Monthly Archives: January 2018

1001 Songs – 1969: Part Two

Wow that was a long break between songs. I guess that live and a re-emerging love of cinema got in the way… also RuPaul’s Drag Race. Man, I love those girls. So let’s continue on and finally get out of the 1960s!

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Sister Morphine – Marianne Faithfull

I am probably in the minority of people in my generation to have listened to a Marianne Faithfull album (Broken English) at some point. I’d forgotten just how haunting her vocals can be, that is until ‘Sister Morphine’ starts. I don’t know if I have ever heard such a frank song about drug addiction – granted we’ve had ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground – where the singer is exposing her own dark dependencies… and at the time of recording her drug habits were just on the precipice of an even deeper addiction. In part, because the money she made from this song helped her to afford more drugs, like the titular morphine.

The huskiness in Faithfull’s voice is haunting and the history of this song make it one of those weird relics that won’t soon be forgotten.

Okie from Muskogee – Merle Haggard

Okay, so this is how I would imagine Hank Hill as a country singer. On the surface this is a song about a man in Middle America looking at the youth culture (the then hippies and the drugs that they took) and being glad to be the sort of man he is. It’s hard to go beyond the surface because Merle Haggard himself keeps changing his story as to what this song means i.e. is it a satire or is he playing it straight. He basically veers between those depending on the company.

Personally I didn’t read it as satire – it feels just like someone rolling their eyes, shrugging their shoulders and going “kids these days”.

Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin

I said previously that with Led Zeppelin II I finally found a Led Zeppelin album that I enjoyed. I wrote that two years ago and the moment ‘Heartbreaker’ started it took me right back to that sunny day when I was listening to this on the train.

With ‘Heartbreaker’ in a better context I can really appreciate how this fit into music at the time. Hard rock is becoming harder and you can see that metal is just around the corner. In fact, you might even call this and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ (which will be in the next batch of songs) metal – just not heavy metal.

Is That All There Is? – Peggy Lee

Turning the dial right down from 11 here as we go for something completely different. Something utterly depressing. I’ve heard this song before, but never listened to this song before. I think that the character in the song is depressed and displaying some flat affect.

This is a woman who knows that despite being able to find any joy in love or the circus there is no point in ending it all… because death is it’s own type of disappointment. I mean, good God! Also, good on Peggy Lee for actually taking on a song like this in the twilight of her career. Her voice is sultry enough to pull this of despite the weirdly upbeat banjo in the background.

And wouldn’t you know, this helped Peggy Lee stage a comeback. Uttlerly brilliant.

Sweetness – Yes

Ladies and gentlemen, progressive rock has just arrived. If I hadn’t been so focused on the interplay between hard and soft rock in previous songs I probably would have noticed that prog-rock was quietly developing in the background – thanks in no small part to the Beatles and the Beach Boys. In the next post we’ll have a King Crimson song, which also signals the point where psychedelia is coming to an end and is mixing with the baroque rock/chamber pop of the Beach Boys to make prog-rock.

‘Sweetness’ is a song you could imagine the Beatles singing in their Sgt Pepper days, but I think it is better that this song belongs to Yes. Even if just for the sweeter vocals that the Beatles couldn’t really do.

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

You have to hand it to Elvis, he had a long career. He managed to jump genres and change with the times. Granted that this will have been a lot down to the management knowing what they are doing, but credit where credit is due.

It’s still very much an Elvis song though and it could belong on his Memphis album if it had been recorded earlier. He sounds so good on this song and it’s just a pity that it has that weird fade out-fade in thing going on around the 3.5 minute mark. I guess that’s the producer wanting to put his mark on the song or something like that… but that’s probably just when the song should have ended.

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes – Crosby, Stills, & Nash

Bonus marks for this song for doing something very different. Structured more like a classical piece ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ is formed of four distinct parts to make one contiguous piece of music. It’s always an upbeat song, but it goes through variations in harmony, orchestration and (for the final section) language.

I think most people would find themselves recognising the final part of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and not being sure exactly how – but it’s pretty recognisable for its unintelligability.

Pinball Wizard – The Who

We close this group of songs with two incredibly famous entries. Whilst I have not seen Tommy the movie, I have listened to the rock opera. Within the story of Tommy ‘Pinball Wizard’ is a song about the deaf-blind protagonist becoming a world class pinball player (is player the word for pinball) just through sensing the vibrations.

I mean this is drug-fuelled rock we’re talking about so it doesn’t have to make that much sense as it veers between rock and pop.

Je t’aime… moi non plus – Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg

So the story goes that there is a generation of people that have been conceived to this song. I love this idea. It’s bizarre, but I’m going to run with it. The other story goes that the heavy breathing is because of Birkin and Gainsbourg having sex during the recording. Again I love this idea if just for the logistics that would need to be involved.

Okay so both of those stories are baloney, but isn’t it great when a 4 and a half minute song can develop such a rich mythology. Especially a breathy erotic song like this one. I was about to go into how stupid it is that a song like this was banned from radio in a number of countries… but now that I’ve listened to it all the way it makes sense. There is a lot of heavy breathing in this and I can just imagine the kids in the playground mimicing this without knowing why.

Got to say that this is a weird song to end the post on…

Progress: 285/1021

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Graphic Content – The Sojourn

List Item:  Read half of the 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die
Progress:
35/501Title: The Sojourn (Le Sursis)
Creator: Jean-Pierre Gibrat
Year: 1997
Country: France

After the madness of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure it was sobering to get to a graphic novel like The Sojourn. It helps to prove the point, if it needed proving, that the medium of graphic novels can deal with the same serious subjects as regular novels.

The story starts with a man having escaped from enforced labour in World War Two by jumping off a train. Having been declared dead, Julien takes up refuge in the attic of an old building and watch as his hometown deals with being occupied by Germany.

Yet, whilst this is story is set during France’s occupation, this is a story very much about the average citizen rather than military men. Through his art and storytelling Gibrat gives us sight of the human drama that unfolds from a community divided. He recognises the work done by those in the resistance, the acts of those who sided with the occupational forces and those who just let the occupation take it’s course.

It’s these human interactions (and the interaction of Julien with the coat stand he takes up residence with) that makes The Sojourn a good read. Much like Julien spying on the town below, we too are given a voyeuristic vantage point into their lives; albeit through Julien’s sometimes glib commentary.

At no point does this graphic novel fall into sentimentality or comedy. Everything is character driven and very much grounded in the perils of war. People get shot, loved ones get injured and there is a real sense of danger throughout both books. I mean, Julien isn’t always careful when he leaves the building at night and you just know that he is going to get caught eventually.

Being two books long it does not take too long to read all of The Sojourn and yet you get extremely attached to these characters and their problems. As with anything slice-of-life, a lot of things end up unresolved… then again it goes keep you thinking about what would happen next.

So that’s going to be it for the comics list for a while. It’s been a few months since I last completed a non-graphic novel and I believe it is time for me to actually read again. Being the person that I am it will likely be one of the longest novels that I have left… so that’ll be Middlemarch or David Copperfield.

XL Popcorn – Zerkalo

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 622/1007
Title: The Mirror (Zerkalo)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Year: 1975
Country: USSR

So here we are with the final of the four Andrei Tarkovsky entries on the 1001 movie list. Between this and Stalker I am going to have to admit defeat. I think that what these other people are seeing is just going over my head. It’s not that I dislike any of the films I have seen (on average I’ve given them 7/10), but I think there is something I am missing.

I am not exaggerating when I say that all of his entries on the 1001 list are extremely well regarded. Zerkalo itself finished in 9th place in a 2012 poll voted by directors to find the best movie of all time… which may go a long way to explain why I never had the urge to become an arthouse movie director.

All this preamble to try and keep some cinephile credit when Zerkalo actually turned out to be my favourite of the four.  Weirdly I think it helped that I have previously watched the 2002 film Russian Ark and read In Search of Lost TimeWhy? Well, Zerkalo is not so much a film as it is a meditation on memory. As with other pieces of modern art, the narrative is delivered as a stream of consciousness which allows for some fallibility and the ability to jump around in time/narratives/memory.

The film itself is Tarkovsky doing a loose autobiography of his father. I want to place an emphasis on loose because the film includes a woman levitating and things that, as a boy, the protagonist would not have been privy to. Still, we catch a glimpse at episode of this person’s life as well as the life of his mother.

There is no story in this film. To try and find a story or a concrete throughline is to both miss the point and become frustrated. I can see why people would dislike this if they went into the film without prior warning of it being one of those films. I mean, if I went into this expecting a ‘normal’ film I would have come out rather perplexed. As it is I came out with questions and the wish that I hadn’t watched this by myself.

So yes, that’s another of the big league directors crossed off the list. There are still many great directors to be crossed off in the 380+ films I have yet to see (including Alfred Hitchcock, Max and Marcel Ophuls, John Ford and Ingmar Berman), but that’s the joy of making my way through the list.

XL Popcorn – L’Eclisse

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 621/1007
Title: L’Eclisse
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Year: 1962
Country: Italy

So it turns out that between L’Eclisse and L’Avventura I have watched the first and last films of a loose trilogy of films by Michelangelo Antonioni. The middle film (La Notte) is also on the 1001 film list. I guess that since this is a loose trilogy my watching these films out of order won’t matter too much, but I won’t know until I get to that film in 12-18 months.

Anyway, enough pride wound licking.

L’Eclisse is the fourth out of six Michelangelo Antonioni films that I have seen for the 1001 list (others being L’Avventura, Il Deserto Rosso and Blow-Up) and the third of them I have seen starring Monica Vitti. As a muse I cannot fault Vitti’s work with Antonioni and I think this could be the best I have seen her – or at least this is her at her most sensual.

I’m not entire sure whether going through the plot of L’Eclisse would help to properly talk about it. It’s a film that is very much steeped in an atmosphere of ennui (which is kicked off by Vitti’s character breaking up with her fiance) and is able to generate a number of interesting contrasts.

For many people there is the elephant in the room (literally, if you consider that tacky side table) of the racist/colonialist scene as Vittoria (Vitti) visits a friend of hers. Some people are so turned off by this scene that they deride Antonioni for its inclusion… and I would normally feel the same if it wasn’t for how it fit into the rest of the film.

Firstly, this friend (who dances in a form of black face and talks about native Kenyans as being monkeys who have recently lost their tails) is chastised openly for her behaviour. It’s not done by Vittoria, but by another friend of hers. Similarly everything about this apartment is tacky, so I would argue that this is more of a send up than anything.

Similarly, this scene where she calls native Kenyans savage is sandwiched between two scenes in a stock exchange. The way that Antonioni shoots these well-to-do white people snarling and yelling serves as an amazing contrast to her comments. For all the education and the money these are people who are still full of greed and viciousness. So yes, that makes for an interesting contrast.

Talking of contrasts, I need to speak a little about the final 7-8 minutes. The background to this scene is that our two characters (Vitti and Alain Delon) have just spent some passionate time together and made plans to meet each other later. We then just spend time watching various people going about their general business in between shots of the rather stark facist architecture and, for some reason, some ants scurrying up a tree.

The thing is… they don’t meet again. It’s a weird ending as you feel both like this was the perfect conclusion (as they never really found a way to communicate) and also a sad conclusion (as they both need happiness). So yes, between the ants and the lack of meeting this was an interesting ending to an interesting film.

 

I finish this with a general word about my continued crush on 1960s Alain Delon. If possible he may be more attractive here as the prickly stockbroker than in either The Leopard or Le Samouraï. Hopefully I haven’t used up all the Delon films as that would be a shame.

 

 

XL Popcorn – Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 620/1007
Title: Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler)
Director: Fritz Lang
Year: 1922
Country: Germany

Ah Dr. Mabuse der Spieler, a movie so long that it was originally released in two parts. Probably means that this should be worth two entries on the 1001 list… but then again this is a list that contains Toy Story as a trilogy.

At just over 4 hours long it would have made sense for me to have watched this as the original two parts, but then YouTube started the second part automatically and I had nowhere to be. That sounds a bit sad, but this is what I do with my time off in lieu.

Now, if I’m being honest, the story doesn’t exactly warrant a 4 hour running time. There are times where this feels like a number of short stories that have been stitched together to make one long movie. As such there were times (mainly the middle of the first part) where I began to feel a tiny bit confused.

However, the performance of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the titular Dr Mabuse manages to keep you engaged the whole time is great as the titular doctor (a small break in the middle helps this). As a character he’s painted with broad strokes and it’s hard to really get a grip on what his supernatural powers are, but at least we get a glimpse of his motivations: he’s basically evil, bored and wants to spend his time messing with people.

In the end this is what the film is about – Dr Mabuse ruining people for his own game and him being chased by State Prosecutor Von Wenk (who was sometimes referred to as Von Wank in the subtitles). As you would expect from the director of Metropolis, there are some pretty great  set pieces e.g. the stock market and the seance.

With all this there is enough to keep you entertained, but I just wander how much more I would have liked this if there was a more edited down version. Same goes for if there was sound, but I feel that way about all silent movies.

I just noticed this, but Dr. Mabuse der Spieler is the 202nd film I have seen from the 1001 list since I started this blog. I know that a large number of these (possibly the majority) came from my time with

XL Popcorn – The Tree of Wooden Clogs

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 619/1007
Title: The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’Albero degli zoccoli)
Director: Ermanno Olmi
Year: 1978
Country: Italy

When the husband’s away, the mice shall watch a three hour long Italian pastoral movie. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is one of those films that I have had on my ‘to watch’ list for the best part of a decade – just because of the name. I added Spirit of the Beehive to my list at the same time for the same reason, it’s just that I got around to watching that film a lot earlier.

I think that I added The Tree of Wooden Clogs to my list around the time I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth in the cinema. So I probably added this thinking that there was an actual tree that grew clogs rather than it being a physical tree that is used to make a pair of clogs whose cutting down is a pivotal moment in the narrative. Wow, that sentence was a bit of a mouthful, wasn’t it.

Rather than being something fanciful, this Cannes Palme D’or winner is rooted in the Italian tradition of neo-realism. We spend the three hours following four peasant families in 1898 Italy. We watch them as they try to scratch out a living that is enough to pay off the master and keep them… alive.

It’s one of those films where your enjoyment of it hinges on your ability to sit through three hours of the human experience. Also, where your sensibilities lie about seeing a pig being slaughtered onscreen. I’ve never heard those noises coming from a big and I don’t really want to hear those again. Yes, I know this shows that I am a sheltered city boy, but I don’t care. That was horrible.

As with Stalker there are a lot of things in this film where I can understand the positive critical opinion. However, yet again, I found myself bored. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t in the mind of a semi-documentary or because I distanced myself from the film after the first animal slaughter. Still, it’s an interesting and different film to have seen. It helps put a lot of things into perspective.

Acclaimed Albums – At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 136/250Title: At Folsom Prison
Artist: Johnny Cash
Year: 1968
Position: #153

I think it speaks for either the number or general quality of live albums that so few of them are within the Top 250 list on Acclaimed Music. You could count the entries on your hands, possibly even just one of them. It’s also worth noting that these acclaimed albums are amongst the older ones on the list.

At Folsom Prison is probably the most interesting one of the live albums on this list because of the location of its recording. It goes without saying that most live albums tend to be in clubs, stadiums or some other regular concert venue rather than a prison. Full praise should therefore be given to Johnny Cash’s desire to do so – even if it just meant the chance to play ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ in an actual prison.

The album is made up of recordings of two shows he did in one day, with most of it originating from the first show. You can’t tell that they’ve pieced these together in anyway as the audiences are pretty much the on same level. I can only imagine how much joy these shows brought to the inmates – even if a large amount of the songs are about prisons, being in prison, committing crimes etc. I guess that’s what you get from having an outlaw country singer doing a show in a prison?

What makes At Folsom Prison a good listen is the same reason as for all good live albums: the energy. Music on an album is great, music performed well live is better. It’s because of going to gigs that I finally got Sufjan Steven’s The Age of Adz album (especially that final 20+ minute track). But that’s not the only thing that makes At Folsom Prison.

It might be an odd thing to think, but it feels like there is such an empathetic and emotional connection between Cash and the prisoners in his audience. This wasn’t just another gig, this was special to him and this is what shines.

Now this old style of country and rockabilly doesn’t to be my cup of tea. There are tracks on the second side which began to really drag for me, but that was probably because the first half was the more outlaw section (including the famous lines of “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”).

On the whole, however, this was a great chance to hear an icon doing what he does best and that’s worth the time even if you don’t enjoy the music too much. Or you could watch Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line, not quite the same but still a good experience.

 

What’s On TV – RuPaul’s Drag Race

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 195/501
Title: RuPaul’s Drag Race
Episodes Aired: 117
Year(s): 2009 onwards
Country: USA

There is no better way of showing the difference in work colleagues between myself and my husband. Where I fast-tracked The Great British Bake Off to talk to some of mine, he asked to fast-track RuPaul’s Drag Race in order to share it with some of his. Yes, both are competitions and involve a great deal of innuendo – but that’s where the similarities stop.

For the uninitiated, RuPaul’s Drag Race is a competitive reality show between professional drag queens in order to be crowned “America’s Next Drag Superstar”. The challenges that the contestants face include photoshoots, acting, singing, lip-syncing and the infamous ‘Snatch Game’.

As someone who is afraid of drag queens (yes, I have been known to flee when one enters my personal space) I was really apprehensive about watching this. Over in the UK I have only really come across the more aggressive types of drag queens which has resulted in me viewing them all as scary gay clowns.

So let’s start the healing.

For the purposes of ticking this off we decided to watch two complete seasons: the first and fifth (the latter being recommended by the hub’s work colleagues). And we watched both of these incredibly quickly – especially the fifth season because I fell in love with this show.

I don’t really watch much reality television (especially with Bake Off switching channels), but what really got me with Drag Race is the cheer level of talent on display here. They have to make clothes, be witty, sing, act and do all of this whilst being pretty (or fierce depending on the persona). The level of respect that I now have for these drag artists is so high now – especially for the more accomplished ones that I saw.

This is where I probably should mention the performer who really helped me work through this fear of mine: Jinkx Monsoon. If I had watched the first season before the fifth I would have probably would have used a picture of Nina Flowers, but there you go.

In the two weeks since finishing off Season 5 I still catch myself looking for Jinkx Monsoon highlights on YouTube. They found new ways to make me smile and to soften towards the whole concept of drag artistry. It’s not something I would really want to go and see live (mainly because of the amount of alcohol consumption involved) but I think the number of times I have watched this clip on YouTube shows just how far I have come.

List item: Overcome a fear
Status: Completed

It may be a bit too soon to call this, but I think the healing has truly begun.

So yes. I will now be watching the rest of this show and it will be an utter delight to do so.

XL Popcorn – Spring in a Small Town

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 618/1007
Title: Spring in a Small Town
Director: Fei Mu
Year: 1948
Country: China

I don’t know if this is a bad thing to say, but this film felt incredibly British. I know that love and a lot of the stories that spin off from that are universal, but there is something about the restraint, self-denial and the underlying erotic tension that made me think, “wow these could be British people.”

In a nutshell, Spring in a Small Town is a film where we see a couple who are just going through the motions in their marriage being challenged by the arrival of the husband’s childhood friend… who also happens to be the wife’s childhood sweetheart. Add into the mix that the couple life with the husband’s sister who has just turned 16 and you can see where this film is going.

I’m going to be stopping here as it feels like I am criticising the film. Knowing exactly where the beats are going to land isn’t always a bad thing – otherwise how would you explain the popularity of sketch shows. What this film does well is the atmosphere; something where knowing the plot thread helps.

In this film there are three main through-lines of atmosphere: the childish crush between the sister and the guest, the erotic tension between the wife and the guest and the feelings of defeat that comes out in any scene with the husband. Much like different pressure fronts on a weather forecast – there are sparks that flew when these different in-film atmospheres collided. It’s not a huge film (although some people call this the best Chinese film of all time… agree to disagree) but it’s a very well done character study that could easily have been a play.

It’s weird to think that whilst the events of A City of Sadness were occurring in Taiwan, back on mainland China Spring in a Small Town was being shot. I know that the world keeps turning and everything, but watching these films back to back just amplified that for me.

XL Popcorn – A City of Sadness

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 617/1007
Title: A City of Sadness
Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Year: 1989
Country: Taiwan

Whilst it is a bit dangerous to learn a lot of your world history by watching films there are times where it is a necessary evil. Through A City of Sadness, Yi Yi and A Brighter Summer Day I have learnt so much more about modern Taiwanese history than I would have otherwise. In fact, my understanding would have probably been a cursory knowledge of the two state problem and a joke in Red Dwarf about the Talkie Toaster having been manufactured in Taiwan.

In the historical timeline of these three films A City of Sadness would come first by about two years and covers (if slightly obliquely) the February 28 Massacre in 1947 and the installation of, what would become, 40 years of martial law.  We see the events through the life of the grown-up siblings of the Lin family, where all of them are adversely affected by the brutality.

I have seen a number of films where a country tells a story of its own past and makes a lot of assumptions about the viewers knowledge. The Travelling Players was guilty of this and really turned me off as a consequence. A City of Sadness does a better job of this (maybe because it had the film festival circuit in its sights) although there were times where the jumping between times did get a bit confusing. Still, the film kept its grounding as it stripped away more and more of the optimism.

Whilst this is an ensemble cast there is one actor who completely stands out, yet again, and that is Tony Leung Chiu Wei. Truly he is one of the best actors that I have ever seen and there is still so much more of his work that I need to see (Happy Together, 2046, Hard Boiled and Lust, Caution being the films that immediately come to mind). There is something about him that is magnetic and instantly generates empathy as you watch him.

He takes on the role of the youngest brother – a photographer who is also deaf-mute. As the rest of his siblings begin to ‘thin out’ (one being murdered by gangsters and another being mentally destroyed after being arrested as part of the new political rulings) his roles grows as he becomes more and more central to the family. His communications with the outside world are limited to gesture, guttural noises and written notes – which makes it difficult to prove to marauding gangs that you are native to Taiwan instead of Japanese…

The fact that this film came out just two years after the end of martial law speaks to the bravery of director Hou Hsiao-hsien and everyone else working on this production. As the first film to deal with this subject matter I can see that they probably didn’t go as deep as they could have, but there is a lot to be said about exercising restraint.

Whilst this film doesn’t look away from the grisly realities of an authoritarian regime shooting and imprisoning its own people it, the director creates a distance through his choice of shots that ultimately helps to create a more nuance and, ultimately, memorable film.