Wednesday, October 31, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies - Middle-Aged Movies (Part 2)


-          George Lucas should never have made another Star Wars movie after A New Hope. He should have just filmed Apocalypse Now (originally his project) or Indiana Jones or whatever else he wanted for his next movie and left well-enough alone. Star Wars garners its entire imaginative appeal from the fact that it’s just one episode in a huge Saturday Morning Serial which anyone who saw B-movies or read comics and science fiction could have thought up just as well. Even if The Empire Strikes Back is better than the original movie, all follow-up installments were bound to be a disappointing next to the continuing stories which fans could imagine for themselves. 

-          At this point I think I prefer watching Star Wars Uncut. The rabid fandom is in so many ways more interesting than the work they worship.

-          Jaws was the beginning of the revolution which allowed special effects to take over humans in American movies. In the year Jaws was released, moviegoers had the options of seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, Nashville, The French Connection II, Dog Day Afternoon, The Magic Flute, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and those were just the ones by directors I like). Compared to that fare, Jaws seems totally brainless. Yet if Jaws were made today, it would be considered daringly brainy and completely undriven by special-effects compared to today’s thrillers.

-          Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a miracle. It’s one of the few movies that uses special effects to make us feel awe rather than fear. James Cameron has been trying to recapture that awe for his entire career, but he never did it better than the original.

-          It’s best to view ET as a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still his two best movies). Spielberg said in an interview that the germ of ET was the thought ‘What if one of the aliens from Close Encounters got left behind?’ But I’ve always thought that it was the other way around. The missing father in ET is in fact Richard Dreyfuss. Together, the two amount to a kind of secret emotional autobiography by Spielberg. More on ET later…

-          Soylent Green is not nearly as good as Soylent Cow Pies.

-          Forty-five years later, The Producers remains the funniest movie ever made.

-          Every Mel Brooks movie is slightly worse than the one before it (yes, even Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which honestly sucked pretty badly…why do I think this is the comment that will get protest tomorrow?) – a cycle ending in Dracula Dead and Loving It – a movie so depressingly unfunny you can’t even laugh at how bad it is.

-          Today, a Mel Brooks in our age group couldn’t get a job fixing a film studio coffee machine. Hollywood, like America, has become so timid about offending one another that a director wouldn’t even be able to get financial backing for a movie that makes fun of bigots. We can show gratuitous feces and penises now, but god forbid anybody make a joke or even say a word that's politically charged - even (especially?) if it's being said for all the correct reasons. I don’t know if it was a wish to avoid controversy, but after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks grew ever more timid. Perhaps he realized the depressing truth about those movies: people were offended when they realized that the most honest discussions of anti-semitism and racism in American movie history were made by a low-brow comedian.

-          I can understand people who dislike later Woody Allen films, even if I completely disagree with their assessment. But if you dislike earlier, purely funny, Woody films like Bananas or or Take the Money and Run or Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, you’re a bad person.

-          Woody Allen is the world’s most fervent believer in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

-          Love and Death has dated rather worse than some of the other early Woody films because it makes fun of literary pretensions. The fact is that few people have literary pretensions anymore, and that is incredibly sad.

-          I love both Annie Hall and Manhattan. I do not defend the overwhelming narcissism of either movie, I nevertheless love them both.

-          Rocky is awesome, it’s just not good.

-          The only evidence ever uncovered that a Jewish conspiracy controls Hollywood is that people still think Marathon Man is a good movie.

-          Walkabout sucks.

-          I’ve never seen a single Alien movie and I don’t particularly want to.

-          Monty Python and the Meaning of Life is the best of their movies, because it’s by far the closest in spirit to the original show. Holy Grail is too ‘nice’ and G-rated, Life of Brian is too ambitious. It’s the only Monty Python movie with anything approaching the anarchy of the show. Meaning of Life is one giant misanthropic middle finger to every convention a proper movie is supposed to have.

-          OK. So Clockwork Orange tells us that the personality of a rapist thug can be conditioned into not assaulting people, and we’re supposed to think that’s a bad thing?

-          Jack Nicholson does everything he can to save The Shining. But not even Jack can breathe life into a movie when Stanley Kubrick is there to suck all the life out.

-          I somehow always manage to fall asleep when the Mad Max movies are on.

-          Like all Werner Herzog movies, Aguirre, the Wrath of God is absolutely ridiculous. And that’s what makes it great.

-          I didn’t much care for Fitzcarraldo, perhaps because this is precisely how I behave on a regular basis whenever I’m working on my latest world-changing project.

-          If I can help it, I solemnly swear that I will never watch another Wim Wenders movie.

-          I’m ashamed to say that I really love Z. It’s a shameless piece of pure communist propaganda (seriously), but it’s amazingly well-made.

-          Last Tango in Paris is so amazingly dumb that there isn’t a word for it except the string of pigshit vomit and butter tourettes type rants Marlon Brando keeps going on.

-          Cries and Whispers is amazingly disturbing – and still a wonderful movie.

-          Bergman’s The Magic Flute is the best production of Mozart’s Magic Flute I ever expect to see – even if it is in Swedish.

-          Fanny and Alexander is very nearly my favorite movie. I love every minute of it, every scene, every weird not-quite-right piece of dialogue. I do not, however, love the five hour TV version, and neither did Bergman – who agreed with me. It’s a perfectly imperfect three-hour movie that is not a second shorter or longer than it needs to be.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies - Middle Aged Movies (part 1)


-          If I have to watch a Long Day’s Journey Into Night one more time I think I’ll borrow some of the mother’s morphine.

-          Bonnie and Clyde is an amazing but troubling movie that makes violence and radical chic seem amazingly appealing. Then again, The Godfather glorifies violence and right-wing authoritarianism…but more on that in a few minutes.

-          Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is really just a documentary in which Newman and Redford play themselves and decided one day to have a camera crew follow them around for a month while they wore 19th century Western costumes.

-          Easy Rider is dumb.

-          How am I supposed to take Cool Hand Luke seriously when the main prisoner badass was Frank Drebin’s boss/sidekick in The Naked Gun?

-          I have never seen a Steve McQueen movie through to the end. He’s not alive to beat me up for that.

-          The Manchurian Candidate is the greatest movie ever made about American politics. It makes what seems like a completely impossible situation in American politics into something scarily plausible in ways which Oliver Stone can only dream about making. The fact that this movie ever got made at all is a miracle. The fact that it was ever re-released after the JFK assassination is a testament to the fact that America is still a democracy – however imperfect.

-          Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is total realism. We’ve all been at dinner parties with too much liquor that got that ugly that quick…don’t pretend you haven’t...

-          The Graduate is a good movie that would be great if it didn’t rely on those Simon and Garfunkel songs to reel in the young people…

-          I have no idea what The Dirty Dozen’s moral stand is…but it’s awesome!

-          The continued success of James Bond mystifies and irritates me. His attitudes on everything from patriotism to women to technology were anachronisms by the release of Dr. No.

-          If Inspector Clouseau isn’t there to bump into me at the gates of heaven, I don’t want to go.

-          West Side Story is an amazing musical and one of the most disappointing movies ever made – saved from fiascodom by the few dance numbers they allowed Jerome Robbins to direct.

-          Honestly, Audrey Hepburn wasn’t that bad in My Fair Lady… though Julie Andrews would have been better and hopefully saved from all the disasters she starred in which followed.

-          It took Orson Welles fifty years to turn into Falstaff. I got there in half that.

-           I love Planet of the Apes, as much for the seriousness of it as the ridiculousness.

-          Putting Godard and Truffaut together as equal partners in the French New Wave is as dumb as giving Howard Dean equal credit for the Obama presidency.

-          My Dad says that Last Year in Marienbad is the dumbest movie he’s ever seen.  Who am I to doubt him?

-          La Jetee is interesting, not good. Anything else I’ve ever seen from Chris Marker is neither.

-           There is a crapload of important French New Wave I’ve never seen. However, if I could name one New Wave movie nobody talks about that’s truly fantastic, it’s Love in the Afternoon from Eric Rohmer.  

-          Couldn’t tell you about the book, but Tom Jones is a completely forgotten Great Movie that everyone should watch.

-          Ken Russell’s film career had the twin unpardonable sins of creating the music video as we know it and turning the entire world off of classical music.

-          Persona is not a percentage point as deep as it thinks it is. But it has two spectacular actresses, some great scenes, and the hottest monologue in movie history.

-          Jiri Menzel is helped by his source material, but if I’d be very happy to watch Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England every day for the rest of my life.

-          Rosemary’s Baby is a thousand times scarier than most modern horror movies. And I’m scared by horror movies.

-          Never seen anything by Tarkovsky. And I’m tempted to never remedy that.

-          I still haven’t finished La Dolce Vita and I’m on try #6. At what point is the fault still mine?

-          How is Eight-and-a-half so much better?

-          Would anybody have ever taken the philosophy in Blow-Up seriously if it didn’t have a random threesome in the middle of the movie?

-          Spaghetti Westerns manage to make violence boring.

-          I don’t care how stuffy and fussy opera people think Zefferelli is. His Romeo and Juliet is one of the very great Shakespeare movies.

-          I’ll say this for Yojimbo, I finally made it through on try #4.

-          The period from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) to The Right Stuff (1983) is both the greatest period American movies will ever have and the period when everything great about American movies began to crumble. Hitchcock, Hawks, and Lubitsch were all very strict classicists who played by an even stricter set of rules – and those who worked within them were able to have extraordinarily long and productive careers. But those ‘romantics’ from Welles to Coppola who insisted on making their own rules did not have guaranteed patronage – and were therefore just as susceptible to flameout as any romantic poet or musician.

-          M*A*S*H is still the best Robert Altman movie I’ve ever seen.

-          McCabe and Mrs. Miller ruins everything good about it with all sorts of excessively arty touches from the ‘I’ve got poetry in me’ speech to the snow shootout.

-          Nashville is a very good movie that kills its own momentum over and over again by refusing to rein itself in.

-          Five Easy Pieces is one of the forgotten Great American Movies – and yes, it has (still) the greatest of all Jack Nicholson scenes.

-          Anybody who doesn’t love The Last Picture Show hates America.

-          Ditto One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

-          Cabaret’s an amazing musical – shitty movie.

-          I honestly can’t get past the premise of Harold and Maude…

-          The Deer Hunter is The Godfather crossed with Deliverance disguised as a war movie.

-          There’s nothing to say about Chinatown except that Roman Polanski's ugly compulsions made him a great movie-maker and also ensured that he'd rarely make another great movie. 

-           Dirty Harry is neither fascist nor a symbol of America. Dirty Harry is just a dumb movie. Rent Coogan’s Bluff instead, at least it’s watchable.

-          The French Connection is still one of the most awesomely exciting movies you’ll ever see – doubly so for the fact that Gene Hackman plays such a schmuck.

-          Network is truly prescient. It’s also in terrible need of a script editor.

-          I know I’m not Catholic, but do people really find The Exorcist scary?

-          Do I really have to see another Terrance Malick movie?

-          The Godfather is best seen as ‘The Godfather Novel for Television’ with all the scenes done in chronological order and many deleted scenes restored. Part I absolutely survives as a masterpiece in its original cut, part II absolutely does not. The Godfather is an epic in the same way that Homer and Tolstoy are – there are boring passages, but it doesn’t change the hugeness of the vision which makes it all possible.

-          Nobody should doubt The Godfather’s towering greatness, but there’s something wrong about this movie at its very core. It’s a movie that makes a case for a police state in which we all need protection from violent thugs by violent thugs. The movie practically argued Richard Nixon’s re-election case for him.

-          The Conversation has a brilliant middle section – but forgettable in the extremities.

-          Apocalypse Now should also be seen with its deleted scenes restored. Coppola thrived on rambling – he was a director who went for vividness, not perfection. Every scene adds a new hue to the larger texture.

-          Coppola and Scorsese are two different visions of Italian-American New York from the same period. Coppola was the upper-middle-class son of an eminent orchestral flautist and his movies are drenched in allusions to religious painting, Italian opera, and high literature (both American and Italian). Scorsese was a lower-middle-class kid who probably would have ended up in the mob had he not been asthmatic – he found refuge in the moviehouses and his movies are drenched in allusions to the movies of Classic Hollywood.  

-          Mean Streets may still be Scorsese’s best movie.

-          Taxi Driver is still as powerful as ever, but it also glamorizes psycho loners for no good reason – with the end result being John Hinckley...

-          Raging Bull is better than Taxi Driver. I only understood that on the third time I watched it. Taxi Driver is about redemption through violence, Raging Bull is about redemption from violence. The latter is much, much harder to demonstrate.

-          George Lucas is a robot with a toupee. Even in American Graffiti he managed to create the appearance of real human beings while still making a movie whose main purpose seems to be to resell classic cars and old music. There’s just enough humanity in the movie to make all the ‘cool stuff’ on the screen believable, and not an ounce more.

-          I love many things about Star Wars, but it’s influence is still the most evil thing to ever happen to movies in America. Thanks to Star Wars almost no American director can ever in our lifetime make a movie about human feelings for more than 1/20th the cost of a special-effects blockbuster.

-          I love Stephen Spielberg and will do battle with anybody who says he’s anything but a great filmmaker. But we’re kidding ourselves when we say that even his best movies can compete with the best of those moviemakers of his generation who’ve barely been able to fund a project in thirty years.

Monday, October 29, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies - Slightly Less Old Movies


-          Preston Sturges is droll, not funny.

-          I’ve never seen a single film by Visconti or Rossellini. I haven’t seen The Bicycle Thief since I was roughly seventeen and I know I didn’t finish it. The only DeSica movie I know I’ve seen from beginning to end is In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and it’s fantastic. So in case it ever occurs to anyone to ask me a question about Italian neo-realism, anything I say on the matter will be a lie.

-          Jean Cocteau is everything about France which I can’t stand. He thought fascism was an interesting aesthetic choice, didn't know a person who wasn't famous, and dabbled in enough art-forms to show that he wasn't particularly talented at any of them.

-          In a hundred years, it’s quite possible that Alfred Hitchcock will be as synonymous with movies as Beethoven is with music and Shakespeare with literature. And that development would terrify me. I often think to myself that his movies are Greek Myths for the modern era in which everything we ever knew about human relations is recodified and turned completely upside down. I love Alfred Hitchcock, but as I begin to approach middle age I grow ever more disturbed with the lack of anything we’ve been taught to recognize as human nature in his makeup. Is my problem with Hitchcock, or with human beings?

-          Rear Window is not necessarily the greatest movie ever made. But it is surely the most perfect.

-          Of the great Hitchcock movies, Vertigo is the worst. Though nevertheless a great movie, it has long passages that are clumsy, cheesy, and just plain dull. Its new place at the top of the Sight and Sound Poll of the Greatest Movies Ever Made is quite depressing.

-          I watched Psycho at 12. The perfect age for it. As I had no idea what would happen, that experience is to this day both the most scared and delighted I’ve ever been by a movie in my entire life.

-          Rebel Without a Cause has long since dated for most people and made teens want to yell at James Dean to get over himself. They’re wrong, James Dean is still a perfect reflection of them.

-          The Searchers has the most unwatchably bad scenes of any great movie ever made (this is John Ford after all…)

-          Singin’ in the Rain is the Glee of its time. Enjoyable, strangely avant-garde and brilliant-seeming at times, and utterly annoying if you watch more than a half-hour of it once every year.  

-          On The Waterfront is a good movie. It’s not great, it’s not bad. It’s not a paean to good citizenship or to snitching. Shut up about On The Waterfront!

-          Billy Wilder should have been born fifty years later and made sitcoms for HBO.

-          There isn’t a single Billy Wilder movie that doesn’t have a collection of amazingly brilliant moments. Yet not a single Wilder picture adds up to the sum of its parts (The Apartment comes closest).

-          When people say that they love Some Like It Hot, they really mean they love the middle third and the last line.

-          The first time I watched Some Like it Hot, the women in the room repeatedly had to close my mouth for me. Marilyn Monroe was amazingly hot, and sadly still is. Men are hard-wired to long for women with huge boobs and low self-esteem. We can’t help it.

-          If you have to have watch movies by one director whose every movie is a stirring paean to mid-20th century liberal clich├ęs, make sure it’s Otto Preminger and not Stanley Kramer.

-          Twelve Angry Men SUCKS!

-          If you want to be sad, look at a list of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects. … or look at this...

         


 Critics love David Lean’s early movies. I’ve never seen them. But I’ve seen his later ones, and critics love them too….

-          The staying power of Lawrence of Arabia is utterly mystifying. It’s a three-and-a-half hour movie about sand that manages to glorify imperialism and be insulting to Arabs.

-          I could watch a Jerry Lewis movie, or I could just keep watching clips of the highlights from his telethons. 

-          Retro science fiction is like new science fiction – the trashier, the better.

-          I’ve tried watching Robert Bresson many times. I expect to keep trying until I’m dead.

-          Max Ophuls is the kind of technical master you fall asleep to while admiring.

-          I don’t understand why Jean-Pierre Melville is amazing, I just know that he is and know from a very deep place.

-          Jean-Luc Godard has managed to get away with not being punched in the face by me for the last fifty-three years. For the first twenty-three of those years, it can be excused by the fact that I wasn’t born yet. For the next thirty, the fault was entirely mine.

-          The 400 Blows is amazing and I find it difficult to get through with a dry eye.

-          Jacques Tati is the French Charlie Chaplin. But the fact that nobody ever made him into a god makes me enjoy him far more than I ever did Chaplin.

-          It’s a shame Ingmar Bergman retired when he did, he was becoming a really great director…

-          The Seventh Seal is a good movie, which troubles me. Because a movie that pretentious should be truly heinous.

-          How is Akira Kurosawa considered a master director when he wasn’t even the second-best Japanese director of his era?

-          Rashamon is on my short list of most overrated movies ever made.

-          Ikiru has one overwhelmingly moving scene. The rest of the movie I can take or leave.

-          Every Kurosawa-lover do me a favor. Go on Netflix, find Ugetsu and Sansho the Baliff and watch them immediately. They’re the two most famous movies by Kenji Mizoguchi and they’re both samurai related. If you don’t forget about Kurosawa forever, I’ll be surprised.

-          Yasijiro Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Story’ is the most moving movie I’ve ever seen. If you get through it without crying… don’t tell me. I won’t like you.

-          No moviemaker has ever captured life as we live it half as well as Ozu did. He’s Chekhov, he’s Brahms, he’s Neil Young. He’s completely ordinary, and that’s what makes his movies such a miracle.

-          I’ve been contemplating the meaning of Antonioni’s L’Avventura for seven years, and what I still don’t understand is… how did anyone ever come to watch a movie of his after seeing it?

-          I’ve never seen The Mouse that Roared. I’m scared to see it, because it has the funniest premise of any movie I’ve ever heard.

-          I feel like Luis Bunuel and I would get along, but I still haven’t seen a single movie by him.

-          At the very top of my list of movies I need to see is ‘The Apu Trilogy.’ Unfortunately, I’m in a fight with my local video store about a movie I know I returned (Our Man in Havana in case you’re wondering) and they claim I didn’t. I’m too lazy to get Netflix. Screw you. It’s my blogpost and I’ll go on digressions if I want.

-           Stanley Kubrick is a filmmaker whose sole reason for existing is to piss me off.

-          The only funny person in Dr. Strangelove is George C. Scott.

-          2001 is the single most overrated movie I’ve ever seen. No interpretation of this movie changes the fact that we spend at least a half hour of it STARING AT A RECTANGLE!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

800 Words: My Cultural Heresies - Old Movies



-          Charlie Chaplin is pleasant and charming, occasionally he’s even funny. But are you kidding Early-20th century? If this is the funniest stuff you had, I’m glad I live in the Age of the Farrelly Brothers and Bromantic comedies.

-          Buster Keaton is fascinating technically, but his movies aren’t all that funny.

-          The Three Stooges are incredibly stupid and not all that funny. I don’t care. Curly Howard is the greatest man who ever lived. I’ve thought this since I was eight, and will never betray my eight-year-old self by betraying it now.





-           Laurel and Hardy are like a b-list Three Stooges.

-          German Expressionism (Fritz Lang, Murnau) like much German Romantic culture (Wagner, Goethe, Nietszche, Thomas Mann etc.), depends on your ability to stifle laughter. If you can get past the fact that it’s unbelievably ridiculous, it can be amazingly compelling. None is more amazing and ridiculous than Metropolis, in which the most amazing techniques imaginable are put in the service of a story so stupid as to defy contemplation. A pattern which more modern cinema repeats over and over again…

-          Ditto Sergei Eisenstein.

-          At least C. B. DeMille seemed to be winking at you, as though in the back of his mind he knew just how ridiculous his movies were (though I couldn’t swear to it).

-          I’ve only seen one Carl Theodore Dreyer movie. And The Passion of Joan of Arc may be the single most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen in my life. I don’t know if I have the mental composure to ever get through it again, but even if I don’t, it will haunt my dreams for decades.

-          The Marx Brothers are amazing, even when their movies suck. Period. Accept no debate on this matter.

-          Jean Renoir is the spiritual center of movies. Anybody who believes life worth living should watch them all on a yearly basis. Debate on this matter is confined to the Marx Brothers category.

-          The Rules of the Game is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest work of art ever made. I judge you by your reaction to this movie. Be warned (though if you go in thinking you’re watching Blazing Saddles, I make an exception).

-          Hitchcock’s early movies are as though they’re from a completely different director. They’re just as good, but they’re so…English! How did he adapt to America so easily??

-          Triumph of the Will is the dumbest piece of shit ever put on screen. How did anybody take it seriously?

-          Howard Hawks is the first truly ‘Great American Filmmaker.’ In his movies you can trace the development of everything that is amazing about the greatest Hollywood movies – the love of language, the banter, the sex, the battle of the sexes, the violent sex, the sex and violence, the sexy violence... Everything after Hawks in Hollywood is a reaction to the template he set.

-          Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday are the most awesome couple in movie history.

-          Frank Capra is Howard Hawks through a sex filter. Hawks realizes it’s all ridiculous, Capra thinks it’s all serious, and as a result makes towering paeans to everything that’s wrong with America – the earnestness, the susceptibility to easy narratives, the rampant demagoguery.

-          In Mr. Smith goes to Washington I root for Claude Rains. Jimmy Stewart’s character is a fascist.
-          Potterville is a much more reliable economic future for Bedford Falls than the Wall Street bailout which George Bailey gets in It’s a Wonderful Life.

-          Ernst Lubitsch blows Billy Wilder’s comedies out of the water. Shame nobody remembers them. Start with To Be or Not To Be, then find Ninotchka.

-          If Frank Capra is everything that’s wrong with America, Disney is everything that’s wrong with America’s place in the world. The idea that every American is a Disney hero or heroine, and all the anthropomorphic animals exist at the behest of their happiness. Yes, it can be seen as a metaphor for everything people hate about America, and they’re right to hate those things about it. Even if they’re not right to think that that is everything America is, Disney is representative of America at its worst. Don’t hate America, hate Disney.

-          Orson Welles was the great artistic genius of the twentieth century. And like so many similarly explosive geniuses (Mozart, Tolstoy, Leonardo…), we only got a small sliver of what he was capable.

-          Citizen Kane is not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s damn close. Not only is it great, it’s also fun. People of my generation are tired of hearing it vaunted as the greatest movie ever made and think of it as stuffy and old-fashioned, meanwhile they hold up far stuffier and more old-fashioned movies as paragons of greatness (Vertigo, 2001, Man with a Movie Camera…).

-          John Ford is amazingly overrated. Hawks’s movies never die, but the Western genre is almost completely dead and shows no signs of serious revival. It’s whole conception of America as a land to be conquered by brutal men we should hold up as heroes because they abide by antique codes of honor is incredibly dated and offensive.  Carry Hawks on our shoulders, throw Ford into the dustbin.

-          Casablanca gets better every time I watch it. For a sloppily thrown together movie, it really is amazing.

-          Sometimes I think Olivier’s Henry V is the greatest Shakespeare movie ever made. It’s certainly 20,000 leagues better than his Hamlet.

-          Most of The Third Man was probably directed by Orson Welles in secret under Carol Reed’s name so he could get financial backing.

-          The Ealing Comedies need a comeback. The Lavender Hill Mob is still one of the funniest movies ever made. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Big-Ass Halloween Playlist

Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London

Weber: Der Freischutz - the Wolf's Glen Scene (in the masturbating rabbit production)

Michael Jackson: Thriller  (sigh...I can't leave it off, can I?)

Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

Ray Parker Jr.: Ghostbusters Theme Song (still as awesome as it was when I was six)

Berg: Wozzeck - act III scenes 2 and 3

R.E.M: I Walked with a Zombie

Tom Lehrer: Poisoning Pigeons in the Park

Siouxsie and the Banshies: Halloween 

Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire (45 min.)

Kanye West: Monster (in case you didn't know...NSFW)

Berlioz: Dream of a Witches Sabbath

Rocky Horror: Time Warp

Mahler: Symphony no. 7 - third movement

Bollock Brothers: Horror Movies

Cole Porter: Miss Otis Regrets

Annie Lennox: Love Song for a Vampire

Verdi: Rigoletto - storm scene

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bad Moon Rising

Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre

Bobby 'Boris' Pickett: Monster Mash (I don't care what anybody says...it's an amazing song)

Bach: Toccata and Fugue in d-Minor

Marilyn Manson: This is Halloween

Schubert: Die Erlkonig

Eels: Fresh Blood

Flanders and Swann: Have Some Madeira M'Dear

Ramones: Pet Sematary

Liszt: Totentanz

Alice Cooper: Welcome To My Nightmare

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta - third movement (as heard in The Shining).

White Zombie: I'm Your Boogie Man

Ligeti: Requiem - 26 min. (as heard in 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Alan Parsons Project: The Raven

Gesualdo: Moro Lasso

Ozzy Osbourne: Bark at the Moon

Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead (25 min.)

AC/DC: Highway to Hell

Ravel: La Valse

Johnny Cash: Ghost Riders in the Sky

Candide: What a Day for an Auto-da-fe

16 Horsepower: Black Soul Choir

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini (24 1/2 min.)

Will Smith: A Nightmare on My Street

Richard Strauss: Salome Final Scene

Charlie Daniels Band: Devil Went Down to Georgia (on principle I've never learned this song because it's the only song people ever request from a fiddler. So I might as well include it on the playlist. Also, has anybody ever noticed that Charlie Daniels can't fiddle, I mean, seriously, he's bad.)



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

800 Words: Dreams from My Mother Part II


When my father would introduce his father-in-law he would invariably say “This is my father-in-law, Morris Witow. He killed millions.” Or so he claims…

For twenty-seven years, my grandfather was an engineer for the United States Department of Defense. During World War II, he was on the team that built the Smart Bomb, and apparently made a discovery that led to its successful invention. After spending World War II at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, my grandmother wanted to live nearer to her parents. As a result, my grandfather lived in Silver Spring during the week so he could work at the Pentagon, and would return to Baltimore on weekends to the house where my mother lived with her mother, younger brother, her Bubbie and Zaydie and her great aunt (Tante) Miriam.

It is said of Zaydie Witow that he was the perfect gentleman except when three issues came up: Richard Nixon, Chicken Chow Mein, and Liberals. I’ll deal with chicken chow mein in another post, but according to my father, the moment somebody said the L-word, this meek and mild man grew red with the beastliness of a wild animal, his fury unable to be assuaged until somebody reminded him that Richard Nixon was still president. My father also claims that when he first started dating my mother, there was a picture of President Nixon in every room of her parents' house, whereas in his parents’ house, there were pictures of Nixon on the toilet paper.

Zaydie’s father, Henry Witow, was a Socialist. He was an intellectual with red hair and a fiery temper in whose apartment you had to be careful not to trip over piles of books (sounds familiar…). When the factory he worked for offered him a job as a foreman, he turned it down on principle.  He apparently got into a long standing family feud with his Communist cousins about whether Stalin’s Soviet Union was the socialist utopia. He died in 1941 and did not live to see his two sons enlist in the army. My great-uncle Nathan served in the Navy for the war’s duration and apparently survived a sunken battleship, whereas Zaydie was called into the engineering corps after six months and never saw real action.

My Zaydie was always to the right of his father, but as a young man that meant that he was a New Deal Liberal. I don’t know precisely when or why it is that my grandfather decided to abandon New Deal Liberalism to become a member of neoconservatism’s charter generation. All I know is that it was sometime in the mid-50’s, and that during the McCarthy era, my grandmother was questioned because she was on a mailing list at a bookstore that was known to house Communist meetings, or employees, or something... My grandfather, hired by the federal government after he learned no private engineering firm would hire a Jew if they could help it, doubtless feared for his job’s security – perhaps doubly so in light of his father’s activities.

At the center of the story of my father’s family is money. At the center of the story of my mother’s family is politics. Both sides can accuse the other of rampant hypocrisy in their beliefs (and do). My father, like his father, has always voted resolutely Democrat, and for as long as I can remember has railed against a system of government that would allow the undeserving wealthy to claim rewards made possible by their hard-working employees. But as my mother likes to point out, he rails against the very system that allowed his businesses to prosper just as his father’s did before him. For years, his main source of income has been investments, on which there is a 14% capital gains tax, which means he pays half in taxes what he would pay if he made most of his money through income. For just as long in my memory, my mother and uncle, like their father before them, have always railed against the inefficiencies, corruption, and mendacity of government wastefulness at the expense of the taxpayer and the self-sufficient entrepreneur. And yet for seventy years, my mother’s family has made its career in government. My grandfather was defense department engineer, my mother used to be an economist for the State of Maryland, and my uncle is a State Department officer in the Foreign Service. For forty years, my Bubbie has lived like a queen on Zaydie’s pension – which has allowed her to take trips by the dozen to six of the world’s seven continents. Like my father, my mother’s family benefited enormously from the very system they claim to hate.

Is it simply hypocrisy in both cases? Or is there any deeper motive at play? I suppose that in both cases, the two sides of my family grew an understandable but unhappy contempt for the frustrations of their jobs – perhaps resentment at how undeserving colleagues benefited, or an exaggerated sense of the importance of the wrongs they saw every day at their jobs. The personal is always political, and like so many millions of people in America, both my parents seem to vote against their own interests. Every evil we see done will linger in our minds more than any five acts of good (that’s actually a statistic), and in the journey to self-improvement, it is very easy to get distracted by all of life’s impediments.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Playlist: The Arrested Development of James Levine



Apparently conductors are well known enough in Japan that comics can make a living on conductor humor. Well in any event, this cheery Levine impression (4:50) is about thirty years dated. The once boyish and enthusiastic wunderkind of the Met has gradually morphed into something vaguely resembling Verdi’s Grand Inquisitor, or at least Pagliacci’s Tonio. As late as twenty years ago, James Levine still looked like a kid in love with opera who couldn’t believe his good luck to be running America’s greatest opera house, but he’s long since come to look forlorn; as though he’s fighting against the bulk of his baggage, physical and emotional, to give the best possible performance.

You’ve all seen James Levine, whether you realize it or not. Every time you’ve flipped past PBS you may have caught a bit of a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. If you flip past during the overture, you’ll see a man fat enough to burst through his white tie, with a huge jewfro that went out of style in 1978, and the same aviator glasses he wore 40 years ago that look creepier with every new ailment. With his right hand he beats time with a baton so large that you wonder how he hasn’t impaled himself with it on his protruding gut. His left hand shapes the phrases, and he it out in the air as though he can feel the texture of the sound with his hand like a piece of silk. He used to conduct with a perpetual 1000 watt shit-eating grin on his face, as though he couldn’t believe anyone could have so much fun. In recent years, he looks as though he’s undergoing an endurance test, full of downcast looks, concealed panting, and painful grimaces.

Other conductors build their reputations on photogenic grandstanding. They go from city to city, charm and inspire orchestras into doing their bidding, and leave before the orchestras tire of them with $30,000 in their pockets for a week’s work.  But James Levine tried to work with the same few ensembles for the entirety of his career and came amazingly close to fulfilling that goal. In this way as in so many others, James Levine is the uncoolest great musician in America. A truly gifted conductor so completely cut off from any new influence that he is the Great American Conductor of 1953. For forty years, Levine seems to have followed an inner voice which tells him he can bring the Met ever closer to his ideal operatic performance. It’s a luxury available to only one musician in America, made possible only by the fact that his opera house sits on a $240 million endowment.  

Opera, once the most populist of all art-forms, is New York’s ultimate elitist pursuit - where Upper-East Side bad plastic surgery and combover cases take shelter against the ruffians whom they fear will mug them on the way back to their Mercedes, a Koch brother gets a whole Lincoln Center theater named after him, and a production of an opera written after the beginning of the Great Depression is considered dangerously edgy. Opera, once the most dangerous artform in the world for which imperial censors guarded like hawks against implications of treason, became a safe relic of a culture so alien to us that no one but those with vast quantities of money and leisure time can possibly hope to appreciate it.

Surely Levine must notice that the distance between the sort of opera he loves and the opera his audiences crave grows larger year by year. It was already beginning when he took over in 1973, and it’s only become more true as the decades wore on. The Italian immigrants who grew up on this music died out decades ago. Their middle-class children who grew up playing piano and watching Beverly Sills on Ed Sullivan have long since been priced out of everything but the Met’s cheapest seats. New York’s gay community, a faithful bedrock to so many opera houses, was depleted by AIDS, and younger gay people have other enthusiasms. Opera in America is now beholden to the high-professional class: financial analysts, lawyers, industrialists, stockbrokers, with maybe a few doctors here and there. Most of them are looking for ways to dress up and appear classy to their dates. What better place to go than to the opera?

And these new audiences demand things which previous generations would never think to demand. They don’t know the plots of the great operas, and they don’t want to have to read up on them. So these new audiences need subtitles over the stage. They neither understand why people would express themselves through singing the same line over and over again, nor what makes the thrill of opera singing any different than the thrill of a Broadway show. So they need an involving theatrical experience in which the characters look plausible. If that means great singers who are wooden actors and physically unfit for the parts can’t sing the roles, that’s a sacrifice which apparently must be made. Opera is theater now, not music.



So as the years went on, the Great Compromise was struck. The Metropolitan Opera would spew its money onto the stage with theatrical productions lavish enough that not even Broadway could compete. Whereas European opera houses would mount radical productions which rethought (and sometimes didn’t) every aspect of the staging, the Met would only hire directors like Franco Zefferelli and Otto Schenk, who truly know and love the operatic tradition, and would sooner retire than ever stray outside the boundaries of what conventional operatic taste would deem acceptable. The Metropolitan Opera became “conventional opera +,” nothing new, nothing shocking, but all the comforting old operatic paradigms rethought and replenished in newly vibrant productions and performances that teach you more about what you already knew.

It can’t be denied that for a time, this approach worked rather brilliantly. Levine’s Met was opera’s great conservative organization (the two terms are not mutually exclusive). The American singers Levine trained may not have the charisma or distinctiveness of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, they may not speak fantastic Italian or German; but they always sing and act competently well at a time when not even that can be guaranteed at the opera house. The singers at the Met rarely sounded as though they had much understanding or passion for what they sang, but they were consummate professionals who tried to fulfill Levine’s gentle requests and Zefferelli’s searing demands to the dotted i. Those who didn’t, like Kathleen Battle, were shown the door. Opera in New York may not have been the place to expect conceptions of the world to be turned upside down, but at least the artform was taken seriously.

And at least there still was enough of an audience to appreciate what Levine was doing. It wasn’t just the ABC’s of opera that were selling out (Aida, La Boheme, Carmen), it was performances of Don Carlo and La Forza Del Destino, Idomeneo and Cosi fan Tutte, The Italian Girl in Algiers and L’Elisir d’Amore, Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos. Levine may have stuck to opera’s tried and true composers, but he gave every one of them their full due with lavish productions featuring the best possible singers and America’s greatest orchestra in the pit - most of them preserved for posterity through PBS’s series: Great Performances, a federally-funded (at least partially) series meant to cover the best of opera, theater, music, and dance in America - one which like Levine’s Met, justified its grandiosity and pomp by never feeding audiences fare that’s too challenging.

By the standards of yesterday, Levine is as close to the ideal opera conductor as the world has ever seen. Unlike the podium tyrants of the mid-20th century, Levine never browbeats singers, he works with them, mentors them, persuades them of his conceptions. He’s become the most sought after mentor to half-a-dozen generations of opera stars. He’s even trained the pit orchestra, historically the bane of every opera house in the world, to the highest standard of any orchestra in America - often playing six first-class performances every week.

But unfortunately, the world no longer needs James Levine, and it’s hard to think he doesn’t know that. He was the perfect conductor for the era in which he began his career, but opera today demands something very different from what Levine gives... assuming that it demands anything from us at all. The 20th century has passed Levine by, and while like all dutifully musicians of his age he voices a passion for high atonality, the greatness in of 20th century operas after Turandot and Wozzeck completely seems to elude him. Janacek, Schrecker  Prokofiev, Hindemith, Martinu, Britten, Stockhausen, Henze, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, John Adams, all pass him by. One can’t completely blame him, the greatness in many of these composers eludes me too. But to find so little of value as to avoid all of them is unacceptable for the world’s great opera conductor. Furthermore, to venture so little into opera before Mozart and Gluck is a concept just as dated. The world of opera, indeed, the whole world of classical music, is no longer music from 1720 to 1910. It’s now music from 1200 to the present day. Much of that new/old music sucks, but we have to sift through the bad stuff to find the good ones.  

He is one of the world’s truly great Mozart conductors. Levine’s is a never fashionable conception, beholden neither to the arid dogmas of period performance nor to the super-smooth Dresden Doll delicacies of the old school. Under Levine, Mozart never loses his smile, but can also be as dramatically involving as Beethoven. It was a similarly winning combination in Richard Strauss, where the mix of delicacy and violent drama is perfect for Levine’s temperment. He is far from the world’s greatest Wagner conductor, and has given lots of wooden, lumbering performances over the years of a composer he never sounded as though he could conduct with 100% conviction. I don’t blame him. But he was always competent in Wagner and even if he couldn’t always make Wagner sound interesting, at least he did the best he could. Ditto Puccini, a composer which Levine always tried to ‘help’ by downplaying its vulgar elements at the expense of all the reasons people love Puccini.  

But it is under Verdi’s name that Levine has lodged his legacy. Since Arturo Toscanini, no superstar conductors have been so completely devoted to Verdi as Riccardo Muti and James Levine. Neither is Toscanini’s equal in this composer (has any conductor ever performed a composer so well as Toscanini did Verdi?), but both have rendered their services for him, for better or worse. Muti is perhaps the one conductor since Toscanini who demands the utmost fire and brimstone from Verdi performances, but he does not have Toscanini’s naturalness of pacing and drives the music to the limit of human possibility with very little repose in between. He is well-known for insisting on Verdi’s urtext: under Muti, singers are prohibited from interpolating notes that Verdi didn’t write, substituting louder dynamics, or bending rhythms. Yet Muti consistently permits himself all those things he disallows from others (not for nothing is he nicknamed Mutollini). Levine’s Verdi, while certainly dramatic, is more understated.  Under Toscanini, Verdi took on all the power of a Shakespearean drama. Not a single moment was milked, and every detail of the piece was in its perfect place to make the whole work. Listening to Toscanini in Aida the Requiem or Otello or Falstaff is like listening to perfection itself in which every detail sounds precisely the way it was meant to sound. Other Verdi performances are better as opera, but only Toscanini can make you understand why Verdi is one of the world’s greatest dramatists. No one since Toscanini got closer to that level of understanding than Levine, but Levine’s Verdi is not quite so insistent on following the score to the absolute letter of the law (though closer than virtually everybody else). If Toscanini is classical drama, then Levine’s Verdi is a classical epic - exciting in spite of its dry passages and with an increasing  tendency to be too slow going.

Indeed, slowness has come to be Levine’s most definable quality as a musician. At the beginning of his career, James Levine was known as a fleet, ultra-dramatic conductor who went for clean linear interpretations with razor-sharp ensemble. Today, he’s known for ultra-slow, ultra-lush performances that critics charitably call ‘massive.’

He is the perfect conductor for the era in which he began his career. But even Leonard Bernstein, dead for 22 years, is still a more current,  meaningful figure to music today than James Levine. Lenny showed today’s musicians how to talk to audiences, how to engage other genres, how to hold off routine, and how to stay in love with music you’ve played a hundred times. The old Lenny became a sad figure himself on the podium, equally if not more prone to massively slow tempos and painful grimacing in his dotage. But Lenny grew old, fat, and sad because the times were so clearly behind him. Jimmy’s grown sad because he stood still while the world clearly moved on.


There is something about Levine that refuses to move on from things as they once were. I don’t know what it is, and I think very few people do. When he began his career, he was known as the most loquacious interviewee in classical music, happily chatting up journalists for hours at a time. Today, he rarely ever gives interviews, and even other musicians say that he will rarely if ever discuss anything non-musical.

Clearly, things changed with him, probably sometime around the early-to-mid 90’s. We finally learned that Levine’s hand-tremors were in fact what everybody had assumed and what Levine had denied for years and years: Parkinson’s Disease beginning in 1994. But why wait so long to tell everybody? Why the secrecy? As has clearly been proven in the last few years, they’ll keep him as music director of the Met until they need to shovel him in the ground. It should certainly strike people as odd that  an admittance was so long coming, but not half as odd as the fact of the particular week it happened. Just a few days before, Kurt Masur disclosed that he had Parkinson’s Disease. Masur, sixteen years older than Levine, is a defiantly old school German conductor without Levine’s singular talent. His performances, particularly in recent years, can be quite generic. But as has been seen so dramatically in the past when Masur was one of the heroes of East Germany’s fall, Masur is a much braver man than Levine. After Masur released his secret to the acclaim of many in the music world for his bravery, Levine announced just a few days later that yes indeed, he has Parkinson’s too, has since at least 1994, will never walk again, and must now use an electric wheelchair to get around. And oh, by the way, he’s planning to return again to conduct at the Met after three years absence.

And then, there are the ‘dark secrets.’ I don’t know when the rumors began surfacing of Levine’s sexual peculiarities, but I first read them in Norman Lebrecht’s 1997 book, Who Killed Classical Music, in which a barely disguised pseudonym was used that could clearly not have been anybody else. The book contained a blatant allegation that Levine was molesting younger musicians  of both sexes - not children, perhaps not even teenagers, but certainly far younger than him and without consent. Anyone would become sad after hearing allegations about themselves like those, because even if the allegations aren’t true, the damage to his reputation is automatically done. Other rumors started popping up, of the Met board hushing up his arrest in a public men’s room, of aides cruising to procure him male lovers, of chamber music sessions in the nude. I used to frequent a music shop in DC where the owner claimed that he got a creepily suspicious leer from James Levine when he was younger and working as a Lincoln Center Intern. From the beginning of his career, Levine has had a live-in girlfriend whom he never married, (and now refers to, simply, as his ‘closest friend’). It always felt like a ruse which gay men use to conceal their real sexuality, probably for potential wealthy donors in this case. Even so, rumors like these are dangerous (I’m almost uncomfortable discussing them) and have a way of doubling in on themselves. Until definitive proof is brought, James Levine must be considered innocent until proven guilty, and even if even one of these rumors is true, surely all of them can’t be - the nude chamber music one is actually kind of charming...

But whatever the truth about his emotional life, his physical decline got more and more pronounced, perhaps sadder too. The happy-go-lucky kid seemed all too beset by worries. He began to branch into orchestral life, but the branching out was all too late. Levine was always a talented conductor of orchestral concerts with whose abilities seemed to center around late-Viennese composers like Mahler and Schoenberg. But by the time he took over Sergiu Celibidache’s Munich Philharmonic in 1999, he seemed nearly as immobile as Celibidache was in the years before he died. By the time Levine became director of the Boston Symphony, something was clearly wrong - James Levine was looking dumpy and frail even by James Levine standards. Sixty-year-old men are not supposed to look like that, and if they do, they should not be holding down two full-time jobs. Levine’s tenure with the Boston Symphony began in a shower of praise - a great American orchestra was finally being revived and a great American conductor was finally getting his due as a star. But then came injury after injury, it became difficult to watch Levine do anything on the podium. It was clear that when he could even make it to the concert, he was in terrible pain.  The cancellations became more and more frequent, and the Boston Symphony was left without even a good guest conductor, as often as not leaving their most important concerts of the year in the hands of an unproven assistant - and not every thirty-year-old is James Levine.

This is a man whose entire life has been music from beginning to end. He began life as a child prodigy pianist, mentored by a who’s who of mid-century American musical life. As many child prodigy families do, his family made enormous sacrifices to bring Levine to where he is now,  and his brother still sometimes acts as his assistant. He was George Szell’s assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra for six years (and if being George Szell’s assistant doesn’t screw up a person’s psyche, nothing would). Three years after he left Cleveland, when he was not yet thirty, he was running the world’s biggest opera house. How does a person continue growing when he was already born with everything? How does a person virtually born at the top of his profession experience the world outside of it?

Rather, people like that cling to things they already know. They obsessively savor every new detail they can find of the familiar, and they make themselves ever more at home in their home. James Levine may not have much life outside music, and whatever life he has may be extraordinarily dysfunctional, but within his little sliver of music, he is the master of all that he surveys. We should be happy he’s returning to the stage. But we should also understand why James Levine is so reluctant to give up his positions, even after he hasn’t been able to conduct a concert in over two years. If he didn’t have a baton in his hand, would James Levine be anybody at all?