Dancing out of your constrictions: Best songs of 1978

In 1978 disco conquered America and Washington DC conquered Jimmy Carter. Here are the year’s best singles.

1. Sylvester – You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)
2. Rolling Stones – Miss You
3. Funkadelic – One Nation Under a Groove
4. Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive
5. Earth Wind & Fire – Serpentine Fire
6. Chaka Khan – I’m Every Woman
7. Cheap Trick – Surrender
8. Evelyn “Champagne” King – Shame
9. Bryan Ferry – Sign of the Times
10. Chic – I Want Your Love
11. Public Image Ltd – Public Image
12. ABBA – Summer Night City
13. The Clash – Safe European Homes
14. Willie Nelson – Blue Skies
15. Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
16. Warren Zevon – Excitable Boy
17. Yvonne Elliman – If I Can’t Have You
18. The Cars – Just What I Needed
19. Gerry Rafferty – Right Down the Line
20. The Isley Brothers – Take Me to the Next Phase (Part 1)
21. Peter Gabriel – D.I.Y.
22. Blondie – Hangin’ on the Telephone
23. Parliament – Flash Light
24. Wire – I Am the Fly
25. Rod Stewart – I Was Only Joking
26. Rick James – You & I
27. Wings – Girl School
28. Carly Simon – You Belong to Me
29. The Jacksons – Blame it on the Boogie
30. Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
31. L.T.D. – Holding On (When Love Is Gone)
32. Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
33. Jackson Browne – Running on Empty
34. Joe Walsh – Life’s Been Good
35. Dolly Parton – Here You Come Again
36. Ashford & Simpson – It Seems to Hang On
37. Bill Withers – Lovely Day
38. Linda Ronstadt – It’s So Easy
39. Maze ft. Frank Beverly – Workin’ Together
40. Cerrone – Supernature
41. Buzzcocks – What Do I Get?
42. Van Halen – Runnin’ with the Devil
43. The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet
44. Bruce Springsteen – Badlands

Weekly Roundup 5/30

Bob Dylan wrote and sang bad songs too, you know.

Terence Davies releases his long deferred adaptation of Sunset Song.

I didn’t think the documentary Weiner was anything but a reprise of headlines.

On the other hand, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is a triumph of style and tone.

Reviews of three items in my Soto musical canon.

Marco Rubio shocks Hialeah with his endorsement of Donald Trump.

A ticket on the last train home tonight: Best songs of 1979

New York Disco, 1979 (4)

In the first half of 1979, disco still ruled. The phenomenon had a salutary effect: even Neil Diamond thought about four on the floor arrangements. As usual I wouldn’t take the ranking too seriously.

1. Chic – My Feet Keep Dancing
2. Donna Summer – Hot Stuff
3. Michael Jackson – Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
4. The Isley Brothers – I Wanna Be With You (Part 1)
5 Roxy Music – Dance Away
6. Funkadelic – (Not Just) Knee Deep
7. John Stewart – Gold
8. Tubeway Army – Are ‘Friends’ Electric?
9. Doobie Brothers – What a Fool Believes
10. Earth Wind & Fire – September
11. The Cars – Let’s Go
12. Prince – I Wanna Be Your Lover
13. Graham Parker – Discovering Japan
14. ABBA – Voulez-Vous
15. Wings – Arrow Through Me
16. Stevie Wonder – Send One Your Love
17. Merle Haggard – Red Bandana
18. Pointer Sisters – Fire
19. Raydio – You Can’t Change That
20. Van Morrison – Wavelength
21. The Knack – My Sharona
22. George Harrison – Blow Away
23. Pretenders – Kid
24. Blondie – Dreaming
25. Van Halen – Dance the Night Away
26. Ashford & Simpson – Stay Free
27. The Clash – Groovy Times
28. David Bowie – DJ
29. Dolly Parton – Baby I’m Burnin’
30. Foreigner – Head Games
31. The Police – Walking on the Moon
32. Al Stewart – Time Passages
33. Cher – Take Me Home
34. Buzzcocks – Everybody’s Happy Nowadays
35. Talking Heads – Take Me to the River
36. Sister Sledge – He’s the Greatest Dancer
37. Nick Lowe – Cruel to Be Kind
38. Eddie Rabbit – Suspicions
39. Bee Gees – Tragedy
40. Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight
41. Rickie Lee Jones – Chuck E’s in Love
42. Rod Stewart – Da Ya Think I’m Sexy
43. Electric Light Orchestra – Don’t Bring Me Down
44. Dionne Warwick – Déjà Vu
45. Donna Summer – Heaven Knows
46. Smokey Robinson – Cruisin’
47. Public Image Ltd – Death Disco
48. Machine – There But For the Grace of God Go I
49. The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry
50. Elvis Costello – Oliver’s Army

‘Sunset Song’ an uneven retread


I know devotees of Terence Davies who lament his choices in the last twenty-five years. Instead of creating original material that might compete with a film as singular as The Long Day Closes, the English director has turned to adaptations: the muddled The Neon Bible (1995), his excellent take on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000), a radio adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a vital restaging of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Call it a retreat. Or a recalibration. A project he has tried to film more than once, Sunset Song finally arrives in theaters. He loved Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel to distraction. This meticulous depiction of rural Scotland in the early twentieth century is a most enjoyable picture that suffers from an uneven rhythm.

Davies’ use of 360 degree tracking shots and a combination of digital and anamorphic 65mm photography gives Sunset Song its pantheistic splendor. As cruel as the land can be, as merciless the weather on the Guthrie farm, Blawearie, Chris (Agnyess Deyn) has deep attachments anyway. This in spite of the malice shown by her father (Peter Mullan, crowning a career of playing tyrants), who whips her brother with a crop for cursing. The actor, Jack Greenless, faces the camera for the whipping, removing his shirt slowly as if in a strip tease; it’s one of the few moments in Sunset Song in which Davies reverts to his reflexive homoeroticism. Otherwise life is grim stuff for the Guthries. Chris goes to school and learns Latin while her mother endures another agonizing pregnancy, her screams filling the home. A hired hand, catching her alone in the barn, ravishes her ankles as if they were bare breasts. She has enough: later she and her baby twins will swallow poison. Chris’ aunt and uncle take her while Guthrie falls apart. He will suffer a stroke. In the novel, Guthrie will try to seduce his daughter. Davies instead shows Guthrie falling out of bed screaming her name while Chris silently locks the door behind her. When her stern aunt insists that she kiss him goodbye at the funeral, Chris is unmoved.

A good thing too, for Sunset Song‘s pace and mood change from this point. Established as a woman of modest means according to the terms of her father’s will, Chris moves into Blawearie herself. The voice-over gets more pronounced, the hills mistier. Then Ewan (Kevin Guthrie, as charming as Emory Cohen playing a similar role in last year’s Brooklyn) enters the picture. They are not in love so much as trying to turn their mutual lust into love; after their wedding party, there’s a suggestive shot of Ewan walking through an open doorway into a delicate snowfall, and it’s possible to imagine his body heat repelling the flakes. A childbirth as painful as her mother’s interrupts their Blawearie idyll, auguring the shots fired a continent away at a Serbian archduke. A reluctant Ewan enlists after enduring the suggestion from the village pastor and neighbors that he’s a coward. When he returns from France his gentle spirit is gone, deformed by war.

Sunset Song deserves plaudits for positing a marriage as a commingling of sex and labor that rebukes the idea of gender divisions. Chris, with her androgynous name, is clearly in charge. Ewan looks content to be the supporting actor. In the fields she does as much heavy lifting as he (the reissue of Jan Troell’s The New Land makes for a perfect study of complements: toil and hardships don’t slacken the intensity of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann’s erotic bond). One of the more realistic depictions of sex happens on the wedding night. Starting with a closeup of clenched bare feet, the camera tracks up the bed to Chris and Ewan, nude and nubile and out of shape in that recognizably pre-modern way, in a passionate clinch. Until the war years they can’t stop making out. Without the appeal of Guthrie and Deyn these scenes would look callow.

With its glops of the aforementioned voice-over, cutaways to the Scottish terrain (shot in New Zealand), and scenes of a beautiful couple using horse plows, Sunset Song evokes The New Land and Roman Polanski’s Tess, but it’s closer to Days of Heaven; Davies is a less wooly-headed Terrence Malick. But the film, both over- and underplotted, can’t decide what it wants to linger on. So enraptured with Gibbon’s prose is Davies that for once in his career he distrusts his camera; Michael McDonough’s work here is the kind that gets Oscar nominations for pretty pictures. More troubling, Sunset Song aestheticizes some of the novel’s horrors. I refer to a scene in which Davies glides over the evil mud of the Marne for what it seems like minutes while a robust male voice croons a hymn. The best of Sunset Song doesn’t try so hard. My favorite moment, as they often do in Davies films, happens to include a song, another hymn: old Guthrie, in an infrequent gentle mood, with his young family, teasing out the words. Recall Tom Hiddleston coaxing Rachel Weisz into singing “You Belong to Me” in The Deep Blue Sea; recall The Long Day Closes‘ Leigh McCormack swept up by Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy.” Struggling to play a conception who’s closer to a figure in a parable than a human being, Deyn looks walloped, dazed. A film about a woman using her education to cultivate her fields and her sense of interiority would be a rare thing, and this material was in the novel, awaiting the shaping hands of an imaginative director.

To love Sunset Song is to accede to Davies. In a career spent delineating the intersection of remembered happiness, the potency of retired lusts, and our urge to fictionalize, Davies is too comfortable with Gibbon. He fusses over the familiar. It has the feel of a production he needed out of his system. And it worked: he’ll be back later this year with a film about another woman and her own deepening interiority.

The cowardice of Marco Rubio

My twelve-step program allows for relapses. Here’s what happened this weekend re: Marco Rubio:

Meditating on everything from Trump’s rise to his fractious relationship with Jeb Bush, Rubio revisited nearly every turn of his presidential run in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper that aired Sunday on “State of the Union.” The former presidential candidate, who has grudgingly said he will support Trump in November, also admitted a series of mistakes that he says eventually bedeviled his campaign.

Chief among those, Rubio has said, was belittling Trump for the size of his hands in the leadup to Super Tuesday, which he has publicly said he regrets. But Rubio went further when speaking with Tapper.

“I actually told Donald — one of the debates, I forget which one — I apologized to him for that,” Rubio said. “I said, ‘You know, I’m sorry that I said that. It’s not who I am and I shouldn’t have done it.’ I didn’t say it in front of the cameras, I didn’t want any political benefit.”

Rubio, who told Tapper that he would be willing to speak on Trump’s behalf at the convention, did signal some respect for the man he has sharply criticized, praising him as “the ultimate change agent” and that he may be developing “perhaps a more comprehensive approach” on some policy questions.

The junior senator from Florida must either want to run for governor or retake his senate seat. Otherwise I must assume that he’s a coward and an adolescent who for all his youth couldn’t think of a single intelligent riposte to ‘Little Marco.’ I can imagine few more abject scenarios than explaining why he had to apologize.

‘What their sexual persuasion is does not enter into it’

A little over twenty-five years ago, the last raid on a gay club happened in South Florida:

In a Friday night show of force, 100 armed officers masked drug agents and the U.S. Border Patrol raided the gay bars.

Sheriff Nick Navarro, his wife Sharron and a visiting Soviet military man showed up to watch.

Officers flashed pictures, recorded the scenes with a video camera, sought out illegal aliens, ran criminal checks on customers and asked people where they work.

The law enforcement team made six arrests — and with its timing and tactics, infuriated members of South Florida’s gay community.

“It’s the most outrageous and unjustifiable exercise of police power that I’ve ever heard of, ” said Greg Baldwin, chairman of the Dade Action PAC, a gay rights group.

Besides making the arrests, authorities suspended the liquor licenses of both establishments, Club 21 in Pembroke Park and Copa Cabaret near Port Everglades.

“They are not licensed to sell cocaine. And we did find cocaine all over the floor after we got in there, ” said Maj. Ralph Page, a spokesman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office. “What their sexual persuasion is does not enter into it. This to me is a bum rap.”

Owners of the Copa declined comment Monday. Club 21’s lawyer, Norman Kent, said the raid was “a made-for-TV bust. They’re targeting a gay establishment for being too gay.”

Responded Page: “This is not gay bashing. This is enforcement of narcotics laws.”

The investigation began with a tip earlier this year to the sheriff’s South Broward substation. Accompanied by confidential informants, a sheriff’s detective and an investigator from the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco began frequenting the clubs in February.

They had no trouble finding drugs, state records show: Investigators made deals with disc jockeys, bartenders and patrons, handing over $20, $30 or $40 for bags of cocaine and $50 for marijuana. Detectives witnessed live sex acts between paid dancers and customers at Club 21, they wrote.

Nick Navarro, for those who don’t know, declared war on 2 Live Crew in 1989, arresting record store clerks who sold As Nasty As They Wanna Be. The claim about finding coke on the floor is a delicious touch — no one has to prove it’s true to float the claim. I mention the story to remind younger readers that this happened not so long ago. If we weren’t dealing with HIV, we had to fend off cops zealous about enforcing Leviticus.

Singles 5/26


* I hope Paul Simon’s forthcoming album has songs livelier than “Wristband,” whose mild groove and polite agitation match its okay conceit.

* I hope the solidness of “In Common” doesn’t mean I have to listen to Alicia Keys with fresh ears. It used to be I’d play Dawn Richard to escape her; now she is Dawn Richard.

* In the next couple of weeks, I’ll write a review explaining why Chance the Rapper’s mixtape leaves me unmoved. I can’t listen to him for more than a line at a time before I start thinking about dinner or paring my fingernails.

* Blink-182 as the week’s highest ranking song surprised me too.

Click on links for full reviews.

Blink-182 – Bored to Death (7)
Jana Hermann – Kults (7)
Chance the Rapper ft. 2 Chainz & Lil Wayne – No Problem (5)
Nite Jewel – Kiss the Screen (6)
Paul Simon – Wristband (6)
Alicia Keys – In Common (6)
Madeintyo – Uber Everywhere (6)
Twice – Cheer Up (6)
Kungs vs Cookin’ on 3 Burners – This Girl (5)
Calibre 50 – Préstamela a Mí (5)
The Stone Roses – All for One (1)

‘It’s resistance against what San Francisco has been’

Conor Friedersdorf posted a conversation between him and a young Trump supporter. Although the man cites the debt, lowering taxes, “reduction to or an end to affirmative action,” and other points of obsession on the right, the young man also supports birth control access, universal health care, and LGBT rights. Now he sounds like a wannabe libertarian indistinguishable from the table of handsome men and women tabling at my uni library lobby. But these points pale in intensity beside the real reason for his support: “It’s resistance against what San Francisco has been, and what I see the country becoming, in the form of ultra-PC culture.”

Here’s why he can’t endorse Hillary Clinton:

This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.

An example of the PC culture incarnated by San Francisco that Trump wants to shatter into a thousand pieces:

Do you think Hillary looks presidential?” Trump asked the crowd. “I don’t think so.”

He then teased out his feelings about Clinton’s voice.

“I’m not going to say it,” he said. “I refuse to say that I cannot stand her screaming into the microphone all the time.”

He said that he had to turn off the television on Thursday night when he heard Clinton speaking because he “just couldn’t stand it,” though he did not specify what he was watching.

Friedersdorf’s boy-man wants a culture in which these sentiments can be expressed without fear of ridicule and exile. He laments the collapse of his liberty to be an asshole. When this gay rights supporter says that Barack Obama has exacerbated “PC-ness,” I have to question his attitude towards our first black president; I need reasons not to think he’s not another smiling racist who thinks he isn’t because he thinks Jim Crow was abhorrent. The sense of aggrievement hits young men the hardest: just as their golden adolescence of dick jokes and casual slurs about women yellows, along comes these people on Facebook who ostracize them.

‘Weiner’ offers nothing new about disgraced congressman

As the representative for the Ninth Congressional District, Anthony Weiner was the quintessential new century Democrat. An advocate for expanding Medicare and a protector of abortion rights, Weiner also voted for the Iraq war resolution and to bar the Palestinian delegation from the UN. But his effrontery distinguished him from the pack. During the nadir of the Democrats as a moral force, Weiner wasn’t afraid to insult GOP colleagues, often in monologues distinguished by their vituperative eloquence. The gaunt Weiner couldn’t “do” ingratiation, for sweetness; he had the teeth of a guard dog growling on a front porch. Audiences beyond Brooklyn saw more of Weiner after the Democrats took control of the House in 2007 and especially during the 2009 health care debates. Marrying Hillary Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin the same year (Bill Clinton officiated) solidified the Weiners as party elites.

Then Weiner started living up to his birth name. In 2011 Weiner sexted pictures of himself to a woman on Twitter, triggering a chain reaction of dogged and implausible denials until he admitted the truth at a gruesome press conference where he once again demonstrated he had no talent for contrition. Although he resigned months later, New Yorkers were themselves in a contrite mood and for a while entertained the idea of electing him mayor in 2014 – electing Weiner, that is, not Carlos Danger, the unfortunate moniker under which Weiner sent more dirty talk and pics to an Indianan named, are you ready, Sydney Leathers, who had first approached him as a concerned citizen disgusted by the first sexting incident but not by the former congressman’s choice of a name redolent of a departed Interpol bassist.

“This is the worst: doing a documentary on my scandal,” Weiner shares at the beginning of Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman’s eponymous film, which opens in South Florida after wowing’em at Sundance. I spent two paragraphs recounting the congressman’s disgrace to show how Weiner, which was shot as the scandal broke and boasts no talking heads, has nowhere to go once it puts the audience through the familiar paces. If it “raises questions,” to use the twaddle of political talk show guests, it’s in revealing the implicit collusion of legislators and the news-entertainment complex. A transactional arrangement, say: Weiner got more coverage for a mayoral race he knew he was going to lose while Colbert got material for penile puns.

If any figure emerges from Weiner with a crumb of sympathy, it’s Huma Abedin, complicit in the fate of the husband to whom she pledged in public to stand beside. Steinberg and Kriegman’s setups don’t extend the sympathy, though: with her crossed arms, set jaw, and implacable expression, Abedin is every smart woman who’s had to eat crow for the sake of an imbecile (that Abedin’s former boss was in the same quandary is a painful quirk of fate). After the first texting incident, Steinberg and Kriegman show her dutifully calling donors with the enthusiasm of a halfback at a ballet recital. “How was the engagement? Gimme all the details!” she chirps at a possibility (I don’t doubt one of Weiner’s own aides supplied Abedin with the biographical detritus of whoever is on the other end of the phone). When she served Clinton as her indispensable aide, Abedin never had to deal with the public; as the scandal hits it’s clear she and Weiner are in a race to see who is worst at soliciting anything from anybody. In almost as bad a pickle are Weiner campaign employees, one of whom confronts the boss at a heart-to-heart with, “I’m not in a good place,” which no person over the age of sixteen should be expected to bear.

Wearing its conventional cinéma vérité drag, Weiner doesn’t address whether Weiner owed his constituents something for asking his constituents’ forgiveness. When he resigned in 2011, recall, the seat went to a Republican in a special election. Whether Weiner would’ve run for mayor at all had he controlled himself is an obvious point. In a town hall meeting at which he thinks he can persuade voters to pay attention to the inequities of the tax code, a man disabuses Weiner of the idea that the mayoral candidate could expect to act as if nothing had ever happened. And there’s something to Weiner’s assertions, which meshed with his cutting instincts and well-cultivated sense of martyrdom, that the sexting concerned no one but him and his wife – and “my god” as he was wont to add during sententious moments. To accuse voters of caring unduly about a situation he started and to triumph anyway proved too dexterous a contortion feat for Weiner. No doubt he studied the career of Abedin’s former employer’s husband.

Reliant on the un-charm of its anti-hero, Weiner asks viewers to identify with the man’s outrage over the media’s obsession with banalities. An excerpt from Weiner’s interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell ends with the candidate reducing the gasbag into guitar picks, thanks to O’Donnell’s imagining that he holds degrees in psychiatry and psychology (‘What’s wrong with you?” is the first question). Yet Steinberg and Kriegman only followed Weiner and Abedin around in the first place because of the sexting nonsense; they show no interest in public policy. This was the other reason for my mentioning Weiner’s political positions in the first paragraph. Reducing Anthony David Weiner’s profile to serial texter of naughty images might be the job of Wikipedia lead writers, but watching Weiner it’s unclear if that was its makers’ intention.

Can you understand my pain? Dylan’s worst songs

My picks for worst Dylan songs are failures of imagination, excuses for singing like a minotaur, or okay songs hobbled by contemptible arrangements. I could have added “Chimes of Freedom,” a Kristofferson cover with a terrified children’s choir, or “Dark Eyes” (I can’t better Theon Weber’s description: it’s transparently on Empire Burlesque so that stupid people can think it’s the one good song).

10. “Disease of Conceit” (Oh Mercy).

I don’t mind Dylan’s unexpected stresses; they function like iambic pentameter set to the rhythm of English subtitles. But the piano hook is anemic instead of stately, and he indicts an abstraction which can’t rebut the indictment (“What Good Am I” took care of that two tracks earlier).

9. “To Make You Feel My Love” (Time Out of Mind).

Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, Bryan Ferry are among the artists who have covered a plaint so generic that Garth Brooks, Billy Joel, and Bryan Ferry sing it exactly the same.

8. “When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky” (Empire Burlesque)

The arrangement gallumphing in an effort to persuade the principals that they’re having a good time, this 1985 oddity got more sensitive treatment at the hands of the E Street Band. And Roy Bittan’s piano is put to effective use. I’m all for Dylan and octagonal drums (“Tight Connection to My Heart” is one of his best songs), but he and Arthur Baker sound nauseated; Dylan in fact sings as if in the grips of nausea. The two-note blasts of synth horns, the backup singer echoing every word, not a single space for the song to breathe – all as gauche as Dylan’s earring. Plus, the song ain’t that good anyway (“I can hear your trembling heart beat like a river” is a detestable line, with or without Dylan’s Count Chocula vibrato.

7. “Neighborhood Bully” (Infidels)

Not about himself.

6. “Gotta Serve Somebody” (Slow Train Coming)

Not about God. The gleam of the studio rock arrangement makes it worse (and endless).

5. “Hurricane” (Desire)

I had to stop myself from including half of Desire. Admittedly, the fiddle and bongos catch the ear, but telling a straightforward narrative is hell on Dylan’s singing; it has moments where he is audibly trying to catch up with a verse.

4. “Lenny Bruce” (Shot of Love)


3. “Is Your Love in Vain” (Street-Legal)

Archie Bunker yelling at Edith’s corpse, to the accompaniment of saxophones.

2. “Joey” (Desire)

No reason why this fantasia about a king of the street and child of clay has to be eleven minutes and why the drums sound more garish than Empire Burlesque‘s electrobeats.

1. “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35” (Blonde on Blonde)

Sure I hate fun. I like New Orleans funeral brass bands though! Dylan’s other song that stopped short of hitting #1 (guess the other) is worth playing once: at sixteen, thinking, “Oh my god he said STONED!”

The triumph of irony: ‘Love & Friendship’

Kate Beckinsale made her film debut in Kenneth Branagh’s broad-as-a-barn Much Ado About Nothing, in which she projected quiet good sense as Hero. The problem with being a British actor is that you remain a British actor, cast as if by edict in adaptations of classics: Emma, The Golden Bowl, Cold Comfort Farm followed. For some reason she paid attention to Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor, and she made me nostalgic for Sharon Stone when she played the villain in the “reboot” of Total Recall. With the exception of the little seen pleasure Cold Comfort Farm and as the girl who’s rarin’ to go sexually in Laurel Canyon, Beckinsale made little impression beyond teeth and diction. She created the impression of powers in reserve, of strengths suppressed. In Love & Friendship, she plays Lady Susan, a widow with no prospects but an acerbic manner, an available daughter, and considerable flirtation powers. She is a vinegary delight in her best film performance.

I’m also tempted to call Love & Friendship the best film Whit Stillman has made if Damsels in Distress and Metropolitan didn’t exist. But so sharply etched and well paced is Love & Friendship that it represents the apex of the director’s preoccupation with the way in which irony and persiflage conspire to peak behind the surfaces they’ve already constructed. Not to tear them down, however. Whether he sets his films in discos or a country house in the 1790s, Stillman understands the value of these surfaces.

Giving kinetic energy to Jane Austen’s epistolary novella is one of the pleasures of this adaptation. When the film opens, Lady Susan Vernon leaves the Langford cottage of the Manwarings, to the accompaniment of Lady Manwaring’s tears. What drove them out the audience will learn soon enough. Lady Susan and her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) find refuge at her brother in law’s, a squire named Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) as thick as a tick and given to ponderously quoting the likes of Rousseau (the specter of two recent revolutions haunts the picture). His wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) doesn’t trust Lady Susan, especially when she sets her sights on Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuels). He of course stands to inherit a quite a bit of money; that he’s also rather handsome is a bonus. In short, marriage to Reginald would end Lady Susan’s peripatetic ways. “We don’t live – we visit,” she says during one moment of crisis.

Matters look safe until Lady Susan’s boring daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark in dreadful curls) arrives at the Vernons’, having fled from a purgatorial boarding school. A girl closer to Reginald’s age and without the taint of her mother’s reputation reassures Catherine and her parents the DeCourcys, who also take a liking to that dullness and her singing. Sensing disaster, Lady Susan summons Sir James (Tom Bennett) to run interference on Frederica. If Austen’s novella were better known Sir James would be considered the stupidest character in English literature: he insists there are Twelve Commandments, calls the district in which the Vernon home is located “Church Hill,” and considers a plateful of peas as the most delightful of God’s creations (“tiny green balls!”). Stillman lets these scenes play at length, small masterpieces in the comedy of embarrassment. As the Vernons catch on to Lady Susan’s perfidy, the good woman’s schemes become subtler and more brazen – a paradox whose logic looks inexorable when her opponents realize she’s concealing her motives in plain sight; no one, the men least of all, wants to believe in the duplicity of women. “Facts are horrid things,” Lady Susan explains.

A filmmaker who began his career regarding the camera as one would a poisonous snake in the corner, Stillman has learned what to do with the possibilities of space. His compositions track people interacting with backgrounds instead of photographing them against decor. To keep his film at a brisk ninety-one minutes he eschews conventional exposition: iris eye lenses and subtitled introductions do just as well, stressing the project’s artifice. Richard van Oosterhout’s images are precise without lapsing into Merchant Ivory’s static, stolid prettiness. Whit Stillman adapting a Jane Austen novel is like Bryan Ferry covering Dylan: on first glance a calculated move, the reek of complacency unavoidable until the right vehicle coaxes nuances from a lifetime of study. Avoiding the expected thing like Mansfield Park frees Stillman to shape a work of juvenilia to his own sensibilities (maybe Stillman agreed with Metropolitan‘s Tom Townsend after all: “A notoriously bad book”). The character of Alicia, for example, he Americanizes, possibly for Sevigny’s benefit, possibly to write original zingers about the horrors of living in America (Alicia’s husband she describes as “too old to be agreeable, and too young to die”).

But Lady Susan is Love & Friendship‘s plume, the only character on the make in Austen’s fiction who’s a free agent and, in Stillman’s rendering, a figure to treasure, not pity – the most significant alteration of Austen. “I am done submitting my will to the caprices of others,” she remarks, and to a remarkable degree she keeps her word. Love & Friendship shows how a woman can find self-satisfaction within the strictures of a society that offered only a handful of roles: wife, widow, old maid, and governess, the last inspiring chills every time Lady Susan hears about Frederica’s education. More than up to the task, Beckinsale shows a facility of gesture that earns Stillman’s closeups; Lady Susan has mastered the rules because the rules have mastered Catherine, Alice, and her own daughter. She will not allow herself to be crushed.

In a recent post, Richard Brody wrote that the conservatism manifesting itself in a Whit Stillman film shows:

the ongoing work, by society’s most daringly creative and appetitive members, to quietly but decisively overthrow its elements of misrule and to have a hell of a good time in the process—and, as a result, leave a trail of mercurial beauty that others will then imitate to create what is widely known as fashion and is gathered up under the name of style.

“Style” carries too much weight. As a “mode of irony” Lady Susan’s style assures her navigation through a hazardous landscape: by reveling in frivolity she banalizes her in-laws and daughter’s codes of conduct. On the other hand, for Barcelona‘s Fred Boynton and Metropolitan‘s Nick Smith style is the weapon of a cornered animal, the recourse of the powerless. Aware that a culture less amenable to their attitudes is encroaching on them, they realize their irony offends no one; it’s a reactionary tool, a reminder of what they’ve lost. But at the end of Love & Friendship Lady Susan can smile at what she’s gained.

Here’s to your eyes and my final demise: My favorite things

PM Dawn – The Bliss Album…? (1993)

A path untraveled for nineties R&B. Plush. Acoustic guitars and pianos on percussive beds as soft as layered cotton. Boy George as a duet partner. Sampling “Father Figure” four years before LL Cool J did. A “Norwegian Wood” cover. A riposte to Tribe Called Quest’s “Butter” called “About Nothing (For the Love of Destiny)” that endorses a woman’s right to change anything she damn pleases about her looks and style. Dangerous health problems have kept Prince Be from continuing the career he deserved.

The-Dream – Love Hate (2007)

At the time Terius Youngdell Nash looked like he’d recorded a Welcome to Our World or Armchair Theater: no more than a producer’s demonstration of prowess. Although the public preferred to think “Umbrella” wrote itself, I’m still infatuated with his first album’s dinky songs about fast cars and purple kisses, closer to secondhand Prince like Ready For the World than to Prince himself. He loves the whoops and ehhs he lavished on his clients so much that he reprises them himself (Best hook: Nash using falsetto to imitate the girl saying, “Fuuuckk that niggaaaaaa…”). But Love/Hate isn’t merely a formal triumph: “Livin’ a Lie” remains one of Rihanna’s most committed performances.

Boz Scaggs – Middle Man (1980)

Consensus has chosen Silk Degrees as the keeper, but I give this album the edge because the band has an edge. Not since his Duane Allman days has Boz rocked this hard (“You’ve Got Some Imagination,” where he’s barking the lyrics). A hit when released in 1980, Middle Man is best known for “Jojo,” a gorgeous ode to a swinger out for kicks in Manhattan. From its cover to the Continenal touches in the arrangements like accordion, there’s a sense in which the album captures the exhilaration of a newly divorced man. Take “Simone,” an even better accordion-drenched valentine to a tough-hearted flirt that stops for a string and synth interlude co-orchestrated by David Foster; it evokes a similar interlude in Joni Mitchell’s “Down to You.”