22 September 2006

On "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch"?

1979: Dinah Shore sings Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch" with everyone's favorite full-figured gal, Jane Russell, who replaced Elaine Stritch in Company, so long long ago. Jeph found this one on YouTube, and exclaimed, "Oh, I love YouTube." And we do, for how would you or I ever know this existed?

You need to watch the wonderful amazingness of the film, but first, let's look at the "three-act play," as Stritch called it, of the song. It serves as the kinda a eleven o'clock number in the show, but it comes off more like an out-of-nowhere song like Weill's "Tchaikovsky" in Lady in the Dark. What to make of this song? Well, looking at it briefly it concerns:

1. The ladies who lunch
2. The girls who play smart
3. The girls who play wife
4. The girls who just watch
5. The girls on the go

Which might just be a five act play, depending on how you count. This heartless vivisection of New York City women includes its singer, Joanne, aka, Elaine, aka Stritch, most especially in the stanza about the girls who just watch, who get depressed, have a bottle of scotch or a vodka stinger (a repulsive drink, by the way), who disapprove, who jest, who don't move. But like the "Cellblock Tango" in Chicago, which Company predates by the way, the star is full-focus in the penultimate stanza, though in this song there is only one singer.

The brilliance of this song is that on first blush it comes off as a bitchy song written by a bitchy man for a bitchy woman to sing, but when you spend a little time with it, the number starts resounding with an enormous sympathy and a great melancholy. In a weird way, and quite unintentionally I think, it starts becoming a feminist song about the hardships of living under the sophisticated urban Patriarchy, a song of boredom or too much money and too much freedom, of not getting what you signed up for even when you thought you were too smart to really sign up for it in the first place. The anger in the song is quite clear, though articulated through clenched teeth, but when we ask from whence the anger emanates, the waters become quite deep and dangerous. Good job, Sondheim. (For a lovely cf. see "Every Day A Little Death" from A Little Night Music.) For now, we should just enjoy the words, as with PJ Harvey, as a poem, before the delicious Dinah Shore massacre. Watch for Shore singing this like a pop song--she's practically Perry Como with this--and Russell doing her best world-weary Stritch impression. I love Jane Russell, and she's a fuckin' trouper, but the asides here are spectacular. And she was directed initially, but not for this broadcast.

Oh. One last note. Years ago, I listened to this song and called a friend, Todd, in San Francisco, and said, "I think 'The Ladies Who Lunch' is about gay men," and he said, most wonderfully, "All musical theater is about gay men." I'll leave that for you to decide on either count. And now for the song.

The Ladies who Lunch

Here's to the ladies who lunch--
Everybody laugh.
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they're fat.
And looking grim,
'Cause they've been sitting
Choosing a hat.
Does anyone still wear a hat?
I'll drink to that.

And here's to the girls who play smart--
Aren't they a gas?
Rushing to their classes
In optical art,
Wishing it would pass.
Another long exhausting day,
Another thousand dollars,
A matinee, a Pinter play,
Perhaps a piece of Mahler's.
I'll drink to that.
And one for Mahler!

And here's to the girls who play wife--
Aren't they too much?
Keeping house but clutching
A copy of LIFE,
Just to keep in touch.
The ones who follow the rules,
And meet themselves at the schools,
Too busy to know that they're fools.
Aren't they a gem?
I'll drink to them!
Let's all drink to them!

And here's to the girls who just watch--
Aren't they the best?
When they get depressed,
It's a bottle of Scotch,
Plus a little jest.
Another chance to disapprove,
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move,
Another vodka stinger.
I'll drink to that.

So here's to the girls on the go--
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes,
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.
A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch--
Everybody rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

"The Ladies Who Lunch," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from Company, 1970.

And now for the film.

But for real: Elaine Stritch:

19 September 2006

Hollywood Commie Love Story: Reds

It says a lot when we see the guy's face but not the lady's 
in a historical romance movie poster....

Turner Classic Movies showed the Warren Beatty motion picture, Reds (1981), last night, so I tuned in to see what all the fuss was about. The movie came well-recommended, and as far as I know, Beatty has the distinction of being the only man, the only person, besides Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, to be Oscar nominated for writer, director, producer, and best actor for the same film (and Beatty had done it before with Heaven Can Wait [1978], so he's the only one to pull it off twice). I like Beatty and I like his movies, though it's funny that after all his acclaim, he still seems to have a weird reputation as a pretty boy. It isn't easy to live down a face like that, I guess.

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So, what's Reds about? Well, it concerns two people you've probably never heard of, and a couple others you might have. Beatty plays Jack Reed, a radical, American journalist, labor advocate, and later, Communist to Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant, an early feminist, Marxist, and writer. Heard of them? I didn't think so. The film is first and foremost an epic love story, and in that sense it is hugely successful as Jack and Louise follow each other across the world as they lose, find, lose, and find each other. Much of this is really lovely, though some arrives a bit over-done for my taste. The second major, and overlapping--competing--narrative concerns early 20th century politics, Communism, and the 1917 Russian Revolution, because, you see, Reed and Bryant were in Russia when it was all going down while reporting on the revolution and its major players. After returning to the States, Reed became a delegate from an American Communist organization and died in Moscow in 1920. He is the only American honored by burial at the Kremlin.

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Our leads. (There's a terrific shot in this scene 
on the train where Keaton looks like Louise Brooks.)

It's great, exciting, epic stuff, and the film covers a lot and is long (194 minutes), but probably needs to be a little longer in order to fill in a few historical and emotional holes. The problems I have with the film have primarily to do with Beatty and Keaton and I'll start with Keaton. She plays Louise Bryant as a dilettante who grows into a committed writer and intellectual--fine. But she comes off as a whiny bore for most of the first half of the film, espousing free-love when she wants to bed Reed's friend, Eugene O'Neill (played by Jack Nicholson in a complex performance), then throwing a ridiculous tantrum when she hears Reed has slept around too. Maybe this is historically accurate, maybe she was directed this way--who can know for certain--but it reduces the Bryant character to an unsophisticated, nagging pain, always annoyed that Reed is off doing political work when he should be with her. The incoherence of the character is only resolved at the end when she makes an arduous, and illegal, journey to Russia to be with her man. I don't mean to suggest that Bryant should have been more likable in the film--more the opposite--I feel her convictions and motivations should be more consistent and convey the vibrant, brainy woman she appears to have been. (Side bar: we get some of our info about Bryant from interviews with Reed's living contemporaries that brilliantly punctuate, and puncture, the film narrative. This device strikes me as the most interesting feature of Reds and serves to position the events in history, even while it unravels the film's portrayals of Reed and Bryant.)

Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman

My other gripe about Keaton, is the way her acting conveys the politics of her character in the film. Only Maureen Stapleton really offers a sustained portrayal of political conviction as the anarchist, Emma Goldman--she won an Oscar for it, and she's terrific: sardonic, tough, utterly committed, and fierce. Keaton, on the other hand, gives a long speech at Nicholson where she just rants at him, and when she takes a breath, the whole thing falls apart, as if she were only trying to get through it. As I watched, I thought, is this a speech from someone who believes what she's saying, or a performance of what someone thinks conviction is supposed to look like? Obviously, I believe it's the latter, and especially when you compare it with anything Stapleton does--and almost all her onscreen dialogue is of a radically political nature--because she acts circles around Keaton here. Where Keaton blasts through her lines as quickly as she can, Stapleton modulates, punctuates, and colors, as though what she were saying didn't all signify the same thing, which is how it feels with Keaton. Thus Diane Keaton almost always comes off as politically naive and a crass ideologue, which isn't moving or involving, and makes Bryant's politics seem flat, not passionate. The exception that proves the rule occurs in Bryant's scene before Congress--here, Keaton is restrained, wise, and sarcastic, which suits the character immeasurably.

Love triangle-y

Beatty has a similar problem, and his Jack Reed just seems to repeat himself without displaying any of the charisma we are told that Reed had as a public speaker. I know Beatty had his plate full as producer, director, and star, but the part demands more than the attitude of political conviction--all we really get of Reed is that he was a hard-worker, and all his real passion is relegated to the love relationship with Keaton. Because Reed's radicalism is meant to complicate, and be at some odds with, the love story, the muted nature of Reed's politics and Beatty's performance throws the film off balance. Clearly, this wasn't Beatty's intention as the movie is structured around the back and forth of love and politics, which again only "works" when Bryant throws her lot in with Reed entirely in the final chapter. This sort of politics vs love/work vs domesticity/male vs female matrix could only be written, as far as I'm concerned, by a man. This, for lack of a better word, gender bias accounts to some degree for the way Bryant appears--incomplete, inconsistent, vacillating, and hysterical--for much of the film, and therefore Stapleton's Emma Goldman rises as the spectre of what Bryant should or could have been, which I think is both an intentional contrast in the script, and a kind of return of the repressed in the Bryant character; a repression that occurred in the way she was written.

Stapleton died this year at 80, by the way.

Beatty's acting demands one last note about how he often resorts to a comic reading of a scene, line, or reaction. I'd need to look more closely at his work in other films, but here it comes off as a crutch, a short-hand to make Reed sympathetic, and perhaps as a conscious foil for Beatty's own good looks. I'll only give one example: Reed and Bryant's Moscow flat has a crystal chandelier that hangs a little low for Beatty's Jack Reed (Beatty is 6'2"), and he hits his head on it every time he passes by it, and reacts comically every time as the crystals tinkle distractingly. Twice, this would work, but after that, even the most absent-minded professor would remember to duck or do something, anything, differently. Nuff said.

So is Reds any good? Yes, I think it's a great, wonderful film--though uneven here and there and a movie whose project and execution are at odds with one another. In short, Reds is an important, American film that is absolutely worth seeing. I cannot leave unmentioned the spectacular photography by Vittorio Storaro (a Bertolucci DP who has received well-deserved recognition for his work on films as different as The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, Dick Tracy, and The Last Emperor), which locates simple, intimate rooms; huge, frozen landscapes; moody, crowd scenes; emotionally-relevant, figure/spatial arrangements; and unsparing, facial close-ups on the same screen. His work is the great bond that holds the film together where the script and performances falter. There is much to learn of what not to do as well as what succeeds in this film. Joe Bob says check it out. PS Stephen Sondheim wrote parts of the score.

Of course, I can't help thinking of another Hollywood Commie Love Story, which I'll gripe about another time because it shares so many of the problems that plague Reds. That film, of course, is...

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Jewish Radical loves Aryan God

But I've said enough for now. Instead I leave you with two seconds of comic relief and Babs, in one of her more unfortunate outfits:

The Norma Desmond look was hot hot hot that year....

15 September 2006

Fun with the New York Times: The TV Listings

I usually read the New York Times online, but when I pick up the snail edition, I cannot help myself--after reading the front page and the editorial section--I go straight to the TV program grid, which offers all the delicious televisual treats the culture industry has planned for us this evening in thrillingly microscopic detail. I say "thrillingly" because, for me the best part of the program grid, with its overwhelming array of channels--a grid that stretches across, that consumes, an entire page of the newspaper--is that so little space remains to actually describe the program appearing in each shallow rectangle. I'd love to meet the person in charge of writing these telegraphic, almost haiku-like, sketches because, when the words aren't truncated almost to the point of unintelligibility, our writer includes a sardonic opinion in what is surely intended to be a straight-up program guide. It makes me wonder if the Times is writing for a perceived "hip" audience, or if this is the work of a precocious mind desperately fending off boredom. Plus, all the capsule bits are written by my favorite author, Anonymous.

Enough of that exposition. Let's take a look at yesterday's paper.

The first main rectangle of network and local channels offers the most descriptive and therefore, usually, the least interesting examples:

7:30pm, ch 2, CBS
Entertain Tonight
"C.S.I.: NY"
[This is fun, only because space requirements tighten "Entertainment Tonight" into "Entertain Tonight," which I'm certain is only wishful thinking. I especially admire the punctuation-happy quotation marks, periods between C, S, & I, and, of course, the colon. (Keep an eye out for hyphens.)]

8pm, ch 2, CBS
Survivor: Cook Islands
Based on ethnicity, contestants divide into four tribes.

8pm, ch 7, ABC
Grey's Anatomy
The interns care for a family involved in a car accident.
[This is where the theme of a show comes into direct conflict with (or maybe the direct realization of) a given episode's specific story. I mean, except for the "family' part, doesn't this sort of thing happen every week on a show set in a hospital? When space is even less available, these can be shortened into: "Doctors care for accident victims." Or even better: "Doctors work in hospital." Will the excitement never stop?]

In our next two examples, from an NYC local channel, we get consecutive descriptions that sound alarmingly like, well, like the same show.

8pm, ch 9, WWOR
Fate intervenes in love affairs.

9pm, ch 9, WWOR
Fashion House
Surprises in love.

While I have no idea what "Fashion House" could be about (is it an import from Japan?), if we do a little rearranging, it becomes clear that perhaps all TV really is interchangeable:

Surprises in love.

Fashion House
Fate intervenes in love affairs.

Or maybe we could just make them one fabulous 2-hour program:

Fashion House Desire
Love surprised when Fate intervenes in affairs.

NEXT WEEK on Fashion House Desire!
Tensions build when Love borrows Fate's designer shoes.

It is in the Cable listings that our intrepid writer really shows her stuff. Extra points for creativity and critical opinion when the star list crowds out the story.

6:30pm, ENC
Elf (2003)
Will Ferrell, James Caan.
[Bitchy irony or heartfelt admission? You decide.]

8pm, ENC
Out of Sight (1998)
George Clooney.
Escaped convict and federal marshal, via Soderbergh. Sultry, steamy charmer.
[So much with so little. Or is it so little with so much? We get the director and the opinion, but as for plot: "Escaped convict and federal marshal." What on earth could that mean? The possibilities are... endless?]

8pm, FLIX
Better Off Dead (1985)
John Cusack.
Lovesick teenager. Surreal romantic comedy.
[You have to admire Anonymous' ability to distill the essence of a film, even Better Off Dead. Protagonist + Genre = Um... lame description for readers who won't watch it anyway?]

9:30pm, FLIX
Fearless Fighters (1973)
Chang Ching, Chen Lieh [Oh my god! I LOVE them!!]
Martial artlessness.
[Snap! Snap! Oh, no you di'n't! (Oh, yes. You did. Oh, Anonymous....)]

6:30pm, HBO2
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Robert Redford [Oh my god! I LOVE him!]
Sleek, strained, with absurd ending.
[Here, the snobbery of our author overrides any attempt to submit a cogent, or even a coherent, plot. And where's Woody? Where's Demi?? How about "Million Dollar Adultery. Strained."? See? I could do this job! I could write the TV Listings for the New York Times! See? See?]

10pm, SHO2
The Hazing (2004)
Brad Dourif, Philip Andrew [What-the?]
Lacks class.
[(slapping thigh, wiping tears from eyes) Oh, stop, Anonymous! Stop!]

6:30, AMC
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
Dirk Bogarde
Pounding, graphic WWII drama.
[I don't know about you, but it sounds like, well, it sounds like porn. I'm renting it tomorrow.]

8pm, AMC
Enemy of the State (1998)
Will Smith, Gene Hackman
Victim of assassination cover-up. High-tech turn-on. [Yay! Double hyphens! Double whammy!]
[With AMC, Anonymous clearly turns to thoughts of love, or at least becomes a bit over-heated. What are the odds of seeing descriptions of back to back films that use "pounding," "graphic," and "turn on," I ask you?]

Dirty little Anonymous continues the sexual subtext with our next AMC film:

10:30pm, AMC
Narc (2002)
Ray Liotta, Jason Patric.
Guilt-ridden cop [hyphens!] with nowhere to turn. Grimy and entertaining.
[Cop with nowhere to turn? This is an alleged plot? You'd be better off with--oh, who cares! The spectacle of seeing "grimy" and "entertaining" together at last in the same sentence is excitement enough.

I leave you with a quick listing of some of the everyday tresures (and I mean every day), because I think the beauty of Anonymous' work truly only shines when robbed of context.

Color of money downtown. Brilliantly constructed, with feet of clay.
[Gives with one hand, takes away with the other.]

Half-baked and faintly ridiculous.
[But only faintly. Do you smell that too? This is Cruel Intentions, by the way.]

Women and Baseball, back when. Immensely enjoyable.

And my favorite:

American scrambles through demon-filled mystical world and falls in love with goddess. Wildly uneven.
[Oh. My. God. Where do I sign, bitch? I assume the "American" part is very, very important to the plot. I mean, right? It at least gives you a visual feel...?]

14 September 2006

I Post Song Lyrics Sometimes: Rid of Me

I know I posted a video of this little ditty last time, but some things deserve a more focused appreciation. The sheer obsessiveness of this song is breathtaking all by itself, but to really understand what she's up to, you have to hear the original on the album. It's fucking scary. For now, just read the lyrics like a poem.

And now for the song.

Rid of Me

Tie yourself
to me,
No one else,
No, you're not rid of me.
Hmm, you're not rid of me.

Night and day I breathe,
Ha, hah, eh, ay,
You're not rid of me,
Yeah, you're not rid of me,
Yeah, you're not rid of me,
Yeah, you're not rid of me.

I beg you, my darling,
Don't leave me, I'm hurting.

(Lick my legs I'm on fire)
(Lick my legs of desire)

I'll tie your legs,
Keep you against my chest,
Oh, you're not rid of me,
Yeah, you're not rid of me.
I'll make you lick my injuries,
I'm gonna twist your head off, see

Till you say don't you wish you never never met her?
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her?
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her?
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her?

I beg you my darling,
Don't leave me, I'm hurting.
Big lonely above everything,
Above everyday, I'm hurting.

(Lick my legs, I'm on fire)
(Lick my legs of desire)
(Lick my legs, I'm on fire)
(Lick my legs of desire)

Yeah, you're not rid of me.
Yeah, you're not rid of me.
I'll make you lick my injuries,
I'm gonna twist your head off, see.

Till you say don't you wish you never never met her,
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,

Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs I'm on fire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs of desire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs I'm on fire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs of desire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs I'm on fire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs of desire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs I'm on fire)
Don't you don't you wish you never never met her,
(Lick my legs of desire)

Lick my legs I'm on fire,
Lick my legs of desire,
Lick my legs I'm on fire,
Lick my legs of desire.

"Rid Of Me," music and lyrics by P.J. Harvey, on Rid of Me, 1993.

08 September 2006

I Post Videos Sometimes

On a lighter note.

Kick-ass video from Enon: "Daughter in the House of Fools." It's been around a while but always brings me pleasure.

Solo, acoustic Polly Jean (my girlfriend) doing one of my favorite songs in 2001, "Rid of Me." She doesn't tear your face off like she does on the album, if anything, this offers a kinder, gentler "Don't you wish you never never met her."

Krazy Kate Bush (another GF) singing "Wuthering Heights" on Top of the Pops in 1978. Her facial expressions on this are awesome, proving once again that when you're a genius, you can do just about whatever you want.

04 September 2006

Labor Day


What do we celebrate, after all, on Labor Day? 

Grover Cleveland set Labor Day up in the 1880s but placed it at the end of the summer, in September, to keep it far away from May Day, the Communist and labor movement's very European day for honoring The Worker and the hard-won eight-hour work day. That's an easy way to remember the difference between Labor Day and Memorial Day, incidentally: Labor Day can never happen close to May. Anyway, that's how I do it.

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That initial reticence of Cleveland's has now blossomed into a full denial of the value of labor and the worker in twenty-first century America. Unions? A joke. A labor movement? What's that? Worker's compensation? Fair wages? Benefits? Insurance? Vacation time? Job security? In the Age of the Corporation, the pursuit of profit has overshadowed everything else. Companies move production and customer support "offshore" (in every possible way, a repellent term), in the pursuit of ever-higher profits. CEOs make salaries many times over lower-ranking employees for the first time in decades. And who suffers in the pursuit of corporate expansion and profit: always the rank and file worker. Always.

How did this happen? Well, the founding fathers put careful strictures on corporations, keeping them within states and denying them the right to buy and own each other, i.e., other corporations. But one day, the Supreme Court allowed--and not even in an actual decision--that corporations were persons, and therefore were granted the right of freedom of speech, ownership, etc. The 1950s, and 60s, especially, marked a backlash against earlier corporate exploitation and indulgence, but with Reagan and deregulation, the backlash against the backlash has increased exponentially. Under the current occupant of the White House it has only gotten worse, as if you needed informing of that with the many scandals of corporate interests and the lobbyists who serve them. Your government serves corporations, not you. Your government does not care about you, your health, your livelihood, your job, your wages, your ability to feed your family, or your safety (remember the mine workers killed recently, none of the many violations reported were investigated. If those violations had been acted upon, those men would be alive today. This is just an FYI.).

But always remember, even if Labor Day is a joke, always remember that your labor has value. Even as you toil in a salaried job for more than the eight-hour work day that was guaranteed over a century ago, I hope your labor has some value to you.

Hey, let's repeal the child labor laws, too!

But don't worry, be happy. There's always a silver lining in every dark cloud. Truest of the dreams is The American Dream. Trust in The American Dream, in a country where anyone can become President. Remember that we live in a society unburdened by class. Trust that progress is the driving engine of our time and that your representatives have your best interests in mind. Don't forget that when God closes a door, he always opens a window. In spite of everything, still believe that people are good at heart. And always remember that murder will out.