Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Monday, July 25, 2005

You've Got to Hear This

Click here and check out the brand new mp3 from the dB’s, a typically catchy new :Peter Holsapple ditty. Nothing is more exciting this year than the reunion of the original dB’s line-up – guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Holsapple and lead guitarist extraordinare/songwriter Chris Stamey, along with bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby. If you missed them in the 80s, when they were the best band in the United States of America, there’s a new chance to get in on the action. I envy those of you in Hoboken, NJ and Chicago, IL who will get to see the only live shows the band will do this year.

Hey, I'm Back

I gotta tell you, the best way to hear live music is to sit in somebody’s kitchen/family room, and let the musicians set up in the corner. Thursday morning, nobody in town thought for one second they’d be seeing Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell play Sunday night, but thanks to Marie Arsenault, John Wendland, Roy Kasten, and especially Rick and Nancy Wood, who hosted the event, a house concert was put together on very short notice. I believe the proper phrase here is: “A good time was had by all.”

First, let me just say that Caitlin and Thad are two great singers who sound greater together. Cary came out of Whiskeytown, the Uncle Tupelo tribute band once led by Ryan Adams – and to be fair, which released some pretty good songs back in its heyday. To be honest, I know next to nothing about Cockrell, but the songs I’ve heard from their month-old duet release, “Begonias,” have been enough to convince me he’s got talent.

And now, a digression on alt-country itself. Can we just get over the phrase and acknowledge that something happened fifteen years ago to make it possible for young musicians raised on rock to embrace country music forms and tropes, thus freshening up a tradition that no longer had much of a hold at all on the working class and rural audiences that had loved it for so long? There are a million things you can do with country, just as there are a million things you can do with blues. These forms are intrinsic to the American character, and I have no problem with anybody who wants to come along and play around with them, as long as the end result turns out to be worth my while. There aren’t really any more incompetent alt-country artists running around the world than there are incompetent practitioners of any other genre you’d care to name.

Which is to say, goodness, what is there to complain about when Cary and Cockrell stare into each others eyes and sing these songs of heartbreak and devotion? Cockrell has a high, wispy voice; Cary has a husky, dominating alto. Over the course of twenty or so songs, they explored every way of mixing their respective vocals one could imagine. Blended together into one close, sibling-like harmony; alternating passages as a dynamic tool; belting out individual vocal lines until you couldn’t tell who was singing what anymore. It was all gorgeous, whether on their original material or on incredibly well chosen cover songs such as Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love” or Lucinda Williams’ “Jackson.”

The backing band was magnificent. The rhythm section, a bassist and a drummer (who looked like he was 15, but turned out to be 25), could move from gentle pulses to r’n’b propulsion. Cary’s fiddle and Cockrell’s subtle acoustic guitar playing were treats, too. But, most of all, Cary and Cockrell turned out to be the latest beneficiaries of one of America’s best kept musical secrets, the very talented Rich Gilbert playing pedal steel guitar. Gilbert, who is equally great on guitar and who once was in Human Sexual Response and the Zulus, now lives in Nashville and signs on with a series of talented people to provide tasty and incendiary playing in a variety of settings. I realized last night that much of the best music being made these days isn’t being recorded, because people are going out on tour with amazing hired hands like Gilbert. Not that there’s anything wrong with Cary and Cockrell’s own record, but I’d love to be able to recreate the experience I heard last night.

The sound in Rick and Nancy’s family room was impeccable. The audience was quiet and respectful. There was no smoking indoors. There was a pot-luck buffet spread that was incredible. Beer, soda, wine, and water flowed copiously. Really, this is now my favorite venue, and while I understand that Rick and Nancy probably would prefer to keep their home to themselves and their two kids – who were sent away for the night – I have a very selfish side that wants a whole lot more musical events held at their house. This was truly a fun time.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Warring Worlds at the Drive-In

I don’t know from video games, but it seems to me that if you keep on surviving all the levels, and then ultimately win the game because it’s rigged that you can’t lose, you’re gonna think you’ve been cheated. Because, really, where is the challenge?

We went to the drive-in last night to catch “War of the Worlds” and a second screening of “Batman Begins.” I only want to mention that “Batman Begins” holds up a lot better on second viewing than I would have thought. The montage jump cuts while maintaining dialogue during Bruce Wayne’s training sequences with Ra’s Al Ghul were especially impressive. I still have problems with the overall shape of the movie, but the technique is so strong that it carried me along for the ride, especially knowing exactly what was going to happen next.

Anyway, “War of the Worlds” is pretty much exactly like a video game. There is the obligatory modern-day blockbuster action pic ten-to-fifteen minute opening to establish characters, and then we’re off to the races, as the heroes run and jump over a seemingly endless parade of CGI-created frights. The catch is, if you’re playing the role of Tom Cruise in this game, you’ve got nothing to worry about because through no particular effort or strength on his part, save an overwhelming desire to keep his daughter safe, Cruise is incapable of being harmed.

Here’s the set-up. Cruise is a divorced dad with a teen-age son and a pre-pubescent daughter. The son’s character is virtually an afterthought. They figured he should be rebellious, should hate the father for abandoning his family, and yet should be incredibly gentle and aware and loving when it comes to his little sister. Not so gentle and aware that he can’t abandon her from time to time when the writers felt like taking him off screen, but certainly close enough to her that he is the only one who can calm her down – through some sort of family therapy method of finding a safe place – when the situation warrants.

Tom’s ex-wife is pregnant, and she has a new husband, so we’re not going to have a family reunion in this flick. The little girl is alternately wide-eyed Spielbergian innocence and prototypical wise-beyond-her-years smart kid who can analyze her father’s mis-steps in trying to establish a closer relationship with her brother. Then, the aliens attack, so let’s roll.

Metaphorically, it’s impossible to avoid any 9/11 comparisons for this movie. When H.G. Wells wrote the original novel some 100 years back, he was trying to dredge up some nightmare scenario far removed from reality. It was impossible for attacks on civilization to come from out of nowhere. Then, when Orson Welles updated it for his famous 1939 radio broadcast, he wisely moved the story to New Jersey, because America seemed far more impervious to attack at that time than England. Guess what? Now, we don’t feel so invulnerable. So, when we see an army of giant tripods blowing up buildings and frying frightened humans, it’s only natural to ask if this is an act of terrorism. We don’t need to consider sources from off-planet to frighten us. We’ve got our own boogey-men right here, thank you very much.

The problem is, Spielberg doesn’t want to do anything with the metaphor. He has to know he’s tapping into the zeitgeist of Us vs. Them, but he wants to pretend this is just an old-fashioned scary movie, where all we have to do is root for the hero. (And to make sure we root our hardest, the hero has to protect the innocence of his ten-year-old daughter. At least twice, maybe more, he makes sure to cover her eyes so she can pretend something particularly horrible isn’t happening. One of those horrors just might be Cruise’s character killing another human. Of course, Spielberg makes us close our eyes, too, keeping that action off screen as he concentrates his camera on the blindfolded little girl pushing her hands tightly against her ears.)

As Cruise frantically huffs and puffs his way in front of the CGI screen displaying streets falling apart behind him, cars turning to ashes, and really huge alien technology chortling along with some minor key leitmotif, the viewer has to understand this much. Steven Spielberg isn’t going to set up a little girl as the single most perfect representation of humanity without making sure she pulls out of this scrape in one piece, nor is he going to bump off her father. So, all suspense is completely lost once the aliens attack. All we will see is what happens around Cruise, and he will always be just far enough out of range of destruction to keep himself scratch-free. I kept expecting him to pull out a Maxwell Smart line like “Missed me by that much.”

I’ll give Spielberg this. He makes the little girl be a big whiner, and she screams like the dickens every time the blue screen comes up behind her. Cruise redeems himself as a father figure when she asks him to sing a lullabye and all he can come up with is “Little Deuce Coupe.” What? They don’t have “Rock a Bye Baby” in scientology?

Some of the special effects look pretty cool. But, there’s never any convincing reason as to why Cruise and his kids should survive, except that they are the focus of the film. Eventually, the boy decides he has to go with the army to help fight the creatures, but that just means we don’t get to see how he makes his way back to Mom’s house for the happy reunion at the end. (Like I’m spoiling that for you!? This particular Odyssey is all about the trip, folks; the last five minutes is perhaps the most anti-climactic sequence in movie history.)

Hey, speaking of the army, I noticed that a) there were enough troops in America not shipped over to Iraq or Afghanistan, which was probably lucky; b) the army troops were all completely committed to fighting and keeping order, with absolutely no hint of fear or loss of discipline; and c) the troops were, as far as I can remember, 100% white males. In fact, I can’t remember too many African-American, and absolutely no Asian or Hispanic faces in the whole film.

All blockbuster movies are automatically more fun if you see them at the drive-in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t quibble a bit. “War of the Worlds” bugged me on a lot of fronts. I didn’t like the idea that we were supposed to feel good at the end because Cruise and his entire family escaped completely unharmed while millions, perhaps billions of other people were dead and half the world was destroyed. I didn’t like the fact that Spielberg did nothing to update the original microbe destruction of the aliens; Wells was wrong that humanity was immune to all microbes but the aliens wouldn’t be. Why couldn’t the aliens have turned out to die as a result of ingesting, I don’t know, humans who had been taking the AIDS cocktail? This movie could have used an ironic conclusion like that.

I did actually like the idea of avoiding any official explanations for events. The way that people throughout the movie gave contradictory reports of what was going on was nicely ambivalent, and reflected the fact that Spielberg really wasn’t interested in the plot as much as in creating enough video game thrills to get to the end of the picture. He did that, alright. But, I’ve hated this guy since 1977. He’s never struck me as capable of understanding the admittedly nicely composed images he puts on the screen, and he’s not starting at this late date. “War of the Worlds” isn’t devoid of entertainment value, but oh, how much better it could have been with a little bit of thought.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Oh, Daddy

Can I possibly say anything sensible about a book I finished reading eleven days ago? That’s ancient history, as I’ve finished another one and I’m about one fifth of the way through a third since then.

Yet, the whole time I was reading “Lot’s Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women’s Quest for Authority,” written by Robert M. Polhemus, I was thinking this was something I wanted to talk about. Because, basically, he’s found a way to turn the Oedipus Complex on its head, and discovered an equally potent mythological tale that’s wound its way through our society for thousands of years. Polhemus is talking about what he calls the Lot Complex, which is to say the tendency for older men and younger women to get it on.

I have to say, when I was growing up in the Church, I never really heard the whole story of Lot and his family. Somehow, the way I learned it, all I knew was Lot was a good man who was saved when Sodom (and Gomorrah) was destroyed, and that his wife couldn’t resist the urge to look back and thus was turned into a pillar of salt.

Here’s the nitty gritty of the tale that they left out in Sunday School classes. See, Lot was hanging in Sodom, and two angels stopped in for a visit. Of course, they didn’t tell anybody they were angels, but Lot was properly hospitable to strangers, so he invited them in and tried to make them comfortable. Now, it wasn’t easy to be comfortable, when apparently every man in the town was gathered outside Lot’s house demanding for these two newcomers to step outside and let everybody fuck them.

As I said, Lot was a good host, and he didn’t think it would be good for his guests to take it up the ass from however many men there were in Sodom. So, he offered up his virginal daughters to the crowd, saying they could be had for the taking if these men would just leave his guests alone. Silly Lot. In a town like Sodom, where apparently debauchery was the rule of the day, nobody got to remain virginal unless very specifically nobody else wanted anything to do with said virgins. So, of course the people of the town said no to the girls, and give us the new guys.

That’s when the angels said, “Okay, you guys are in trouble now, because we’re here from God, and He said we get to destroy your whole town.” (Presumably, there was some roughly similar tale taking place in Gomorrah, but that destruction is relegated to very deep background in the Bible, only being mentioned as happening at the same time, shorn of detail.) The angels were proud of Lot’s very nice gesture of offering his daughters in their place, so they told him he and his family could take off before the holocaust.

Well, sir, Lot, his wife, and his two daughters packed their things and got out of town before the sun rained down and blew up Sodom. The wife couldn’t resist a backwards glance at the life she was leaving behind, which makes sense because it clearly must have been great for this one Godly family to live in such a disgusting place. God, not being one to mess around with those who didn’t stick to the letter of his commands, turned the wife into a pillar of salt.

Believe it or not, now comes the weird part. When next we see Lot and company, it’s a day or so later, and they’re hanging out in a cave, believing themselves to be the only survivors of the human race. (Apparently, the angels didn’t fill anybody in on all the details about Sodom and Gomorrah being the only two truly wicked cities in the whole world.) The daughters get to thinking, “You know, it’s up to us to regenerate the human race, and there are no other men but Daddy.” So, they take turns getting him drunk and “laying naked” with him. It only took one time each for them to get pregnant, and their descendents turned into the races of the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Check this out, though. The Moabites begat and begat until they begat Ruth, who begat some more until begetting King David, who begat and begat until finally we reached the birth of Jesus. So, ultimately, Jesus was a result of this incest. Why did they never tell us this stuff?

The story itself is plenty weird for modern readers to get their heads around, but what Polhemus does so brilliantly is use it as an archetype for the history of women actually moving on to take some power back from men. I’m not saying there aren’t places in this book when I wasn’t a little bit confused as to how he thought that was a powerful thing, but starting from the very thought that the daughters made their own decision to carry on the race while Lot himself needed to be ploughed with liquor to stiffen up and do it, Polhemus actually does have a way of making you think about what he’s saying.

Onward through art, literature, film, and politics, Polhemus puts a new spin on everything from Lewis Carroll to Shirley Temple to the Bronte sisters and on to Monica Lewinsky. Obviously, he’s mostly dealing with symbolic incest, or simply the Daddy/Daughter concept of inter-generational sexuality (which doesn’t even always turn out to include sex). Here’s where the time lapse between reading this and writing about it fails me, because I really can’t give you enough specifics to show what I’m talking about. I can, however, point out that Polhemus is an astoundingly witty and perceptive critic of all sorts of things, and he will make you notice stuff you’ve never noticed before. Read it, folks, and prepare to have your minds blown.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson

What does it mean to see Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson together in a minor league ballpark in Sauget, Illinois, a town just across the river that is best known to us St. Louisians as the site of industrial factories and strip clubs? Somehow or another, there’s something about America being said, but I’m not sure what it is.

I know that Dylan and Willie were looking to get at the all-American small town world by announcing a tour of minor league ballparks. I know that GMC Stadium is a cool little place to see a baseball game, even if the players are several notches below terrific. Do you have any idea how many professional players are above the guys who wind up playing for a team like the Gateway Grizzlies?

But Sauget isn’t an All-American small town where there are Fourth of July parades and sandlot ballplayers and little white dogs playing with girls in cotton dresses. Frank Capra never made a movie about Sauget. The town’s population is something less than 500, unless they were kidding on the sign we saw.

After the concert, we met at the Liquor and Lottery store on the parking lot in front of the strip clubs, and tried to use the restroom. At midnight, there were nothing but sad old guys watching multiple TV screens of horse races, pouring over forms, hoping the next race would be the one that would restore their dreams of success.

And, now that I think of it, that’s kind of a metaphor for going out and catching a Bob Dylan show any time in the last 20 years. The guy wrote some of the most amazing songs in the history of the world, and accessed some level of performance magic that compare to the thrill of winning a large bet on a race, if you could stretch that winning streak over a number of years. But, nowadays, you’re as likely to tear up your ticket in disgust as you are to feel that adrenalin rush in the pit of your stomach that makes you know things are going your way.

Not last night, though. Dylan was as good as I’ve ever seen him, except probably that time in 1988 at the Muny Opera when G.E. Smith was in the band. Oh, his voice is a barely melodic croak these days, though he’s doing amazingly intriguing things with his phrasing. But, he leads an incredibly tight band of mostly unknown guys all of whom were willing to wear identical black and white button-down shirts. Dylan plays the piano these days, but unlike last year, when I saw him at the Pageant, he wasn’t insisting on mixing his instrument up above everybody else’s, and he didn’t seem to be pounding out Monk-on-acid discordant clusters every time you turned around. Instead, he let his two excellent guitarists and the fiddle/steel guitar player hog all the spotlight, leaving Dylan to blow some trade-mark harmonica now and again.

The songs all exist in relationship to the recordings. He mixed classics like “Positively 4th Street” and “Stuck Inside of Memphis” with more recent material from albums like “Love and Death.” Usually, it was possible to recognize the songs before he started singing, just from the familiar chords, even if the rhythms were drastically different. Then, he would sing, and you couldn’t often understand what he was singing, but luckily you know the songs to some degree, and you could tell he was manipulating the stress of words and syllables in ways that prevented anybody from singing along, but which was pretty cool, anyway. And, it felt like watching a legendary horse come back on an easier track, but winning over a pretty competitive bunch of other horses.

Speaking of legends, I was in awe just standing a 150 feet or so away from Willie Nelson, whose ramshackle magnificence kept me happy for an hour and a half or so. Man, all those songs strung together, all those amazing one-of-a-kind guitar solos and hammering rhythms, and that voice and that phrasing! Like Dylan, and the late Ray Charles, for that matter, Nelson is an American master, a person who absorbed all the strains of American popular music of the first half of the last century – blues, country, gospel, folk, and pop – and turned it into an expression which manages to be simultaneously individual and universal. Nelson is not mercurial, like Dylan. You know what you will get from him, though sometimes you get him going through the motions, and other times, like last night, you get him absorbed in the adoration of the crowd, and desiring to give them something back to deserve their love.

I was wary, but I was out there on that field, surrounded by friends, drinking fucking Budweiser, of all the crappy beers in the world, albeit something that seemed appropriate for the occasion, looking at the stars in the sky, and feeling that this was just about as good as life in this country could get. I mean, obviously, it didn’t solve the nation’s problems, but it was emblematic of the ways in which we can survive. If you can’t learn anything about surviving from Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan playing great music after all these years, well, you can’t learn nothin’.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Aunt B, over at the very fantabulous blog Tiny Cat Pants, has tagged me with a series of questions bouncing around the blog world. So, let’s take a day off from writing reviews of things, and talk a little bit about me. Come on, it won’t hurt. I’m endlessly fascinating. Just ask me.

1) What are three of the stupidest things you’ve done in your life?

a. There was the time I got all hung up because some girl didn’t like me, and decided, despite the fact that I had only been drunk two or three times in my life before that, to buy a bottle of ridiculously cheap and far from tasty wine, and just drink it at a party. Well, yeah, lots of folks have done stupid things roughly akin to that very thing, but I upped the ante a little bit. I let a friend of mine put lipstick on me, because she was really into putting lipstick on guys that year, and then I decided it would be really funny to kiss the wall. Did you know that lipstick prints are virtually permanent?

b. I waited until a few weeks before my 18th birthday to get my drivers license, because I was absolutely incompetent when it came to cars. I took drivers education, scored 100% on every written test in the class, and still wound up with a D- grade because I really and truly couldn’t drive. Eventually, I did start to get the hang of it, and my mom took me down to the testing place. When I backed the car out of the parking spot, I scraped it alongside the car parked next to me, and then simply didn’t understand why the instructor decided I had failed the test already. It was only a teeny tiny scratch, really. Nobody was hurt.

c. Just the other day, I was walking the dog, something I’ve done a million times in my life – well, this dog probably has only gone for a thousand something walks, but I’ve walked plenty of dogs in my day. And, even without dogs, I’ve been walking for years and years without incident. But, this time the sidewalk tripped me up, and perhaps in karmic revenge for all the laughter I’ve been giving to slapstick silent comedies this year, I started to fall forwards, caught myself, flailed my arms, continued falling, bent sideways, and finally, after what seemed a full minute, plopped face first on the concrete. I was proud of myself for holding on to the dog’s leash, too.

2) At the current moment, who has the most influence on your life?

a. Well, that’s too easy. It’s Cat, of course, with whom I’ve spent every day but four or five of the last ten and a half years.

3) If you were given a time machine that functioned, and you were allowed to pick up to five people with whom to dine, who would you pick?

a. I remember answering this question in my friend Tim Merello’s old fanzine. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the zine, which I loved to death, and from which I cribbed many ideas. Any way, who would be on my list today? I think it would be cool to chat up St. Paul, and see just exactly what was going on with that guy for real. So, let’s put the man down for a serious discussion of today’s Christian fundamentalism.

b. I think I’d like to talk to Virginia Woolf, because I love her writing, and I haven’t thought about her in a long time. And, besides, she might have some interesting things to say to Paul.

c. Robert Johnson should come hang with us, too. I bet he could tell some stories, and I could easily get a book and movie deal out of whatever he had to say. And, I wonder if Paul would like the blues.

d. Groucho Marx would liven things up quite a bit, too. I’d love to talk to him about his brothers, but I don’t want to waste picks on three Marxes.

e. My late friend Mick Harris, who passed away about fourteen years ago, just cause I’d like to see him, and I’d like to finally get around to working up those acoustic folk versions of Ramones songs we always intended to do as a joke.

4) If you had three wishes that were not supernatural, what would they be?

a. Guaranteed jobs that we like and that pay us enough for both me and Cat.

b. Heck, I can’t even think of anything else to wish for myself.

c. So, I’ll wish for everybody else that I love to be happy doing what they’re doing.

5) Someone is visiting your hometown/place where you live right at the moment. Name two things you regret your city not having, and two things people should avoid.

a. These are tough questions, because I genuinely love living in St. Louis. I guess I regret that we don’t have another alternative newspaper in this town to tackle truly important issues, and I regret that we don’t have a way of tying the city and the county into one governmental unit.

b. Avoid going anywhere outside the heart of the city/county. In other words, don’t go too far north, west, or south, because it’s all just sprawl and strip malls and giant box stores and pre-fab housing. Well, maybe not all, but most of it. What else should you avoid? Avoid August if you possibly can.

6) Name one event which has changed your life.

a. That night I went out dancing with Cat and another friend, and the way she moved her shoulder caught my eye, and this person who had been a friend for fourteen years was suddenly getting me excited in a new way.

7) Who else to tag? Becker at Occupant’s Journal. It’s on you. And, hey, Twisty at I Blame the Patriarchy, I bet you could come up with some great answers.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Betting on an Inside Straight Flush

Let’s say a young actor or actress gets cast in a period piece movie nowadays. It can be any period you want to name, the result will be the same. Exhaustive research will be performed to make sure that every last detail of the period will be recreated. Hairstyles will be those which were in fashion at the time, furniture will not have been built before the year in question, dialogue will contort itself to use the most familiar elements of slang that have been passed on to our contemporary time, and most importantly, there will be music included which has been certified authentic and accurate to have been created within five years of the period of the movie.

But, you know, one thing that doesn’t always happen is the actors portraying living, breathing human beings who happen to be individuals, not representations of the expectations we have for a particular era of history. It turns out, the more you look into things, the more you realize that people have pretty much always been human beings, full of foibles, quirks, positive and negative actions and thoughts.

All of which brings me to a 1965 flick I’m ready to recommend to y’all. It’s called “The Cincinnati Kid,” and it makes very little effort to convince us that any of these people had a clue what the fashions were in the early 1930s, when the story happens to have been set. In fact, it makes very little effort to convince us that there is any reason for the story to have been set outside of 1965, aside from the liberal use of old Model T Fords and such-like automobiles.

Let me tell you, though, these characters live and breathe, and the actors pay close attention to revealing little nuances of character. Nobody is exactly angelic, nobody is evil. You do root for one guy to come out on top, but that’s just because the story is told from his point of view, not because he happens to be morally better than anybody else.

Ann Margaret and Tuesday Weld look for all the world like the hot-shot young actresses they were in 1965. Their hair, make-up, and clothes do not correspond to fashions of the 30s, at all. But, they can both break your heart with the insights they reveal. Weld is the farmer’s daughter moving to the big city, wanting to be loved for the rest of her life, wanting to be sophisticated, daring, in charge. Margaret is her a few years down the line, bored with the life she achieved, the husband who doesn’t love her, the men who she tries to seduce just to shake things up.

Then there are their men. Steve McQueen was at the height of his powers back in those days, when he could convey more with a strained look or a tilt of his head than many actors can do with pages of dialogue. He loves Weld, but isn’t sure what that means. He is ambitious, wanting to take his skills at poker to the top of the game by beating Edward G. Robinson’s character, the acknowledged Man of the time. Karl Malden plays Margaret’s husband, a straight-shooting card player who takes no chances, who doesn’t want to risk his reputation for honesty, and who refuses to put his wife before his reputation.

Much happens in the two hours of this film. Some of the most tense poker playing scenes ever filmed, for example. A vicious cock fight (filmed back in the day, I presume, before animals weren’t allowed to be harmed in movies, though there is no blood in this battle). A half-hearted seduction. Card tricks to win over Weld’s parents. A very cool chase sequence in a rail yard. Robinson’s masterful understatement as a man who is used to the good life, who is afraid it will end and yet confident he can outwit anybody. Bribery and cheating. Slaps in the face. Punches in the nose.

Just don’t expect anybody to look like its 1933, and you’ll have a great time.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Beginning Batman

Understand, it was my idea to convince my wife and our friends to go see “Batman Begins” last night. The other option was to see “War of the Worlds,” showing at the Moolah, which I have previously mentioned is the greatest movie theater in town. But, I hate Steven Speilberg, everybody hates Tom Cruise, and Stuart Klawans, my favorite movie critic, had such good things to say about “Batman Begins.”

So, this morning, I feel a little guilty. Not that anybody hated it. But, nobody liked it, either. You sit through this movie, and you come out the other side thinking, “Well, that was a couple hours, wasn’t it?”

Christian Bales makes for a decent Bruce Wayne, and what little he gets to do outside the CGI computer programming as Batman was pretty good. Although, as my friend Deb instantly adapted his ultra-low frequency vocal approach when wearing the cowl, it was silly to hear him speak most of the time.

I think they tried to do too much in this movie. There was the origin story, the explicit commentary on the nature of fear, the use of two relatively obscure villains in separate plots, the intrigue of Gotham City’s corrupt political and law-enforcement regimes, the machinations of Wayne Enterprises Board of Directors, and a love story. That’s a lot to pack into two hours, especially since about one and a half of those hours are taken up with slam-banging action sequences shot with some of the most frenetic jump-cuts and you-are-getting-your-face-kicked-in perspectives I’ve ever seen.

It was all too much, because nothing was developed enough to make me care what was happening. Oh, yeah, it was cool seeing Batman float through the air with his super long cape rustling in the wind like a parachute, and the Batmobile roared through town with some excitement. But, when the big threat is that pressure is building up in the water pipes of town, with the potential of them bursting and thus delivering a potent formula which induces paralyzing fear in all who breathe it, well, let’s just say you don’t gain much by not playing it all for laughs.

The origin sequence, despite merging the tale I remember of Marvel Comics 70s kung fu hero Iron Fist with the long-familiar basics of the Caped Crusader’s early days, was probably the most interesting part of the movie. I say this fully aware that normally I hate origin sequences, because I’m far more interested in seeing what the super heroes are going to do rather than in some crazy-ass justification for their ability to do it. But, I think this part of the movie worked because it was less cluttered. Batman doesn’t need to be overly complicated.

I’m glad I saw it, but I still feel as though I owe Cat, Deb, Roy, and Dana something of an apology.