wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: August, 2016

Favourite (not best?) movies.

Spirited Away. The most complexly melancholy ‘children’s movie’ I know, and one of the most visually imaginative. Perfect, if a movie can be perfect.

Southland Tales. A ecstatic psychedelic-apocalyptic mess, eagerly courting ridicule, with the curious haunted quality of Kelly’s precocious Donnie Darko but none of that movie’s emotional maturity or restraint. In some sense, surely the most Phildickian film ever.

She Hate Me. A symphony like the more coherent Bamboozled, where Do the Right Thing was a taut chamber piece. I jokingly call Southland Tales ‘the white She Hate Me,’ which is to say they’re both ‘fantasias on national themes’ (cf. Angels in America) which seem to resemble, too closely for viewer comfort, the interiors of their respective creators’ heads.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one holds an odd place in the pantheon: in some respects it’s a Western arthouse film, with the familiar emotional palette and granularity of an episode of Mad Men, but which happens to be about wuxia movies. Luckily it’s also a superb wuxia specimen. I fell for this one in the theater, where the crowd burst into applause after the first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Few ‘action films’ have so expertly communicated the emotional states and stakes of their martial sequences. Yuen Wo Ping’s fight choreography inspires awe, but you’ve seen The Matrix so you knew that. What matters is that the fight scenes are also the most emotionally compelling dramatic exchanges in this (moving) film, even for a Western viewer — they’re shot, cut, and acted to tell perfectly formed stories. There are more visually arresting movies in its artsy-wuxia niche, but none that so effortlessly incorporate Western dramatic arts.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? My lit-theory professor told me each Coen Bros film was a play on a time and a place — they’re moving portraits of cultural moments, real and imagined. O Brother portrays the mythology of the Depression-era South. You can turn off the gorgeous visuals, ignore the snappy dialogue and egoless acting, and marvel at the sound: it’s a musical, the best of modern times, with the most thematically coherent (also beautiful) soundtrack of all. Better and deeper than its reputation.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two unique creators at the height of their powers, served by a master actress and an extraordinary (and widely misused and misunderstood) comic actor, tell a simple story about falling in love and falling out of love. The final movement is shattering. On a date early in our relationship, my not-yet-wife scolded me for being ‘demonstrative’ by sighing constantly during this film. She was right and can piss off.

Gremlins. The great Christmas movie of the 80s.

E.T. The scientists. And then the bicycle.

Ghostbusters. OK yes: funny, groovy, mean spirited, with heaping doses of perfect eliptonic twaddle and two genuinely creepy scenes. And OK yes, Bill Murray. But not Bill Murray, master comic improviser, which everybody already knows about. This is glory: Bill Murray, dramatic improviser, suddenly turning in celebratory circles in the park as the music swells and Sigourney Weaver walks away smiling. What are the chances that a high-concept comic romp with half a script could offer a throwaway moment of romantic perfection?

Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Blah blah ‘not real rock & roll’ and the final song suffers somewhat for being sung by Trask instead of Mitchell. But what other film works at this particular pitch?

Magnolia. Go ahead and make fun, and I’ll just sit here and enjoy watching a perfectly realized work of musical and dramatic and cinematic art, deliriously in love with its own voice, which climaxes in the middle with the wordless administration of a dropper full of morphine by a hospice nurse.

Some imaginary combination of the Matrix films. If I could cut the second and third films together in a way that would make you understand that the entire trilogy (and not just the first film) is a classic work of sci-fi, I would do so.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not perfect like Raiders, not wonderfully grotesque like Temple of Doom. But: ‘You left just when you were becoming interesting.’ And: ‘I thought I lost you, boy.’ (And come to think of it: ‘If you are Scottish, lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.’) The tank battle is one of the great action setpieces, the score is sweetly sad, and it should have ended here.

Stop Making Sense. The rapturous final batch of songs make the case for the boundary-shattering power of groove as eloquently as any weird little hyper-controlled art flick ever has.

La Jetee. Inseparable, in my mind, from the Left Bank film festival where I first saw it — well after being knocked over by Twelve Monkeys, which I like more but value less. And that one shot (if you know, you know) is, for me, a small sacred thing: the incarnation and withdrawal of a goddess.

High School. What does evil look like? Maybe it looks like the final frames of this extraordinary, essential, still-relevant documentary.

Fight Club. Weighed down by cultural baggage, none of it interesting, this film is no longer held in the esteem it deserves. Never mind that it’s a virtuosic catalogue of cinematic technique; never mind that it’s really funny; never mind that This Really Is How It Feels Sometimes. How many films ever move this swiftly and smartly for two hours?

Blade Runner. Here’s how much this movie does right: the three-hour audio remix from Don Joyce’s Over the Edge radio show is one of the classic works of sci-fi all by itself, even without the epochal visual design.

Punch-Drunk Love. That score. Those moving colour splashes. Several moments of such light and sweetness they’re nearly unbearable. Several sequences of profound, courageous discomfort. Two daft dialogue scenes between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who couldn’t possibly be less well matched and yet and yet and yet and oh my God two of the most beautiful kisses ever put to film.

Princess Bride. You’d think it’d be enough, filming the best of all American movie swordfights. You’d think they’d’ve been satisfied, giving the world Vizzini’s mad hubristic Battle of Wits and the rise and fall and transformation and apotheosis of Inigo Montoya. But no. They insisted on wrapping those moments up in a flawless old-fashioned comedy. Bit of cheek, isn’t it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Terry Gilliam’s film has a classic orchestral score (conducted with rare wit), a lovely little moebius-strip of a story, and a light-operatic whimsy which leavens and complements Gilliam’s characteristic visual grotesquerie.

The Empire Strikes Back. Meticulously staged expressionist art film, all vivid colours and expert genre pastiche and lightly handled iconic tableaux, referring to dimly remembered but irrelevant backstory. Or, in Andrew Rilstone’s (possibly misremembered-by-me) words: ‘…as if Leigh Brackett picked up George Lucas’s Star Wars action figures and started acting out Hamlet with them.’

Chungking Express. Shot for peanuts, half improvised, in a few weeks between takes of a bigger-budget film. Wong Kar-Wai has made better films (In the Mood for Love, for instance) but this is a tiny magic spell with as strong a sense of place as any other movie.

The Singing Detective. If I could preserve a single screen performance (that I’m aware of) of the 20th century, it’d be Michael Gambon’s.

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. This is mastery. This is the old way. Jay is a singular human being, and this film of his stage show is the essential document of his unique art.


Milton Nascimento, MINAS (1975).

Except for a melodramatic ‘Norwegian Wood’ bonus track (I prefer PM Dawn’s — oh, and the Englishman’s) this is all Brazilian Portuguese, and I’ve never looked around for translated lyrics. No need, really. As pure sound, as longform musical structure, as an example of what you can do with maybe an hour of recorded sound, Minas is a triumph on par with the understandably overrated Dark Side of the Moon, mixing elements of jazz, funk, prog, chamber/baroque pop, and a variety of Latin styles into a work of generously melancholy psychedelia which signifies both within and across individual tunes. The out-of-phase children’s chorus which recurs throughout the album could be a folk tune or a lullaby or the Brazilian national anthem for all I know, or even a once-in-a-lifetime miracle of melodic inspiration — it doesn’t matter which, because the melody functions in a variety of ways from track to track, here a ghostly descant, there a calming restoration, now a question mark, then a closing parenthesis. Like the street sounds which fill the great Black Orpheus soundtrack, Minas‘s children’s chorus place the already unconventional musical goings-on in a rich context that’s no less vividly imagined or imaginable for being a studio fantasy.

That ‘Norwegian Wood’ is the remaster’s biggest question mark. Like everything else on Minas, it’s gorgeous, building over five minutes to alternating statements of the two minor-mode lines (‘She asked me to stay…’). Slowed down considerably from the original, whose inappropriately jaunty groove is the point of the track, the source of its poisonous irony, Nascimento’s cover turns Lennon’s kiss-off into something between a hymn and a dirge. But it’s not funny, and beauty isn’t in short supply over the 42 minutes prior to ‘Wood.’ So why’s it here? I suspect the answer is some variation on ‘vibe’ — Nascimento’s treatment of Lennon’s tune, like John Coltrane’s unbearable intensification of ‘My Favorite Things,’ perfectly suits the overall project, and while it makes sense that it was left off the original album, the song only makes sense in that context. The sheer pleasure of the intertwined voices and rich orchestration is the only justification needed for such a performance, but if you’re reading for meaning (which maybe you shouldn’t) then you’ll find it in the way ‘Norwegian Wood’ picks up gingerly, quietly, after the ‘Day in the Life’-ish orchestral shenanigans of proper album closer ‘Simples.’ Again: descant, restoration, question mark, parenthesis.

Minas is grand without sounding pretentious, intimate without inducing claustrophobia, subtly sexy without bothering with readymade grooves so labeled. It reminds me strongly of Shuggie Otis’s hermetically funky Inspiration Information, another work of easygoing psychedelia by a master arranger. Both albums benefit, in rerelease, from bonus tracks which enrich the overall experience — Otis’s ‘Freedom Flight’ is a perfect sequel/extrapolation of the ‘Strawberry Letter 23’ outro, while Nascimento’s ‘Caso VocĂȘ Queira Saber’ reaffirms the equivalence of the album’s great pleasures (spiritual and bodily).

Of course, the lyrics might make a fool of me. But again: I prefer not to know, for now. The sound is rich and varied enough, ramifies broadly and pierces deeply enough, without that extra meaning-layer. I’ve just tracked down a healthy portion of Nascimento’s discography, and look forward to digging deeper, but after a dozen listens, Minas seems inexhaustible: that marvelous paradox, a complete and self-contained and well wrought representation of a vision without borders or limits.

Heilemann & Halperin, GAME CHANGE.

A behind-the-screens account of the 2008 presidential campaign, focusing on Obama/Clinton and the general, giving short thrift to McCain’s primary campaign. The excuse for the latter oversight seems to be that McCain was the presumptive front-runner from the jump; the truth is probably that they weren’t granted access. Palin gets plenty of coverage, of course.

Self-serving campaign bigwigs gave the authors extraordinary access, after the fact, to everything from internal campaign memos to email archives to extended interviews with most of the campaign’s major figures. (You can tell from the quoted dialogue who collaborated with Heilemann and Halperin — it seems the entire Clinton campaign was especially leaky.)

I wanted to know about the internal machinations of the Clinton campaign, to get a sense of what the next few months before the 2016 general election will be like. Turns out they were a disorganized shitshow, riven by factionalism and long-simmering vendettas and uncontainable egos. The Clintons don’t seem to have any idea how to organize such a group of people; presumably as a defense mechanism, Bill and Hillary’s self-pity is (depicted as) boundless, as when Hillary says that that nation faces ‘a terrible choice’ in Obama/McCain.

Hillary comes off the way critics who’ve looked closely at her record have led us to expect: unusually smart for Washington, analytical, cold, brittle (a nerd who’s tasted power), paranoid, an ineffective manager, shorter on principle than her supporters like to think, and — maddeningly — forever devoted to the husband whose serial sexual predations Hillary has clearly (evidently) made a devil’s bargain over. Bill comes off as a talanted sociopath, duh, though Heilemann and Halperin’s gushing over his once-in-a-lifetime political intuition isn’t justified by their own reporting.

The 2008 Clinton campaign, meanwhile, appears to’ve been full of feckless morons and reptiles whose main qualification was/is undying loyalty to the Clintons. The Clinton White House (where HRC was by her own account ‘co-president’) had the same quality. The foibles of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC, which over the last few years has made itself a well-paid arm of the 2016 Clinton campaign, suggest that the same dynamic obtains there even today.

This should worry you, if you’re not a Trump supporter.

Obama comes off as an extraordinarily intelligent, naturally gifted candidate with rare policy chops, unusually high-minded principles, and a freakish ability to learn as he goes — his performance during the 2008 financial meltdown is his crowning achievement. The book also paints him as arrogant and slightly brittle, but those qualities don’t appear to be at all unusual. Perhaps because they (1) helped the authors and (2) ran the White House, Obama’s political/policy people come off extremely well in the book. (I’ve come to believe that several characters on Veep are based on figures in Game Change.)

Biden the goof, appears to be Biden, the goof. He’s one of the few human beings in the book.

McCain’s campaign was also a shitshow, of course. Like Clinton’s, it had no real message other than ‘stay the (neoliberal militaristic) course, pretending to change.’ McCain himself comes off as a reasonably principled but querulous old codger who fell apart as the campaign progressed. His choice of Palin was driven by desperation: McCain’s first choice was Joe Lieberman (Lindsey Graham, who otherwise comes off as a smart serious figure, blew up that pick by flapping his gums), but in a ‘normal year’ he’d’ve settled for Tim Pawlenty; Sarah Barracuda was chosen as a counter to the campaign’s Obama-embodies-change problem. Palin is the book’s most interesting figure: pig ignorant but extraordinarily eager to do good work, a serial liar obsessed with her favorability ratings in Alaska only, a very talented ‘red-light-on performer’ (i.e. able to instantly enter performance mode when the moment hit) who to my eye was suffering from a dangerous mix of postpartum depression and shell shock at the height of the campaign.

I’ve long thought Palin was a common grifter, and Game Change backs up my supposition, though it also suggests that that wasn’t always true — unless she’s a bigger sociopath than Bill Clinton, she was by all accounts an oddly serene (if cagey) true believer who tasted the good life and decided she wanted more, on her terms. I actually like her more after reading. And I like this too: McCain, seeing how hard her job in the campaign was and how desperately she tried (and failed) to do it, refused to say an unkind word about her, even to his own campaign staff (who were, by the way, repulsive). The McCain campaign’s failure to vet Palin — they took less than a week and ended up having to google her name while fielding questions from the press after she was announced as the pick — is one of the most intriguing and disquieting process stories in the book.

So that’s the gossip. (There’s a lot about John Edwards, who by all accounts is a delusional shitheel, and his wife, whom the authors depict as a minor Satan. None of that interests me.)

And gossip is just about all there is, unfortunately, because Game Change, while endlessly fascinating on its own insider-baseball terms, is completely devoid of any detail about anything except the internal machinations of three groups of largely unprincipled, high-functioning rich assholes. The financial crisis gets something like a one-paragraph thumbnail summary, only enough to set the stage for more candidate heroics/follies. Race relations exist only insofar as they pertain to ‘the race card.’ Iraq exists only as a political albatross. Bush is only the political background to the story (the only evaluation of his presidency: whether it was a political liability for McCain).

The characters are smart ruthless predators — or titans bestriding the world like colossi — or tragically flawed stage heroes. Campaigns are staffed by schemers and mad political geniuses and backstabbing Iagos. Journalists are servants of democratic ideals, or victims to be pitied. ‘The Web’ exists only as Obama’s ‘money spigot.’ (‘Special interests’ are not, as I recall, even mentioned.) The universe of the book extends no further than the campaign itself, and the book’s subjects are masters of that universe. The idea that any of them have any moral responsibility or outlook almost never intrudes on Game Change‘s cozy little bubble. Sports metaphors abound. There is not even a hint of irony anywhere to be found.

This is, in other words, the usual sort of Washington hagiography masquerading as incisive journalism. It is evidence of The Problem — Washington’s absolute disconnection from American life.

I recommend the book, which reads like a potboiler and throws some light on the most powerful people in America. But I recommend, also, that its Rolodex-stuffing authors be thrown into the sea with the rest of the steno pool. What they’ve given us, in terms of information about the workings of our democracy, isn’t worth the cost to our republic of letters, which is that every day it becomes impossible to think about political campaigns as anything but expensive TV dramedy miniseries. (Indeed, this book was turned into one. It won some Emmys, too.)

The game didn’t change. The book’s title is a lie. The book — for all the Hard-Hitting Truths it reveals about the people who decide the fate of billions — is perpetuating and selling a lie. You’ll get a real kick out of it.