Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies

On Netflix right now is the fascinating documentary Best of Enemies, a film about the 1968 debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Conventions.  (William F. Buckley was a conservatist and Gore Vidal was a liberal.)  The movie examines the debate in the wider context of American political discussion, especially in related to television.  Although these two were intellectuals that represented elements of an older America in their debating style, the movie makes the claim that the political bloodlust of these debates helped lead us to our current predicament in news entertainment.

The movie works on many levels.  It is an extremely interesting character study, a excellent historical document, and an alarming look into our media culture.  Talking heads that are brought into the movie include the likes of Dick Cavett, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and others, some of whom were personal acquaintances with both Vidal and Buckley.  So many of the culture wars that America is still fighting were taking place around these debates.

There are so many interesting things about this movie, especially some of the commentary.  During the film Buckley’s brother is one of those that is interviewed.  While it is apparent that he has no love for Vidal, he does admit that Vidal was correct in predicting that America would become an Empire and all of the problems that being an empire entails.  Both Buckley and Vidal seemed haunted, in different ways, by these debates later in their lives.  One can’t help but wonder, despite how far apart they were at the time, if they would not both be troubled by our current political debate, which this movie claims they both unwittingly steered us towards.

 

The End of ‘The Hateful Eight’ and George Carlin

The following post concerns the end of the movie ‘The Hateful Eight’.  You’ve been warned.

Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.

Where would we be without our safe, familiar, American bullshit? Land of the free, home of the brave, the American dream, all men are equal, justice is blind, the press is free, your vote counts, business is honest, the good guys win, the police are on your side, God is watching you, your standard of living will never decline… and everything is going to be just fine— The official national bullshit story. I call it the American okie doke.

– George Carlin

I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched the end of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie.  The new Western features a group of characters that get sequestered in a lodge during a Wyoming winter, in the decade after the Civil War.  Like all Tarantino movies, he takes a well known genre and introduces new elements to it, often from other cinematic influences.  You could easily watch this movie and just be entertained by it’s combination of dark humor, suspenseful drama, and sensational violence.  But like other Tarantino’s movies, especially the last few, there is a more than just sheer entertainment going on.  Although Tarantino’s genius has always been attributed to the innovative ways he tells stories through film and his quotable dialog, the style of his films and not their substance, it is wrong to think his films are only style.

The Hateful Eight features historical and cinematic American archetypes.  Samuel Jackson’s character, Major Marquis Warren, is a bounty hunter and a former member of the Union Calvary.  Bruce Dern plays a former Confederate General.  Walter Goggins is a younger Southerner who mentions the Lost Cause of Southern defeat.  Those characters and others don’t trust each other.  Everyone has a secret, no one trusts that the others are what they say, and a lot of the suspense from the movie comes from the these characters poking and prodding each other to figure out what the real aims are of everyone in the lodge.  Whether you like the film or not probably depends on how much you like Tarantino’s style of filmmaking, of which I happen to be a fan of.

But for those that are not fans, you are missing out on one of the best movie endings of the year.  The end of the movie features Jackson and Goggins, two characters that are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, teaming up against the gang of which is there to free Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing criminal Daisy Domergue.  Like many Tarantino movies, the end of the movie features cinematic violence that leads to all of the characters either being dead or wounded.  Jackson and Goggins are the last two alive.

Earlier in the film Jackson’s character produces a letter that he claims is written by Abraham Lincoln.  He later admits it is false and claims the lie about the letter is to make white people feel safe around him.

The last shot of the movie, as Jack and Goggin’s characters lay dying, Goggins asks to read the letter, and both men seem to find comfort in it.  I couldn’t help but think of this as a metaphor for America, where people with seemingly nothing in common, other than a shared history of violence and bigotry, are bound together by a pretty story that sounds nice, but has very little to do with reality or fact.  This is a cynical view, but there is a lot of truth to it.  Often the patriotic political stories that we are told as children, and that we still believe far into adulthood, are closer to fairy tales than to reality.  One only needs to think of the myth of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree.  But even such phrases as “the land of the brave and the home of the free” are nationalistic claptrap that we use like a comfort blanket as we imagine an imaginary past where everything was as it should be.

I can’t really think of a better scene in a movie that demonstrates the point Carlin is trying to make above.  “Bullshit is the glue, that binds us as a nation.”  David Milch, through his show Deadwood, also uses the quote, “History is a lie agreed upon.”  I’m not trying to deny the many great things that America has done.  There is a duality running through this country’s history.  But nostalgia for an imagined past is something that too often prevents many of our citizens from realizing that there can be better days ahead, if only we don’t repeat our ancestors mistakes.

 

Michael Mann On ‘Heat’

Heat Hockey

Michael Mann On ‘Heat’

I found the above Rolling Stone article about Michael Mann and the making of the movie Heat to be interesting.  The film has long been a favorite of mine since I saw it as a kid.  I recently watched it this year to see if it held up.  Surprisingly, I not only felt it was as good as I remembered, but actually found new dimensions of meaning to appreciate.  One of the all-time classic American films.

Where I’ve Been

Recent days have found me with my first week off (well almost a week) in many moons.  This particular post will probably only be of interest to those that have been reading along consistently.  By I felt i owed an explanation for those of you that come here often as to the slow positing rate as of late.  I’ve been catching up on things I have needed to do, on things I have ignored for too long due to travel.  I have also been writing and working on things music related.  But a good bit of the time I have been replenishing the well, diving into books, records, and films that I have been meaning to finish or check out.  This is definitely stuff I want to be doing, it’s what I enjoy.  However, as I am trying to make this a fully functional site, I also need to consume enough information that I can make this site interesting on a regular basis.

I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I think the Civil War is a period worth understanding if you want to understand many of the national issues of our day.  So many of them have their roots there.  I am trying to finish Patti Smith’s great memoir Just Kids, and because of her I finally got around to reading Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.  I am also trying to finish Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, a week ago and can definitely recommend it to anyone that is even slightly interested in him.  He has had a tremendous impact on our culture, even if he has never directly meant anything to you.

Musically I have been diving into the career of Big Star, as well as Chris Bell’s and Alex Chilton’s respective solo careers.  Although I had some kind of bootleg Big Star compilation growing up, and I knew many of my favorite musical artists were influenced by them, this is the first time I have truly understood their brilliance and the arc of their careers.  This is largely due to the excellent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is streaming on Netflix for free right now.

I am a bit obsessive compulsive about music.  As soon as I become interested in a band or artist, I tend to want to understand everything that I can about them.  With literature I try to always keep one fiction and one non-fiction book going.  I feel like reading fiction is better for songwriting and that non-fiction helps the kind of writing I do here.  I usually do not read this many books and have definitely bitten off more than I can chew!

Unlike some people who need to be forced to read anything, the opposite is true for me.  I could easily get lost down the rabbit hole of books, sometimes failing to take care of things in the real world.  But there are so many interesting things out there, and as always, so little time…

 

 

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

The other night I watched the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.  It is a documentary about the band Big Star , it’s initial failure and long slow road to cult status.  Despite having long known who Big Star were through The Replacements song Alex Chilton, I was never one of those people pining over Big Star records in my bedroom.  Once, at a used record shop, I bought a Big Star compilation.  I have no idea if it was a bootleg, etc.  I have never seen it before or since.  Although there were several songs I loved on it, I realize now that it’s track listing was a bit bizarre.  While it contained many of the band’s most popular songs, they were in an order that didn’t provide the best context for them.  (Context in the world of music is really important.  Often when I put my iPod on shuffle, my favorite songs often aren’t as enjoyable as they are in their natural habitat.  Also think about how the way in which a great live band puts together a set, and how when done right the show builds in energy at just the right moments.)  Also, since hearing the remastered versions of the Big Star catalog, I realized how sonically muted the versions I had were by comparison.

I thought the movie was fascinating. Not only because it tells the tail of Big Star, which is interesting in its own right, a story full of tragedy and redemption, but it gives you a sense of Memphis regional music at the time.  In the pre-internet age, music was much more regional, allowing for strange mutations to arise.  Communication wasn’t as easy, so strange little scenes developed in different locations.  (Although Big Star were even strange for Memphis at that time and place.)  I do feel that with the current economic model of the music industry, especially in regards to touring, that music is becoming more regional again.

The movie does what any good music documentary should do: It communicates what is special about the music and makes the music sound great.  It not only tells Big Star’s story in a compelling way, but when you actually hear the music, the music sounds extraordinary.  As I commented before, I think hearing the details of Big Star recordings, in the right context, really makes their music come alive.  The movie also has alternative takes of these songs, allowing one to see how they were built into their final and superior versions.  Their music is full of ecstatic joy and harrowing sadness, sometimes threading the needle between the two.

Although I new the rough outline of the Big Star story going in, I found that the film gave me a new appreciation for their recordings.  I think there is enough new elements, with great footage and interviews with those still alive, to recommend it to those that are already fans.

 

The Last Detail, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Market Forces of New Hollywood

The Last Detail

Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid.  The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison.  Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it.  As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things.  The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.

I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s.  Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.

This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period.  The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking.  Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action.  Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic.  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period.  Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story.  The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.

I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out.  However, this isn’t a review.  I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it.  Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.

I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods.  Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered.  The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made.  Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium.  Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again.  Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:

Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do?  Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed?  Probably not.  The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great.  “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola.  “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.”  Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.  The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free.  But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.  

The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces.  However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films.  Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces.  The Godfather is a perfect example.  It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him.  However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.

I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this.  But I think these things are interesting to think about.  Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us?  Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be.  Why is this?  Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist?  Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?

P.S.  I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood.  (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.)  If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.  

 

The Baggage that We Bring to Art

On my last post I wrote about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.  It was an album savaged by critics.  A lot of my favorite pieces of art have been critically condemned only to find reevaluation years later.  Terry Gilliam has a movie called Tideland that knocked me out when I saw it.  It was one of the only times I have walked out of a theater thinking that I had just seen something completely new.  I was excited, ecstatic even, only to read reviews later that tore the movie to shreds.  This did nothing to alter my view of the film, I was only sad to learn that the film wouldn’t find a larger audience.  I also felt bad that so many people had missed out on such a fantastic film.

This is not standard review, nor do I want to spend time relaying the entire plot.  If you want to learn more about the movie here is the Wikipedia page.

One of the things interesting about the film is that it’s protagonist is a little girl and the movie is filmed with her perspective in mind.  The little girl undergoes many trials including her dad dying of a heroin overdose in their rural farmhouse in Texas.  If you view the film through the eyes of an adult, there are many uncomfortable moments in the film.  There is a kiss scene where the girl kisses, innocently, her friend who is a boy that is mentally handicapped.  Because we are adults, and adults are sexual beings, viewers may be inclined to view this scene with a sense of horror.  But if you view the scene through the eyes of its protagonist, it is just an innocent kiss between friends.  As with many Gilliam films, a theme running through the movie is how our imaginations allow us to survive the realities of the world, which are often less than ideal.  Children, out of all ages, possess the strongest imaginations.  Therefore, it only makes sense that in many ways children are more resilient than adults.

Although knowledge can, at many times, increase our appreciation for art, as we learn to understand the language of certain art forms, it can occasionally blind us to its true meaning.  What we bring along with us, our psychological intellectual background, is important.   This is often why you may see musicians, painters, filmmakers, appreciating different things than the general public.  They usually are steeped in the knowledge of their particular field.  They might have a better idea of when someone is breaking from convention to reach new ground.  You don’t have to be an artist.  It’s not some kind of secret club, just generally if you are making something you are interested enough to immerse yourself in it.  A library card and a curious mind are all one needs to learn the language of any given medium.

However, outside of the language of a medium, there is also what we bring to a piece of art from our personal background.  How we view the world influences how we view the themes of a piece of art.  What I love about this movie is that Gilliam has created something that asks us to shake off our personal and cultural biases.  He is asking us to be children again, to view the world with the same sense of wonder that they do.  It’s a beautiful place if you can get into that headspace.

No one states this better than Gilliam himself in the introduction to the movie, up above.  This introduction also played in the theater when I saw the film.  Although sometimes overstating your purpose can be harmful, given the nature of this film, I really felt that it is effective.  He is trying to get the viewers in that headspace of a child before the film begins, which is essential to a proper interpretation of the film.  I remember thinking, upon seeing this introduction two things:

“Gilliam is throwing down the fucking gauntlet”, and “I’m in.”

 

Love & Mercy Review

Love and Mercy Posters

I finally got around to seeing Love & Mercy, the movie about Brian Wilson.  I had every reason to believe that I might not like it, but I found it to be excellent.  I am not a fan of biography movies in general, as they often follow a predictable formula.  Also, I have been a long time Brian Wilson and Beach Boys fan.  I have watched several documentaries about Wilson and I have read the biography Heroes and Villains.  (The Beach Boys’ documentary Endless Harmony is a must-see film for anyone that is even slightly interested in the band or pop music in general.)  Even if the film was able to shake the conventions of a typical biography, I was afraid it would be a cliff notes version of the Brian Wilson story, or that it would not be able to present the music in a way that was compelling.

However, by focusing mainly on two periods of Wilson’s life, and hopping between them, the movie doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of the genre.  If you have ever taken a history class, you know that the more specific the focus, the more interesting the class usually is.  This is because it allows one to dive into the interesting details of a period, instead of just dealing with an ever changing list of names and dates.  Although there are no rules, I think the same usually applies to movies that deal with someone’s life.  By narrowing the focus, the moments are allowed more room to breath, more small details enter, providing the scenes with a greater sense of realism.

Also, credit must be given to director Bill Pohlad.  There is a real sense that the movie is being guided by someone that really understands the music.  The music not only sounds great, but the studio performances are filmed with an immediacy and realism that not only gives one a sense of the magic involved, which is apparent to anyone listening to the final product, but also the hard work and craft that it took to get those recordings.  This movie is filmed in the style of cinema verite in many of the scenes, a style that can can go either way as far as I’m concerned, but here it really works.  It gives one a sense of sitting in on the sessions.  There is one scene particularly I remember when the camera is filming from around a corner, the shot partly obscured, but it gives one the sense they are in the room watching events unfold.  Great attention seems to be paid to detail in this film, which helps to create a fully realized world.

The sound design of the film is exceptional as well.  This not only clearly helps the music, but is also essential to understanding the growing mental health problems that Wilson faces.  He is someone that suffered from audio hallucinations.  Whether or not these hallucinations sounded exactly like that, they are created in a way that gives the viewer a sense of the dread that they created.

I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said that biography movies only existed to win actors awards.  Usually the performances are not the downfall of the genre.  But it should be noted that both John Cusack and Paul Dano are excellent as Wilson.  Even if Cusack doesn’t look exactly like Wilson, he does a great job at capturing his mannerisms and rendering greatly the combination of Wilson’s inner turmoil and innocence.  Dano, who plays the younger Wilson, is excellent as usual.  All of the supporting characters are greatly cast as well.

Wilson is one of the few people in modern music that can easily and rightly be called a genius.  This movie does a great job at showing the uninitiated why that is the case, and it also creates a vivid enough portrait of the times that someone who is already a fan should be captivated.

If you are interested in Wilson there are a bunch of great documentaries about him.  I would again highly recommend the documentary Endless Harmony, which is an thorough and deeply engaging overview of The Beach Boys.  The documentary that came out when Wilson’s version of SMiLE was finally released is also really good.  If you are interested in the players that played on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, there is a really great documentary about the musicians on Netflix right now called The Wrecking Crew.  (The Wrecking Crew were a group of musicians that played not only on Pet Sounds, but on more hit records than you would believe.  It is a testament to Wilson that these players, as seen both in Love & Mercy and the documentary about them, all consider Wilson to be the greatest genius of that period.)

…….

As a side note, I am always interested in why this particular time period created so much great music.  There are all kinds of economic, technological, and cultural reasons.  The market at that time provided someone like Brian Wilson, who was clearly a genius but also suffered from mental health issues, a great deal of money to realize his vision.  I have a slightly older friend that was in the music and now film industry.  We had an interesting conversation one night where he talked about how, when he was younger, it was mainly the outcasts of society that were in the music industry.  However, with the decline of revenue in the music industry, and the increased importance of social media, success is often more based on how many people a musician can get to support them early on.  Someone that is more popular and more socially adept at networking has a leg up in ways that are magnified by current social conditions.  Certainly networking and popularity were always part of the game, but I do think it is a valid point.  Everyone knows that the money is no longer what it was in the music industry.  However, would someone like Wilson thrive now, when social media and business sense plays such an increased roll in success?  (And I don’t mean in any way to paint Wilson as being completely naive.  He is a complex figure that was very dynamic personality during certain periods of his career.)  To end this, I don’t have any definitive answer.  I just think it is worth thinking about how the values of our society, and who we value and why we value them, influences the kind of culture that we end up with.

 

‘Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine’ Review

Steve Jobs Poster

The new Alex Gibney documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, is a must see movie.  It’s not only excellent at giving context to the life of Steve Jobs, for showing the complex man behind the public persona, but it also asks questions of the viewer, of our society.

The movie begins with scenes that took place just after his death.  It shows people putting flowers in front of Apple stores and people crying on the internet.  The movies asks the question why were so many people so moved when Jobs died?  It is the questions that the movie attempts to answer throughout its running course, giving us a look at the real Jobs, while reflecting upon the values of our culture.

The movie then goes back to the beginning of his life.  It traces both the ups and downs of his life with interviews of the people that knew him and with excellent footage from different time periods.  The film keeps expanding the canvass to show us how the Jobs was far more complex than most people knew.  Why did he treat his coworkers so harshly?  Why did he not seem to care about working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories?  Why did Jobs not believe in philanthropy?

However, this movie is no simple biography or expose.  Gibney is too talented a filmmaker to do that.  While the movie never does let Jobs off the hook, while it paints an extremely dark portrait of him, you never doubt that he was brilliant and unique figure, even if what you realize he was brilliant at changes by the end of the film.  While the movie condemns some of the behavior we are viewing, it’s judgment isn’t voyeuristic;  The culture that the audience is a part of is questioned as well.  Also, while the movie does tell the story of his life, it never feels like a simple point A to point B story.  It is well crafted in the way it tells its story, mirroring the complexity of its subject.

Whether or not you care about Jobs, and I am someone that never really did emotionally one way or the other while he was alive, I think this movie has a lot to offer.  Although Jobs had a lot of help along the way, help that he often did not give the credit they deserved, and although he was definitely someone that benefited from being in the right time and place, there is no doubt that Jobs helped to create the world that we live in.  (I am typing this on a Mac and I take my iPod everywhere.)  But what are the values of this world?  Do the products that Jobs helped sell make our world better or worse?  (The movie does a great job of showing  how technology both helps us communicate and isolates us at the same time.)  What does it say about our culture that someone like Jobs is beloved by so many?  Questions, so many questions.  While never losing sight of its subject, I think the movie does a fantastic job of casting a wider net, of giving us a better look at these strange and modern times.

 

Who Was the Real Steve Jobs?

Alex Gibney and Peter Elkind Discuss Steve Jobs

A must read over at Salon.  Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and writer Peter Elkind, The Smartest Guys in the Room, talk about Steve Jobs and their new documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.  Jobs was someone that wanted to change the world through technology, but wasn’t concerned with the ethics of how he got there.  He didn’t care about low wages at Apple’s factories in China, about Apple’s environmental impact, or about philanthropy in general.  He also used elements of the counter-culture to his advantage, without really taking in the deeper meaning of a lot of it.  Jobs asked us to “Think Different”, yet buy the same stuff.  Yet, here I am typing on an Apple computer, I travel everywhere with my iPod, and there is a good chance you own an Apple product as well.  They view Jobs as a complex person whose rougher qualities were often ignored, especially in the time period after his death.  Do we know the real Jobs and would our society have looked upon him as fondly if we did?

More Posts On Alex Gibney Include: Reflections On Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief