Posts Tagged ‘In Memoriam’

Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day is about as perfect as a movie can be. If there’s one movie all us humans should base our lives upon, this is it. We must remember not only to learn from our mistakes, we must also remember to learn how to learn from our mistakes. And the universe is ultimately not that impressed by our underhanded shortcuts.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman first caught my attention in 1997, when he performed one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ll ever see: playing the awkwardly sweet boom operator Scotty in Boogie Nights, right after he’s rejected by hot porno superstar Dirk Diggler.

Until this point in the movie I’ve been laughing at Scotty’s flirtations with Dirk, assuming Scotty would never be so delusional as to try and kiss him or something. Then Scotty actually tries to kiss Dirk, and even though it goes a little better than expected (ie, Dirk doesn’t erupt into violent, coked-up gay-panic), it’s still devastating once Scotty starts calling himself Fuckin Idiot. It’s even more devastating because part of me still wants to laugh at Scotty, and laugh much harder than I might be willing to laugh at myself while looking back on my own Fuckin Idiot moments.

This performance is the epitome of the Fuckin Idiot moment.

I also like to remember PSH as a paragon of the Pig FUCK! moment: When an arrogant fraud lashes out at someone who dares to expose the truth. As Lancaster Dodd in The Master:

He says, “We are not helpless,” and he wishes he could believe it more. He adds, “And we are on a journey that risks the dark.” That much he’s sure of.

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This is the song that popped in my head when I heard Pete Seeger died:

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Because it’s Halloween season, today I’ll remember Lou Reed with “Venus In Furs.” Lyrically it’s not all that scary, and by post-Fifty Shades Of Grey standards, it’s hardly even taboo. Yet the pure sound of “Venus In Furs” makes it one of the first tracks that jump off the top of my head when I think of The Most Spine-Tingling Tunes Of All-Time. Some of that tingle is thanks to John Cale’s dissonant, asylum-born viola. The majority of the eerie stuff, however– the rising-from-the-tomb guitars; the ancient, bewitching melody; the sinister hypnotist voice– is conjured by Lou.

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I’m ashamed to say I’ve never actually read an Elmore Leonard novel, but I have watched Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out Of Sight a combined 20-something times. It’s because of these movies that I’m very much in awe of Leonard’s talent, especially considering how in each of them, a very strong filmmaker (Get Shorty‘s Barry Sonnenfeld, Jackie Brown‘s Quentin Tarantino, and Out Of Sight‘s Steven Soderbergh) rides shotgun to the source material, occasionally offering his own direction but essentially letting the author’s style take the wheel.

from Get Shorty:

Chili watched the movie star hunch over, narrowing his shoulders. For a few moments he held his hands together in front of him, getting a shifty look in his eyes. Then he gave it up, shaking his head.

“I’m doing Shylock instead of a shylock. Okay, what’s my motivation? The acquisition of money. To collect. Inflict pain if I have to.” Michael half-closed his eyes. “My father used to beat me for no reason… Take the money I earned on my paper route, that I kept in a cigar box…”

“Hold it,” Chili said. “I was a shylock– what do I look like?”

“That’s right, yeah,” Michael said, staring at Chili, his expression gradually becoming deadpan, sleepy.

“You the shylock now?”

“Guy owes me fifteen large and takes off, I go after him,” the movie star said. “The fuck you think I do?”

“Try it again,” Chili said. “Look at me.”

“I’m looking at you.”

“No, I want you to look at me the way I’m looking at you. Put it in your eyes. ‘You’re mine, asshole,’ without saying it.”

“Like this?”

“What’re you telling me, you’re tired? You wanta go to bed?”

“Wait. How about this?”

“You’re squinting, like you’re trying to look mean or you need glasses. Look at me. I’m thinking, you’re mine, I fuckin own you. What I’m not doing is feeling anything about it one way or the other…”

from Rum Punch (filmed as Jackie Brown):

He knew she was scared man, she had to be, but wasn’t acting like she was and it made him press his thumbs into her soft skin and tighten up on his fingers, wanting to know what she’d told them and knowing he’d have to take her close to the edge to find out. He said, “Baby, you got a reason to be nervous with me?” He saw her eyes close and open…

And felt what must be her hand down there touch his thigh, brush across it, and move on up and had to admire her using a female way of getting to him, liking it, yeaaah, till something else besides a hand, something hard, dug into him.

She said, “You feel it.”

Ordell said, “Yes I do,” wanting to grin, let her know he wasn’t serious and she shouldn’t be either. He said, “I believe that’s a gun pressing against my bone.”

Jackie said, “You’re right, You want to lose it or let go of me?”

from Out Of Sight:

Karen thought they’d put her inside and leave and she felt around to find her handgun, quick, the Sig Sauer, before they closed the trunk lid and she’d have to kick at it and yell until someone let her out. There, she felt the holster, slipped the pistol out and closed her hand around the grip ready to go for it, six hollow points in the magazine and one in the throat, ready to come around shooting if she had to. But now the one in the filthy guard uniform gave her a shove and was getting in with her– she couldn’t believe it– crawling in to wedge her between the wall of the trunk and her body pressed against her back like they were cuddled up in bed, the guy bringing his arm around now to hold her to him, and she didn’t have room to turn and stick the gun in his face.

The trunk lid came down and they were in darkness, total, not a crack or pinpoint of light showing, dead silent until the engine came to life, the car moving now, turning out of the lot to the road that went out to the highway…

His voice in the dark, breathing on her, said, “You comfy?”

The con acting cool, nothing to lose. Karen was holding the Sig Sauer between her hips. She said, “If I could have a little more room…”

“There isn’t any.”

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James Gandolfini breathed life into one of the most charming psychopaths in the history of stories. Like really breathed. Gandolfini’s nostrils expressed more than many actors’ entire bodies.

My favorite Gandolfini performance is Tony’s Vegas Peyote Epiphany from “Kennedy And Heidi.” I love how we see a giddy side of Tony we’ve never quite seen before, and while it can be very funny– like the confident way he says the roulette wheel’s “the same principle as the solar system”– it’s also severely chilling how he collapses in a giggle fit when he thinks about the “nephew”/ protege he just murdered.

And I eternally dig the way he screams “I GET IT!” into the desert sunrise, so quintessentially trippy. Gandolfini made me believe Tony “got it,” and made me shudder to think of what exactly it was that he “got.”

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I was instructed long ago by a wise editor, “If you understand something you can explain it so that almost anyone can understand it. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand your own explanation.” That is why 90% of academic film theory is bullshit. Jargon is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Yes. But if a work seems baffling yet remains intriguing, there may be a simple key to its mysteries.

Roger Ebert, “O, Synecdoche, my Synecdoche!” (November 10, 2008)

When I started really thinking about the movies I watched, Ebert was the one reviewer I read religiously. And when I started to write about movies (and music, books, TV shows, et cetera), Ebert’s was the style I tried to emulate most. His opinions sometimes baffled me but he didn’t write like a pompous twat and he didn’t write like a snot-rocket philistine. He could poetically, profoundly explain why The Tree Of Life isn’t pretentious nonsense  and why The Rock is a transcendent blast.

In 1999 I emailed him a paragraph on how the flashing images of Tyler Durden early on in Fight Club occurred at key moments during the narrator’s subliminal creation of his alter ego. Ebert kindly emailed me back: “I think you’re right. Best, RE.” I didn’t shut up about that for weeks.

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Over at 10Listens.com, I wrote a brief commemoration of Whitney Houston:

“The Greatest Love Of All” was already a punchline by the time Sexual Chocolate got a hold of it in Coming To America, and maybe it was a punchline for several good reasons.  But certainly none of those reasons are anything Whitney Houston brought to the song.  She sold that junior high graduation hymn better than any mortal could ever expect to.  Bette Midler could belt the heck out of “From A Distance,” and Mariah Carey could make your mom cry with “Hero,” but neither ever convinced me they were really, truly feeling it.  Whitney made “The Greatest Love Of All” schmaltz we can believe in.

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I feel a little sad yet somewhat relieved that R.E.M. has finally decided to leave the party.  They’ve been one of my favorite bands since I was 10 years old and bought Out Of Time on cassette, but I’ve enjoyed very little of the new music they’ve created after 1998’s Up.  I kinda-liked their 2008 album Accelerate, but that proved to be something of a dead cat bounce, following 2001’s uninspiring Reveal and 2004’s dismal Around The Sun, and preceding this year’s Collapse Into Now, an album that most R.E.M. fans seemed to dig, yet it left me cold and rather depressed.  Frankly, if I made a list of the Top 10 R.E.M. tracks of the 21st Century, at least 2 of those songs would be from the latest Decemberists album.

However, I post here not to bury R.E.M., but to praise them.  Despite their latter-day mediocrity, at their best they did a number of things better than any other band.  Like, at least 5 things.

1. Mumble, Jangle, Pogo (“Radio Free Europe,” et al)

Michael Stipe did more to advocate catchy incoherence in pop music than any other singer between The Kingsmen and Kurt Cobain.  Meanwhile, Mike Mills, Bill Berry and Peter Buck offered the finest proof that punk’s energy could shimmer in earthier colors, not just goth metallic black or new wave neon or pot-hazy Clash dub.

2. The Most Beautiful Song That’s Probably Inspired By Dr. Kevorkian (“Try Not To Breathe”)

My first listen of Automatic For The People‘s “Try Not To Breathe” at the tender age of 11 might be the first time I got choked up by a song.  I had seen a lot of Dr. Kevorkian in the news and I thought he was doing something very heroic, helping to ease the pain of all those suffering people.  So when I heard Michael Stipe put a “shivering and bold” human voice to the Death With Dignity philosophy, it moved me profoundly.  This song gave life to an idea that had earlier felt only abstract and distant to my young mind- the idea that a person could one day have little to look forward to but intense pain and wretched enfeeblement.  The possibility of this happening to me remains one of my biggest fears.  Though if I’m ever unfortunate enough to be in such a situation, I hope I can muster the same courage, sensitivity and determination as the song’s character when he says, “I will try not to breathe/ this decision is mine/ I have lived a full life/ and these are the eyes/ that I want you to remember.”

3. Shiny, Happy, Dorky (“Stand,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”)

Actually, this isn’t in reference to “Shiny Happy People,” because I agree that song was kind of a mistake.  But when I want to hear a song that will make me feel overjoyed and unabashedly dorky, I generally have 3 options.  Either They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” or 2 R.E.M. songs: “Stand” and “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.”

4. Most Fun-Sounding Guitars From The Era Of Not-Fun-Sounding Guitars (Monster)

Now, not all guitars in the mid-90s were the mopey, grungy type.  There were the Green Days and the Weezers and the Urge Overkills almost-balancing out the Pearl Jams and the Soundgardens and the Alice In Chainses.  (Or is it Alices In Chains?)  But when R.E.M. embraced Arena Glam on 1994’s ass-kicking Monster, the guitars didn’t just bang and fuzz.  They slithered and echoed and throbbed and sweated and strobed, and they still sound sexy and fresh these 17 years later.

5. The Best “Rattling-Off-A-Bunch-Of-Famous-Names-And/Or-Dada-Nonsense” Song (“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It [And I Feel Fine])

Sorry, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” “La Vie Boheme,” and the rest of you, but this one’s no contest.

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art by Jonathan Burton, from Mojo Magazine, April 2003

The White Stripes were the most American of American bands.  They mastered country, folk, blues, rock, pop, R & B, punk, grunge- virtually any style of American music that matters.  And while they may not have “mastered” hip-hop or jazz exactly, they occasionally peppered their music with hip-hop-like rhythms and jazzy sing-speak, particularly during Jack White’s manic in-concert scat breaks, and in songs like “The Denial Twist.”

They also did everything right.  That’s not to say they never wrote a subpar song.  But they never made a subpar album.  They had pretensions, but were rarely pretentious.  They were populist and avant-garde.  (For instance, the snake-charming synthesizers in “Icky Thump” may have been the weirdest sounds ever to crack the Billboard Top 40.)  They were extremely image-conscious, but not superficially so.  They were sweet and childlike, yet cranky and bad-ass.

If any of my other favorite bands called it quits tomorrow, I might be disappointed, but I don’t know if I’d feel sad.  Right now I’m still sad about The White Stripes.  Their arrival filled a gigantic hole in American music.  The hole left by their absence feels much, much bigger.

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