Monthly Archives: July 2017

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