you’re not coming from a Brechtian perspective.

24) Peter Ustinov or Albert Finney?


25) Favorite movie studio logo, as it appears before a theatrical feature.

The 30s Universal with the airplane flying around the globe.

26) Name the single most important book about the movies for you personally.

Sarris’ The American Cinema. Not a book for thinking about the movies and one I haven’t even glanced into for years but when I was first starting to explore it was invaluable for sorting out that sheer volume of films.

27) Name the movie that features the best twist ending. (Please note the use of any “spoilers” in your answer.)

I admire Miike’s Dead or Alive just because anybody who says they knew that ending was coming is a flat-out, unquestionable liar.

28) Favorite Francois Truffaut movie.

Don’t know, haven’t seen any in years. Truffaut always struck me as a very good second-tier director. I remember Love on the Run as being a favorite but also The 400 Blows and Day for Night strong contenders.

29) Olivia Hussey or Claire Danes?

Neither but Danes if forced to choose.

30) Your most memorable celebrity encounter.

Possibly seeing how short Mick Jagger is while he was renting children’s videos at my store.

31) When did you first realize that films were directed?

I don’t know for sure and this is too late but I’m going with it anyway: I hated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the first time I saw it; perhaps because it was projected onto a sheet in the dorm’s dining room or perhaps just because I wasn’t ready for it. In any case a year or two later I was a projectionist at the school’s theatre (actual screen this time) and went down at the start of the film as always to doublecheck the image and sound, something that can’t be done effectively from the booth. The opening scene of the vandalized graveyard was so clearly a comment on the actual film itself and the entire concept of the grotesque that I realized this wasn’t a mistake, whether conscious or not.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Blogging Life

Tim Lucas muses about the problems with being a blogger. All ring true even if I personally don't always experience them. For one thing I don't exactly consider myself a blogger. Yes, I have a blog but I've never felt the need to add to it daily even apart from knowing from the start that I'd never have the persistence to do so. I do often write posts in my head but then that's been more or less true since I started reviewing some 26+ years ago. Movies, records, books, etc all get converted into a mental review and sometimes (less now than formerly) there were even people who would pay to have those transferred to print. (Fortunately I don't talk in those mental reviews; somebody I know carries those around in his head, ready to disperse the moment they're needed.) A blog is for me just a journal, one reason much of this isn't very polished. I also consider at least this blog as an extension of zines which I was heavily involved with during the mid-80s.

Monday, December 4, 2006

recent Kiarostami

Up to The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami was in the running for Greatest Living Filmmaker but now his two most recent films to get any wide exposure are such abject and total failures that you have to wonder whether Sturges-like he’s suddenly lost his touch or he’s just going through a rough patch. To be sure, Ten (2002) is defiantly experimental, consisting as it does almost entirely of long-takes with the (digital video) camera on a car’s dashboard pointing at the passengers. (And “almost entirely” because most critics have claimed that’s entirely the film when in fact there is one exterior shot of a dark street corner supposedly frequented by a prostitute.) Whether this was a good idea or not, Kiarostami certainly doesn’t make much of it. The shrill little boy during the opening sequence is grating in his sheer clumsiness, deliberate though it may have been (under different cultural contexts it might be plausibly considered Brechtian or more accurately an attempt in that direction). The entire psychodrama is barely distinguishable from the Jerry Springer impulse and is barely art whether scripted or not. There are bits and pieces of minor interest in Ten but Kiarostami has always been a tad lax about discipline and he really lets this slip. Most conventionally, he does what countless male directors have done before him: If one person is going to be on screen for almost the entire film it might as well be a strikingly beautiful woman. Not that I’ll complain too much about that but it does seem like he didn’t have much other impulse behind the film. (Reports of Five (2005), a non-narrative Ozu tribute, seem more interesting because it sounds like a reinvention of structuralist films.)

ABC Africa (2001) can’t even claim to have any minor interest. It might well be the worst film by anybody who might be considered a major director though of course I have yet to see The Day the Clown Cried. Just imagine that it had a name attached such as, say, John Olds and it would never have seen the light of day. It’s not that ABC Africa isn’t really—or at least only partially--a documentary but that Kiarostami shows a kind of arrogance. Plopped among Ugandan orphans with AIDS? Well, I’m going to film empty houses and wind blowing through the trees. For the art there’s the long sequence in almost total darkness after a storm knocks out the power (one article claims this was faked) and Kiarostami is paying so little attention that one section about a meeting of local women is repeated later in the film. And just gosh darn isn’t it IRONIC that there’s a luxury hotel there. Really after some point it’s impossible not to wonder what on earth he could have been thinking. The Saeed-Vafa/Rosenbaum book and various profiles show Kiarostami as barely interested in film history or other filmmakers which may be why these two films show him floundering. It’s certainly a laudable impulse to do something other than a straight-forward documentary but a touchstone (though probably not a model) would be Shoah which used its various formal elements—length, long takes, focus on trivia, lack of archival footate, Lanzmann shown lying—to create the very point of the film: how do we know what happened and how should it be represented? 10 on Ten shows Kiarostami expounding on his filmmaking theories and practices though it’s somewhat opaque. At times he brings up the blandest truisms, others totally outrageous claims. If serious then he is one of those nitwits who happened to be good artists almost by accident, but I suspect that he may have been pulling a prank. Want to see what he really thinks? Well, he’s going to tell you but in such a way that you know less than when you begin.

Pazz & Jop

My invitation to the Pazz & Jop poll arrived today. I didn't vote the last two years, feeling that I hadn't "kept up" enough to be quite fair. Definitely I could have made respectable ballots but then is respectable really the point? Still, it would have been nice to put in another vote for Goodbye Babylon or Jon Langford or whoever needed it.

This year, of course, is something different. How many people won't vote in protest or cast oddball ballots? Hey, they say literal release dates aren't important so my ballot will be filled with Palestrina and Scarlatti. The invitation doesn't entirely shy away from this, in a grand understatement pointing out that "this has been a year of some tumult at the Voice" and carefully mentioning that Christgau will be voting. Can we expect a full Dean's List? In any case, I'm time stamping my ballot idea now: Top Ten Christgau Reviews.