All posts by Dennis Hartley

Wet boots and rain: An autumn mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 24, 2022)

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I raked the leaves on our front lawn
It took all afternoon.
I started at ‘round half-past one
and said, “I’ll be done soon.”

But once I saw how more leaves fell
Each time I made a pile,
I quickly saw this outdoor chore
Was going to take a while.

And so I did what my dad said
A winner does to win:
I studied that great pile of leaves,
And then I jumped right in.

– “Raking Leaves”, children’s poem by Shel Silverstein

Einstein (that smarty pants) was right. Each year passes faster than the previous. You can run (as Pink Floyd observed) to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking; racing around to come up behind you again. To wit…The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older; shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Don’t you hate that?

Anyway, since the Fall Equinox has raced around and come up behind us again, I thought I might rake through my music collection and curate a pile of autumnal tunes for your dining and leaf-blowing pleasure.

Let’s jump right in!

“Autumn Almanac” – The Kinks

Released as a single in the UK in 1967, Ray Davies’ fond sense memory of the Muswell Hill neighborhood of North London where he grew up recalls The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”.

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
When the dawn begins to crack
It’s all part of my autumn almanac

Breeze blows leaves of a musty-coloured yellow
So I sweep them in my sack
Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac

“Forever Autumn” – Justin Hayward

This lovely tune, featuring a lead vocal by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues was a highlight of Jeff Wayne’s 1978 double LP rock musical adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

“Harvest Moon” – Neil Young

This is the title track from Young’s eponymous 1992 LP (a sort of sequel to 1972’s Harvest), which won a Juno award (Canada’s equivalent to a Grammy) for Album of the Year.

“Indian Summer” -Dream Academy

The Dream Academy’s most wistful and transporting song is best appreciated with a good set of headphones. Drift away…

It was the time of year just after the summer’s gone
When August and September just become memories of songs
To be put away with the summer clothes
And packed up in the attic for another year
We had decided to stay on for a few weeks more
Although the season was over now the days were still warm
And seemed reluctant to five up and hand over to winter for another year

“Inner Garden I” – King Crimson

Contrary to what you may assume, not every track by this venerable prog-rock outfit takes up half an album side; some of their best compositions say all they need to say with surprising brevity.

Autumn has come to rest in her garden
Come to paint the trees with emptiness
And no pardon
So many things have come undone
Like the leaves on the ground
And suddenly she begins to cry
But she doesn’t know why…

“Leaf and Stream” – Wishbone Ash

This compelling, melancholic track is an unexpected palate cleanser sandwiched between a couple of epic numbers on the Ash’s best album, 1972’s Argus (which I wrote about here).

Find myself beside a stream of empty thought,
Like a leaf that’s fallen to the ground,
And carried by the flow of water to my dreams
Woken only by your sound.

“Leaves in the Wind” -Back Street Crawler

Back Street Crawler was a short-lived group formed in 1975 by the late great guitarist Paul Kossoff after he left Free. Sadly, by the time their 2nd album 2nd Street was released in 1976, Kossoff was dead at 25 (lending his mournful guitar fills on this track even more poignancy).

“Moondance”– Van Morrison

The evocative title track from Morrison’s classic 1970 LP remains one of his signature tunes.

Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
‘Neath the cover of October skies

“November” -Tom Waits

This song is a tad unsettling, yet oddly beautiful. Not unlike Waits’ voice. Dig the theremin.

No shadow
No stars
No moon
No care
November
It only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of bone

“October”-U2

With just a piano and vocal, this was an uncharacteristically minimalist arrangement for U2 at this stage of their career (from the band’s eponymous 1981 album) with only two verses:

October
And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care?

October
And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on
And on

“Ramble On”-Led Zeppelin

Arguably the One Autumnal Song to Rule Them All, with all its wistfulness and stirrings of wanderlust. Only don’t try to make any sense of the Gollum reference-it’ll make you crazy.

Leaves are falling all around
It’s time I was on my way
Thanks to you I’m much obliged
For such a pleasant stay
But now it’s time for me to go
The autumn moon lights my way
For now I smell the rain
And with it pain
And it’s headed my way…

“September Gurls” – Big Star

Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, Big Star is one of the seminal power pop bands, and this is one of their most defining songs.

“Summer’s Almost Gone” – The Doors

From the Doors’ 1968 album Waiting For the Sun. Haunting, with Jim Morrison in fine form.

Morning found us calmly unaware
Noon burn gold into our hair
At night, we swim the laughin’ sea
When summer’s gone
Where will we be?

“Time of No Reply” – Nick Drake

Gone much too soon, his sad short life was as enigmatic as the amazing catalog he left behind.

Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply

The sun went down and the crowd went home
I was left by the roadside all alone
I turned to speak as they went by
But this was the time of no reply

“Urge for Going”– Joni Mitchell

You thought I forgot this one, didn’t you? Luck of the alphabet. It feels redundant to label any Joni Mitchell song as “genius”, but it’s hard to believe this came from the pen of a 22 year-old.

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go
I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown

Not necessarily in that order: A (roundabout) tribute to Jean-Luc Godard

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2022)

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December 3, 1930-September 13, 2022

A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. –Jean Luc-Godard

Speaking of “non-linear”, that reminds me of a funny story (well, not “ha-ha” funny). I once had the privilege of seeing the late Jean Luc-Godard in the flesh before I had seen any of his films. To be honest, this memory had been tucked away in the cobwebs of my mind until several days ago, when it was triggered by this AP news flash:

Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.

[JUMP CUT]

Be advised that this will not an assessment of his oeuvre. No one could accuse me of being a Godard scholar; out of his 40+ feature films, I’ve seen 12. And out of that relative handful, the only two I have felt compelled to watch more than once are Breathless and Alphaville.

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The aptly entitled Breathless still knocks the wind out of me; it was (and remains) a freewheeling, exhilarating poke in the lens of conventional film making. And…sodamsexy. Despite its flouting of the rules, the film is (possibly) Godard’s most easily digestible work. Over the years, his films would become ever more challenging (or downright maddening).

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Indeed, even my second-favorite Godard film, Alphaville, played hard-to-get with me. From my review of the 2019 Blu-ray reissue:

The first time I saw this 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, a couple weeks ago I picked up a copy of this newly restored 4K Blu-ray and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.

This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass.

See? I freely admit to being a middlebrow film buff with a high school diploma who’s been to two worlds fairs and a rodeo, but I eventually “get it”. Now, it’s possible the stumbling block that I can’t quite articulate is the “disturbing quality” of Godard’s films that Pauline Kael expounds upon thusly in her 1966 essay “Movie Brutalists: The French New Wave”:

There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies. […]

An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”

He’s wrong, I think. The young are not “trying to forget”: they just don’t think in those terms. Godard’s power—and possibly his limitation—as an artist is that he so intensely expresses how they do feel and think.

OK, I think I get it now. Godard was intense. Like a repo man (to paraphrase Harry Dean Stanton). And you know what? Akin to Ms. Kael’s elderly gentleman, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, either… I went places and did things. Like that time I was living in San Francisco and went to see Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard.

[FLASHBACK]

I should back up a second and explain how it was that I ended up seeing Godard before seeing any of his films. From my 2017 essay about the demise of the neighborhood theater:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit.

[FLASH-FORWARD]

Which brings us back to the news of Godard’s passing this week. I suddenly remembered attending an event in the early 80s that featured Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard onstage somewhere discussing (wait for it) film. But since my memory has been playing tricks as of late (I mean, I’m 66…however the hell that happened), I thought I’d consult someone who was there with me…my pal Digby. She not only confirmed that she and I and my girlfriend at the time did indeed pile into Digby’s Volkswagen to see Kael and Godard (at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, as it turns out), but somehow dug up a transcript of the proceedings.

There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth when we realized this happened 41 flippin’ years ago (oh, to be in my mid-20s again). Anyway, the evening was billed as “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate with Jean Luc-Godard and Pauline Kael” (May 7, 1981). I recall primarily being super-jazzed about seeing Kael (I was more familiar with her work than Godard’s). I can’t recall a word either of them said, of course, but I do remember my surprise at how engaging and effusive Godard was (I had fully expected to see the “enfant terrible”).

Reading through the transcript…I must have learned a lot (it didn’t stick). For the most part, Godard was wearing his thoughtful critic’s hat that evening. Here’s one fascinating exchange:

J-LG: Well, just five minutes ago you told me that I should not hold you responsible for all American film criticism, but I think you are, in a way, just as I feel responsible for the movies I see even if I have not made them.

PK: Oh, no, I won’t accept that. I can’t believe that you personally feel that you are responsible for the work of somebody whose work you hate.

J-LG: Well, let’s take this article, for example. You wrote about why movies are so bad, and you attack (and I disagreed with you) a good fellow you mentioned by name who was Vice President of some conglomerate. You made him responsible for everything that is bad in the movies. I said to myself, “How can one man be responsible for… ?” I mean a movie is made by a hundred people at least. It’s like war. Nixon is responsible, but the American people are responsible for electing Nixon.

PK: Well, let me explain what I mean about the people at the top having that much influence. If the people at the top of the movie company are not primarily interested in movies, but come either from agencies or law firms or the business community itself, if they are from the Harvard Business School, as many of them are, and they are put in to rationalize the business, and if they look strictly in terms of how much money they can get out of a project before it goes into production, that is to say of how much they can be sure of from television, from overseas televisıon, from cable, from cassettes, they know they can get the most money from pictures that have stars or have a big bestseller property. Those pictures are the easiest to market, and so it is the marketing decisions that determine which pictures they will make. And often if a picture comes along that they did not have much confidence in and really couldn’t sell in advance, they don’t do anything for it so that a picture like Melvin and Howard or, say, All Night Long or Atlantic City doesn’t get anything like the promotion of those movies that they are sure of. As a matter of fact, they are embarrassed to be connected with those movies because they assume those movies are going to fail financially and so, inadvertently, they make those pictures fail.

J-LG: Yeah, but it’s not a good reason. It’s right, but it doesn’t describe the reality of making a movie. They alone are not making the movies, the movies are made by the audience, the movies are made by the cinematographers, by the union people, they are all responsible. . . I mean why don’t they sell American cars today?

PK: Jean-Luc, let’s put it this way….

J-LG: No, it’s because who is obeying this order? I try never to obey it. That’s why….

PK: You don’t work in a big studio system.

J-LG: I wish I could (laughter).

PK: But the reason you can’t is the reason I am explaining. It’s the same reason that an American Godard could not work in the big studio system.

Plus ca change

That’s my Jean-Luc Godard story, and I’m sticking to it. As mentioned earlier, I did eventually catch up with some of his earlier work; now that his final reel has played and the lights have come up, I should probably catch up a little more before my end credits start rolling (or they revoke my film critic’s license…whichever comes first). Maybe I’ll begin with his final film and work my way back until I meet myself in the middle. In the end, it’s all relative. After all, as  supercomputer ALPHA-60 says in Alphaville, “Time is like a circle which turns endlessly.”

[FIN]

Lord, I’m so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

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(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 3, 2022)

Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead

-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

(Shame mode) Full disclosure. It had been so long since I had contemplated the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many wage slaves, I simply view it as one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

By the way, Labor Day isn’t the sole “creation of the labor movement”. Next time you’re in the break room, check out the posters with all that F.L.S.A. meta regarding workplace rights, minimum wage, et.al. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh?

I have curated a Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or just give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, cue up a movie, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto portray Motor City auto worker buddies tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.

Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us the road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart (“I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…”).

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El Norte – Gregory Nava’s portrait of Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobes be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing is nightmare fuel. Do not expect a Hollywood ending; this is an unblinking look at the shameful exploitation of undocumented workers.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Ford’s powerful 1940 drama (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel) is the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s salt of the earth during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “…be there, all around, in the dark.” Ford followed up with the Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) another drama about a working class family (set in a Welsh mining town).

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Harlan County, USA – Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973, but is one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may involuntarily duck during a harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham – Based on a true story, this 2011 film (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) stars Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister.

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Matewan – This well-acted, handsomely mounted drama by John Sayles serves as a sobering reminder that much blood was spilled to lay the foundation for the labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia. Chris Cooper plays an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a conflict between coal company thugs and fed up miners trying to unionize.

Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). Fine ensemble work from a top notch cast that includes David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Joe Grifasi, Jane Alexander, Gordon Clapp, and Will Oldham. The film is also notable for its well-curated Americana soundtrack.

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Modern Times – Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation has aged well. This probably has everything to do with his embodiment of the Everyman. Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% so. A bit of (sung) gibberish aside, there’s no dialogue, but Chaplin finds ingenious ways to work in lines (via technological devices). In fact, his use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae – Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist helped launch what I refer to as the “Whistle-blowing Working Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc).

Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a Best Actress Oscar) as the eponymous heroine who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). Inspiring and empowering, bolstered by a fine screenplay (by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and a great supporting cast that includes Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley.

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On the Waterfront – “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the finest American social dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me – While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2022)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

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So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free. After all, this is the 21st Century.

Oh, crap:

Ukrainian authorities began distributing iodine tablets to residents near Europe’s largest nuclear power plant on Friday, amid fears that fighting around the complex could trigger a radiation leak or an even bigger catastrophe.

The move came a day after the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily disconnected from the national power grid for the first time in its 40-year history, heightening fears of a nuclear disaster in a country still haunted by the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl.

The pills were being distributed to people who live within a 50 kilometer (30 mile) radius of the plant in Enerhodar, Volodymyr Marchuk, a spokesman for the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration told NBC News.

Recipients were being told not to take them preventatively, he said, adding that they were “being distributed in case of any future radiation leak, at which time the government would instruct people to take the tablets.” […]

Earlier Friday, the country’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, said the plant was being safely powered through a repaired line from the power grid, a day after it was disconnected from the national power grid. There were no issues with the plant’s machinery or safety systems, it said.

It was later announced that the plant had been reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid and was producing enough electricity to meet the country’s needs. (via NBC News)

So…there’s no immediate cause for alarm, then? Wait a minute. This just in:

Ukraine’s president on Friday said the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant remains “very risky” after two of its six reactors were reconnected to the grid following shelling that caused Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to be disconnected for the first time in its history.

Russian shelling continued to displace civilians in the east of the country, where three quarters of the population has fled the frontline region of Donetsk, according to the regional governor, and Ukraine continued to damage Russia’s supply routes to the southern front near Kherson. […]

Residents in Zaporizhzhia city, 50 km northeast of the plant, expressed alarm at the situation.

“Of course I am scared. Everyone is scared, we don’t know what will happen next, what is waiting for us every next minute, second,” said social media manager Maria Varakina, 25.

School teacher Hanna Kuz, 46, said people were afraid that the Ukrainian authorities might not be able to warn residents in time in case of radiation fallout. (via Reuters)

OK, then. In consideration of this week’s events, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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The Atomic Café – Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

Oppenheimer remains a fascinating character; Christopher Nolan recently began production on a 2023 biopic titled (wait for it) Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy.

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, and Fritz Weaver.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but there is an almost unbearable amount of tension and suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. They take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he would draw from again in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it had never been previously available in any home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was the sci-fi cult favorite Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand –An early effort from filmmaker John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens), this 1984 sleeper got lost in the flurry of nuclear paranoia movies that proliferated during the Reagan era (Wargames, The Manhattan Project, Red Dawn, et.al.).

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In an effort to quell their anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning from a portable radio, the quartet find creative ways to keep up their spirits.

Uneven, but for the most part Duigan (who scripted) deftly juggles romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an affecting scene where the group watches Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two young women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in Charleston Harbor. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently panicked more than a few South Carolinian viewers (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October (which I recommend) would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similarly stark and affecting nuclear nightmare drama  Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Director Mick Jackson delivers an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. It’s a speculative narrative that takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would likely happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Blu-ray reissue: Touch of Evil (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Touch of Evil (Kino)

Yes, this is Orson Welles’ classic 1958 sleaze-noir with that celebrated and oft-imitated tracking shot, Charlton Heston as a Mexican police detective, and Janet Leigh in various stages of undress. Welles casts himself as Hank Quinlan, a morally bankrupt police captain who lords over a corrupt border town. Quinlan is the most singularly grotesque character Welles ever created as an actor and one of the most offbeat heavies in film noir.

This is also one of the last great roles for Marlene Dietrich (“You should lay off those candy bars.”). The creepy and disturbing scene where Leigh is terrorized in an abandoned motel by a group of thugs led by a leather-jacketed Mercedes McCambridge presages David Lynch; there are numerous flourishes throughout that are light-years ahead of anything else going on in American cinema at the time. Welles famously despised the studio’s original 96-minute theatrical cut; there have been nearly half a dozen re-edited versions released since 1975.

I think I’ve quadruple-dipped by now on “definitive” editions of this film, but Kino’s 2022 reissue features the most crystalline transfer I’ve seen to date. The package includes new 4K restorations of the theatrical, preview, and ­­“reconstructed” cuts (the latter re-edited as close as possible to Welles’ original vision, based on his notes and studio memorandums). Each version includes audio commentary by film historians (two are new; others are ported over from previous editions).

Blu-ray reissue: Pink Flamingos (***)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Pink Flamingos (Criterion)

“Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of “bad taste” John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man) Divine was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her skuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work and want to explore his truly indie “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of his oeuvre.

Criterion has really gone all out for this belated Blu-ray reissue, from the faux “plain brown package” cover art (replete with a mail label addressed to “Babs Johnson, A Trailer, Phoenix, MD”) to a generous helping of extras. The 4K restoration looks great (probably a little too sharp and detailed for many scenes!). There are two audio commentaries by Waters; one from the 1997 Criterion laser disc and the other from the 2001 DVD (per usual, he is never at a loss for words). Also: deleted scenes, essays, and an entertaining (new) conversation between Waters and Jim Jarmusch.

Blu-ray reissue: Heartbreakers (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Heartbreakers (Fun City Editions)

Earlier this year, I posted my picks for the top 10 1980s “sleepers”, lamenting about how several of them remained criminally unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. I was quite surprised (and delighted) to see this 1984 gem finally making the cut.

Writer-director Bobby Roth delivers an absorbing character study about a pair of 30-something pals going through transitions in their personal and professional lives. Peter Coyote is excellent as petulant man-child Blue, a starving artist who specializes in fetishistic female portraiture (his character is based in part on artist Robert Blue).

Blue is nurturing a broken heart; his long-time girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), tired of waiting for him to grow up, has dumped him. Blue’s friend Eli (Nick Mancuso) is a quintessential Yuppie who lives in a dream bachelor pad boasting a lofty view of the L.A. Basin. Despite being financially secure, Eli is also emotionally unfulfilled. With his male model looks and shiny toys, he has no problem with hookups; he just can’t find The One (yes, I know…how many nights of empty sex with an endless parade of beautiful women can one guy stand?).

Just when the commiserating duo’s love lives are looking hopeless, they both meet The One. Unfortunately, she is the same One (Carole Laure). The plot thickens, and the friendship is about to be tested. Formulaic as it sounds, Roth’s film is a keenly observed look at modern love (and sex) in the Big City. Max Gail (best known for his role on the sitcom Barney Miller) is great here, as is Carol Wayne (sadly, this is her last film).

Fun City used a newly restored 2K print for the transfer (DP on the film was longtime Fassbinder collaborator Michael Ballhaus, and his work here is gorgeous). Extras include new interviews with the director, as well as stars Coyote and Mancuso, and a booklet with several new critic essays.

Blu-ray reissue: Get Carter (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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Get Carter (BFI; Region B)

Easily vying for the crown as the best British gangster film of all time (or perhaps a photo-finish with The Long Good Friday), Mike Hodges’ classic 1971 adaptation of Ted Lewis’ novel Jack’s Return Home was a superb showcase for star Michael Caine.

The meaty role was also a departure for Caine; while he had already played anti-heroes (most notably in the “Harry Palmer” spy film trilogy), Jack Carter was arguably the least sympathetic character he had tackled up to that point in time (bit of a sociopath, actually).

The plot is minimal: Carter, a low-level but coldly efficient London gangster hops a train to Newcastle to investigate his brother’s “accidental” death (against the strong advisement of his superiors). The deeper he digs, the more feathers he ruffles. Does he care? Fuck all. Gritty, seedy, and shockingly brutal, it’s an uncannily realistic dip into the criminal underworld.

Caine’s indelible performance is just the icing on the cake. Hodges’ assured direction, the immersive verité location filming (by Wolfgang Suschitzky), outstanding supporting cast (Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, George Sewell, Alun Armstrong, et.al.) and an unforgettable opening title sequence (driven by Roy Budd’s ultra-cool, proto-acid jazz theme) make for a heady mix.

BFI’s limited edition reissue is a real treat for fans of the film (guilty!). The 4K restoration is jaw-dropping; the film has never looked this good in a home video format. Two audio commentary tracks; one archival with Hodges, Caine and Suschitzky, the other is a new one with two film historians. There is a new 60-minute interview with Hodges, a new 17-minute feature reviewing Roy Budd’s career, an exhaustive 80-page booklet, and much more. The only catch: Please note it is Region B locked!

And playing us out…Roy Budd.

Blu-ray reissue: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 20, 2022)

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An Unsuitable Job For a Woman (Indicator UK & US)

In his original review of Christopher Petit’s 1982 mystery-thriller, Financial Times reviewer Nigel Andrews wrote:

Petit has a wonderful compensatory feel for the drip torture of English emotion. Motive and passion are squeezed out drop-by-drop in a rural England landscape that seems bloated with past rain, and ever cloaked with pencil-grey cloud or thin sun.

In two sentences, Andrews not only nails the atmosphere of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, but articulates what I find so inexplicably compelling about Petit’s stunning 1979 debut, Radio On…a film that I simply must revisit annually, and of which I wrote:

As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema can capture and preserve the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

Now the embarrassing part. I had no clue that a feature film adaptation of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman existed until this Blu-ray reissue was out. I am a fan of the eponymous 2-season UK television series from the late 90s (in fact, I own it on DVD), but this was an interesting discovery.

Adapted from a P.D. James novel (co-scripted by the director and Elizabeth McKay), Petit’s film stars Pippa Guard as Cordelia Grey, a young woman who unceremoniously inherits a small detective agency after discovering her boss dead in his office (little explanation is offered, and not unlike Helen Baxendale in the TV version, Guard plays Cordelia in an oddly detached manner…not having read James’ original novels, I’ll assume this is how the character is written?).

Her first case is investigating the alleged suicide of a free-spirited young man who is the son of a powerful businessman (a quietly menacing Paul Freeman). The story is more of a perverse family melodrama than a conventional mystery-thriller; but it’s fascinating watching Cordelia as she spirals into an obsession with the victim that recalls Dana Andrews’ unrequited detective in Laura. And it’s always a pleasure to watch the great Billie Whitelaw do her voodoo (as Freeman’s P.A.). This kind of slow boil may not be for all tastes; but again, this film is mostly about atmosphere.

Indicator’s transfer is taken from a new 4K scan of the original negative, accentuating DP Martin Schäfer’s artful and unique use of Afgacolor stock. Plenty of extras, including new interviews with the director, Ms. Guard’s brother Dominic (also featured in the cast), and producer Don Boyd. The exclusive limited-edition booklet includes an insightful new essay by Claire Monk and more.

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

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2022)

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

Yes, I am aware that it’s only mid-August…but students are already heading back to the classroom in some parts of the country. And watching the news lately, you would think the kids are in for a Lord of the Flies scenario:

Students across the country are heading back to school. Will there be enough teachers waiting for them? 

ABC’s World News Tonight claimed that there was a “teacher shortage crisis.” The Washington Post described a “catastrophic teacher shortage.” Some local school officials say hiring this summer has been particularly difficult.

But some researchers have been skeptical, saying that the data does not support these claims and that shortages are limited to certain schools and subjects.

So what do we know? Are teachers really leaving in droves? Will more classes begin the year led by substitutes? Did the pandemic exacerbate these issues?

What is this…a pop quiz? I don’t even have my pencil ready. Please…do continue.

Definitive data is limited, and school hasn’t started yet in much of the country. To date, there is little firm evidence to support claims of an unprecedented crisis. When American students return to school, the vast majority will be greeted by a classroom teacher. 

But the ingredients — high levels of teacher stress, more teaching positions to fill, a long-term decline in people training to become teachers, and competition from jobs outside schools — are there for it to be a harder than normal year for recruiting teachers. High-poverty schools in particular will face familiar challenges staffing their classrooms with skilled teachers.  

“Is there a national teacher shortage? I think the reality is more nuanced,” said David Rosenberg, who works with district officials across the country through the nonprofit Education Resource Strategies. “And in some places, heck yeah.”

Anyway. 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. I feel like I have to go to bed early now. Some habits die hard.

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

Hey, remember the time – ‘member the time
We took that snake
And put down little Betsy’s dress?
Now I don’t think Miss Axelrod
Was much impressed

Oh, Alice. You should be on the stage.

“At 17” – Janis Ian

Emo before it had a name:

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

Remember, Happy Days was just a TV show.

“Cinnamon Street” – Roxette

Growing up on Cinnamon Street
Everywhere you look there are lots of people to meet
It’s seven o’clock, the breakfast treat
Now the school bus is here, hurry up and grab a seat

Per Gessele is an underrated songwriter. A lovely sense memory from the Swedish pop-rock duo. Sadly, Marie Fredriksson passed away in 2019.

“ELO Kiddies” – Cheap Trick

So you missed some school?
You know school’s for fools
Today money rules
And everybody steals it

That’s enough out of you, you little truants!

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

More troublemakers:

The mama looked down and spit on the ground
Every time my name gets mentioned
The papa said, “Oy, if I get that boy
I’m gonna stick him in the house of detention”

“My Old School” – Steely Dan

Another enigmatic narrative from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, featuring some of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter’s finest fretwork.

Well, I did not think the girl
Could be so cruel
And I’m never going back
To my old school

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

Halfway through my list, I’m thinking: Did any of these people pay attention in class?

Well, I don’t care about history
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school
‘Cause that’s not where I wanna be
Rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school
I just wanna have some kicks
I just wanna get some chicks
Rock, rock, rock, rock, rock ‘n’ roll high school

“School” – Supertramp

One of Roger Hodgson’s finer compositions. Ennio Morricone’s school days.

I can see you in the morning when you go to school
Don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule,
Teacher tells you stop your play and get on with your work
And be like Johnnie-too-good, well don’t you know he never shirks
He’s coming along

“School Days” – Chuck Berry

Hail hail to the chief. Pure rock ‘n’ roll poetry.

Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the golden rule
American history and practical math
You studyin’ hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

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

I miss Cub Koda.

Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap, just ain’t my bag
The noon bells rings, you know that’s my cue
I’m gonna meet the boys on floor number two!

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

I think Frank needs to go to the councilor’s office for a pep talk. Wah wah wah wah.

The other night we painted posters
We played some records by the coasters
Wah wah wah wah
A bunch of pom-pom girls
Looked down their nose at me
They had painted tons of posters, I had painted three
I hear the secret whispers everywhere I go
My school spirit is at an all time low

“Teacher Teacher” – Rockpile

OK, it’s only analogous to the school experience. But hey…we never stop learning.

Young love, young pet
Cheeks flushing, apple red
Ringing you every day
Begging for a word of praise
I’ve put aside my foolish games
I run and hide and callin’ names
Miles out, the bells are ringin’
Now’s the time to teach me everything

“Thirteen” – Big Star

First crush.

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?
Maybe Friday I can
Get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you, ooh-ooh

“To Sir, With Love” – Lulu

Ode to a mentor.

A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn
What, what can I give you in return?

“Wind-up” – Jethro Tull

An English schoolboy who (I sense) has a problem with authority figures.

When I was young and they packed me off to school
And taught me how not to play the game
I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success
Or if they said that I was just a fool
So I left there in the morning
With their God tucked underneath my arm
Their half-assed smiles and the book of rules