Double dose of Buñuel

First, El Bruto (1953), one of his Mexican potboilers. A mean old slum lord hires a slaughterhouse employee to threaten the ringleaders of a group of squatters who resist eviction. The Brute, who looks like Ernest Borgnine, finds that his ham hock arms attract the patrician’s wife, played by Katy Jurado. Entertaining but not as rich as Wuthering Heights or El, or as stupid-uproarious as Susana. Best scene is a lovemaking that takes place while some pork is being roasted on a fire.

The second in Catherine Deneuve’s Repression Diptych, Tristana was for years harder to find (I’d only watched a second generation duplicate in 1996) and despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film the most obscure object of desire for Buñuelists who revere his septuagenarian work. Fernando Rey plays a fastidious Spanish aristocrat who rescues a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) from a nunnery. He would love to make his ward his wife. As usual in the Buñuel universe she won’t have him, which doesn’t stop her from playing pliant housewife by day and romancer of sexy painters (Franco Nero) by night. Shot in Toledo, Tristana‘s action unfolds in catacombs and kitchens without electricity; one of its best scenes takes place in a cafe, men without women. When the narrative flags, Buñuel folds in a dream sequence, a couple of which have the yank-the-carpet surprise perfected in his next film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Tristana, running around a bell tower with two deaf mutes, confronts the head of Rey as a clapper.

Although the success of 1968’s Belle de Jour ensured a higher budget, and Buñuel demonstrates how much he’s learned about eliminating superfluities, Tristana is nevertheless a minor work. Rey and Denueve have no chemistry — a Buñuel intention, but onscreen they act like performers instructed to recite lines with as little inflection as possible. More than Robert Bresson, Buñuel is the major director most indifferent to acting, perhaps because for years he operated under circumstances that made good acting a luxury (see El Bruto). The narrative is claustrophobic and entirely gag-free.

We need more!


As promised, the Pet Shop Boys today announced full details of their forthcoming album Electric — the second release from Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant in less than a year — and revealed the itinerary for a month-long, 19-date tour that will bring the duo back to North America for the first time in four years this September and October.

The group also debuted the video for “Axis,” the album’s opening track, due out digitally today.

Produced by Stuart Price, Electric is due out July 15 worldwide on PSB’s new label x2 through Kobalt Label Services. The 50-minute album features eight original songs and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last to Die,” plus an appearance by British singer/rapper Example on the song “Thursday.”

The tour opens in Miami Beach. On first listen “Axis” shows the Boys awake and banging a clattering Patrick Cowley-inspired electrogroove.

Fantasia: Codependent no more


“Lose to Win” sets the tone, its sample of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” interpolated as seamlessly as if its synth gauze and bass were performed in 2013. On Side Effects of You, Fantasia’s rasp signifies the lengths she’s traveled since winning “American Idol” in 2004, and acknowledges new hurts too. On the title track, co-written by Emeli Sandé, codependency tastes like prescription pills; even her delivery is cottonmouthed. “Let me cook for ya, baby,” she implores on “Change Your Mind” over a distorted guitar riff and nineties synths, which is appropriate for a song that nods towards Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” The Kelly Rowland-Missy Elliott collaboration “Without Me” works best as a reflection of the superiority of Fantasia’s art to perpetual blank Rowland and too-long-gone Missy; without, uh, her, the song is a nullity. Harmony Samuels’ production doesn’t overwhelm her, and he programs some of the best drum sounds I’ve heard in a contemporary R&B recording. I’m sorry I missed 2006’s Back to Me.

Expanding executive power — mellifluously

Noam Chomsky:

Q: On Obama’s 2012 election campaign web site, it clearly states that Obama has prosecuted six whistleblowers under the Espionage Act. Does he think he’s appealing to some constituency with that affirmation?

A: I don’t know what base he’s appealing to. If he thinks he’s appealing to the nationalist base, well, they’re not going to vote for him anyway. That’s why I don’t understand it. I don’t think he’s doing anything besides alienating his own natural base. So it’s something else.

What it is is the same kind of commitment to expanding executive power that Cheney and Rumsfeld had. He kind of puts it in mellifluous terms and there’s a little difference in his tone. It’s not as crude and brutal as they were, but it’s pretty hard to see much of a difference.

It also extends to other developments, most of which we don’t really know about, like the surveillance state that’s being built and the capacity to pick up electronic communication. It’s an enormous attack on personal space and privacy. There’s essentially nothing left. And that will get worse with the new drone technologies that are being developed and given to local police forces.

As for Citizens United, Chomsky may think it’s a “rotten” decision but “it does have some justifications” if you’re a free speech libertarian.

Last man standing

“Any one of us could have said ‘We have to get serious about this. The Republicans are out to win. They are treating this like war. We have to get our shit together.'” This Democratic aide’s lament was published not last week, but September 1991 during the Clarence Thomas hearings, the subject of Timothy M. Phelps and Helen Winternitz’s Capital Games. Phelps played his own role in the farrago: as the first national reporter to interview and break the story nationally about Anita Hill, he was subpoenaed by the Senate in 1992 to learn which of his sources had leaked the contents of an FBI transcript. He didn’t. Nobody did. This University of Oklahoma professor recounted her experiences with Thomas when he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the FBI. It sent the transcript to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whereupon it sat for weeks, too hot to touch. The Democrats, led then by their chairman, Delaware senator Joseph Biden, did not want to look as if the investigation of a mawkish second-rater nominated by George H.W. Bush because Thomas was a black Republican mattered more than approving in committee the second black man nominated to the high court before a presidential election year.

The man at the center understands. Conflict and insecurity gnaw away at him. In an interview with The Washington Post in the mid eighties, Thomas admits, “If I ever went to work with the EEO or did anything directly connected with blacks, my career would be irreparably ruined. The monkey would be on my back again to prove that I didn’t have the job because I’m black.” To prove he wasn’t just a token, he befriended a grisly bunch: Jack Danforth, Gary Bauer, Rush Limbaugh. He married a terrifyiing GOP toady named Virginia Lamp who on a Saturday morning in 2013 left an incoherent message on Hill’s office line. Thomas is an example of precisely why “conversations” about race aren’t loud enough or held more often. Phelps and Winternitz record a Democratic party with a clear majority in the Senate but weary after ten years of fighting Reaganism; they also sought to avoid charges of hypocrisy, not when their most ardent liberal Ted Kennedy got caught boozing with nephew William Kennedy Smith and Biden himself still dazed after his 1988 presidential campaign collapsed amid accusations of plagiarism (speaking of second raters, where is Neil Kinnock?). To their credit, Phelps and Winternitz avoid reductive conclusions: they don’t implicate Thomas because of his contortions and self-pity; instead, they rely on Hill’s biography and accomplishments. The Department of Education and EEOC were the most prestigious berths of this last of thirteen children. Colleagues praised her discretion and almost alarming recessiveness. The transcripts record her command of precise English unfettered by jargon.

A senior in a boys Catholic high school, I was immunized against profane jokes, but to relearn Hill’s accusations for the first time in almost twenty-two years with the benefit of ruefully understanding what a boys club the Senate remains is to bathe in the sordidness again. Long Dong Silver. Pubic hairs in Coke. Senators with names worthy of Bleak House. Here’s Arlen Specter, then and now, an opportunist who betrays constituencies, calls Hill a perjurer. Orrin Hatch, after an apple juice and a glance at the Book of Mormon, muses that Hill lifted the fantasy from The Exorcist. Future stars Thomas Donilon, Janet Napolitano, and Armstrong Williams make cameos.

Annals in the once powerless

I don’t celebrate Pride — it’s a redundancy. To imagine Alfred Soto on a parade line is to imagine Aaron Burr as a popular two-term president whose visage was carved beside Washington and Jefferson’s on Mount Rushmore. If I went, it would be to pick up men.

San Francisco Gay Pride rescinded its invitation to Private Bradley Manning to serve as grand marshal, refusing to “offer even a hint of support” to a man whose “actions which placed in harms [sic] way the lives of our men and women in uniform.” Glenn Greenwald explains SF Gay Pride’s cowardice and notes this organization’s ties to some of the most nefarious practitioners of corporate malfeasance of the last five years. But I wanted to cite this passage:

when I wrote several weeks ago about the remarkable shift in public opinion on gay equality, I noted that this development is less significant than it seems because the cause of gay equality poses no real threat to elite factions or to how political and economic power in the US are distributed. If anything, it bolsters those power structures because it completely and harmlessly assimilates a previously excluded group into existing institutions and thus incentivizes them to accommodate those institutions and adopt their mindset. This event illustrates exactly what I meant.

Last month I wrote too, reminding my readers that “gay marriage looked like the easiest of neoliberal triumphs.” But I’ve got readers who will counter: homosexuals can be as craven and power-obsessed as heterosexuals.

Singles 4/26

The highlights of a crowded week: a Jonas Bros stomper that like all good pop synthesizes unexpected, discrete influences; Brad Paisley, not debuting at the top of the Billboard album chart for the nth time, redeems himself with A Brad Paisley Single; a certain nu-disco synthesis by some Germans you know and a mosquito-voiced producer; and mumbled melancholy from the National. Special mention to Blake Shelton, who isn’t any less boring accompanied by his wife and her gal pals. As for Wavves, watch the video, destined to join the curriculum of a queer theory course.

Click on links for full reviews.

Jonas Brothers – Pom Poms
Brad Paisley – Beat This Summer (7)
Pistol Annies – Hush Hush (7)
Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams – Get Lucky (7)
Little Mix ft. Missy Elliott – How Ya Doin’ (6)
Low – Just Make It Stop (6)
The National – Demons (6)
Deerhunter – Monomania (5)
Blake Shelton ft. Pistol Annies & Friends – Boys ‘Round Here (5)
Jaida Dreyer – Half Broke Horses (5)
Roberto Junior y Su Bandeño – El Coco No (4)
Juicy J ft. Big Sean & Young Jeezy – Show Out (4)
Joanna Wang – Coins (4)
Wavves – Afraid of Heights (3)
Isac Elliot – New Way Home (1)

George Jones – RIP

I hope I don’t sound ghoulish when I admit that in his best performances he, like Roy Orbison, already sounded beyond the grave: a specter tormented by guilt and lust. Cup of Loneliness is a compilation you can spend your life with and whose bottom you’ll never see, and it still isn’t enough. The Tammy Wynette duets (my favorite, superbly covered by John Prine and Iris DeMent. The remarkable eighties comeback that began with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which more than one friend has praised as the greatest vocal ever lavished on a country song – maybe any song. His influence permeates every genre: I was brought up short a few months ago when I caught it in Nick Lowe.

To listen to George Jones is to understand that the line between pathos and bathos must remain rail thin and hence perilous. If there’s one singer who can teach skeptics about the verities of country vocalizing, Jones is the one.

My favorite Jones performance.

Knives out for politics

Many of us are guilty of thinking politics is a substance you inject like a steroid into music when every song by its nature is political. It’s difficult for a gay man to view even a boy-girl relationship as non-political. I define “politics” more broadly; it isn’t just depiction or analysis or engagement with George W. Bush or Iraq or chained CPI. Politics is also the place where gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity get catalyzed. The transgression I hear in The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual isn’t in the lyrics, from which after several weeks I’ve managed to pick out a couple of conjunctions, a transitive verb, and some Raymond Williams keywords. The transgression is in the beats vocals, permutating and contorting beyond reason. For once the title ain’t hype.

“The poor are poor”

My eyes popped like Roger Rabbit’s yesterday upon reading Matthew Yglesias’ Slate column. David Atkins responds:

Which leads to the other great failure of rational actor theory in libertarian economics: the artificial separation of government and the governed in a democratic society. At least in representative democracies, the government exists as a mutual compact of citizens who choose to prevent the ills and excesses of the coldhearted markets by funding a protective system of checks and balances, social programs, guaranteed infrastructure, worker protections, product regulations, and a host of other goods and services that reduce the ability of the powerful to exploit the powerless on the open market. The choice to pay taxes to regulate meat companies so that consumers don’t have to do the research and take on the purchase risk of which companies’ hamburgers might be tainted, is just as equally valid a decision as the choice between going to Burger King or McDonalds.

What does all this have to do with Bangladesh? Everything. No Bangladeshi chooses to work in a dangerous factory at risk of implosion. They do so because they have little other choice, and because profit-driven companies are more than happy to exploit them while charging top dollar for the products they create so cheaply. Certainly, in theory that is a risk that Bangladesh and its citizens may take because if they instituted stronger wages and labor protections, the sociopathic corporations that hire desperate overseas labor would simply move on to the next country. That’s the rational actor theory at work.

But in theory we as citizens of the world can also choose to not allow those corporations to engage in recklessly criminal behavior anywhere in the world.

Reminds me of Henry Wilcox’s line in E.M. Forster’s great novel of class Howards End: “The poor are poor. One feels sorry for them but – well, there it is.”

Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams – “Get Lucky”

Even on Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid” Pharrell sounded thin. How and why he became a signifier of soul in the early 2000s mystifies me; he manufactures a feeling, and I doubt he’s ever said “phoenix” aloud in his life. But it works here because the damn track is hologram disco anyway. Thank Nile Rodgers, whose chik-a-chik-chik has supported everyone from Simon Le Bon to Grace Jones, from blank to frank. As for the name above the credits, it knows from holograms.