Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 In Review - The Non-Depressing Parts

This is the time of year when a lot of internet denizens, professional and amateur, review what things in the popular arts they liked over the last year. In my case that would be music and movies, but I really don't feel able to do a conventional "best of 2011" in either genre. In music, I don't listen to much current rock or pop stuff anymore, usually just paying attention when some familiar old duffer like Tom Waits or Lou Reed comes out with something new, though  Florence and The Machine has caught my ear recently and I always have time for folk-based singers like Gillian Welch and Eliza Carthy.  In that vein I really enjoyed the maligned Reed-Metallica opus, Lulu, and was really amazed upon hearing the legendary Beach Boys Smile Sessions.  Even at a remove of 40 years with bits and pieces floating out there for years, the work turned out to be every bit as beautiful and visionary as it was always claimed to be.

The main music I listen to is Jazz which had an avalanche of riches come out this year, most of which I've yet to hear. Almost every best-of-the-year list I've seen in print or online has different recordings on it which just a few names like Craig Taborn, Bill Frisell and Sonny Rollins showing up in more than one place. That's cool with me because that gives me a lot to catch up on but I've yet to see any love for the 2011 CD I enjoyed the most, Kaiso Stories by the group Other Dimensions In Music.  Jazz Reissue lists have been a different story with praises universally showered on the two historic finds from the International Phonograph label, Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes and Julius Hemphill's Dogon A.D.  The same went for the Miles Davis Live In Europe 1967 set for damn good reasons.

I have spent a lot of time watching movies over the past year but not too many of them were 2011 releases.  I hope to catch up on at least a couple of current releases this week but so far I 've managed to see and enjoy in different ways the following Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives, The Tree of Life, Kill The Irishman, The Guard, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek's Cutoff, Young Adult, The Descendents Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Everything Must Go, the serious Will Ferrell film that seems to have slipped everyone's mind. I did also see one very popular movie, Bridesmaids, about which I can only say...are you kidding me?  A few funny bits of raunch are thrown into a predictable plot about a whiny, unlikable loser who can't find a decent boyfriend and that's supposed to be a great female comedy?  Charlize Theron's Young Adult was much more entertaining even though her character was a complete mess.

Anyway I think for a non-professional movie fan like myself who doesn't have to keep up with all the latest stuff, the idea of just paying attention to the newest work coming out is really antiquated. We live in a time when recent movies are always around on DVD or some other medium and older films are consyantly being rediscovered and put on the market.  At any give point there are hundred of movies available in multiple forms from past decades as entertaining as anything currently playing in theatres.By accident, most of the movies I've seen in the last year have been recent releases from the past few years. Some were highly touted and some really obscure, but all had something that grabbed me. They included a Belgian equivalent of Robot Chicken, A Town Called Panic, Sally Potter's experimental drama made for Smartphone viewing, Rage, Tilda Swinton ripping a hole through Viscontian melodrama in I Am Love, and Ken Loach's comedy about a British postman getting life coaching from the imaginary presence of an English football star, Looking For Eric.

    The others I liked were: Winter's Bone, The Illusionist, The Wrestler, Black Dynamite, The Ghost Writer, Gone Baby Gone, Sugar, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Wild Grass, Boogie Woogie, Alexandra's Project, The Descent, I'm Not There, The Social Network, Babel, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, The Diving Bell And The Butterfly and The Fighter.

As for somewhat older work, I got to see Sir Laurence Olivier in a 1968 production of Siringberg's The Dance Of Death, John Carpenter's Assault On Precinct 13, Newsfront, an Australian epic about the history if the newsreel business and a real rarity in Girl Of The Night, a 1960 film that starred a gorgeous Anne Francis as a call girl dealing with the psychological trauma of her profession.

I also saw a few oddities from the always fascinating early talkie, Pre-Code era like Safe In Hell, a drama about a prostitute running from a murder rap with a ming-blowing conclusion, He Was Her Man, an obscure early James Cagney film where he plays an uncharacteristically, for him,  gallant gangster who sacrifices himself for the woman he loves and the 1929 version of The Letter, stiff like many talking pictures of its time but with an intense, modern performance by the play's original stage star, the doomed Jeanne Eagles.

Then there were new discoveries from two of my favorite directors, typical Sam Fuller pulp artistry in The Steel Helmet and Underworld U.S.A. and Michael Powell delivering what was proablty one of the most genteel war movies ever made, The Battle Of The River Plate.

Above all though there were two movies that really just blew me away with their effectiveness, two films that only relatively few people have  probably even heard of, 2006's The Gymnast and 2010's A Marine Story.  Both of these films were lesbian themed dramas with the same director, Ned Farr and the same star, his wife, Dreya Weber, a beautiful actress/aerial performer/choreographer. In the first one, Weber plays a former Olympic athlete in an unhappy marriage who develops a spectacular aerial nightclub act with a younger Korean dancer with the two women's feelings inevitably getting out of control. In the second, she's a lesbian former Marine officer, forced out of the Corps because of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", who goes back to her hometown and ends up undertaking the rehabilitation of a young woman involved with a drug gang. The narratives of these films ignore all the cliches that others may get from these situations, instead going for deep characterizations and tell stories about people having the courage to find themselves no matter what society thinks. Weber is a striking, compelling actress with impressive athletic skills and is really a formidable presence in both films. The privilege of watching her is one of the things I enjoyed most at the movies this entire year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

R. I. P. Sam Rivers (1923-2011)

Dammit! I've been working on a long post about the past year that I had planned to finish and put up today, but not now. I'm definitely not in the mood.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Lou and Lulu

I've got a couple of things I hope to be writing about in the next few days but after hearing the Lou Reed - Metallica opus, Lulu, for the first time, I had to write some quick comments.  The consensus I've seen about this CD online is that it isn't very good. Chuck Klosterman, a writer of some renown, even went so far as call it "totally unlistenable".  As the WWE's Miz would say "Really? REALLY?".

Most of the opinions I read seemed more knowledgeable about Metallica than Reed and were disappointed that Metallica had yet again failed to match their Master Of Puppets heights and were being subservient to an "elderly misanthrope" in Klosterman's words. Well, yes, this is essentially Metallica serving as Reed's backing band and that's perfectly fine with me.

Listening to all the talk I put this on expecting to hear Metal Machine Music 2.  Instead I was treated to Mr. Reed at his pissed-off, profane best, spitting out lyrics over a violent musical backdrop and a lot of musical variety, involving strings and acoustic guitars as well as Hetfield & Company's sturm und drang. Anyone surprised by this stuff has heard very little Lou.  There are echoes of "Sister Ray", Berlin, Street Hassle, Ecstasy and other classics here.  On first hearing it does fade a little in the late going as some tracks on the second CD have more plain riffing than melody but the work ends with a flourish on "Junior Dad", one of Lou's haunting string-laden, open-hearted ballads in the mold of "Sad Song" and "Street Hassle".  If this is unlistenable to some youngbloods, God forbid they ever run into Peter Brotzmann or Merzbow.  For my money it's heartening to know that the "elderly" Mr. Reed is still spitting blood, bile and jism with gale force.