Thursday, December 2, 2021

Eleven movies, one mini-series

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers. Sources: Criterion Channel, Disney, Hulu, TCM, Tubi, YouTube.]

Totally Under Control (dir. Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, and Suzanne Hillinger, 2020). The story of the previous U.S. administration’s response/non-response to COVID-19. Much of what’s here will already be familiar, but to see it all at once, in the space of two hours, is overwhelming: the cynicism, the dishonesty, the ignorance, the utter incompetence (and now in 2021, there’s still more evidence, and still more). For me the most revealing part of this documentary is the account Max Kennedy Jr. gives of his volunteer work with a Jared-led task force that sought to purchase PPE and failed to secure a single mask (see also this short New Yorker piece). The previous administration committed crimes against humanity, and no one has yet been held responsible. ★★★★ (H)

*

Terror Street, aka 36 Hours (dir. Montgomery Tully, 1953). It’s a most unusual day and a half: an American pilot (Dan Duryea) sneaks into England for a quick visit to his wife — and the next thing he knows, he’s waking up in her apartment, next to her murdered corpse. He enlists the aid of a pretty neighbor (Gudrun Ure), who for some reason instantly believes in his innocence, which he now elects to prove by DIY methods, evading the authorities and finding the killer himself. A most improbable story, with echoes of The 39 Steps. But Duryea, wooden to the core, is no Robert Donat. ★★ (YT)

*

Dear Santa (dir. Dana Nachman, 2020). We didn’t know what to watch, so we made a desperation pick — and it proved a good one. The documentary’s subject is the USPS’s 107-year-old Operation Santa, which makes children’s (and adults’) letters to Santa Claus available to people interested in providing presents. Lots of postal scenes, lots of postal workers who identify themselves as elves, lots of kids talking about Santa and writing letters, lots of grown-ups (and kids) shopping for, wrapping, transporting, and delivering presents (but this year’s work will be all through the mail). Yes, we signed up, right after the movie ended: USPS Operation Santa. ★★★★ (H)

*

Across 110th Street (dir. Barry Shear, 1972). Duke Ellington liked to point out that Harlem had far more churches than bars, but there are no churches here, only bars, tenements, a dry cleaner’s, and a parking garage. The premise is simple: three Harlemites commit some very ill-considered crimes and find themselves hunted — by the police, the Mafia, and a Harlem crime boss. Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto square off as dueling cops: a crusty old racist who breaks rules (and heads), and a college-educated younger Black man who refuses to play dirty. The bonus for our household: cinematography on location by Jack Priestly of the television series Naked City. ★★★★ (CC)

*

Street of Sinners (dir. William Berke, 1957). A rookie cop, John (George Montgomery), is paired with a beaten-down oldtimer, Gus (William Harrigan), on “the street,” whose undefined boundaries define life for its denizens. The king of the street is Leon (Nehemiah Persoff), whose eponymous bar is the gateway to alcoholism and worse for all who enter. On the one hand, this movie is bad; on the other, it’s so bad that it’s almost good — without, as they say in Ghost World, going past good and back to bad again. The best moments come from Geraldine Brooks as Terry, a beautiful alcoholic who invites John to dinner and offers frantic drunken assurances that she can be fresh and clean. ★★ (YT)

*

Nazi Agent (dir. Jules Dassin, 1942). It’s Conrad Veidt’s movie. He plays not two but three roles: a courtly stamp and rare-book dealer, Otto Becker (in the United States illegally); Otto’s twin brother, German consul Baron Hugo von Detner; and “Baron Hugo von Detner” — in other words, Otto poses as his brother to get the goods on Nazi plans for sabotage. Frank Reicher (Captain Englehorn in King Kong) has two great scenes as a loyal servant. The best moment: the glass of milk. ★★★★ (YT)

*

Johnny O’Clock (dir. Robert Rossen, 1947). The plot is not much, or too much — difficult to follow, but who cares? Just soak in the noir atmosphere. O’Clock (Dick Powell), a junior partner in a casino, is at the center of things, with Thomas Gomez (his boss), Lee J. Cobb (his police nemesis), and Ellen Drew, Nina Foch, and Evelyn Keyes (the ladies) all orbiting around him. Great ultra-noir cinematography by Burnett Guffey. ★★★★ (TMC)

*

Heat Wave, aka The House Across the Lake (dir. Ken Hughes, 1954). An America lead or two (Alex Nicol and Hillary Brooke) and an English cast: the same premise as Terror Street, and the same producer, Anthony Hinds. Nicol is Mark (heh) Kendrick, an American writer abroad; Hillary Brooke (passing for English) is Carol Forrest, a wealthy married woman who collects additional partners. Sidney James is the actor of real distinction here, as the long-suffering Mr. Forrest. With strong top notes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. ★★★ (YT)

*

The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin, 1945). Great performances from George Sanders (top billing) as Lord Henry Wotton, dropping epigrams at rapid pace; Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, for whom every gain or sorrow is merely “an experience”; and Angela Lansbury as the doomed Sybil Vane, gamely singing her specialty, “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird.” Opulent sets, great black and white (Harry Stradling), and an air of decadence and corruption whose details are never made clear. “It’d kill her,” Dorian says of the letter he threatens to send to a friend’s wife. The wonderful thing about this movie, for me, is its naturalization of the supernatural: Dorian’s perpetual youth is just a fact of London life that people accept. ★★★★ (TMC)

*

Get Back (dir. Peter Jackson, 2021). It’s John, Paul, George, and Ringo — or Paul, John, George, and Ringo — or Paul and John, and George and Ringo — and Billy Preston. It’s a wonder that the Beatles put up with their director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg (not for nothing was he rumored to be Orson Welles’s son). A rare opportunity to see the work of creating music. I’ve already written a long post. ★★★★ (D)

*

The Last Laugh (dir. Ferne Pearlstein, 2016). The limits of what can be considered funny, with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Sarah Silverman, and many other figures in comedy. Among the topics considered off or within limits: Hitler, the Holocaust, rape, the n-word, and September 11. The most compelling parts of the documentary: conversations with survivors of the Holocaust about the role humor played in their survival and the role it plays or doesn’t play now. With the comedians, though, a sameness sets in. ★★★ (T)
*

Assignment Paris (dir. Robert Parrish, 1952). Cold War intrigue in Hungary, as reported by the intrepid journalists of the New York Herald-Tribune’s Paris bureau. Cocky, persistent Dana Andrews and Ingrid Bergman-like Märta Torén are reporters; George Sanders is their editor; Audrey Totter has an Eve Arden-like turn as a hard-drinking, wisecracking also-ran. Dig Andrews’s cryptic communique from Budapest and the way his colleagues work it out. The best moments in the movie are the extraordinary scenes with Sandro Giglio. ★★★★ (YT)

Related reading
All OCA movie posts (Pinboard)

"Sardine-tins scattered”

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908).

Thanks, Fresca.

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All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

[Orange Crate Art is a sardine-friendly zone. For some reason, or no reason, sardine posts tend to appear on Thursdays.]

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Brontë weather

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

See also Jane Austen’s February. But see also James Schuyler’s December.

Related reading
All OCA Brontë posts (Pinboard)

“Ontological underpinnings”

[“Drinking It All In.” Zippy, December 1, 2021. Click for a larger view.]

The setting for today’s Zippy : Lexington Candy Shop, at 83rd and Lexington. Back in 2019, I added it to an imaginary to-do list for the next trip to New York.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Invisible woman

Agnes Grey, governess, walks back from church with — but not with — her charges and the young gentlemen of the neighborhood.

Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey (1847).

See also Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe, ex-governess and still a “nobody.”

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All OCA Brontë posts (Pinboard)

How to pronounce omicron

The Oxford English Dictionary gives six pronunciations.

Merriam-Webster is simpler:

\ˈä-mə-ˌkrän\ or \ˈō-mə-ˌkrän\ or (British) \ō-ˈmī-(ˌ)krän\.

It might be simpler still to hear those three.

As the name for a COVID-19 variant, the word is capitalized.

[Yes, pronunciation is among the least of our problems.]

Monday, November 29, 2021

Recently updated

Words of the year Now with vaccine.

Vinegar

Vinegar, for the iPad, iPhone, and Mac: “Vinegar is a Safari extension that replaces the YouTube player with a minimal HTML video tag. It removes ads, prevents tracking, restores picture-in-picture, and keeps videos playing in the background.” Vinegar costs $1.99 and is a “universal purchase”: pay once and use it on all three devices.

Found via Daring Fireball.

At Barnes & Noble

Elaine and I went into a nearby Barnes & Noble and found a baffling arrangement of retractable-belt stanchions, making the entrance to the store look something like a small airport. A security guard nodded for us to enter.

I went off to look for other versions of Illinois, the great Sufjan Stevens album, and found an entire aisle devoted to his work, with everything packaged in enormous black boxes, looking more like elaborate board games than CDs, just three or four boxes to a shelf. I reached up to the highest shelf and took down a package labeled Dice. Inside, a deck of cards and a device that looked like a cross between a corkscrew and a flower press. The gist of the game: place cards under the corkscrew/press until it drops. Then add up the values of your cards.

Then we met Ben. We didn’t know he would be at Barnes & Noble. We made plans to go get ice cream.

And then I met Skip James. We seemed to already know each other. Skip wore a bright plaid shirt. I asked him if he was playing anywhere and where he was living. He said he was living in Newark, Music City, and I wondered if he had meant to say Nashville.

A one-time colleague and know-it-all approached and asked, “Michael, did you know that Led Zeppelin recorded Skip’s [some song title]?” “Okay,” I said. “But what about Cream and ‘I’m So Glad’?” Skip said he may have already had COVID and moved over to a wall to lie down. I then realized that none of us were wearing masks. “We should probably socially distance,” I said.

We never got to the ice cream.

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[To the best of my knowledge, Led Zeppelin never recorded a Skip James song.]

Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Beatles: Get Back thoughts

[If you haven’t watched Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, please know that this post is full of spoilers.]

Fifty-two years after the fact, we now have seven hours and forty-eight minutes of the Beatles’ rehearsals, conversations, and famed rooftop concert (a concert about twice as long as what the original film Let It Be depicted). The Beatles are forever.

People

~ Paul is the dominant figure here, always dapper, often insufferable, occasionally smoking cigars. John is along for the ride. He and Paul engage in endless fun and games, sloppily spoofing ’50s R & B and rock ’n’ roll and their own earlier material. And when there’s a discussion about how to approach the impending live performance, it’s just John and Paul.

~ George is a disaffected figure early on. At Twickenham Studios, he sits on the edge of Ringo’s drum riser. Perhaps that’s just how George preferred to sit, but I find it telling that he doesn’t take a chair with Paul and John. When Paul’s criticism of George’s playing prompts George to announce that he’s leaving the band (in a scene kept out of Let It Be ), all John can say is “When?”, followed (after George has left the building) by a declaration that if he isn’t back by Tuesday, they’ll get Clapton. In part two, after a difficult (offscreen) reconciliation, George seems like a different guitarist, filling his spots with much greater clarity (and without the dumb wah-wah pedal). But he’s still diffident about introducing his own songs. He describes “For You Blue” as something short and simple, as if it won’t take much of anyone else’s time or effort. When he demos “Something,” we see no reaction from John or Paul. (But listen to Abbey Road : Paul’s bass line makes a great song even better).

~ Ringo is a patient and sometimes exhausted observer. At times his posture reminds me of what it feels like to sit through a committee meeting as other personalities act out.

~ I found Yoko Ono’s presence unnerving early on. I imagined what it might be like for a member of a string quartet to bring a silent partner to rehearsals, a silent partner who sits with the quartet and knits, reads letters, and sorts through papers. By part two I found myself ignoring Yoko’s presence, save for when the camera lingers on her and Linda Eastman in close (unheard) conversation.

~ Yes, it’s true: Billy Preston does enliven the proceedings. When he plays (for the first time?) on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” the room (now the Beatles’ own studio) comes alive.

~ I’ve always admired George Martin for his work in the cause of music. But when I hear him say of John and Paul that “They’re our songwriting team,” and that George Harrison is on his own team, I’m taken aback. And when someone points out that John and Paul no longer write much together, Martin insists that they’re still a team. Because, as someone points out, that’s what it says on the record label.

Moviemaking

~ Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the director of Let It Be (1970), had some strange ideas. How about a cruise — with British audience onboard — to Sabratha, Libya, where the Beatles would perform at an ancient Roman amphitheater? How about a television special, with the Beatles’ performance punctuated by news bulletins, the last of which announces the breakup of the band? Nearly as bad: Lindsay-Hogg hides a microphone in the lunchroom where John and Paul go to have a private conversation. The microphone catches their admission that they’ve treated George badly, and John’s admission that he wishes he had pushed back against Paul’s taking control of the group.

~ Technically, Peter Jackson’s film is miles above Let It Be, which feels dark and gloomy and, save for the rooftop concert, claustrophobic, even on the vast Twickenham sound stage. Here, even when things in the band are dark and gloomy, the image and sound are clear as can be. You can even read the lettering on the Swan Vesta matchboxes.

~ My one objection to Jackson’s editing of the material: it gives the movie a reality-TV quality. The many quick closeups of a silent George foreshadow his departure from the band. A shot of the Apple rooftop early on foreshadows the concert that ends the film. Putting in Paul’s comment “And then there were two” after George has walked out and John doesn’t show up for a rehearsal feels like a cheap, weird, knowing touch.

Musicmaking

~ I love the scene in which Paul calls out the chords for the middle eight of “I’ve Got a Feeling”: “E, G, D, A.” In a later scene, George is at the piano: “What’s this chord, Billy?” Billy: “I don’t know.” (It’s an E chord with a C at the top, a raised fifth, an augmented chord.) There’s no vocabulary here aside from a seven-letter chordal alphabet: A through G. Everything else is shown, not named.

~ There’s lot of mucking around, lots of parody, lots of playing at music (even a brief bit of Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country”). I think of it all as a creative form of procrastination. There’s a deadline to be met: the band has to be ready for a live performance of new material (to take place on the Apple rooftop), after which Ringo will begin work on the film The Magic Christian, but things don’t come together (no pun intended) until very late in the schedule, when they have to.

~ There’s an extraordinary degree of invention here, not very much on view in Let It Be. You can see songs take shape in real time. As the band runs through Paul’s “I’ve Got a Feeling,” John adds lines from his “Everybody Had a Hard Year.” Later, after Billy Preston has signed on, someone asks him to add a riff to “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and he invents a bouncing figure on electric piano that now feels like an inevitable element in the song. Also feeling inevitable: the step-like countermelody that George Harrison worked out for the bridge of John’s “Don’t Let Me Down.”

~ And then there’s the magic of playing for people. When the Beatles and Billy Preston are up on the roof, playing for an audience, even if it’s an audience five stories down, even if it’s so cold that John says his fingers can’t make a chord, the feeling is joyous, the energy is abundant — at least until the police put a stop to things. Strange: when the Beatles were playing stadiums, they could be seen but not (really) heard. And in this last rooftop performance they could be heard but not seen, aside from the few dozen people on their own and other rooftops.

Other

~ I have the same guitar strap that’s on George’s Gibson acoustic. Who knew? My strap, which hangs on a tie rack in a closet, not far from my guitar, goes back to high-school days, not long after Let It Be came out. But now I play only while seated.

[That’s the one.]

Related reading
All OCA Beatles posts (Pinboard)