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“The Voyeur’s Motel”…My eyes!…My eyes!

The Voyeur’s Motel is a book of reportage about reportage.  Sounds pretty boring right?  Like writing about writing?  But here the ultimate subject is compelling to the point of prurience:

“I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.”    (Gay Talese in his New Yorker magazine summarization of The Voyeur’s Motel)

The reason these written records, compiled in the 70’s and 80’s, are interesting, is that they provide a record of the actual, as opposed to self-reported sexual practices of people.  Self-reporting about sensitive subjects like sexual behavior, drug use, and of course penis size is inherently unreliable.   Like Updike said, the truth is always interesting.

With that buildup, it’s disappointing that the transcripts are largely commonplace.  A blowjob here, a breast fondling there.  An oft-described scene is an insensitive man thrusting into a woman who is not at all turned on.   Lesbian encounters are described as being much more communicative and loving.   The Voyeur, whose nom de plume is Gerald Foos, turns against the Viet Nam war after seeing disable veterans trying to have sex in his motel rooms.

The question of whether those behaviors would be different today, given the free availability of sexually-explicit content on the web, is never explored.  Remember this is taken from a time when even the “great” novelists, Updike, Roth, Bellow, could only timidly allude to anal sex.  Which is something you might see discussed on The View today.

Gerald Foos asserts that all men are voyeurs, and traces his own obsession back to his childhood seeing his buxom aunt walking around nude in her nearby house.  This book isn’t about the arc of Foos’ life though.  He considers himself to be a pioneering sex researcher but he comes across as a sort of resourceful “Rabbit Angstrom”, who ends up selling his motel and retiring with a large sports memorabilia, yearning for nothing more than a single-story house which will not challenge his arthritic knees and back.

As a reader you hope for a grand insight, but, like with most final utterances of the dying, nothing is revealed.  This closest to a moral that Gerald Foos is left with is that people behave very differently in private than they do in public, and for the most part people are dishonest:

You can never really determine during their appearances in public that the private life is full of hell and unhappiness.I have pondered why it is absolutely mandatory for people to guard with all secrecy and never let it be known that their personal lives are unhappy and deplorable. This is the plight of the human corpus,” and I am sure provides the answer that, if the misery of mankind were revealed altogether spontaneously, mass genocide might correspondengly follow.

That’s enough to make anyone avert their gaze.

Blade Runner 2049 – Somnambulent Sprequel

 

Exciting cinematography in the opening scenes of Blade Runner 2049: the noir tones of the original film replaced by ashy whites of a dusty landscape that looked like either an alkali farm or Ice Station Zebra.   This was the perfect photographic “negative,” a brighter view, suggesting that things hidden would be revealed, normalcy and daylight would let us examine the issues raised in the original  without that dank sense of dread.

And Ryan Gosling, the perfect emcee, he of LaLaLand and The New Micky Mouse Club.   Like a talk show host he would take care of us.   The point of the original Blade Runner was that no one took care of you.  That’s why people love it, it’s uncompromising, gemlike, almost cruel.   How I longed for the discipline of the sharp cut after two hours and forty-nine minutes of this metastasized bloat.   The visuals quickly turned gray and derivative.  You would think in 32 years the landscape would have changed beyond plunking down giant holographic ballerinas in the same post-apocalyptic cityscape.

The only bread-leavening (see previous review of the original) is a confusing, overblown plot, one that screams for another sequel in which the “humane” replicants will begin to breed and rebel against the machine-like cruel humans.  Perhaps their leader will be named “Caesar”.  We’ve seen this story before in the many wretched “Planet of the Apes” sequels and reboots which will never displace that masterful original.

The original Blade Runner grapples with issues of what it means to be human, whether it’s a meaningful distinction, and whether death adds to that meaning.  In the sequel the desire of the replicants isn’t “more life,” it’s the ability to reproduce through birth, without a master-builder.   But the sequel never delves into why the manner in which you are produced matters.  It’s a rich question: humans can be seen as bound by determinism, genetic inheritance, social conditioning – to what extent does free will exist, what does it import that we can we change our genetic code via epigenetics?  And to what extent are replicants able to have free will ?   The fact that the Nexus 6 models rebelled, which was not programmed into them, suggests they do have at least some independence.

The only way that these questions can be made compelling is placed in the context of relationships between characters.  The failure to do that is the central weakness of the original Blade Runner and also of Blade Runner 2049.  The original was structured in a way that this weakness mattered less: it was fractalized, episodic, promethean in it’s vision.   A successful sequel cannot be visually imitative, and is only successful if it moves the concepts of the original forward, in other words, if it adds.  Adding more plot does not count, it makes things worse.  Watching this film I felt like I’d  been dumped into season 4 of “Game of Thrones” without ever having seen an episode beforehand.

Hampton Fancher, was bitterly upset after getting replaced by David Peoples as a writer on the original, and he layers on every plot twist he can think of.    Is “K” the first-born child of replicant Rachael, and maybe-replicant Deckerd?   Or was that a female child?  Or they were twins so both?   Would that mean we now have races of reproducing replicants, along with humans?  Why does this matter?  Because the replicants are so much smarter and stronger and would crush the humans?  Would they employ their own non-breeding replicant helpers?   This movie bites off way more than it or the audience can chew.

I respected the effort to raise issues like that, it’s just that Blade Runner 2049‘s weaknesses highlighted it’s other weaknesses: the confusing themes called for characters who could embody and transcend them.  Instead we get impish Ryan Gosling who like Sarah Jessica Parker, seems always aware of his own celebrity.  And the new slurring Harrison Ford who makes an appearance 90 minutes in, has transformed into an actor who always seems partially demented and wild-eyed, like an old man ordering kids to get off his lawn.

How are we to believe that he is soulful and had a great love for Rachael?  They had no chemistry in the original.  Deckerd-manque “K” falls in love with his hologram-cyber-geisha –  again to what end, why, and based on what?  Nothing we saw on the screen.   This movie was created as a launching pad for a slew of studio-system sequels, ones in which the interesting questions will be buried in proxy myth: “they are human because they stick together”, “sacrifice for the group makes us all better”.  How this is from the bracing: “I want more life, fucker!”.

Let’s try to really be creative and think of how the themes  raised in the original movie could have been developed, advanced, without Villanueve’s derivative treatment:

The world is vastly different from what it was 32 years ago.  Humans are no longer crowded into wet alleys and overcrowded cities.  They are in brightly-lit but sterile parsected sections of land on 9 planets.  It’s hard to tell how old people are because they have had parts of themselves replaced and enhanced.  At the same time replicants are self-learning and can imitate humans perfectly.  The Blade Runner killers have selected for only those replicants who can pass the “20 Questions” test, and these do in fact exist since Tyrell created “special” models, like we saw with Rachael.  Some humans have artificial wombs, as do some replicants.

Humans can form relationships with replicants and not realize they are replicants.  Humans can have parts of their brains rewired through nanotechnology.  At this point there is no longer meaningful distinction exists between humans and replicants.  No one needs to die. Certainty exists.  And this triggers a crisis.    When you have everything what do you have?  What do you lack?   You lack meaningful struggle.

People (humans and replicants) start to die, to self-retire, for no apparent reason.  Is it because of a malevolent AI or is it the only volitional act anyone has left to make? The new “K” is on a mission to find out.  He must hope it is a malevolent Artificial General Intelligence or even his own struggle will be meaningless.   It turns out Roy Batty and Pris, who were “special” replicants had a girl child before they died,  who hid out as one of Sebastian’s toys.  She is now 32 years old and  is just as invested in finding out why people are mysteriously self-retiring as K is, because it turns out that Roy Batty did not have to die, he CHOSE to die.  Her inherent conflict with “K” –  since K’s father, Deckerd killed her mother Pris is eclipsed by their shared mission.   They begin to bond.   They discover that there IS a malevolent Artificial General Intelligence and are able to defuse it right before it goes into singularity.   After they do this they feel the weight of that original certainty, now the meaninglessness comes back.  But just then they are informed that unexpected neural networks have started appearing shortly after communication has been established with a species from a new planet.

I think it would be interesting to create a film that centers around what would give life meaning when we are all half-machines (and we are getting closer with Elon Musk’s Neuralink initiative), versus Blade Runner 2049’s reduction of identity to born vs. not-born.

The original Blade Runner – Days of Future Passed

I haven’t written in awhile, due to a general exhaustion with popular films, the sameness of every preview I see, and the substitution of CGI for character development. Is it possible to have drama without special effects? It’s as if we are so numbed out that we forget the emotions of everyday life: the nervousness of going to a job interview, the anger felt when cut off in traffic, the happiness of seeing a loved one after a long separation. Perhaps these are not cinematic enough? I find that cartoon violence I see in so many films is largely consequence-free and thus boring. This fake violence inoculates us from fear and gives us a safe cinematic zone. One that, for some reason, seems to be needed now more than ever. Back in the first days of film, when audiences were unfamiliar with the medium, they would shy away from an onscreen speeding locomotive. Today they are only comfortable with a speeding locomotive, running over an super hero who pops up unharmed.

Another issue is the plethora of movie sequels, which I call “sequela” (“a condition that is the consequence of a previous disease or injury”). Despite this, I look forward to the upcoming Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049.  It prompted me to go back and take a fresh look at the original director’s cut of Blade Runner, which is set in fast-approaching 2019.

Although it’s one of my favorite films, I find Blade Runner difficult to watch. It’s got a classic themes (the quest for immortality, what it means to be human), a love story, and is solidly in the film noir genre. Despite sweeping cinematography of futuristic night vistas and the megapolis of LA in 2019, there is also a mood of sepulchral opacity: settings are dark, rainy, crowded, smoky and harsh. Pauline Kael noted “we’re never sure exactly what part of the city we’re in, or where it is in relation to the scene before and the scene after (Scott seems to be trapped in his own alleyways, without a map.)”. The spectacular visuals don’t seem to be bound by an animating force. Completely opposite is a film like Triumph of the Will where the spectacle is in support of an idea, or in that case an ideology. And even though that ideology is odious, from a purely cinematic perspective the brightly-lit, symmetrical scenes are visually appealing and in that sense pleasurable. Whereas when immersed in Ridley Scott’s world, you end up feeling like you are on dark north wall in Game of Thrones, longing for the sunlight of the Dothraki kingdom.

What’s the idea behind this juxtaposition of beautiful structures with roiling ghettos of would-be 2019 Los Angeles? Perhaps it’s a more nuanced take on the idea of the destructive effects of technology. Technology-fueled apocalypse is well-explored territory in film: I am Legend, 28 Days Later, Brazil, Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, all the way back to Metropolis. Today in the news we hear Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning us to prepare to bow down in obeisance to our artificial intelligent overlords. In Blade Runner the apocalypse has been partial. There are gleaming palaces and flying cars, but for most it’s dirty, dark, and dusty. Humans have not been exterminated or enslaved, but live as scurrying ramen-eaters and goods-hawkers. In this sense Blade Runner is closer to Bong June-ho’s Snowpiercer than it is to most post-apocalyptic movies.

Given this grubby existence where everyone is looking out for themselves, the love story between Sean Young’s Rachael and Harrison Ford’s Deckerd should gain significance and perhaps be redemptive, but the characters are hampered by the blind loyalty to the close-mouthed film noir style. Not much is said, and not enough is felt.

Despite these flaws, Blade Runner is an immersive, imaginative, well-acted, impeccably cast, patient film. I disagree with Kael’s assertion that Rutger Hauer stops the film every time he appears, and should win the “Klaus Kinski Scenery Chewing Award.” As the doomed prodigal son he deserves some scenery to chew and I found him energizing. Harrison Ford is at his peak but underplays the role, he always seems to have just woken up.

Blade Runner is painterly and demands a suspension of the audience’s desire to cede a portion of their critical responsibility to predictable filmic memes: buddy movie, gang of lovables, guy gets girl, righteous revenge, or what I see a lot of lately: “togetherness overcomes evil” (Guardians of the Galaxy, It). No comedy relief, no wisecracking Bruce Willis-in-Moonlighting character. It’s my favorite movie to see once every 20 years. Let’s see if the sequel leavens the bread.

Listening to Marlon

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The puzzle that is Marlon Brando’s ireedemable sadness, in the face of every possible success, is only partially explained in “Listen to Me Marlon”. Stephen Riley’s recent documentary constructed from Brando’s long-running audio diary.

Richard Brody pointed out that this amazing source of material – right from the horse’s mouth – is diluted by an overbearing score and pointless audiovisual effects. I think the larger problem is what has been left out, rather than the annoying technique for what was left in.

The origin of Brando as a tragic figure, depicted so unerringly in “Last Tango in Paris,” is explored through clips of his childhood: a voiceover where he explains how his mother was “the town drunk” and his father was a cruel barroom brawler and philanderer. He describes an inability to escape the feeling that his inner nature was simply wrong.

That began to change after moving to New York, where Brando took Method acting lessons and lived with Stella Adler, who turned out to be something of a surrogate mother. This may have been the happiest time of his life.

Success and its discontents followed. On some level he did not feel he deserved the adulation. On another he overindulged in it, in order to make up for a lifetime of deprivation. It’s chilling to see interviews with the young star, awkwardly hitting on attractive female interviewers.

From this point on Brando feels increasing hounded, and disillusioned with a society he feels is obsessed with acquisition. He buys a Tahitian Island to escape and be in the company of people who don’t care that he is a movie star. Later he endures the tragedies of his daughter’s suicide, and his imprisonment (for killing his daughter’s boyfriend).

So what was left out? One subject is his relationship, possibly intimate, with early roommate Wally Cox. There was also no mention about his late-in-life friendship with talent-giant and fellow-weirdo Michael Jackson. His battles with food addiction are also barely touched upon.

But what I missed the most was Brando turning the mirror on himself. Riley focuses on the external influences that injured him: the rapacious Hollywood execs, the press, his awful early family. I keep a diary, and one of the reasons I keep it is to have a safe area where I can explore my shortcomings and any contributions I make to unhappiness in my life. The ineluctable force that was Brando as an actor – riveting despite his mush-mouthed enunciation and improbably voice – was grounded by the rare combination of knowingness combined with a deep vulnerability. In his best performances it felt like a privilege to watch him. To explore this self-awareness, it’s torments and liberations, would have made this a much better work.

Japanese honey bees answer question, “How do you stop Lebron James”?

In last night’s NBA Final Game 5 loss to the Golden State Warriors, mega-superstar and mega-flopper LeBron James was directly involved with 70 of the Cavaliers 90 points (scored 40, assisted on 30 others).  To opposing teams, LeBrron is the human equivalent of Vespa mandarinia, the Asian giant hornet, a.k.a. the “Hornet from Hell”:

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This beast is 1.4 to 1.5 inches long with a 1/4″ stinger which it can use repeatedly. It kills 40 people a year in Japan.  One of it’s favorite snacks is honeybee larvae.  A single Giant Asian hornet can kill 40 honeybees per minute, and a few of them can wipe out an entire honeybee nest.

Sort of like this guy:

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While European honeybees are at the mercy of the Asian Giant hornet, Japanese honeybees have evolved an ingenious defense mechanism:  they swarm an invading hornet and begin vibrating their bodies in order to generate heat (their stingers can’t penetrate the hornet’s tough body).

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Japanese honeybees can survive a top temperatture of 119 degrees Farenheit.  Giant hornets die at 115 degrees.   You can see it all here:

The Golden State Warriors have learned from these humble bees.  They know they are “too little” (LeBron’s dis on Draymond Green) to guard him one-on-one, so their goal is to swarm him, put bodies on him, and wear him down.

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Unlike the Asian giant hornet, LeBron cannot be fully contained.  But like many bees and wasps, he’s extremely skilled at “wagging” when barely brushed by an opponent.

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If his fellow teammates don’t step up though, his quest to be the greatest of all-time will soon be cooked.

Ape is killing ape – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

1-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-review-jpg-20140714 You would think that the decline in quality of the original 5 “Apes” movies, each one lower-budget and worse quality than the one that preceded it, would give filmmakers pause, but since 2001 we have endured 3 awful s/prequel/remakes.   And yet these films do well at the box office, and are generally well-reviewed.

If this were the “Transformers” series I would care that much, but the original “Planet of the Apes” is indeed brilliant. Based on Rod Serling’s adaptation of  Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des singes , it was released in 1968, and features zero CGI.  Instead it featured real actors doing “acting” while wearing make-up and simian-looking prosthetics.  These devices were considered advanced at the time, but now appear rather primitive: article-2150936-135482EB000005DC-726_634x455   Still how scary-looking is that?  Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans used their costumes to enhance their performances, to give them an “otherness” that they employed, but also had to overcome in order to create full characters. This is the opposite of what Jack Nicholson said about his role as The Joker in 1989’s “Batman”, essentially to “let the costume do the work”.

The tension between artifice and reality is something CGI erases.  While this makes for more realism, it also seems to infect movies with a slackness when it comes to developing stories and characters.  Critics praise CGI and forget that a realistic wink or tear does not a character make. This was the case for the second remake of King Kong, of which A.O. Scott said:

The sheer audacious novelty of the first “King Kong” is not something that can be replicated, but in throwing every available imaginative and technological resource into the effort, Mr. Jackson comes pretty close.

Novelty and technology can’t sustain a movie for 3 hours, characters and narrative can.  Inexplicably Roger Ebert called Kong II “A stupendous cliffhanger, a glorious adventure, a shameless celebration of every single resource of the blockbuster, told in a film of visual beauty and surprising emotional impact.”   Roger Ebert is a wonderful human being, but I find his writing unmemorable.  A.O. Scott seems to specialize in plot summaries.  Plot summary + apologia that this is a “spirited” movie that isn’t perfect = A.O. Scott review. 

Despite my griping, I too wanted to see chimpanzees on horseback firing machine guns (I’m only human).  I found that it was just not as thrilling as what the original “Apes” movie did for me: imagine a world where humans are no longer the pre-eminent species, where it’s payback time for the creatures we have abused for millenia.   Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie modernist score helped create this sense of unease – so different from the crash, boom, bang of near-constant violence in “Dawn”, which has a strange calming effect on me because it seems to be in almost every movie now, and signifies that the good guy is going to win.  The other parts of the score could have been used in a life insurance commercial.

Speaking of good guys, did Director Matt Reeves have to make ape-leader Caesar into an absolute saint?  Consider the strategy in the original “Apes” franchise.  Caesar is a killer, but you understand his rage as he sees his enslaved ape-brothers stun-gunned, and watches his kindly guardian, played by Ricardo Montalban, die in order to protect him.    I go to movies to see people who are worse than me, not better.

The final visual in “Dawn” is another capitulation to feel-good non-reality: caesarclarke

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recall the harrowing last scene in “Planet of the Apes” with Taylor and Nova about to enter into the Forbidden Zone after seeing the ruined Statue of Liberty: liberty3 Final verdict on “The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”: mqdefault

“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

 

 

 

 

Postscript:   “Planet of the Apes” features one of my favorite opening scenes in movies, Charlton Heston, the spaceship captain is smoking a cigar on the bridge, recording into his log before he goes into suspended animation:

Tell me, though, does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother…keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

charlton_heston                                 Post-postscript: Really getting tired of seeing Gary Oldman, one of my favorite actors, trotting out his American accent in these trumped-up, square-spectacled Commissioner-Gordon-type roles.

Not tickled by the magic feather

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From the movie “Barfly”:

Jim: “You worked last year?”

Chinaski: “Six months in a toy factory. You don’t know how men suffer for children.”

Recent movies return the favor, according to Luke Epplin in his excellent Atlantic article You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids’ Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?.   Children’s movies now rely on “magic feather syndrome”: the plotline where a misfit child/toy/anthropomorphized animal ends up triumphing in the end by merely believing in themselves, often utilizing the very “defect” that caused them to be an outcast.

A prime example of this (which he doesn’t mention) is when Rudolph is welcomed back into two-faced Santa’s fold after successfully saving Christmas by guiding the sleigh with his formerly-hideous nose.  Epplin cites many other examples: Dumbo and his ears, a garden snail winning a race in “Turbo”, a rat cooking in “Ratatouille”, a crop-dusting plane in “Planes”.  It goes on an on.

He contrasts these with the 1969 animated film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, where Charlie LOSES the big spelling bee on the word “beagle” no less.  Charlie returns home and takes to his bed for days.  Linus consoles him by saying that despite losing, the world didn’t come to an end.   Charlie slowly returns to daily life, nobody pays much attention to his failure, and in the final scene he takes a kick at the football Lucy is holding.  In any animated kids movie today he’d kick the ball a mile.  Instead Lucy pulls the ball away, as always, and he ends up flat on his back.   The redemption is in not needing redemption, for this is how LIFE REALLY WORKS, and kids are actually smart enough to appreciate this.

As sleazy as Charlez Schulz has been made out to be in his personal life, “Peanuts” was a gift:  a very sophisticated, humane comic.    I’m reminded also of the”The Muppets”, who also weren’t afraid to make a difficult emotional point (“It’s not easy being green”) but who now have been sold to Disney in order to sell SUV’s and fast food (“It’s not easy being a delicious Subway sandwich in less than 5 minutes!!!!!!!!!”)

Pauline Kael in her review of “The Little Mermaid” makes the point that children don’t need to be spoon-fed,  they thrill to darker elements:

Are we trying to put kids into some sort of moral-aesthetic safe house? Parents seem desperate for harmless family entertainment. Probably they don’t mind this movie’s being vapid, because the whole family can share it, and no one is offended. We’re caught in a culture warp. Our children are flushed with pleasure when we read them ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or Roald Dahl’s sinister stories. Kids are ecstatic watching videos of ‘The Secret of NIMH’ and ‘The Dark Crystal.’ 

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The question I’m left with is why are “magic feather” movies so ubiquitous today?   Disney fare from the 30’s and 40’s was significantly more nuanced.   One commentator to the Atlantic article suggests that it’s the stress of a post 9-11 downwardly-mobile world which encourages escapism. For all who feel uniquely stressed, remember that back in the 1960’s the Cold War was going full force and the threat of nuclear war was real. It almost happened with the Cuban Missile Crisis, 7 years before Charlie Brown was shown in theaters.

My guess is that it’s more related to the always-on-yet-emotionally-disconnected nature of e-connected life today.   When you have to be able to respond at any time, you seek refuge, and the only refuge in a competitive world is being the winner.  There is no Charlie Brown in his bed anymore, quietly getting up and putting his clothes on.

20 Feet from Stardom

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" Portraits - 2013 Sundance Film Festival

20 Feet from Stardom, a documentary by Morgan Neville, opens with an oddly wooden Bruce Springsteen (botox, plastic surgery?) explaining how rock-and-roll backup singers have to be even better than the headliner.  Other rock demi-gods agree, but by the end of the movie we become aware that despite legions of praise by the headliners, it’s only on these special occasions where backup singers get their due.

Neville circles around this theme, suggesting that the lack of recognition stems from factors such as racism, record company politics, lack of ego in the singers, “fate” (a reason offered by the wizened Sting), and finally a healthy lack of ambition.   While it’s helpful to present options, the lack of a central point-of-view made this film less successful than it could have been for me.  In the meantime though we get to see and hear some great unheralded performances.

Just how vital backup singers are to a song is demonstrated in one of the first sequences, the Talking Heads “Slippery People”, where, perhaps on purspose the backup vocals are muted:slippery

The backup singers add variety, dynamics, call-and-response, support, and in this particular case, some fantastic dancing.

“20 Feet” then delves into the history of background singing, back to the tame, white-girl singers who would accompany crooners like Perry Como.

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The film then wisely focuses on some of the pioneer female black singers, including Darlene Love, who resorted to cleaning houses after he contract was manipulated by Phil Spector:

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We see a scene where she does a  duet with Tom Jones  and he does not benefit from the comparison.

Merry Clayton’s star turn in the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” is played in isolation, and it gave me chills.  She did the takes while pregnant and in curlers, called out of her bed to a late-night recording session.

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Clayton’s solo career was short-lived.  Above we see her belting out a version of Neal Young’s “Southern Man” that knocks your socks off.

“Gimme Shelter” has been sung live since 1989 by Lisa Fischer.  I found her to be the most gifted of the featured artists.  Here’s her one hit as a solo artist:

The explanation given is that she did not want to, it was not in her personality not everybody needs to grab the spotlight.  Yet with all of these singers there is a wistfulness and sadness about not being able to step out of the shadows.

Finally we see the up-and-comer Judith Hill:

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Will she make it?  The film stops short of casting her as a redeeming figure, ending on an uncertain note when it comes to her solo career.  After watching 2014 Winter Olympic coverage, and sitting through countless exhortative “follow your dream” big corporation commercials, I took this as a welcome grace note.

The Lady from Shanghai

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Despite all mirrors, sharp angles and Expressionistic undertones, I found Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” to be lurching and vague.   Most of the reviews I’ve read on it are heavy on context: Welles and Rita Hayworth were in the midst of a divorce be because of his philandering, Welles was considered “finished” in Hollywood after the movie failed at the box office.  But for once I’ll take a movie on it’s face: I did not care about the characters, I thought the plot overcomplicated, and I did not find Welles at all convincing as a romantic lead or a tough guy.

Supporting actors Glen Anders and Everett Sloane are terrific; Rita Hayworth is luminous though simple (she lip-synchs wonderfully).   Since it’s a murder mystery from the same era, I kept thinking about how the film would have been different if Alfred Hitchcock directed it.   More shock, more icy energy, less of the romantic triangle.

Welles’ vaunted visual effects such as sea creatures magnified in aquarium tanks, and the famous “hall of mirrors” finale, didn’t do much for me, especially when paired with the relatively conventional and boring courtroom scenes.   Welles’ Irish brogue was unconvincing, even distracting, and I found his delivery to be “stagey”, even when delivering the most off-hand of lines.

It’s not a complete clunker, the cinematography during the yachting scenes is fluid in a way you don’t expect from a film made in 1948, and supporting performances are good – Glen Anders, as the half-crazy business partner adds some energy.  When the closing credits rolled though, I felt I had shanghai’d MYSELF by committing the time to see this movie.

Herzog the Unnatural

Remember Werner Herzog speaking on the topic of nature while filming Aguirre, Wrath of God ?

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(Click to see the interview on Youtube, it’s worth it)

In his latest film, “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”, he’s done a complete about-face, creating a paen to nature:  a cross between a Leni Riefenstahl-style “Bergfilme” and a Disney documentary.

Let’s not forget, this is a director who created a definitive cinematic statement on man’s powerlessness against nature – “Aguirre – The Wrath of God” In that film nature is an irresistable force that causes only madness and death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even as recently as Grizzly Man there was an ominous undertone to his depiction of the natural world. Gradually though  (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World) his view has become much more sanguine. And by that I don’t mean “bloody”.

“The Happy People” features self-reflective, ethnic-Russian fur-trappers, musing philosophically as they conquer nature with a series of canny traps, self-made gadgets, dugout canoes, and home-brewed insect repellent (along with snowmobiles, chainsaws and plastic sheeting). I find this sort of thing very enjoyable, there’s a Robinson Crusoe-esque self-reliant quality that seems like a good antidote to the anxiety of modern life.

The problem I had with “The Happy People” isn’t want Herzog puts in, it’s what he leaves out. He barely touches on the indigenous “Ket” people of that region of Siberia, who are at the bottom of the social order.  They are plagued by alcoholism, and their culture and language are disappearing.

Ket

As you can see, these are not the “Happy People”. They are like the mythological Eris, left out of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and it would have been more fruitful for Herzog to explore their discord. They in fact invented many of these canny traps and techniques that the Russians use.

But Herzog now seems to be beyond provocation and provocativeness.  He’s in a steady groove that ignores reality but garners good reviews all around. Kael’s comments on later Scorcese seem applicable:

“He has become a much more proficient craftsman… but the first films he did that I responded to intensely – Mean Streets and Taxi Driver had a sense of discovery. He was looking into himself and the world…. Even though Scorcese shows what he can do in some ways, he doesn’t shape the material.” (Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 167)

I have some other quibbles. Could a man really travel 150 kilometers in -50F weather at night in a snowmobile? I don’t think “Survivorman” would try this with the best gear.  How would you survive if your snowmobile breaks down? How do you get out of bed when it’s that cold? How do you wash yourself? How happy a person are you when a tooth becomes infected?

Creative people often have a brief shining period of amazing originality, followed by years of reputation-coasting. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be Picasso.  Herzog has become a master emcee.  I’ll remember his earlier work.  I’ll remember Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier films” too.

In the meantime, may I recommend the low-budget film “Alone in the Wilderness”, the story of a man who builds himself a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with just hand tools.  Think of it as  “The Happy People” without the quirky Bavarian voice-over.

alone-in-the-wilderness