Sorting through the best of Steven Soderbergh

Just old enough to remember the hype, I watched Sex, Lies, and Videotape enthralled. Its coolness (the terrible late eighties furniture) and precise details (drinking all that iced tea) compensated for how written in the film school sense the film played; it didn’t feel like life but like someone imagining life was this complex. Meanwhile my friend Victor thought Kafka was the best thing he’d ever seen, and he hadn’t seen Lang or The Third Man or Murnau and the half dozen other masters from whom Steven Soderbergh rather soberly borrowed

Soderbergh is like that — a master of the received pleasure when the material excites him, a pedant about received pleasure when not. In 2000, Julia Roberts’ boobs and critics’ weariness with corporate law thrillers like A Civil Action led to a weighing of support toward Traffic instead of Erin Brockovich, despite the latter being one of the best comedic dramas about working class life released by a major studio, aware of the intersections of gender and class, boasting a sharp eye for interior design, and an excellent cast. “They’re called boobs, Ed” obviously paled beside the horror of Michael Douglas’ drug czar descending into the depths of a non-white Inferno to rescue his daughter from drug addiction, or Benicio del Toro’s quest to build a baseball diamond for all races.

Yet in the 2000s he won his Oscar and went his own way. After the premature Howard Hawks comparisons, he started earning them, alternating between quickie entertaining TV movies (Behind the Candelabra), quickie hack jobs out of genre pictures (Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven), and uncategorizable yet incisive-because-short fare like The Girlfriend Experience. Che, his Grand Gesture, suffered from his disinterest in history (Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, released a year later, reduces it to a kids’ dress-up program). Preferring Magic Mike XXl doesn’t mean we weren’t relieved that Soderberg directed the male gaze at beautiful lunks in movement the first time around. Not many people like his Tarkovsky remake; it’s closer to a re-imagining, transforming the original Solaris into an exegesis on remembered melancholy, the kind bereft of — too cool even for — ghosts. His instinct for cutting the crap shows itself in sharp dissolves and and crisp editing that isolate George Clooney’s astronaut in the shallowness of his recollections. I haven’t watched it again since 2002 and I’m afraid to — this guy’s work often wilts from on second thoughts. I like this list, though.

1. Erin Brockovich
2. King of the Hill
3. Out of Sight
4. Sex, Lies, and Videotape
5. The Limey
6. The Girlfriend Experience
7. Schizopolis
8. Solaris
9. Magic Mike
10. Ocean’s Eleven

Jeanne Moreau — RIP

Yielding to the demands of biology, male film critics can’t resist encomia to actresses. I understand — the camera is supposed to capture the allure of figures who become less human because a screen divides us. From the start Jeanne Moreau mesmerized audiences with a worldliness that made her whole in a way most screen personalities aren’t. If she was once an adolescent, she didn’t show it. Four days ago, writing about her director and lover Francois Truffaut, I observed that as the apex of the love triangle in Jules et Jim she was “too alert an actress to submit to the hooey.” Truffaut’s script called for a child-woman who knows not what she does but is brilliant while doing so — Zelda Fitzgerald as a songwriter. Much better is 1963’s Bay of Angels, a Jacques Demy masterpiece in which her compulsive gambler is caught in a chic, gruesome danse macabre, indifferent to the Riviera, maternity, to desire, to life (so many of Moreau’s characters shun motherhood).

Directors were besotted with how she moved. The centerpiece of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte requires Moreau’s character to walk across what hack writers would call an urban landscape; her slightly dazed wobble delighted Luis Buñuel, who cast her in his adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid, up for the dirty-old-man kinks in the script and Octave Mirbeau’s novel (“Above all, her manner of walking, with that slight swaying of her ankles,” he crowed to Mexican critics Tomás Pérez Turrent y José de la Colina in the seventies). He and Antonioni got the idea to cast her from The Lovers, the Louis Malle film that made his and Moreau’s international reputations. Her moods shift with the subtlety of a tree casting shade in the early afternoon or, to use the film, of the changes of tone and color that Miles Davis gets from his trumpet. No actress in the sixties could touch her intelligence and the way in which she held parts of herself in reserve; pondering that mystery drew audiences closer to her, she understood. This is what separates a film from a stage actor. I’m fond of her Madame de Merteuil in Roger Vadim’s modish adaptation of Dangerous Liasions and two disparate parts for Orson Welles: the vamp in The Trial and as Mistress Quickly in Chimes at Midnight — “one of the few moments of frisson between Welles and a woman,” I wrote during its 2016 revival.

She wavered not an inch. Her wary, hooded alertness deepened. Casting her challenged male directors to get past their complacency. I still haven’t watched Lumière, her 1976 directorial debut, I’m ashamed to admit. In the last twenty or so years she has trained Anne Parillaud on the art of assassination (Nikita) and offered counsel to the unspeakably gorgeous Melvil Poupaud, playing her grandson, in Time to Leave (2005), one of the few times she played cute. “To be a star is to have freedom, but only if you choose it,” she told Roger Ebert in 1976. “The people who back movies, the bankers and distributors, treat you like some kind of mine in which they can dig and dig, always digging up the same things they’ve found there before. So you become trapped. I made a deliberate decision to try to work with good directors. Famous ones or young ones nobody had heard of, it made no difference — if their ideas about film were interesting.” In the same interview she recalled Warren Beatty’s rudeness at a panel discussion: “First, he came 20 minutes late. Then he threw out the television cameras. Why? He wanted to establish a relationship with the audience, which was mostly women. A relationship of power. I could feel it. Merde! So I walked out.” To imagine an actress — an actor — mimicking the gesture in 2017 is like imagining hiding under the branch of a deciduous tree in the Mesozoic Era. But actresses weren’t doing it in 1976 either. Mourning Jeanne Moreau — an act of respect at which she might have heartily laughed in mockery —

I’ll do what you want me to do: the best of Tina Turner

For the most spectacular comeback of my lifetime, Tina Turner copped not an inch to the Madonna market. She sang Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” from the point of view of a middle aged woman who has seen enough bullshit from young songwriters and producers, many of whom are more desperate than lovers; she has learned to live on reflex. So few popular songs take this point of view that thirty-three years later the triumph feels more earned than ever. Fortunately, Tina Turner kept going. Her best material embodies wanderlust, intrinsically and conceptually: she travels from producer to producer, like her women do for kicks, often ending up burned but with a je ne regrette rien attitude.

1. Let’s Stay Together
2. What’s Love Got to With It
3. Typical Male
4. Ball of Confusion
5. Proud Mary
6. Private Dancer
7. One of the Living
8. Nutbush City Limits
9. Better Be Good to Me
10. What You Get is What You See
11. I Might’ve Been Queen
12. I Don’t Wanna Fight
13. Steamy Windows
14. We Don’t Need Another Hero
15. Steel Claw

Singles 7/28

The year’s strongest week produced several songs likely to make The Singles Jukebox’s top ten; even I found five songs worth rewarding, although I’d downgrade the Kesha song this morning. I keep forgetting Trent Reznor, creator of yet another indelible song after fifteen years of them (“Came Back Haunted,” “Only,” “The Hand That Feeds”).

Click on links for full reviews.

Nine Inch Nails – Less Than (7)
ONUKA – Vsesvit (7)
Jennifer Lopez ft. Gente de Zona – Ni Tú Ni Yo (7)
St. Vincent – New York (7)
Kesha – Praying (7)
Little Big Town – When Someone Stops Loving You (6)
Filthy Friends – The Arrival (6)
Hercules & Love Affair ft. Sharon van Etten – Omnion (6)
Fishbach – Un Autre Que Moi (6)
Fischerspooner – Have Fun Tonight (4)
Zedd ft. Liam Payne – Get Low (4)
Everything Everything – Can’t Do (3)
Fall Out Boy – Champion (3)

I’m paying the price: the best of Yoko Ono

The most maligned woman in rock history, Evelyn McDonnell called her, and it’s not hyperbole. Yet for studiocraft and  Fly, Feeling the Space and especially Approximately Infinite Universe deserve the scrutiny that her husband’s desultory Nixon-era albums get from Beatlephiles (she pushes her husband to new heights as a lead guitarist, too). Toss in Season of Glass and Rising and I had to stop noting the number of excellent songs written by Yoko Ono. Her influence is profound: from Alex Chilton’s pilfering the melody of “Mrs. Lennon” for “Holocaust” to the B-52’s and Sleater-Kinney. Walking on Thin Ice, a distillation of the Rykodisc Onobox, is one of the great accidental purchases of my life — at a Best Buy in summer ’96!

Eight years younger than my grandmother, Yoko is still recording: I wish I’d heard Take Me to the Land of Hell, and she enjoys a thriving second life as the object of okay to excellent remixes of older material that have taken her to the top of the American dance charts.

1. Why
2. Death of Samantha
3. Nobody Sees Me Like You Do
4. Walking on Thin Ice
5. I Felt Like Smashing My Face in a Clear Glass Window
6. No, No, No
7. Kiss Kiss Kiss
8. Mindtrain
9. Yang Yang
10. Give Me Something
11. Peter the Dealer
12. Mrs. Lennon
13. Dogtown
14. Talking To The Universe
15. Looking Over from My Hotel Window
16. She Gets Down on Her Knees
17. Move on Fast
18. Extension 33
19. Don’t Worry, Kyoko
20. Silver Horse

The power of an alarmed citizenry

“Yes, Mr. Soto?” the woman on the phone says, in the manner of a restaurant hostess acknowledging a demanding regular. She also sounds like one of my great aunts. Three mornings a week since late January I will call the Miami-Dade office of the Plankton with a Hairpiece, aka Marco Rubio, and lodge a protest. At the beginning I kept a list. The nominations of Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt. The firing of James Comey. Bringing any version of a health care bill forward that gives tax breaks to millionaires and starves the poor. Carlos Curbelo’s hometown office gets calls too. Grinding work, but undemanding work too. I’ve tried calling Governor Rick Scott’s office too in the hopes that he can use leverage against Rubio.

Imagine this work duplicated tenfold, a thousandfold — in the offices of Governors Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Doug Ducey of Arizona. Imagine the will of hundreds of wheelchair-bound victims of chronic diseases that the health industry euphemistically calls pre-existing conditions; they showed up to these offices and demanded satisfaction. They spooked their governors, who in turn spooked the likes of John McCain, a man who needs resentment like others need sex. Nevertheless, for quietly extending the rope with which Mitch McConnell hanged himself and his grisly reputation for sharp tactics, he deserves thanks. So do Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski; the former never wavered, the latter endured calls from truculent Trump thugs. Another courageous legislator: Mazie Herono of Hawaii, living with stage 4 liver cancer, demanding compassion from colleagues more apt to demand it from the liveried server at a Republican retreat in Pennsylvania.

But the primary credit goes to those ordinary citizens. Charles Pierce:

The primary force driving the events of Thursday night and Friday morning was the energy and (yes) persistence of all those people who swamped town hall meetings, who wrote, or called, or e-mailed various congresscritters to show them what real political pressure felt like. I remember watching town halls in Maine, to which people drove hundreds of miles to tell Susan Collins what they thought. Those people bucked up vulnerable Democratic senators so that Chuck Schumer could count on a united Congress.

So we beat on, returning to the task on Monday morning.

A gigolo is the only way to go: the best of Cheap Trick

In love in 1988, I gave “The Flame” more attention than it deserved. But Robin Zander sings the hell out of this make-or-break ballad, and Rick Nielsen’s mandocello is front and center. Thus began the most reviled period of Cheap Trick’s history, during which Zander recorded a duet with a Wilson sister not even as sharp as “Almost Paradise” and they competed with Poison and Whitesnake. But I’m no fan of power pop, so classing up hair metal ballads strikes me as no different. I wish I’d been there during their live peak. I rely on my knowledge of a couple studio albums and The Essential Cheap Trick.

1. Surrender
2. He’s a Whore
3. Heaven Tonight
4. If You Want My Love
5. I Want You to Want Me (live)
6. Dream Police
7. Ain’t That a Shame
8. On Top of the World
9. Hello There
10. The Flame
11. Tonight It’s You
12. Can’t Stop Fallin’ in Love
13. Ghost Town
14. Hot Love
15. She’s Tight
16. Stiff Competition
17. Voices
18. Southern Girls
19. On the Radio
20. Stop This Game

‘Landline’ sends a loud, insistent busy signal

Why Landline is set in the nineties is a question that Gillian Robespierre leaves unanswered as the end credits roll. Nostalgia for eyebrow rings, the Breeders, phone booths, and Macintoshes that look like tool boxes couldn’t have been it. Perhaps she recognized the dawn  of a new kind of forthright woman in American pictures, equal parts Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda. The best reason to watch it is Jenny Slate, who should by now be starring in every studio-released romantic comedy.Otherwise this fitfully amusing comedy examines the familiar cycles of infidelity and forgiveness, hobbled by a side plot too many.

The second reason to watch Landline is to savor the chemistry between Slate and Abby Quinn. As Ali, the rebellious seventeen-year-old sister of Slate’s Dana, Quinn has a cutting, jabbing presence that keeps the cast on its toes. As well they might. It’s fall 1995 in Manhattan,”Must-See TV” rules, and the Jacobs family teeters like most between keeping an uncomfortable status quo and facing the rot. Alan (John Turturro) gets little support from wife Pat (Edie Falco) when the copy writer announces he’s writing a play; worse, for the sake of a witty retort Pat announces at the dinner table that she thinks he’s a failure, period. College-aged Dana has boy troubles of her own, or, rather, sex trouble — she and fiancé Ben (Jay Duplas) remain in love but find physical intimacy with each other less interesting even when screwing in the woods, which inspires a shower scene where the game Ben suggests peeing on her poison ivy rash. But don’t think he takes risks: Several arguments ensue over his inability to say “pussy” aloud. Then Dana reacquaints herself with a plateful of prime rib, a dude who crushed on her in college; this triggers a torrid affair and the usual conflation of love and desire.

It’s with such dollops of cuteness that Landline stuffs itself. These bits and an arch, do-you-see approach to depicting the not-s0-long-ago often make Robespierre’s movie a discomfiting experience. “Ben and I spent three hours at Blockbuster and got Curly Sue,” Dana’s confesses to a co-worker early in the film. This material has to compete with scenes in which Ali and a friend snort heroin, which are in turn juxtaposed against theoretically harrowing trips to buy drugs that tonally play like Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt visiting a laundrymat. As Alan, Turturro’s part amounts to a wisecracking walk-on, with bits of pathos stuck in like nuts on a cake. Edie Falco, reprising notes she hit as Carmela Soprano, fares better, especially at a bar party where she does a most convincing imitation of a woman in her late forties feeling the rust as she dances to Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights.”

To dislike Landline is to risk looking like a churl, but, as as a man who thinks the sharpest insights come sheathed in jokes, I’m disappointed by the insistence with which Robespierrre backs away from troublesome situations; it’s as if she’s afraid of hurting her characters. 2014’s Obvious Child had similar problems. But women writing and directing movies gets so few chances that I don’t want to overstate the failures, not when Jenny Slate’s around for crucial support. They better make sure Abby Quinn’s got their backs too.


The best of François Truffaut

The nouvelle vague‘s most strident polemicist directed its most classical films, a development that disgusted erstwhile comrade Jean-Luc Godard. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana record the scathing correspondence between the pair in their definitive Truffaut: A Biography; it’s reminiscent of ideological battles between liberals and Stalinists in the thirties. While it’s true that no one predicted that the man who made Shoot the Piano Player would make The Last Metro almost twenty years later, it’s not as if traces of Truffaut’s fealty to Jean Renoir’s structural humanism didn’t peek out.

Unlike Renoir, he had no aptitude for the sensual. I haven’t rewatched Jules et Jim in years, despite its high ranking, because even in the early sixties he filmed the least erotic triad in history. Oskar Werner and Henri Serre don’t seem like best friends, much less platonic lovers who sublimate their passions, and Jeanne Moreau, too old for the part, is too alert an actress to submit to the hooey (by the end there’s a lot of hooey). All the weight of the flesh is absent, and all the shaggy, tangled undergrowth, all the wild darkness,” Andre Gide wrote about Henry James, whom the French never understood; it applied to Truffaut too. Yet I love that I love his 1975 The Story of Adele H, in which his concentration on topography –meshes with the madness of Victor Hugo’s lovelorn daughter, played with staggering intensity by an Oscar-nominated Isabelle Adjani. My obscure pick: Truffaut’s adaptation of — here’s irony — James’ “The Altar of the Dead” called The Green Room, marred slightly by Truffaut’s passive lead performance.

1. The Story of Adele H
2. The 400 Blows
3. Jules et Jim
4. The Wild Child
5. The Bride Wore Black
6. Shoot the Piano Player
7. Stolen Kisses
8. Two English Girls
9. The Green Room
10. Small Change
11. Missisippi Mermaid
12. Fahrenheit 51

Charlie Worsham and Lana del Rey

Charlie Worsham – The Beginning of Things

Young, adept at playing several instruments, this Jackson native can sing well and write better. Although the credits on his sophomore album feature Nashville standbys Shane McAnally and Ryan Tyndell, the most important name is Frank Liddell, producer of Miranda Lambert’s last two albums and wife Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’ — several of the best albums released in any genre this century. Soul horns (“Cut Your Groove”), “Subterranean Homesick Blues” babble (“Lawn Chair Don’t Care”) and electronically manipulated guitar runs (“I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) – he’s at home with them. Ignore a dumb, squawked tune about urging a woman to take off her “Birthday Suit” (Worsham sounds like Tweetie Pie begging Sylvester for a feel) and the rest is as moderately intelligent as male country in the 2010s can get; I haven’t had so much fun with a potpourri since Jerrod Niemann released Free the Music in 2012. The highlight: the title track, about an aging guy who prefers “the beginning of things” despite a senile mom, half-painted house, and a daughter “who calls him Bill.”

Lana del Rey – Lust for Life

A thought triggers the spring of memory. Using blue jeans, white mustangs, honeymoons, and other tangible products to signify the acquisitions of a life lived, Lana del Rey sings as if she won’t let memories consume her. Key is the singing approach for which she is loved and loathed: a dazed mumble that repels affect and which she manipulates as a guitarist would a pedal. The sheer number of guests distinguishes her fifth album, accentuating the degree to which del Rey breathes in her own world but one nevertheless as reliant on multi-platform streaming as ours. Asking Stevie Nicks to join her on, well, “Beautiful People Having Beautiful Problems” is too on-the-nose. But Nicks and del Rey harmonize beautifully; few singer-songwriters can turn self-regard into a mirror in which listeners see their own desires reflected as shrewdly as Nicks. A$AP Rocky, on two tracks, raps tentatively, aware of how his partner reduces admissions into mere words on a page (can we make Lana and A$AP our generation’s Marvin and Tammi?). Otherwise, longtime collaborator Rick Nowels contributes the barest of skittering loops and when he needs to fill space he’ll place del Rey in a funhouse where her own harmonies taunt her. Inconsistent, ceding space to nattering self-parody (“Heroin”), and about twenty minutes too long, Lust for Life has two other essential tracks: “In My Feelings” and closer “Get Free” are manifestos by a sensibility committed to blurring subject and object, the longing and the longing for. On the latter, background vocals shout a Neil Young borrow while the guitar plucks a theme evoking a century of film noir. Her triumph is the performance of longing. No coward soul is hers.

Don’t trust Trump, part XVIII

Chronicling the degeneration of Donald Trump’s attitudes toward the queer community shows the perils of relying on the whims of plutocrats:

After completing a 2005 boardroom scene for “The Apprentice,” Trump told the show’s first openly gay competitor that he saw advantages in hiring gays in his business.

“I love having gay people work for me; they are the most trustworthy people, especially around women,” Clay Lee recalled Trump saying to him. Trump’s logic, according to Lee: With so many women around his modeling agency, the businessman worried about straight employees harassing them. “I can’t afford to have that liability,” Trump added, according to Lee.

Lee said he came out to Trump during filming after his team produced a poorly received workplace video about sexual harassment.

“Are you a homosexual, Clay?” Trump asked in an exchange that was caught on camera.

When Lee said yes, Trump seemed welcoming. “I like steak. Someone else likes spaghetti,” Trump remarked, according to Lee. “That’s why we have menus in restaurants.”

Then, sometime in 2011, around the time when the world reckoned with the kind of racist Trump was, he started waffling. Why? He was thinking about running for president and needed the evangelical vote. Choosing Mike Pence, fan of reparative therapy, solidified his commitment to them. But the president’s vacillations work the other way too. If he’s willing to slay Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III on the altar of his political survivor — how he survives slaying the most popular Cabinet member among conservatives is a question he can’t answer — then the queer community is easy.