An online friend turned me on to this collection of color pix from around the country, taken between ’39 and ’43. They come from the Denver Post’s Photo Blog—lots more of them can be seen here, where they look a lot better in full res.
Archive for July, 2010
My favorite 30 seconds of Reservoir Dogs that don’t involve Chris Penn talking about black semen coming out of Michael Madsen’s mouth is a little scene that never got any love at all: the transitional little series of shots showing Tim Roth putzing around his half-painted apartment as Penn calls him from downstairs on one of those old mobile phones that looks like it saw action at Anzio. Roth’s character takes the call, and when it’s over he throws on a jacket, checks his guns (Roth is great with the props), and heads out the door. That’s all there is to it, but playing on a radio in the background is a swaying little C&W number that helps give the scene its sunny Sunday afternoon atmosphere. The song is called “Fool for Love”, and it came from the terrible Robert Altman movie of the same name. (It’s almost surely the worst film that the names of Altman, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, the gaffer, the grips, the teamsters, or any of their children or grandchildren will ever be associated with.) I’d always thought I remembered the song from its air-play on the radio in the ’70s—it’s got that kind of ring to it—but apparently not, at least if Wiki’s to be believed. If indeed I did hear it before Tarantino’s movie, it would’ve been during the two very unhappy hours I spent in a movie theater in 1985.
The songwriter and singer Sandy Rogers is, it turns out, Sam Shepard’s sister. (I always wonder about the siblings of people who hit it big in the entertainment industry—no way can it be easy for them, and in some cases it must be mudslinging hell.) The song is fine as AM fodder, or maybe a dash more than that: one line in particular has kept me amused for a couple of days now. It’s about a guy who keeps blowing his relationships because his romantic streak is out of control, and the last verse goes:
The last time I saw him alive
He was standing up on the bride’s side
Yelling his objections at the groom.
The blushing bride was my best friend,
She turned around and to him said
“Yes, you were my only sunshine then…”
It’s the fact that the guy addresses his grievances to the groom that gets me; you’d have to be pretty strung out to start screaming at a wedding to begin with, and I can just picture some tuxedoed sap being startled by the red-faced nut-job blasting him from the pews. Even after multiple hearings I’m pleased by the bride’s generosity towards the man who’s wrecking the happiest day of her life, and in that last line Rogers packs a lot of the ache and tenderness we can feel for old lovers into just a few short words. Taken with Sam’s plays, it all makes you wonder just what the hell was happening inside the Shepard household while these people were growing up there.
Here’s the song. I’m warning you now, though, you do not want to watch the actual video.
Right now I’ve got 12 browser windows open, and eight of them are thanks to me opening Jim Wolcott’s blog and finding a post about yet another set-to going down amongst the film crit set, and clicking one link there. And away we go…Sixteen hours later, out of breath, I’ve finally finished clicking all the pertinent links, and I can barely remember, after all the alternating BLAT/FART/FART/BLAT posts and comments, whether Wolcott was a BLATer or a FARTer. I do know this shit is insane, though.
Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical Adventureland and Noah Baumbach’s hopefully not autobiographical at all Greenberg show just how different two com-drams with generational overtones can be from each other, with Adventureland never tasting sour even at its sourest and Greenberg never coming close to real sweetness even though it strives—desperately at times—for a sophisticated sweet-and-sour tone. Adventureland is actually a period piece: it’s set in the summer of ’87, sometime around the point that Ronald Reagan consigned us all to Hell for years to come, but its biggest social statement may have been unintended: it captures in an unmistakable way the seismic shift among America’s youth in the last few decades, in which our slacker impulses have grown ever more prolonged with every passing generation. I had to pinch myself to remember that Jesse Eisenberg was supposed to be freshly graduated from college, rather than merely high school, because he and his circle of friends—summer workers at a rinky-dink amusement park in Pittsburgh—are so unfocused and callow they all seem to have one foot perpetually trapped in puberty.
In The Graduate Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock spent his first summer after college screwing the middle-aged wife of his father’s law partner and hating himself for it; Eisenberg’s James Brennan, by contrast, spends his summer working a shitty job, partying, and trying to make out—in other words, living the life of a high-school sophomore. (In the movie’s biggest stretch we’re asked to believe this funny, handsome kid is still a virgin, a situation that’s not rectified until the final fadeout.) Where Ben Braddock was dour and put off by everything, James is a puppy dog eager to engage with the world. A running gag in Mottola’s movie involves the kid who every so often suckerpunches James right in the balls—a type of humor wholly alien to The Graduate. There are other telling differences here, but my point is that Ben seemed, if not a fully grown man in the sense of, say, Don Draper, he and his peers at least were standing at the gates of adulthood, while James and his geeks-and-freaks circle of friends don’t seem any older than the kids in American Graffiti or The Breakfast Club—they’re that naïve, that parochial, the crises they face that primitive—even though they’re supposed to be four crucial years older than their movie cousins. If that much regression is possible in the 40 years since The Graduate came out, it’ll be interesting, to say the least, to see where we stand, say, 80 years from now.
And yet I rather liked Adventureland, partly because it’s so unpretentious. It’s like an elaboration of that segment in Rushmore where Jason Schwartzman, having made enemies of all the people who matter most to him, can only let his feelings percolate inside him until he’s ready to make amends; James Brennan has less on the line but he, too, is in limbo, and here the sense of hanging in a void fills out an entire movie. (Rushmore’s humor perversely relied on the fact that Max Fischer was more complicated than any of the adults around him, and that the solemnity of purpose he’d invested himself with was the exact quality so conspicuously missing from Bill Murray’s character.) Adventureland often becomes an incredibly subjective film, with whole sequences staged to communicate how even the little events in James’ life—the way an attractive girl across the way is dancing, for instance—look to him. Mottola bluntly acknowledges both the sex and drug use in his young people’s lives without any bet-hedging, yeah-but bullshit, and he shows the same generosity to his adult characters. After James creates a scene by getting drunk with the family car, his mother demands to know where the liquor came from. We know the bottle belongs to his dad, a closet boozer, and the father’s gaze of chastened appreciation when James doesn’t rat him out feels even better when they don’t spill out their thoughts to each other afterward.
I keep waiting for parts of Greenberg to come back and haunt me, the way so many bits from Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding did in the days right after I saw them, but beyond the brief little shot of Greta Gerwig dancing around to “Uncle Albert”—nada. Greenberg, meaning the actual character played by Ben Stiller, is the frostiest creation Baumbach has given us yet, and that’s fine—I’d rather a character be rendered too coldly than without enough distance—but he’s also been saddled with two things new to Baumbach heroes, a psychiatric history and a backstory, and I didn’t like either one of them. It’s a given, for me at least, that neurotics are inherently interesting people, which is why I like Noah Baumbach movies in the first place, but modern anxieties that act as our personal foils and actual mental illness are two separate things, in movies if not in medical science, and I had a hard time enjoying the piquancy of Greenberg’s relationship with Mahler the German shepherd because I couldn’t stop wondering what his psychiatrist back in New York thought about his recently hospitalized patient traveling all the way to L.A. to housesit for his abusive shit-heel of a brother.
Baumbach (and/or Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has a story credit) also filled in Greenberg’s past with a feeble little story about the time he sabotaged his old band’s shot at a record contract by making difficult artistic demands on the label. His late-coming apology to his ex-bandmate buddy, more antagonized than actually repentant, is heartbreaking when it comes (I didn’t know Stiller had it in him), but the story itself is a goose, one of those deadweight synthetic studs that gives a piece structure but carries too much explanatory weight; we’re asked to believe that Greenberg’s actions not only destroyed the band but wrecked his friend’s best chance at happiness, which is an idea I can only call bullshit on. In any case it’s less the substance of the story I object to than its presence in any form; we’re given next to no information about the monsters Jeff Daniels and Nicole Kidman played in Baumbach’s earlier movies, yet they’re infinitely more convincing than any part of that damn band subplot. Even if we’re intended to see Greenberg and his pal as self-willed losers, it’s the kind of neat-to-a-fault conceit that Baumbach usually steers well clear of, and it still brings us back to a pair of men who are less flawed than they are simply un-grown up. If Ben Braddock works as a point of comparison for the twenty-something James Brennan, I hate to think who could do the same for the forty-something Roger Greenberg.
Greenberg feels like the first time Baumbach decided to arm-wrestle a happy ending out of his material, even though he stops on one of his familiarly “ambiguous”, life-goes-on notes. Like Alexander Payne’s Sideways and—for that matter—Adventureland, Greenberg ends with its hero in a state of tenuous hope, and in all three cases it’s due to their protagonists finding a woman who’s poised to (choose one or all three) right their lives/fill the void inside them/reunite them with humanity. If that isn’t a conventional outcome, what is? These carefully mussed monuments to uncertainty may work as a metaphor for the hopes we harbor of finding sustained happiness in our lives, but for such hothouse flowers to ever stand a chance, they need to be both honest and spare; what makes rare orchids rare, after all, is their rareness. We can’t all be the Dardenne brothers, people.
Swearengen swore all along that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was nothing but bad news, but until they actually appeared on the scene we had to rely on our historical memory of the Pinkertons’ most notorious deeds—the dead-of-night firebombing that killed Jesse James’ little brother, the violent, depraved union-busting that lasted well into the ’30s—to accept them as a legitimate threat. The first agent arrived only at the beginning of Season 2, and even then her true identity went unpublished for several episodes. Alice Isringhausen turned out to be small-fry, easily dispensed with, but the night that George Hearst’s “bricks” thundered into camp in a cavalcade of hoofbeats and satanic shadowplay represented, as Cy Tolliver put it, the advent of professionals. By light of day they congregated in intimidating knots along the thoroughfare, managing to stand out in a town already festooned with memorable faces.
Where did Milch find them all? He’d been using real cowboys to give the place tone all along, and the Pinkertons must’ve come from their ranks: they certainly carry the whiff of such stuntmen-turned-actors as Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, and Allan Graf. Their unshaven and pockmarked faces looked sculpted by alkali dust blasted out of a wind machine, and they needled the miners with gibes—“Wipe your ass, Hiram! It feels strange at first but the shit protects against blisters!”—which they delivered in coarsely musical American cadences. Each man of them sported like an odor his own brand of unnerving self-confidence: even the old buzzard who breaches protocol by drinking Hearst’s liquor is fit enough to murder Ellsworth by merely raising his hand. Like a biker gang crashing a family reunion they settled in and all but destroyed the camp’s serenity; the incredible tension that turns even Swearengen and Bullock into dithering Hamlets, and which lasts until a tidal wave of mourning sweeps everything away in the show’s closing minutes—that’s all the Pinkertons’ doing.
Having a smoke downstairs and a coworker, funny-talking guy about my age, comes strolling back up to the building. Rough summary:
Tom: Nice day out here.
Guy: Yes, except for the black racist I just met.
Tom (mentally): Here we go.
Guy: A black guy up at the corner is yelling “Racist!” at all the white drivers. I gave him a look so he yells “Racist!” at me. I say “No, mate, you’re the one who’s racist.” Just because [rubbing his forearm] he, he’s got a little skin condition, he calls me a racist!
Guy: Do you understand this? I’m from South Africa! How can I be racist?
Not for the first time, how hard is it to take a step back from yourself?
I’ve been up to no damn good, that’s for sure, so let’s start with the happy news that Roman Polanski is going home. It’s something I didn’t see coming, forgetting as I did how often American prosecutors fuck up a sure thing with overreaching and pointless Puritanical needling. The American authorities wouldn’t have had any problem crossing all the requisite T’s if they sincerely believed that their case met the smell test, but the L.A. justice system has always treated the Polanski case as a grudge match, and their refusal to provide Roger Gunson’s testimony to the Swiss is surely a sign of the bad faith that awaited Polanski had he returned here. (Gunson was the Assistant D.A. who attended the meeting in chambers where Judge Rittenband instructed the trial attorneys on how to argue their cases, and who later disputed a critical piece of the case’s history as it was described in a L.A. Superior Court ruling.) Since I’ve always favored the spirit of the law over its letter, yesterday’s news hit me as something close to the best of all possible worlds: the Los Angeles D.A.’s office was seen openly humping its own pooch, and while Polanski couldn’t entirely shake off what he did that long-ago night by just skipping the country, he did manage to avoid the sanctimonious jackals who’ve been nipping at his heels for 30 years. The one drag about it all is the inevitable one: the idea that he was freed due to some foreigner’s idea of a “technicality” is sure to feed the xenophobia and victimization fantasies of our rightwing brethren until the end of time. Ah, well…at least they can still lock up Mexicans on sight in Arizona. That ought to count for something!
Man, if only I had a life half as interesting as Roman Polanski’s…The big recent highlight for me came when the only woman I’ve really been attracted to in the last couple years left town last week. She wasn’t available anyway, but she was right up my alley, vivacious and chatty and blonde and cute, and—in what has to be considered a positive sign—a couple years older than me. (Being both a confirmed ageist and a confirmed old fart, I look forward to the day when I not only become prejudiced against myself but order myself off my own lawn.) Still, I was glad to know her, not only because she’s a warm and lovely person and all that crap, but just to see that I can still carry a torch that hot for anyone. As for the fact that I didn’t make a fool of myself over her either before or after she told me she was leaving, well…that was just a bonus.
Feeling stale comes pretty natural to me, but my posting here started seriously dwindling, both in quantity and quality, right around the time I started thinking about buying a PlayStation 3. Well, having had one in the house for a couple of weeks now, I’ve definitely confirmed what’s long been suspected: I’m too much of a jellyfish to be trusted with a game console. But a couple things worked to delude me into thinking that buying one was a good idea, starting with the debate that followed Roger Ebert opening his big yap, and then hearing that a popular gaming house just released a game said to be a Peckinpah-Leone mashup. (Which it is, especially if you picture The Wild Bunch as written by Larry the Cable Guy.)
Anyway, in answer to Ebert I’d have to say, yeah, Red Dead Redemption is art—too many aesthetic choices have gone into it for it to be anything else—but it’s art for the shut in, the shut down, and the suicidally depressed. Michael Bay’s worst movie was never this escapist if only because movies don’t force you take over the decision-making within a story, which means that some part of your frontal lobes remains free to maintain that essential bit of critical distance. But your consciousness is overwhelmed in a game that forces you to barrel over mountain roads in a rickety wagon as yahooing outlaws pour lead at you from every direction; it flattens your brain even as it revs your body up. Red Dead Redemption’s imaginary landscapes are beautifully rendered in all times of day and types of weather, but the two primary emotions the game gives fire to are stress and an illusory sense of achievement. You’ll accomplish at least as much if you treat yourself to a nice, long wank, and even Sergio Leone had more on his mind than just that. At least I got a Blu-Ray player out of the deal, and that restored version of Visconti’s The Leopard looks mighty fine, even if it does have an alarming shortage of gunfights.
This is one of my favorite ads from recent years. (I’m particularly smitten with the last shot.) I bitch so much about advertising and, well, everything else, I pretty much have to jump on every chance I get to keep it light.