Category Archives: Film/TV

Basquiat – The Radiant Child

Last night I watched a DVD documentary on the 1980s artist Jean Michel Basquiat, called “The Radiant Child”, which included footage from an interview done in 1985 in LA.  The picture above is from another interview, I’d guess around 1982, and I just liked it cause he’s unexpectedly wearing the Wesleyan shirt (my alma mater).

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate his work more and more.  He grew up in Brooklyn in relatively well-off circumstance, but apparently had quite a complicated relationship with his businessman father, and ran away from home several times.  He ran away for good at age 17 in 1978 to Manhattan, and his initial efforts were doing graffiti with a friend under the name SAMO.  This was not standard graffiti – SAMO had messages for the world which were legibly written on building walls in block letters.  Despite being mostly homeless, he had a strong desire for fame and seemed to find his way into it remarkably quickly.

His painting shares similarities with the SAMO work – it’s mostly flat, often features words and lettering, and is frequently covered over with various layers of paint – almost like a building wall that’s been partially painted over and then more graffiti applied later.  The colors and images are stark and striking.  The last one I remember seeing in person was at the Pompidou in Paris, and it nearly jumped off the wall in comparison with most of what was in the gallery.

His work dealt with many aspects of art and racial awareness and his black heroes.  Unfortunately in life he was apparently derailed by the sudden fame and money and hangers-on.  By 1988 when he died, he was feeling almost washed up already, though some of the late work is just as strong as ever.

30 Century Man – Scott Walker doc

I found this DVD ’30 Century Man’ at the library, and was interested to learn a bit more about the mysterious cult doom-crooner Scott Walker.  I knew he’d been in the Walker Brothers, but not much more.  This documentary is pretty good – a few too many celebrity cameos of people reacting to Scott Walker songs – and a solid review of his career.  Born Scott Engel in Ohio, he was busy recording as a teenager (there’s a pretty funny segment with a Walker Brothers memorabilia collector showing off all his very rare items, including very early acetates by Scott Engel).  Around 1964 he joined two other guys in the Walker Brothers (none brothers, none named Walker), and they were big in Hollywood in the day.  Then they moved over to London in late 1965.

There is quite a bit of interview footage with Scott filmed in 2004 as he was making his album ‘Drift’, and he talks about liking the dreary quality of most of England when they arrived, and finding that the people there seemed to be just what he expected from the black and white English films he had seen.  They were big pop sensations for another year or two, then Scott started his solo work, inspired at least in part by Jacques Brel.  He made 4 solo records in the period 1967-1970, and the first three charted well, then the fourth sort of dropped without a trace for no clear reason.  But it seemed to push him into a career of obscurity.  He refuses to allow re-release of albums he made in the early seventies, which did not feature any of his own songs apparently.

In 1975 the Walker Bros. reunited and made three albums.  Perhaps the most interesting was 1978’s  “Nite Flights” which started laying down the sounds that Walker’s been exploring ever since.  He works very slowly, allowing the ‘songs’ to take their time percolating, thus he’s done about one album per decade since.  In the interview he says that he has long had frequent nightmares, and the music seems to be the soundtrack.

Rome, the show, the empire

Lately I’ve been watching the HBO series Rome.  It’s got the fairly gratuitous nudity and violence to earn its way into the adult category.  I’m finding fun to watch, despite the fairly preposterous plot device of having two common soldiers seemingly trigger every major historial event in the time of Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian.  It is indeed a good history lesson of the days of Caesar, his assassination, the first triumvirate, Cleopatra, etc.  It also portrays a living, pulsing city full of graffiti and blood.

In Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, he writes, “Rome’s particular speciality, from its very first days until the end of its empire, was simply to plunder its provinces to pay for bribes, luxuries, triumphs and soldiers’ pensions nearer to home.”  This TV show basically backs up this argument.

Psychedelic Fellini

Continuing my review of Fellini films, I found the 1965 release ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ (or originally ‘Giulietta degli Spiriti’) to be quite good.  This was Fellini’s first film in color, and they are rich and beautiful. Juliet is a middle-aged wife (played by Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina) who is beset by worries that her husband is having an affair, and she often slips into a kind of dream world.  It is sometimes hard to tell what is meant to be ‘real’ and what is her internal world.

As I watched the film I found it to have quite a psychedelic aspect to it, without the usual campiness that came later.  This was given an extra twist when I watched the Fellini interview included on the DVD, first broadcast by the BBC on June 1, 1966, with actor Ian Dallas narrating & asking the questions.  Near the end of the 20 minute clip, we learn that Fellini tried acid (no date given for the experience, but probably before ‘8 1/2’).  Here are some quick transcriptions of the interview, not exact but close enough.

Narrator: Once he let a doctor give him the hallucination drug LSD.

Fellini: It was a little bit disappointing, the experience. I don’t remember it to have proved a special sensation. The doctor give to me an explanation and I am agree with him, he says an artist lives always in the imagination, so the barrier between the sensational reality and the imagination is very vague. An artist is always here and there. This experiment gives a much more stronger result with, and this is a stupid way to say it, ‘normal people’ who are stronger in that barrier of conscious and unconscious. So this kind of drug opens a door in a different dimension. But an artist, this kind of door is always open. I remember I have some exultation about color. I see color not like they are normally, we see colors in the object, we see objects that are colored. In that case, I saw the colors just like they are, detached from the object. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of color in a detached way.

N: This did affect ‘Giulietta’?

F: In a certain sense, yes.

F: Taking this drug, LSD-25, reality becomes objective. So reality is innocence, is pure, and is of divine beauty. In the same moment that the reality comes to you in this divine beauty, there is also the other side.

N: In ‘8 1/2’ and ‘Giulietta’ you have gone into this world, you have shown this element of reality. Do you imagine in the future, say in your next film, that you will return to external historic reality, or that you will have the two aspects?

F: I think that even if this road maybe is dangerous, I think that when one has had the intuition, the feeling, one has opened that door, I don’t think you can go back. It is necessary to go on with the help of your intellect, with the protection of your intellect, but also with the faith, with the confidence in what can happen.

Post 601 on 8.5

Actually it’s 8 1/2, Fellini’s 1963 film about a director who’s not sure how to proceed, juggling a wife and mistress, producers and writers, and all the others who want a piece of his time.  I very much enjoyed the DVD of the film, watching it once with the commentary and then again without.  I think I had only seen it once before, and I suspect the first viewing is in fact pretty confusing; only a closer study makes sense of the pieces.  Here’s what Roger Ebert has to say about the film.

Friday Night Lights

Well, it’s Friday but it’s no longer football season… unless you’re watching old seasons of ‘Friday Night Lights’ which I have to admit has been consuming a fair amount of my time lately.  I just finished watching season 2, which I found to be a little less satisfying than the first season, if only because it felt like some of the episodes were a little too ‘cleverly’ plotted instead of just organic developments of the characters.  Apparently they give the actors quite a lot of latitude to ‘feel’ their way into scenes, not forcing them to read the lines as written, and this gives things a nice freshness (along with the fact that it’s all shot on real locations near Austin, TX, not studios), even though it’s basically a bit of a soap opera.

The show has a big cast of about 10 main characters and probably 10 more people who appear regularly, and actually it’s not really about football (very much).  It does center on a football coach and his family, who live in a football-crazy Texas town called Dillon, where there’s a long track record of success on the field, and high expectations.  It follows a number of the high school kids, parents, coaches, teachers as they make their way through life.

Friday Night Lights had gotten a lot of critical acclaim but not great ratings, and I do wonder if it’s a show that kids could watch with their parents – seems to me that it may feel a little uncomfortable for both parties, as the kids in the show get into the usual troubles of drinking, sex and so forth.  But in any case I think it’s well done and worth watching. The fifth and final season will be starting in April.

'John Adams' and 'Founding Brothers'

I finished watching the seven-part HBO series ‘John Adams’ starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.  It’s a good series, and a good refresher on the early days of America as an independent country.  Giamatti seems like a surprising choice, but I thought he pulled it off pretty well.  Adams comes across as highly principled, yet prickly, and probably too harsh with his own children.  His sense of duty combines with his own ego and desire to be engaged with great events to make him a driving force in the push to independence.

I think I most enjoyed part 3 in the late 1770s where Adams goes over to France, meeting Ben Franklin who’s already there.  Franklin plays up the stereotype of Americans as backwoods hicks, but also has taken a fancy to French society, and seems quite at home, knowing that he can’t push too hard with the French.  Adams is like a fish out of water, especially at a society dinner where he’s asked some questions that he can’t help but answer way too seriously – he’s basically unable to engage in frivolity.

I also quite liked the portrayals of Franklin, Washington and Jefferson.  Jefferson in particular is a hard-to-relate-to character, aloof and seemingly principled but at the same time very political.  The relationship between Adams and Jefferson goes from very close to animosity and part way back again after they were both out of politics.

Most of the series seemed to correspond pretty well with many of the stories that are told in the book ‘Founding Brothers’ by Joseph Ellis, which I read not long ago.

Both stories remind us that the founding of the U.S. was fought over just as we fight over current issues today – and many outcomes are decided by very close margins that seemingly could have gone either way!

The Early Sixties

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately in the fictional early sixties – through two different media – books and tv.  I hadn’t read any James Ellroy for quite a few years, but with the appearance of the last part of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy I decided it was time to re-acquaint myself with his recent work.

The starting volume is American Tabloid, published in 1995, covering the time period from the late 1950s to Nov 22, 1963.  As the name of the trilogy implies, Ellroy is interested in the low-life, the secret history of the period.  This is obviously fiction, but he weaves in plenty of real-life characters, including the Kennedy brothers, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa and many others.  Much of the story focuses on the clandestine efforts to unseat Fidel Castro, involving ties between the FBI, CIA, the Mob, Cuban exiles, and others.  Ellroy uses a stripped down style that keeps things moving right along, to the fateful day in Dallas.

Ellroy credits Don DeLillo’s Libra for a good amount of inspiration for the trilogy.  Here’s a part of a 1997 interview where he discusses it:

I wrote him a letter thanking him for writing his novel Libra, and I sent him a copy of American Tabloid when it was first published. American Tabloid was spawned by his novel which is a great book specifically about the Kennedy assassination. I read that book and got hooked on the Kennedy assassination. I had never been interested in it before.

I read a lot of Kennedy assassination theory books and so on and saw DeLillo had co-opted it all into the most plausible theories, the most interesting real life characters and perspectives. I saw that this book was so great that I could write a book about the Kennedy assassination. Then I began to see that I could write a book about, as I stated, the five years preceding it. So for attribution I give Don DeLillo every credit every chance I get.

Now I’m into the second volume, The Cold Six Thousand (dollars, that is), dealing with the years after Dallas to 1968, in the aftermath of the assassination and the beginnings of Vietnam.  It’s even more stripped down in style, to the point that it’s so choppy it’s almost hard to read.  Many paragraphs consist of about 5 sentences, each no more than 5 words long.  Per wikipedia, here’s what he said about it:

The style I developed for The Cold Six Thousand is a direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards. It was appropriate for that book, and that book only, because it’s the 1960s. It’s largely the story of reactionaries in America during that time, largely a novel of racism and thus the racial invective, and the overall bluntness and ugliness of the language.

Along with Ellroy, I’ve been catching up with season 3 of ‘Mad Men’ which happens to be set in 1963, and appears to be leading to a finale on the days just after Nov 22 as well.  I’ve been very impressed with a number of the episodes, which achieve a very nice touch with the characters that we’ve gotten to know – each seems to have a public side and a private side, and we see a little of each, where they mesh and where they collide.  If anything there are just too many interesting characters and not enough time to cover them all!  Tomorrow night the finale of the season is on AMC, and I look forward to it.

If you are a fan of the show but miss an episode, here’s the place to look for (very detailed) recaps – Television Without Pity on Mad Men.

update:  I enjoyed last night’s season 3 finale.  Directed with an especially dark tone it seemed to me, but it gives a certain upbeat spin to season 4.  It looks to me like a few characters may drift out of the show, which is probably a good thing in order to focus on the group above.

'High Noon' iconography

‘High Noon’ from 1952 made it to the top of my Netflix queue the other day, so I finally saw this western featuring Gary Cooper as a Marshall who takes on four bad guys single-handedly.  Three of the nasty fellows linger at the isolated train station, waiting for the fourth, Frank Miller, to arrive on the noon train.  Lee Van Cleef, above, is one of the baddies.

Watching some of these scenes made it so clear that Sergio Leone had studied this film carefully.  That’s Grace Kelly below at the station.  It’s great to see Van Cleef in both worlds!

Mad Men

I’ve been watching the first season of the TV drama ‘Mad Men’ this past week, and enjoying its world of a 1960 Madison Avenue advertising agency.  I wasn’t around then, so I can’t vouch for how ‘realistic’ the show is (though it does seem to be quite thorough in the period props and trappings), but it does feature strong writing and characters.  Jon Hamm as the creative director Don Draper is very good.  Early episodes feature nearly continuous cigarette smoking, which starts to ebb a little as the season goes on.

I think what’s interesting about the show is that it looks sort of like some shows that I watched when I was young, like say the ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’, but this one is in vivid color, exposing the sides of the characters that you know were there but never got to see.