Archive for January, 2013

Solemnly Swearing (or Affirming)

January 19, 2013

Talking Points Memo has a great collection of Inauguration Day photos up. Click the pix for the large version, especially “FDR 1933”.

 

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Buchanan 1857

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Lincoln 1865

garfield 1881

Garfield 1881

mckinley 1897 with cleveland

McKinley 1897, with Grover Cleveland

taft 1909

Taft 1909

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West Point Cadets, Wilson 1913

woman_suffrage_parade 1913

Suffragette Parade, Wilson 1913

fdr 1933 inauguration airshot

FDR 1933

fdr 1937 inaugruation

FDR 1937

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Does Tom Blog

January 17, 2013

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alb nurses

alb spanish_civil_war

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May Day 1946

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Vietnam War Protest 1967

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Backstroke

January 16, 2013

Kick it off with Roy Ward Baker’s 1953 Inferno. Robert Ryan is a tycoon who breaks his leg in the California desert; his wife (Rhonda Fleming) and a business associate, who are having an affair, decide to leave him for dead; Ryan, who inherited his wealth and is thus “untested”, decides to prove his scrappiness by crawling out of the desert and taking his revenge. It’s not an easy movie to categorize. It’s definitely noir-spiced, but it’s also a modern Western, it has a concentrated Bressonian quality during Ryan’s efforts to fashion a rope, and it was shot in dazzling Technicolor and 3-D—the latter most obvious during a fistfight in which the combatants make a point of tossing lanterns and chairs directly at the camera. Most striking is the tone of Ryan’s stream-of-consciousness narration during his ordeal: it’s quiet and good-humored, not at all the rage-fueled monologue you’d expect from Robert Ryan in that situation. (Ryan would have had a lock on The Hulk if they’d been making Avengers pictures in his time.) Fleming and her swain are also down to earth—not caricatures of lecherous evil—and the ending ties things up is a satisfying way, with a zinger for a closing line.

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James Benning’s Landscape Suicide is split up into separate but equal looks at two murder cases, one which is draped in infamy (Ed Gein), the other (a high-school student’s status-envy knifing of a classmate) only relatively famous. The two parts structurally mirror each other, with meditative shots of the locales of the killings and their environs (the snow-sludgy Wisconsin prairies, the malls and suburbs of California) sprinkled between re-creations of the killers’ police house confessions and staged material that provides a tonal commentary on the events. (In the section about the teenager, a young woman is seen talking on a phone in her bedroom while “Memory” from Cats plays—in its entirety—just loud enough to drown out her words, but we see her going through a gamut of emotions, including one bit of speed-acting in which she completely loses her shit one moment only to start laughing merrily the next.) There’s a lot of remarkable acting here, but I was really floored by Rhonda Bell, who, though barely moving a muscle in the 15 or 20 minutes she’s onscreen, expresses so many shades of apprehensiveness, regret and cluelessness that it’s mind-boggling.

Gervaise is Rene Clement’s adaptation of Zola’s novel L’Assommoir about the mother of the character Jean Gabin played in Renoir’s La Bete Humaine. Humaine’s web is woven around the idea that both of Gabin’s parents were drunks (and depressives), and that people’s inherent inability to grow past their parents’ shortcomings seals their fate. I read ahead of time that Gervaise made a splash because of its direct approach to poverty and alcoholism, but I still wasn’t prepared for it. From the opening scene on it’s just the most doom-laden thing imaginable. Gervaise (the character) doesn’t really go off the deep end until the very end—she keeps fighting her fate, and fighting it, but it’s all working against her. How fucked up is it? Well, in one scene Gervaise’s husband comes home drunk and passes out on the bed, and when we see him he’s clearly vomited all over himself and the pillow next to him; their little girl Nana runs into the shot and instinctively touches her father, then recoils—and wipes her hand on a dry patch on his pants, before running out of the room. (Nana will grow up to be a prostitute; Renoir also filmed her story.)

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Essential Killing maintains its dream-like tone even during its fairly convincing imagining of the rendition process (including waterboarding). Neither of the two name stars—Vincent Gallo and Emmanuelle Seigner—has so much as a single line of dialog in the entire picture (without it ever feeling mannered or monotonous), and Gallo must’ve gone through some real hell running barefoot through Norwegian forests at 30 below zero. It’s a political movie only to the extent that it’s impossible not to notice that the occupying forces, although unnamed, all speak English in American accents, or that the country Gallo’s originally captured in looks just like Afghanistan, or that with his long beard he looks just like a Taliban; mostly it’s just a Rogue Male type narrative about a man on the run in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances. In any case it’s a wonder that a 72-year old director could come up with this much energy, but it’s also only Skolimowski’s second movie since he took a 17-year break from filmmaking to devote to painting. I’m happy for him and everything—he’s always said painting was his first love—but it hurts to think what we missed out on in the meantime.

Essential Killing is intelligently tasteful, as Skolimowski’s movies always are. (He’s particularly strong on endings, and this one’s no exception.) He co-wrote the script with a fellow Pole yet the chatter among the GIs is fluid and believable—a lot more so than the cartoony bluster the characters spout in Platoon or The Hurt Locker.

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Red Beard has some nice qualities but Kurosawa lays on the humanist stuff so thickly that it’s all congealed by the end. Most critics call this film the end of his middle period because, among other things, it was his last movie with Mifune, but it feels more like the beginning of the Dodeskaden/Dersu Uzulu period—everything’s a little more schematic and blunter. Mifune got top billing because of who he was, but it feels like he’s barely onscreen, and it’s a 3-hour movie. A long 3-hour movie.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan is clunky, unmotivated and chockful of bad acting, but a fun 84-minute ride nevertheless. Melville made it in between Bob le Flambeur and Leon Morin, Priest, and if you don’t count Un Flic it’s the only one of his movies that’s undeniably worse than the one that came before. When the French delegate to the U.N. misses a vote and can’t be found anywhere, a French reporter and an unscrupulous alcoholic photographer start scouring Manhattan over one night looking for him. There’s no great mystery, the guy just croaked at his mistress’ apartment, so the movie is really an excuse for Melville to indulge his love for America—and for NY in particular. The hunt takes the pair to the Mercury Theater (in mid-play), Capitol Records (a jazz song played in full), a strip-club “in darkest Brooklyn” (the African-American dancer obligingly strips on camera) and, again and again, Times Square. (Flower Drum Song was on Broadway; Separate Tables was in the theaters.) The city looks great in both natural lighting and high contrast B&W; in places it looks as good as it does in Manhattan or Sweet Smell of Success. Melville himself, droll as all hell, does a creditable job as the reporter. (The bad acting I mentioned above is courtesy of the female secondary players, who compensate by with their fabulous looks. Melville’s eye for the female form was sharper than Kubrick’s.) The best work comes from Pierre Grasset as the shitheel shutterbug who’s cashing in on other people’s misery. You can smell how jaded he is.

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Christian Carion’s Farewell is one good spy flick. Great characters, acting, writing, the whole shmear; it even made me tense and I never get tense in movies anymore. Despite the prominence of his mug in the ads, Dafoe is barely in it—the real star is director Emir Kusturica, who resembles John C. Reilly’s face screwed onto Brendan Gleeson’s body. Farewell offers a credible take on what Moscow streetlife and social gatherings must’ve been like during the Cold War, and scenes that usually drive me nuts—wives nagging their husbands about their dangerous work, guys telling their bosses “I’m the one taking the heat so you have to back me up here!”—are done just right. It’s “based on a true story” and it was based on some French book, but this thing alleges that the Kremlin had the drawings for the space shuttle, our nuclear codes, and even the White House’s digicodes and food delivery schedule. Bonus:  Fred Ward doing a good-enough Ronald Reagan imitation. There’s even a scene of him and David Soul discussing the shift in perspective at the end of Liberty Valance.

Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! is so good—and smart—and funny—that it hurts. It’s about a woman in East Berlin who goes into a coma a month before the Wall fell. She was an ardent German socialist and party member, and when, after reunification, she comes out of her coma, the doctors warn her son that any shock might kill her. So begins an extremely funny masquerade, as the son goes to increasingly elaborate pains to explain such capitalist intrusions as the giant Coca-Cola banner across the street, and recruits his Gareth Keenan-like buddy to help him create nightly “newscasts” reporting on the fictional tidal waves of unemployment and drug addiction sweeping through West Germany. Through all this the movie keeps quietly churning toward its real subject, which has to do with a long-buried family secret. But, man, it’s just so rich. In one scene the mother, feeling her oats, sneaks out of the house and onto the street, only to be greeted by strange, un-Communist graffiti—a swastika, a penis—and other alien sights. Becker hasn’t made another feature since then (2003) but supposedly has something in the works now. In the meantime, though…wow.

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Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds – A traveling salesman meets a young pregnant woman who’s on her way home despite knowing that her family is going to disown her when they find out the news. The baby’s father has fled to god knows where, so the girl convinces the salesman to make a quick appearance, posing as her husband, so her family will take her in. This leads to a Hail the Conquering Hero-type escalation of lies, mostly comic in nature, but the mood changes radically in the final 15 minutes, when you realize how much the experience has meant to the salesman. The final scene is shot through with the same kind of life-wrecking regret that Peter Riegert finds at the end of Local Hero. All this is especially surprising considering the movie came out in ’42—I’m quite sure the values on display here won’t be found in any German films from that year. (Four Steps was remade in ’95 as A Walk in the Clouds, with Keanu Reeves and Anthony Quinn. I’m passing on that version, though.)

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Guy Debord’s last movie, the palindromically titled In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (or We Spin Around the Night Consumed by the Fire), is an essay about a society making war on itself, equal parts spleen, egotism, egalitarianism, and pessimistic cultural history. It’s a collage of photos and film scraps, with a great many aerial views of Paris, advertisements, water-level views of Venice (which Debord, like Pound, seemed to see as a cultural utopia), photos of himself and unidentified friends, and long quotations from French and American commercial films. (The only two I recognized were Children of Paradise and The Longest Day.) In a long opening passage (which he begins by labeling his audience idiots, sheep, zombies, etc.) he goes after the young professional class leading comfy, empty lives (it came out in ’78)–obvious-sounding stuff but in his hands both damning and fascinating. The narration—I’m  not sure if it was Debord himself reading it—struck some surprisingly emotional notes for the author of The Society of the Spectacle. It’s something I’d be careful about recommending to people, but I sure am glad I saw it.

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And finally, two good noirs—strike that. Make that, one good one, and one that’s really good. They Won’t Believe Me has the big-name stars—Jane Greer, Susan Hayward, and Robert Young (at his very best) as a guy who keeps tripping over the dick he can’t keep in his pants. Great women characters, especially Hayward’s greedy slut who gains some substance as the picture goes on.

City That Never Sleeps was a little Republic picture with such an unwieldy plot that it’s virtually indescribable. A Chicago cop, played by Gig Young, wants to quit both his job and his wife so he can take up with a burlesque dancer. He falls in with a shady lawyer and an increasingly crazed gangster–Edward Arnold and William Talman respectively. (Talman played the perpetual chump Hamilton Burger on Perry Mason, but only after turning in a bunch of wonderfully psycho performances in various noirs, including my beloved Crashout.) Lots of location shooting around Chicago, including a gripping nighttime foot-chase down the El and two men going to Fist City alongside the third rail. The best scene, though, focuses on a secondary character, a washed-up actor who’s been reduced to dancing around as a “mechanical man” in the burlesque house’s show-window. The scene where, while still wearing the Tin Man’s makeup, he tries to entice the stripper with his pathetic fantasies of the far-off places he’d take her to approaches Touch of Evil-levels of insanity, and the movie’s denouement is set in motion when he sheds a single telltale tear.

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cracker barrel

January 9, 2013

I was just downstairs having a smoke, and it’s Wednesday so the building is having its cruddy little farmers’ market down there, and there’s a fair amount of foot traffic wandering through the courtyard. Something I saw down there must’ve reminded me of a time when I still lived in Houston, and I was rushing to some appointment and needed to know what time it was. (I’ve never worn a watch.) A businessman was passing by, and after I asked him for the time and he gave it to me, the following question popped unbidden out of my mouth: “Is that the right time?”…as if, for some arcane reason, a person might set his watch an hour off and then, when asked by a stranger for the time, deliberately give them the wrong answer. It seemed a reasonable question in the split-second before I asked it, almost like small talk or a different way of saying thanks, but he was an accomplished and well-heeled chap, a serious man unused to inanities from such as I, and he gave me a glare both bewildered and slightly hostile before growling out “Yeah!” in a gruff voice which sounded like, You may think you’re being funny, but…you’re fucking with the wrong man. It was only after he walked away that I considered how the question must’ve sounded to him, and to this day every time I think of that scene it busts me up no matter where I am. And so it was just now when, even though nothing outward had happened, I started shaking with laughter amongst the office-workers toting away their bags of pistachios.

Same deal with something that happened about 10 years ago. I was seeing a woman I’ll call Lulu, and I was at her house on a weeknight and we’d just been fooling around. I had a meeting or something the next morning and felt like I needed to go home and sleep in my own bed, so I was getting dressed and getting ready to go, while Lulu was bugging me to stay. (No way of fitting “understandably” into that last clause without sounding like a cad, but you know what I mean.) Anyway, she was sitting up in bed naked, and she was chiding me and pretending to be mad, and I was apologizing and trying to explain my side of things when, in a completely adorable way, she suddenly cried out YOU’RE A STINKER!, then threw the blanket into the air so that it settled like over her whole body like an Arabian tent. When I left I could just see one of her eyes peeking out at me from the blanket.

One more. This one was circa, I don’t know, sometime in the late ’80s, and my roommate at the time was hooked on meth. By day he maintained a surprisingly normal existence, even managing to keep his job teaching at a private school despite doing things like running into school one Sunday morning for a faculty meeting that was actually scheduled for the next day. One night he and I were driving somewhere and he needed to buy some gas. We pulled into a station and he got out to pump it, but in his mental fog he grabbed the regular pump and started trying to fit it into his unleaded-only gas tank. He didn’t see his mistake when it didn’t fit, and he kept on trying to push the pump into the tank despite such priceless clues that something was wrong as the loud metal-on-metal kunking noises coming from his hands. I was getting out of the car to see what was up, and saw a girl of about 17 at the next pump who was studying TJ doubtfully as he continued struggling with the nozzle, looking like he was working on a math problem. Suddenly she said, “Hey, mister, you’re trying to fit an unleaded pump into a regular gas tank,” at which point TJ suddenly lifted his head as if coming out of a trance and yelled “HUH?!” Turning around, intending to hang the hose up and get the right one, he instead managed to tangle his feet up and trip over it, doing a belly-flop at the girl’s feet as she jumped yelping out of the way.

There’s at least one more story like that—a friend and I accidentally demolished a motel’s driveway canopy in Fort Kearney, Nebraska—but I’ll give it a rest. Probably none of these stories translate here, but they all tickle the shit out of me enough that if I think about them anywhere, I start laughing like a daft man.

“The Gospel According to Matthew”

January 7, 2013

it’s too bad Gorge Lucas is not aliv e becuase the specil effects in this movvie are BAD. The man with lepresy looks like he had makeup on and when Jeesus “walks upon the water” it obviously double exposure and does not look real AT ALL. This is also a very TALKY movie. I do not believe Jeesus was booring. Also, you ccan tell that Peter Pasterini is some kind of Commuist because of the inflamatory things that Jeesus says. In the Bible, fro instance, he throws MONEYCHANGERS out of the temple. I am not a Bibblical scholar and do not know what a moneychanger is, but in this movie Jeesus chases some hard-working merchants away, whidh is DEFINTIELY not in the Bible! Jesus was not a Angry Man! The Crucifiction scene touched me, though. I begna to cry when Mary got upset and so I give this movie 1 out of 4 stars.

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Urm…naturally, I kid. But I did recently watch A Futura Memoria, a feature length biography of Pasolini that focuses more on his intellectual evolution than on who he knew or slept with. (It doesn’t even get to his film career until it’s more than halfway over.) The Italian intellectuals in this thing sure are different than our intellectuals–their dumbest one doesn’t sound dumb or phony at all, and even the government minister who was part of the effort to persecute Pasolini throughout his adult life states his reasons for it in really cogent ways. Some of the more famous talking heads include Moravia, Laura Betti (the actress who played Sutherland’s fucked-up wife in 1900 and who wrote a book about Pasolini and the government), and Franco Citti, who starred in Accatone (and who played the bodyguard who doesn’t betray Michael Corleone in The Godfather), along with various writers, politicians, boyfriends, etc., each of whom still seem awed by Pasolini’s genius and contradictions.

Late in his life, disillusioned by what he called the “homologation” of modern life (basically, the homogenization of culture due to rampant consumerism), he split with the Italian student movement, writing a famous essay which took the side of the cops because they represented the last ends of the peasant class while the students represented a new middle-class to be overcome. He became an admirer of Rudi Dutschke, the German student leader whose ideas owed a lot to Gramsci, and the filmmakers interview one of Dutschke’s friends who knew Pasolini well. The guy finally says he wishes he could talk to the kid who killed Pasolini and, bang, suddenly the film crew, along with the German guy, is standing on the spot where the murder occurred talking to the killer, who’d already finished out his sentence. The guy’s quite forthcoming about what happened that night, but the interviewers don’t ask him the one thing I’ve always wondered: Did he know who Pasolini was when he ran him over with his own car?

Great as it is, this doc is actually just a bonus feature for a separate documentary, Sopralluoghi in Palestina, which Pasolini himself made while scouting locations for The Gospel According to Matthew. It sort of foreshadows the homologation line of thought in the sense that Pasolini originally wanted to shoot Matthew in Palestine and Israel, but had to abandon the idea because the land was too built up, too developed and modernized, while the locals who he’d need as extras were too Arabic looking. The doc covers the process of him coming to that conclusion, and it’s really kind of a road picture which follows the path of Pasolini and a Catholic priest who was familiar with the Holy Lands. The priest–a pot-bellied, balding, bespectacled frump on the outside–turned out to be an excellent choice: a man of substance. When Pasolini realizes he has to change his strategy, the priest gives him the best advice in the world, telling him to finish his trip while soaking up the atmosphere of the Holy Land and letting it ferment into something personal that the film would spill out of. Which is exactly what Pasolini did… (He wound up shooting it in Sicily and Morocco.)

Also, I just stumbled across this little encounter, which I had no idea even existed. It’s actually a damn good interview, and Pasolini reads an Italian translation of Canto LXXXI very, very beautifully towards the end, though the translation in the subtitles is for shit. Here’s the original text…

Words, Words, Words

January 4, 2013

“OMG” can’t do the trick, I know that much. Columns like this one demand much, much more, something along the lines of IGHAOYL (“I’m gonna hurl all over your leg”) or maybe SPA? (“Suicide pact, anyone?”). Seriously, just when I think American culture can’t possibly get any more intellectually inbred, I see something that makes me wish the sun would just supernova already. It’s hard to know where to even begin with Susan Shapiro, though. Her piece is such an Everglades of emotional appeals and logical fallacies that you need a machete to chop your way through them. When she decries writers “going to the computer wearing a three-piece suit”, it’s not because writers ought to resist prefabricated points of view—oh no, one needs to be “weak, vulnerable or relatable”. She writes “…a litany of bitterness will not suffice. My rule for first person nonfiction is: question, challenge and trash yourself more than anyone else”, as if trashing yourself isn’t the ultimate act of bitterness. She says “Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing”, when in fact it makes you sound like a high-maintenance drunk. And she says “The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice” when in reality it means that you were willing to embarrass a relative in the world’s eyes because it got you some attention.

It blows my mind that Shapiro would drag Robert Lowell into this, but I’m glad she did because Lowell’s poetry is the perfect rebuttal to the self-fellating, catharsis-by-numbers kind of writing that she’s into. Casual readers of Lowell’s life have no idea what his poems are “about” on the he-said-she-said soap-opera level that interests Shapiro, and yet the meaning of those poems is usually clear. (For a so-called “confessional” poet, Lowell could be dumbfoundingly obscure.)  And what if it isn’t clear? Recognizing that not all art was created for our personal enrichment is just as important to human development as learning how to walk; mysteries sometimes abide forever, even in works we know like the back of our hands, and sometimes the background facts are plain none of our business. We aren’t entitled to the particulars of every illness or failed marriage (in fact, they only bring us down), and in any case art needs some level of mystery to get off the ground at all.

Robert Lowell didn’t just vomit up undigested chunks of his life in order to “hook” his “audience”. Anyone can be the stenographer of his own life; an artist does something with the materials first, but the only time that Shapiro does talk about transformation—“they can transform their worst experience into the most beautiful”—I can only wonder which one of us is nuts. Great writing—which, by the way, is often uglier than sin—only happens when it can’t be written any other way. Shapiro’s just an airhead, I know that, but when she describes “the right place” as “the heart”, I can only think the heart ain’t shit if the head isn’t along for the ride, too.

You catch my drift. Claustrophobia and the needles of narcissism are two of the big reasons I’ve been taking a break from the Internet. The ego on display, no matter whether it’s direct or reflected, was wearing me down, and I wasn’t in a good place to begin with. It shows up in the A.V. Club writers who can’t write a review without first running down their lifelong history with The Munsters; the Facebook posters who like dogs or old movies or taking pictures of their goddam dinner, which they post again and again and again, as if it’s the only thought in their head; or how ads for the product I just saw on Amazon magically follow me around the net like an unrelenting mirror of my taste. I suspect Susan Shapiro thinks nothing of such things, but from here it feels like a mental lockbox, every side of which is labeled ME. Frankly, I don’t think we’re worth the fuss. It’s a big, big world out there, much bigger than little old American us can imagine, and I want it to stay that way. What I’m really talking about here is humility, but let’s let it dangle for a rainy day.


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