All posts by Dennis Hartley

But not to last: Blade Runner 2049 ***½

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 14, 2017)

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Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found in every phylum and order including the arachnida.

—from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is.

Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. I opened my 2015 review of Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie with this quote from mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good (an associate of Alan Turing):

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir about a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine.

Should there ever be a need to ascertain whether “someone” is a human or a replicant, a procedure called the Voight-Kampf Test is administered. In essence, this series of questions (in conjunction with careful monitoring of autonomic physical responses like heart rate) determines whether or not the subject has empathy for others.

In one scene, “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants, reluctantly indulges the creator/CEO of the company that manufactures them by giving the test to the CEO’s assistant (a woman Deckard has no reason to suspect as being anything but human).

When “Rachel” (Sean Young) does turn out to be a replicant, the usually unflappable Deckard is agog; once he’s informed “she” (an advanced prototype) is completely unaware she’s not an employee of the company but rather its “product”, he’s perplexed. “How could it not know what it is?” he demands.

In The Philosophy of Neo-Noir (edited by Mark T. Conard), there is an essay with a unique angle on the film by Judith Barad, called “Blade Runner and Sartre”. She writes:

Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. This inability is, in Sartre’s view, what differentiates any manufactured being from humans. The replicants fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their essence. […]

To be human means to create oneself–the emotions one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one chooses to perform. […]

In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind. […]

Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.

If you are a fan of the film, you are likely aware that the two biggest unanswered questions left hanging in 1982 were 1) Was Rachel’s “authentically human” sense of empathy programmed…or was she truly the breakthrough that her “creator” seemed to infer by his cryptic comment that she was “special”? and 2) the biggie I’ve seen people nearly come to blows over: Was Deckard himself a replicant?

Questions…

I imagine the most burning question you have about Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is: “Are the ‘big’ questions answered?” Don’t ask me. I just do eyes. Which is to say, this is a difficult film to review without risking spoilers, so I am not going into any great detail on plot points (the least I can do for those of you who have made it this far into my “review” and are starting to worry you’ve stumbled into a Philosophy 101 class).

I can assure you that I am not a replicant, because when I heard someone was going to tackle a sequel to an idiosyncratic sci-fi  classic with a rabid cult following like Blade Runner, I was fully prepared to have empathy for whoever ended up at the helm. Ridley Scott was originally slated to do it himself, but for whatever reason or circumstance ended up as producer, with Villeneuve directing. I can’t help but speculate that he felt the same pressure that Peter Hyams surely experienced making 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

As implied in the title, the story is set 30 years after the events in the original film. The protagonist is a blade runner named “K” (Ryan Gosling) who, like Deckard, works for the LAPD. Newer-model replicants are more docile (like electric sheep?). However, there are still enough of the older, buggier models lurking out there in the ether to warrant keeping the blade runners on active duty. This is evidenced right out of the gate, as we watch K being left with no choice but to “retire” a truculent gentleman out in the boonies.

When K detects skeletal remains on the recently retired replicant’s property, it sets off an investigation that catches the keen interest of many parties, from K’s commanding officer at the Department (Robin Wright) to the powerful CEO of the monopolistic android-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation (Jared Leto). And yes, one Rick Deckard as well (Harrison Ford). What ensues actually has less in common with the original Blade Runner…as it does with Children of Men, Logan’s Run, and Angel Heart.

Bad news first? The story line is not as deep or complex as the film makers undoubtedly want you to think. The narrative is essentially a 90 minute script (by original Blade Runner co-screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green), stretched to a 164-minute run time. But the “language” of film is two-fold, aural and visual; and the visual language of Blade Runner 2049 is mesmerizing. This is due in no small part to the artful eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sid and Nancy, Stormy Monday, Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, Skyfall, et.al), who really knocks it out of the park.

While I alluded to the lengthiness of the film (and you will need to clear some time), I was never bored. In fact, I savored the leisurely pace and immersive visuals; so many sci-fi films these days needlessly assault the eardrums and are so jarringly flash-cut as to induce vertigo (keep in mind that cerebral sci-fi films like Kubrick’s 2001 and Tartovsky’s Solaris were panned upon initial release as being slow-moving or overlong).

Gosling delivers another one of his Steve McQueen-ish performances (which some might call deadpan…but it works). In addition to Ford (who has 15 minutes or so of screen time), there is a cameo that should delight fans of the original (and his origami skills have not waned). Leto’s choices are…interesting; they may have better served him as a Bond villain; ditto for his “henchwoman” (played with aplomb by Sylvia Hoeks), recalling Famke Janssen’s “Xenia Onatopp” in Goldeneye. Ana de Armas does the best she can as a holographic companion that feels lifted from Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 film Cherry 2000.

All in all, Villeneuve has made a sequel that faithfully adheres to the ethos and the physical universe of the original film. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the original; nor on the other hand does it diminish its “stand-alone” status. You may not find answers to all of those questions I discussed earlier, but you could find yourself still thinking about this film long after the credits roll.

After all, as the acrobatic “Pris” declared in the 1982 film (by way of quoting Descartes), “I think, therefore I am.” Isn’t that what makes us human? OK, that character was a replicant, but that’s beside the point. At least she “lived”, right?

But then again, who does?

Days of future past?

By Dennis Hartley

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Yesterday, I had CNN on with the sound muted while doing household chores.  Before realizing what was being shown, I caught strikingly apocalyptic images of the Northern California firestorm out of the corner of my eye. For a split second, a deep dark dread came over me, and the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh my god…he’s really done it. He has actually started World War III.”

Seriously.

Why would I even think that? I’m a somewhat rational person.

Hiroshima aftermath, August 1945

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Napa wildfire aftermath, October 2017

Paranoia…or premonition? I guess that’s where the zeitgeist is now.

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Named-My Picks

Dennis Hartley

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While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 19 nominees for induction in 2018: Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, The Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, The MC5, The Meters, Moody Blues, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Nina Simone, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray, and The Zombies. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

Kate Bush – While I fear she has a snowball’s chance in hell to actually get selected (I’ve noticed the Hall tends to snub artists who defy genre), I’m one longtime fan who is happy to see she has at least been nominated. Depending on what day of the week it is, you could file Kate Bush under singer-songwriter, performance artist, progressive rock, experimental, folk, chamber-pop, electronica, et al. By the time she was 16, she already had demos of around 50 compositions, several of which caught the ear of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who shopped them to music execs, helping launch her recording career. Her music comes from a place of sharp intelligence and sublime aesthetic rarely matched (her 4-octave range doesn’t hurt). And she’s been doing this for 40 years…so I say, yes…let her in!

Best 3 albums: Never For Ever, The Dreaming, Hounds of Love

The Cars – It’s not the first Hall of Fame nomination for this iconic Boston band; odds are good that it will finally take.  Their classic 1978 debut album was a breath of fresh air at the time;  the perfect bridge between the stadium rock excess of the mid to late 70s and the burgeoning skinny-tie new-wave scene of the early 80s. They ingeniously mixed  warm, Beatle-y power pop sensibilities with the cool detachment of Kraftwerk-influenced  electronica-and it worked (as you can hear in the aptly-entitled “All Mixed Up” above). They have since built an impressive catalog, so I’d say they are due.

Best 3 albums: The Cars, Candy-O, Heartbeat City

Judas Priest – “Priest! Priest! Priest!” C’mon…let’s put the ROCK back into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering this U.K. outfit has been slashing power chords  since 1969,  and that their popularity has never waned, you can’t say they haven’t proven their mettle (metal?) by now.  Not to mention that they are responsible for one of the best hard rock albums ever made…Sad Wings of Destiny. Great catalog of songs (many of them bonafide rock anthems), ace dual guitarists, and Rob Halford’s otherworldly pipes…I rest my case.

Best 3 albums: Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, Screaming for Vengeance

The Moody Blues – Every year, there is at least one nominee that makes me do a spit take (did I get any on you?). “Are you kidding me? You mean they are not already in the Hall of Fame? Seriously?!” if 50 years of consistently top-shelf symphonic rock and chart-topping singles doesn’t make them a shoo-in, I don’t know what does.  Jeez.

Best 3 albums: Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The Zombies – Another classic band whose time for induction is overdue. Founded by keyboardist Rod Argent in 1958 (!), they scored a string of hit singles in the U.K. and the U.S. in the early to mid-60s. Songs like “She’s Not There”, “Tell Her No” and “Time of the Season” are imprinted in the neurons of those “of a certain age” (ahem).  Those hits are timeless, but the deep cuts have a lot of substance as well; informed by Argent’s unique jazz-rock chord shapes and Colin Blunstone’s  breathy vocals. Argent and Blunstone still do the odd gig; so let’s give them credit for hanging in there!

Best 3 albums: Begin Here, Odyssey and Oracle, Decca Stereo Anthology

Bang bang, shoot shoot

By Dennis Hartley

(In light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am re-posting this piece from February 16th of this year).

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Oh, boy.  From  The Washington Times:

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

 The previous administration had proposed requiring Social Security to search its records and report people receiving disability benefits or supplemental income payments and who had someone else managing their finances, deeming them “mental defectives” who shouldn’t be able to buy firearms. Republicans said that trampled on Second Amendment rights by casting too wide a net.
                                 

“It results in reporting people to the gun ban list that should not be on that list at all,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the effort to repeal the Obama rule. “It deprives those people [of] their constitutional rights and, in a very important way, violates their constitutional rights without even due process.”

Oh, I see…it’s just those “compassionate conservatives” selflessly looking out for the interests of Americans with disabilities; standing up for their rights. At least when the Second Amendment is in peril. Because, as you know, they’ve always been there for those folks:

Good times!

This development strikes me as particularly odious, coming  as it does hot on the heels of PBS’ February 14 broadcast premiere of Tower, a harrowing documentary recounting the 1966 mass shooting  at the University of Texas.  Over an agonizing hour and a half period, a deranged sniper who had stationed himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower, methodically picked off nearly 50 people-killing 16 and wounding 3 dozen. He still had plenty of ammo left when two Austin policeman and a hastily deputized civilian were able to make their way to the top and take him out.

Last June, in a piece I wrote about the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, I pointed to the 1966 incident as a sad marker for America:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman  perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims  (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness.  And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting  meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding  homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

(sigh) I have to ask again. WTF will it take? BTW, here is what it “took” for President Obama to lobby for the regulation that has just been overturned:

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But thank God the 2nd Amendment got through all this unscathed!

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime? Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943. While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg). While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act. Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer). A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

I don’t feel tardy: A back-to-school mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 23, 2017)

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Pfft. Wow. That was a quick friggin’ summer.

As great poets have said…autumn is over the long leaves that love us, yesterday is dead (but not in my memory), and it’s late September and I really should be back at school.

Well, not literally (I’m a little old for home room)…but my school days of yesteryear are not necessarily dead in my memory. Some habits die hard. As I prefaced in a 2010 post:

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)-but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies.

So here’s a back-to-school playlist that doesn’t include “The Wall” or “School’s Out” (don’t worry, you’ll get over it). Pencils down, pass your papers forward, and listen up…

 

“Alma Mater” – Alice Cooper

“At 17” – Janis Ian

“Cinnamon Street” – Roxette

“ELO Kiddies” – Cheap Trick

“Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard” – Paul Simon

“My Old School” – Steely Dan

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” – The Ramones

“School” – Roger Hodgson

“School Days” – Chuck Berry

“Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” – Brownsville Station

“Status Back Baby” – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

“Teacher Teacher” – Rockpile

“Thirteen” – Big Star

“To Sir, With Love” – Lulu

“Wind-up” – Jethro Tull

The art of being: R.I.P. Harry Dean Stanton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton died on November 15. Who? You know…the guy who was in the thing. He was 91 years old, but that’s a moot point. He fell out of his crib careworn and world-weary. That is not intended to be a flip observation. He was timeless, and will remain so. Most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; but as soon as you put him in front of a camera, you could not miss the story in his eyes. It was the story of humanity.

He was born in Kentucky in 1926; his mother was a cook and his father a barber and tobacco farmer. He served in WW 2 as a Navy cook (he was on a tank landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa), and after the war cut his teeth as an actor working with the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his screen debut in 1957 in a forgettable western, which nonetheless led to a fairly steady stream of small movie parts and television work. Still, he obviously stood out to casting directors, who started to get him progressively meatier parts from the mid-60s onward. He never stopped working; you may have seen him in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revamp on Showtime, and was quite memorable in HBO’s Big Love.

It didn’t matter whether he played a convict on a chain gang, a 1940s L.A. homicide detective, street corner preacher, repo man, crew member on a space merchant vessel, ranch hand, mysterious drifter, or Molly Ringwald’s dad in a teen comedy…from the moment his character popped on screen, there was something all at once familiar about him.

Of course he was a trained actor; but I’ll be damned if I ever saw him “act”. He simply “was”…and it worked. I don’t think he sweated the small stuff, and that was his secret. Like all the great actors, he just let it happen. That is not to say that he didn’t focus on the work. From accounts I have read, he could be “difficult” with directors; but not to appease his own ego, rather always in service of the character he was playing. He wanted to get it “right”. From my observation, he never failed to. Here are my top 10 film picks:

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor performance.

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Rancho Deluxe– This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Great ensemble work from the entire cast, which includes Elizabeth Ashley (her best role), Slim Pickens, Clifton James, and Harry Dean Stanton as a bumbling cow hand. Stanton’s part is relatively minor, but it showcases the fact that he had a talent for understated comedy.

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Farewell, My Lovely– This 1975 entry, one of a relative handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards, is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both films were adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Sylvia Miles. Stanton is memorable as a perpetually pissed off homicide detective.

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Straight Time– Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) delivers one of the finest character studies of the late 70s with this gritty 1978 portrait of a paroled burglar (Dustin Hoffman) trying to keep his nose clean. Unfortunately, his goading parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) is bent on tripping him up. One thing leads to another, and it’s back to a life of crime. Excellent performances abound, from the likes of Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Stanton (as one of Hoffman’s partners-in-crime).

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Wise Blood– One of director John Huston’s finer latter-career films, this 1979 comedy-drama was adapted by Benedict Fitzgerald from a Flannery O’Connor novel. Brad Dourif stars as a young dirt-poor Southerner who is desperate to make his mark on the world. He decides that the quickest shortcut to grab the public’s attention is to become a crusading, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Stanton is simply wonderful here as a veteran street corner proselytizer (and con man) who mentors the young man in the ways of spiritual hustling.

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Alien– Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A great cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and of course, Harry Dean Stanton!

Escape from New York– John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Stanton, who steals all his scenes as “Brain”. Carpenter also composed the theme.

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Repo Man– This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes good use of L.A. locations. The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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Paris, Texas– What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In what is arguably his career-best performance, he plays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

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Pretty in Pink– This may be damning with faint praise, but I have always found this 1986 film to be the most enjoyable and eminently watchable of the otherwise interchangeable slew of John Hughes teen dramedies that inundated theaters in the 1980s. Actually, Hughes did not direct this one (he handed that chore over to Howard Deutch)…but it remains very much a “John Hughes film”.

Molly Ringwald stars as a young woman from the poor side of the tracks who gets wooed by a “preppie” from a well-to-do family (Andrew McCarthy). Their respective peers are very disapproving. Much romantic angst ensues; but lots of laughs as well. At its heart, it’s a sweet story, helped  by excellent performances. Stanton (out of place as he may seem) lends realism to the proceedings as Ringwald’s father; the scenes they share exude genuine warmth.

 

…And here he is, doing what a good actor does. One for the ages.

Game theory: Trophy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 16, 2017)

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I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.

-from Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun                                         In case of accidents, he always took his mom                                                     He’s the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son                              All the children sing  

 -From “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by Lennon & McCartney

I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve fired a gun on less than ten fingers. I have never had a fascination for them, in any shape or form. And as far as hunting goes, I have taken the life of approximately one animal; albeit reluctantly. I think I was 14 or 15, on a trip with my family to visit some friends of my parents, who had a farm in upstate New York. I somehow got roped into joining a hunting party comprised of my dad, my uncle, and the man who owned the farm. The mission was to rid the property of varmints.

Actually, they were woodchucks, which apparently are considered pests in some quarters. Long story short, I ended up bagging one of the critters with a .22 rifle. I’m sorry to report that I did not eat the meat, nor did I keep the hide and horns. What’s that? Oh, right, woodchucks don’t have horns (although I understand that they chuck wood like nobody’s business). That was enough for me. I felt awful. I suppose on one level, it was a classic rite of passage for an all-American boy (you know…killing something with dad).

In a 2015 TIME Ideas op-ed, author Bartle Bull opens with this observation:

The murder of Cecil, the magnificent Zimbabwean lion, is a vivid but shabby illustration of the dilemma posed by the hunter-conservationist. President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this dilemma. No other American President has ever been as close to nature, or loved it more. No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

The cognitive dissonance is not lost on co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, who kick off their provocative documentary Trophy by similarly naming Roosevelt as the poster child for this dichotomy. The fact that Bull uses his T.R. reference as a foundation for what essentially becomes a partisan defense of the “hunter-conservationist” concept, while Schwarz and Clusiau use theirs to nudge viewers to ponder whether there ever was such a thing as a “hunter-conservationist”…demonstrates why this issue is so polarizing.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Trophy, which is not all about the tragedy of Cecil the lion, or the confounding legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (although they are both mentioned). Nor is the film necessarily designed to make you despise smug trophy hunters, or for that matter to roll your eyes at sign-carrying, self-righteous vegans (although you will witness the worst of both “sides”…all straight out of Central Casting).

What you do get is a fairly evenhanded look at the interactive “industries” of big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and in Africa, and the complications that ensue (legal and existential). Despite what you may expect going in, this is not a cut-and dry, black and white, good vs. evil, morality vs. commerce scenario.

Not that it makes the film an easy watch (although it is visually stunning and beautifully constructed). One particular scene has haunted me for days. An elephant is brought down by a trophy hunter. The camera tracks behind the hunters for what seems to be an eternity as they cautiously approach the dying animal. As it lies on its side, struggling to raise its head while taking its final breaths, it begins to emit what can only be described as the most plaintive, primal, bone-chilling wail of surrender to the void that I have ever heard from any creature great or small. If there is ever a demand for unimpeachable proof of sentience in such creatures, this heartbreaking, funereal sequence should be Exhibit “A”.

No matter where you stand on the issue of big game hunting (or “harvesting”, if you prefer), the sad fact remains many magnificent species are on the brink of extinction; and if it takes an occasional deal with the devil (or the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son) to facilitate their survival, does the end justify the means? The film makers may not offer a pat answer, but provide enough deep background to let you be the judge.

No words

By Dennis Hartley

(I am re-posting this piece from 2016, in commemoration of 9/11)

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I don’t get out much. In 60 years, I’ve yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Canada. That’s me…born to be mild. Oddly enough, however, I  was “out of the country”  on September 11, 2001.

OK, it was Canada. I was enjoying a 3-day getaway at Harrison Hot Springs, a beautiful Alpine setting in British Columbia. I was booked to check out of the hotel on Tuesday, September 11th.

I woke up around 9am that morning, figuring I had enough time to grab breakfast and one more refreshing soak in one of the resort’s natural springs-fed outdoor pools before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back to Seattle. I was feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Then I switched on CNN.

Holy fuck. Was this really happening? I actually did not understand what I was watching for several minutes. It was surreal. It was especially discombobulating to be out-of-country at the very moment the United States of America appeared to be under attack.

My first impulse was just to get back to the U.S.A. I was overcome with a sense of urgency that  I had to “do” something (realistically, of course…what could I do to help those poor souls in the towers?).

I went to the front desk to check out, and was advised by the clerk that there were reports that the U.S./Canada border checkpoints were closed (to this day, I’m not sure if that was just a rumor-I can’t track down any historical annotations). I was also hearing from fellow guests that lines of vehicles were miles long at the checkpoints. At any rate, they were offering   American guests with a September 11 checkout a reduced rate if they preferred to try their luck on Wednesday.

With all the uncertainty and fear in the air, I decided to take them up on the offer and leave Wednesday morning instead (for all I knew, I could be returning to some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway). I was less than 200 miles from home geographically, but spiritually I might as well have been Matt Damon’s character in The Martian.

As I didn’t own a cell phone or a laptop (yes, I know they existed in 2001…but I was a latecomer to  personal devices), CNN became my lifeline for the remainder of that horrible day. One thing I’ll never forget is Aaron Brown’s marathon reportage. As awful as the situation was, he maintained the perfect tone. This may sound corny, but he was not only a level-headed source of information, but also my friend that day.  And apparently, I’m not alone in that assessment:

That, my friends, is what a good journalist does. Remember them?