You can shake me up or I can break you down: the best of Harry Nilsson

This Beatles acolyte learned the lesson: he imitated their eccentricity because he was a natural eccentric and a natural songsmith, not because he wanted to write Great Songs. For a while they poured out of him; he was the shaggiest, loveliest, and most self-destructive of the seventies singer-songwriters. His was a doomed project, for meshing Nelson Riddle’s orchestral pop and the American Songbook tradition it invokes with a Vietnam generation’s fetish for revelation sounded impossible then, and it hasn’t worn well. But he and Carole King should have composed more soundtracks for children’s TV — imagine sequels to “Chicken Soup with Rice” written by the author of “Cuddly Toy”!

And “Spaceman” is more devastating than “Rocket Man” and “Space Oddity,” fools.

1. Spaceman
2. You’re Breakin’ My Heart
3. Jump Into the fire
4. Gotta Get Up
5. Don’t Forget Me
6. One
7. Subterranean Homesick Blues
8. Me and My Arrow
9. All I Think About is You
10. Cuddly toy
11. You Can’t do that
12. Down
13. I’d Rather Be Dead
14. The Puppy Song
15. Everybody’s Talkin’
16. Without You
17. Salmon Falls
18. 1941
19. Good Old Desk
20. Without Her

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The best films of Clint Eastwood

He knows where to aim the camera, I’ll admit. The filmography shows signs of imagination betrayed by failures of nerve or a reach incommensurate with the grasp (Changeling, Bird, Hereafter, Jersey Boys). For a while women confused him. His directorial debut Play Misty for Me remains a crude, shrill but effective study of male victimhood, an extension of his put-upon soldier in The Beguiled, recently given a second go by Sofia Coppola. This was fascinating, for as early as Two Mules for Sister Sara he had a terse, crinkly rapport with co-stars as weird as Shirley MacLaine and Geraldine Page and the chimp from Any Which Way But Loose; he’d loosen up in the nineties, submitting to Rene Russo and Meryl Streep’s ministrations and the inevitable box office gold.

Ah, Clint and box office. Last fall, Sully grossed over a $100 million in the United States alone. 2015’s American Sniper was the year’s highest grossing drama. Eastwood is eighty-seven. How long can he keep this up? There is no precedent in Hollywood for a career this remunerative. American doggedness at its purest and most terrifying. Consider Woody Allen, for whom writing and directing pictures and breathing come from the same lungs. It would be better for us if they stopped, but they can’t.

The pictures below mix films he directed and films in which he starred, not one of them great, several excellent, most marred by the flaws above; twelve films is enough. Watched months after the chatter and Oscar news, American Sniper remains an intermittently gripping look at the armed forces’ grip on rural Americans. Unforgiven boasts a strong script to which Eastwood is too wedded, even for the absurdities — would Bill Munny really become the Terminator after all those years of dormancy, and why the hell isn’t Morgan Freeman’s race mentioned once yet he’s lynched just the same?

Well. His next film’s in production. So we beat on.

1. For a Few Dollars More
2. Unforgiven
3. White Hunter, Black Heart
4. The Outlaw Josey Wales
5. Tightrope
6. Letters from Iwo Jima
7. Play Misty for Me
8. Two Mules for Sister Sara
9. The Beguiled
10. American Sniper
11. In the Line of Fire
12. Dirty Harry

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Helping the hopeless

Once again, The New Yorker, like many daily newspapers where coastal elites dwell, dips a toe gingerly into the pool of poor white resentment. What Peter Hessler found will surprise no one since November 2016:

Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.”

After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”

As a complement, read a story in yet another publication issued by coastal elites, in which the reporter ventures into Doylestown, Pennsylvania:

In 2012, when The New York Times talked to Mr. Brahin and others here in Bucks County, Pa., a perennial swing district outside Philadelphia, their attitudes on the law tracked with national polls that showed most Americans viewed it unfavorably.

But now, too, sentiment here reflects the polls — and how they have shifted. Many people still have little understanding of how the law works. But Democrats and independents have rallied around it, and many of those who opposed it now accept the law, unwilling to see millions of Americans stripped of the coverage that it extended to them.

“I can’t even remember why I opposed it,” said Patrick Murphy, who owns Bagel Barrel, on a quaint and bustling street near Mr. Brahin’s law office here in Doylestown.

He thought Democrats “jammed it down our throats,” and like Mr. Brahin, he worried about the growing deficit. But, he said, he has provided insurance for his own dozen or so employees since 1993.

“Everybody needs some sort of health insurance,” Mr. Murphy said. “They’re trying to repeal Obamacare but they don’t have anything in place.”

Also included is an interview with a fifty-two-year-old diabetic whose budget limits her to monthly instead of daily blood sugar tests. She has not looked into whether she might qualify for the Medicaid expansion; she was not aware Pennsylvania had expanded the program,” the reporter observes, wielding a semicolon like a fencer’s épee.

As miserable as these hardscrabble lives are, for which I have deep sympathy, the temptation to turn into a sharp-toothed serpent ready to bite an elite out of malice overcomes economic necessities. I’ve written about Cuban-American fealty to the GOP. I have written about modern conservatism as a shuck: a matrix of philosophical justifications for enriching the powerful and extirpating the poor. Positing Richard Nixon as the architect of this resentment, Corey Robin notes the president’s talent for making whites “into white ethnics burdened with their own histories of oppression and requiring their own liberation movement.” If these people are lucky, the Rob Portman Clause kicks in: the principle whereby a person shows sudden sympathy for a minority he once disparaged. Hence, the residents of D0ylestown discovering they like the Affordable Care Act after all. What “reaching out” to these people will turn them into Democratic voters?

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Making allowances: the best of Robert Altman

I can remember the buzz around The Player — the old pro is back. I was too young to know he was an old pro. Then for a few years in the ’90s he astounded a young cineaste. I was the only one in a reluctant group of seven denied entry to a comedy club who sat enraptured in October 1993 as Short Cuts unfurled. This made citing through Ready to Wear especially difficult.

The list below is a bit of a cheat. Even A Wedding, Images, and A Prairie Home Companion boast dazzlements of composition, sound, and performance that most American films avoid. I included Tanner ’88: even after one viewing I know it anticipated several generations of cable television (and reduces House of Cards to a fan dance). For the rest of you, savor the shot in The Long Goodbye of a loyal dog carrying the cane of Sterling Hayden’s blowzy drunken mess of a writer after he Virginia Woolfed himself; the dim warm glow of the set-up in which Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller basks in opium knowing Warren Beatty’s McCabe has been shot; or Shelly Duvall zealously repeating Redbook recipes for tuna salad in 3 Women.

1. The Long Goodbye
2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
3. Thieves Like Us
4. The Player
5. 3 Women
6. Nashville
7. Vincent and Theo
8. Gosford Park
9. Secret Honor
10. California Split
11. Tanner ’88
12. The Company
13. Short Cuts
14. The Gingerbread Man
15. M.A.S.H.

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Trump and McCain: two kinds of toxic stupidity

Although the senior senator from Arizona may have a brain tumor, the current occupant of the Oval Office betrays signs of mental atrophy. Excerpts from the NYT interview:

TRUMP: Well, Napoleon finished a little bit bad. But I asked that. So I asked the president, so what about Napoleon? He said: “No, no, no. What he did was incredible. He designed Paris.” [garbled] The street grid, the way they work, you know, the spokes. He did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn’t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities, and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather? [garbled]


I suspect “crosstalk/unintelligible” will become my generation’s “Expletive deleted.”

TRUMP: I don’t really know. … But in that time. And don’t forget, Crimea was given away during Obama. Not during Trump. In fact, I was on one of the shows, I said they’re exactly right, they didn’t have it as it exactly. But he was — this — Crimea was gone during the Obama administration, and he gave, he allowed it to get away. You know, he can talk tough all he wants, in the meantime he talked tough to North Korea. And he didn’t actually. He didn’t talk tough to North Korea. You know, we have a big problem with North Korea. Big. Big, big. You look at all of the things, you look at the line in the sand. The red line in the sand in Syria. He didn’t do the shot. I did the shot. Had he done that shot, he wouldn’t have had — had he done something dramatic, because if you remember, they had a tremendous gas attack after he made that statement. Much bigger than the one they had with me.

Bigger. Tremendous. Just the greatest, you know.

TRUMP: But what it does, Maggie, it means it gets tougher and tougher. As they get something, it gets tougher. Because politically, you can’t give it away. So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.

I give up. Who pays $12 a year for insurance? Is he thinking of life insurance? He can’t be this stupid. He is this stupid.

As for McCain, I wish him no misfortune. But thanks to John McCain’s political acumen in picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the GOP legitimated a toxic kind of imbecility for which the Republic has been paying for nine years (look at who sits in the Oval Office). Thanks to the authorizations for war that McCain has endorsed, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the Middle East are dead. Had he won the presidency, he would have bombed Iran. He would bomb Scranton if one of his staff whispered in his querulous ear that terrorists ran the snack shop of a bowling alley. He would have voted for the Millionaires Bailout Act, aka Trumpcare, sending thousands of his constituents into penury. His “maverick” reputation, based on little more than barbeques and shooting the shit with bovine reporters, is one of the more mendacious examples of resumé swelling I’ve seen this century. The Beltway press abetted the rise of this fraud, and when the press abandoned him for Barack Obama the intensity of his resentment and the depths of his shallowness were exposed. He is an awful senator and unfeeling man.

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Movie Love #5

I’ve got a couple contenders for 2017’s best in this edition.

Lost in Paris (Abel, Gordon, 2017) 5/10
The Ornithologist (Rodrigues, 2017) 8/10
Baby Driver (Wright, 2017) 7/10
The Beguiled (Coppola, 2017) 5/10
The Student (Serebrennikov, 2017) 6/10
The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (Howard, 2016) 7/10
* Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966) 8/10
* Clash of the Titans (Davis, 1981) 7/10
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Cimino, 1974) 7/10
* Shame (Bergman, 1967) 9/10
* Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946) 10/10

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The best films of Howard Hawks

“That [Howard] Hawks does not feel himself superior to material many may find ‘corny’, ‘melodramatic’, or ‘banal’ is not a sign of inferior intelligence or sensibility,” wrote Robin Wood in his seminal text on the director. “He responds, directly and spontaneously, to all that is valid in the genre, assimilates it and transforms it into a means of personal expression.” This passage comes from Wood’s exegesis on Only Angels Have Wings, a lyrical masterpiece in which manhood is prodded, tested, found wanting. If on my twelfth viewing Jean Arthur still looks as if she wandered in from another gayer picture, perhaps a Mitchell Leisen project, I’ve made my peace with her.

I used “gayer” on purpose, for Hawks was cold-eyed about the way in which men liked women but loved men. Remember the quiet solicitude shown by John Wayne to Dean Martin’s alcoholic in Rio Bravo; he never takes his eyes off his friend when he’s about to do something as simple as grab a gun. Or Cary Grant’s habit of lighting Thomas Mitchell’s cigarettes in Only Angels Have Wings. Or the flash of affection and respect between Humphrey Bogart and Elijah Cook, Jr.’s hapless thug in The Big Sleep. Patters recur, with Hawks shuffling the gradations of couples with gradations as minute as Ozu’s, sometimes less felicitously, I’ll grant: Hatari! has fun safari sequences but no reason to be 543 minutes.

At the bottom of the list sits an overesteemed comedy. Why I like Bringing Up Baby least of Hawks’ major work is a mystery; perhaps it comes down to finding Katherine Hepburn’s choice of register a menace; perhaps Hawks, despite his fealty to buddy Hemingway’s men-without-women ethos, needed strong women as antagonists or protagonists after all. His leading men didn’t suffer Rosalind Russell, Frances Farmer, Joanne Dru, Paula Prentiss, and several others.

1. Only Angels Have Wings
2. The Big Sleep
3. Twentieth Century
4. Rio Bravo
5. His Girl Friday
6. Scarface
7. Red River
8. To Have and Have Not
9. Man’s Favorite Sport?
10. Ball of Fire
11. El Dorado
12. Come and Get It
13. Barbary Coast
14. The Dawn Patrol
15. Bringing Up Baby

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Animals in their death throes

The GOP in two hundred-fifty characters or less.

Posting has been light this July as I go on vacation and finish a more hectic than usual summer semester (I teach all summer). But I couldn’t resist commenting on that missive from our president, this gem sent yesterday, this post by an NRO contributor who for once in 2017 isn’t writing about trigger warnings and marauding gangs of saber toothed college students, and the old Datsun filled with giggling and smirking GOP senators careening off a cliff. It’s as if this remains of the Ronnie Army understand the magnitude of the calamity at last but have no choice but to hold fast to the voters whose hatreds they have stoked since January 1981. Unfit to run a brothel, uninterested in anything as tedious as legislating when FOX News and appearances on Mark Levin’s show get their blood up, Republicans in the Senate and House represent no one except their donor base. The congeries of resentments is the squid ink through which their base stumbles.

Meanwhile, those same Democratic House members who objected to Obamacare in 2009 and 2010 are having their own zombie moment:

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and party leaders are coordinating candidate recruiting and mentoring with the Blue Dogs. Both sides say there is a shared understanding that winning as many seats as possible in 2018 is more important than any Democratic purity test for potential candidates.

Creating a candidate who can win a center-right district is basic politics; opposing minimum wage increases for the sake of – here we go againn – Fiscal Responsibility is failed politics. The bluest dog of them all, don’t forget, sits in the mayor’s office in Cook County. An obsession with fiscal responsibility turns one into Mr. Murdstone.

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Just a shot away: the best of Martin Scorsese

Pulpish facility and skill is the American way with filmmaking, which explains Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary forty-year success. At his worst he sticks to the pulpish facility (Cape Fear, Shutter Island); at his most mediocre he coughs up fumes of art to obscure mere facility (After Hours, Gangs of New York, The Departed). But with his use of boomer classics, zooms, and overtones of religious feeling, Scorsese has become a unique phenomenon. Last year’s Silence was a rare peak in a director of his age: a rapt evocation of tortured fanaticism in a foreign country. It broke his sudden box office streak, and I say it’s about time; should he die tomorrow, it’s a worthy film on which to posit as a summa.

Although I like to love many films on the list below, he and I will never be simpatico: the mixture of pulp romanticism with machismo is a combination, I’ll admit, whose likes we’ll never see again in grand American cinema, but his combination we’ll study, like John Ford and Howard Hawks’, in film school without hope of repetition, for better or worse.

1. Goodfellas
2. Life Lessons
3. Taxi Driver
4. Mean Streets
5. New York, New York
6. Silence
7. Raging Bull
8. The Last Temptation of Christ
9. The Age of Innocence
10. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
11. Who’s That Knocking at My Door
12. Kundun
13. The Wolf of Wall Street
14. The Departed
15. The King of Comedy

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If it bends, it’s funny: the best Woody Allen films

Following mainstream American film in the eighties meant waiting for Woody Allen to release something and watch critics argue. I came along at the tail end — at the time Allen had hooked up with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, a development that clouded the reception of Husbands and Wives, his most supple fusion of drama and comedy. The last decade and a half, perhaps longer, has been at best a retrenchment and at worst a horror of muddled or terrible ideas. I suspect, though, that when Allen dies — he won’t retire — the many terrible films will disappear, leaving the impressive list below.

1. Annie Hall
2. Sleeper
3. Husbands and Wives
4. Love and Death
5. The Purple Rose of Cairo
6. Manhattan Murder Mystery
7. Crimes and Misdemeanors
8. Radio Days
9. Manhattan
10. Sweet and Lowdown
11. Hannah and Her Sisters
12. Another Woman
13. Deconstructing Harry
14. Small Town Crooks
15. Broadway Danny Rose

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Singles 7/14

A strong week led by Playboi Carti, a rapper making a hash out of coherence and legibility but who nevertheless freestyles compellingly. The second best track is a drinkin’ song, and while recent entries in this subgenre have been the aural equivalent of Miller Lite, Midland bring a lived-in warmth to their entry.

Click on links for full reviews.

Playboi Carti – Magnolia (7)
Midland – Drinkin’ Problem (7)
Clean Bandit & Marina – Disconnect (7)
Anitta – Paradinha (6)
Blackpink – As If It’s Your Last (5)
Kelsea Ballerini – Legends (4)
M.I.A. – Finally (4)
Fleet Foxes – If You Need To, Keep Time On Me (4)
Calogero – Je Joue de la Musique (4)
A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie ft. Kodak Black – Drowning (3)
Jonas Blue ft. William Singe – Mama (2)
Bebe Rexha ft. Lil Wayne – The Way I Are (Dance with Somebody) (1)

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You said you’d die for me: The best of sophisti-pop

As I defined this surprisingly durable subgenre a decade ago

The march of Thatcherism and a White House-crafted myth of renascent America—a development confirmed by the massive electoral triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and, in popular culture, the pectoral triumph of John Rambo—instilled a craving for genres whose intimations of glamour and leisure seduced consumers already besotted with the Colbys and the purported superiority of compact disc technology. There’s a sense in which the laxative smoothness of the CD, its packaging, and cost, reified bossa nova, reggae, ska, and synth-pop; when scrubbed of their unsettling subtleties they play so much better at home

I could clean up the grammar and shifts of emphasis, but this sounds correct.

1. Johnny Hates Jazz – Shattered Dreams
2. Swing Out Sister – Twilight World
3. Danny Wilson – Mary’s Prayer
4. ABC – The Night You Murdered Love
5. Aztec Camera – Somewhere in My Heart
6. Prefab Sprout – When Love Breaks Down
7. Basia – Cruising For Bruising
8. The Style Council – My Ever Changing Moods
9. The Blow Monkeys – Digging Your Scene
10. Everything But the Girl – Driving
11. Sade – Your Love is King
12. Scritti Politti – The Word “Girl”
13. Simply Red – Something Got Me Started
14. Level 42 – Lessons in Love
15. The Blue Nile – The Downtown Lights

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