Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Eighteen

#18 — Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
One of my favorite moviegoing experiences occurred in the fall of 1996, when I saw the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in Chicago. Handled by the team that previously provided similar touch-ups to Spartacus and My Fair Lady, the film was playing at a theater down the road from the metropolis’s International Film Festival, which I had the pleasure of attending annually for several years in the late nineties. As I recall, Vertigo wasn’t playing at the Music Box or some other venerated art house theater. Instead, it was at a fairly pedestrian multi-screen outlet. But we sat in an sizable auditorium with nearly every chair filled, as if it were opening night of the latest action blockbuster. The audience was committed to what was flickering in front of them, not rapt but engaged and clearly delighted. There was a round of appreciative applause when Bernard Herrmann’s name arrived in the opening credits. This, I imagined, was exactly what it was like to see classic movies in a city with a robust revival scene. I knew no one else in the audience, except the person seated directly to my right, and yet I felt like I was among my people.

Vertigo has become the canonical choice as Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, the work that serves as a useful compendium of all of the master director’s arguably unparalleled command of the grammar of film as well as a potent condensation of his obsessions. For many years, Hitchcock was one of those directors who had so many different films that individual cineastes might cite as their favorite that no single title emerged as the champion. (Orson Welles, on the other hand, benefited from having one film that clearly towered above the rest, if only because Citizen Kane was the only creation on which he had a totally unrestrained hand.) That changed as it became clear that Vertigo is the one film that’s most handy when it comes to explaining everything about why Hitchcock is important, energizing, and seminal. It’s a tremendous film by just about any measure, but its truly singular achievement is as a film rife with material for cinema scholars to chew on. It’s a think piece catalyst delivered at twenty-four frames per second.

If that invitation to academic pontificating helpfully obscures the film’s minor flaws (a little dated dopiness in its sexual predilections, an overly abrupt ending), it also distracts from the abundant pleasures that don’t fit nicely into the standard thesis. Most plainly (and yet arguably the most difficult to achieve), the film is soundly entertaining, pulling the viewer into a giddy swirl of heated narrative manipulation that’s all the more effective by the presence of beloved movie star everyman James Stewart at the center of the story. Hitchcock was a master button pusher and he played them like a fevered savant pianist here, propelling his protagonist through exhausting emotional dances. The even more undervalued part of the film is the astonishing performance by Kim Novak, in what is essentially a double role. As the woman Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson is enraptured by and then the one he forcibly remakes to fill a void, Novak shows how fierce strength and fragile vulnerability can realistically exist within the same being. In a film that benefits from all things dizzying, nothing deserves that description more than Novak’s shrewd performance, one of the best in all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Luckily, I didn’t approach my screening almost twenty years ago with the petrifying need to spot what was heavily important in Vertigo. Instead, I had the luxury of simply enjoying it.

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Top 40 Smash Taps: “1999”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

“1999” was the second Prince single to make it into the Billboard Top 40, peaking at #12, just one notch below the top position of his previous significant chart success, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” release three years earlier, in 1979. It can be viewed as the beginning of an amazing run, with his next two singles, “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious,” both making it into the Top 10 and back-to-back chart-toppers a couple years later when Purple Rain elevated him from pop star to full-fledged sensation. By my tally, the man born Prince Rogers Nelson had a total of thirty-one Top 40 songs in his career. There could presumably be more, as he continues to release music at a breakneck pace. However, it’s now been sixteen years since the last time he visited the Top 40. That brings us to the single that qualifies for this feature: Prince’s final Top 40 hit to date was “1999.” When the year of the title was pending, the song became ubiquitous once again, with practically every radio station dusting off their old copies and clubs redeploying it as a guaranteed dance floor catalyst. An opportune rerelease unsurprisingly followed. There was only so much traction an already deeply familiar song could gain on the charts, though, and “1999” stalled out at #40. Prince himself tried one more time to capitalize on the timely interest in the song, releasing “1999: The New Master” on his own NPG label on Groundhog Day, 1999.

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
“Come See” by Major Lance
“Your Old Standby” by Mary Wells
“See the Lights” by Simple Minds
“Watch Out For Lucy” by Eric Clapton
“The Alvin Twist” by Alvin and the Chipmunks
“Love Me Tender” by Percy Sledge
“Jennifer Eccles” by the Hollies
“Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Olympics
“The Bounce” by the Olympics
“Your One and Only Love” by Jackie Wilson
“Tell Her She’s Lovely” by El Chicano
“The Last Time I Made Love” by Joyce Kennedy and Jeffrey Osborne
“Limbo Rock” by The Champs
“Crazy Eyes For You” by Bobby Hamilton
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” by Donna Summer
“Violet Hill” and “Lost+” by Coldplay
“Freight Train” by the Chas. McDevitt Skiffle Group
“Sweet William” by Little Millie Small
“Live My Life” by Boy George
“Lessons Learned” by Tracy Lawrence
“So Close” by Diana Ross
“Six Feet Deep” by the Geto Boys
“You Thrill Me” by Exile
“What Now” by Gene Chandler
“Put It in a Magazine” by Sonny Charles
“Got a Love for You” by Jomanda
“Stone Cold” by Rainbow
“People in Love” by 10cc
“Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life)” by the Four Tops
“Thinkin’ Problem” by David Ball
“You Got Yours and I’ll Get Mine” and “Trying to Make a Fool of Me” by the Delfonics
“The Riddle (You and I)” by Five for Fighting
“I Can’t Wait” by Sleepy Brown
“Nature Boy” by Bobby Darin
“Give It to Me Baby” and “Cold Blooded” by Rick James
“Who’s Sorry Now?” by Marie Osmond
“A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons
“Funky Y-2-C” by the Puppies
“Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy
“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by Bonnie Pointer
“Mr. Loverman” by Shabba Ranks
“I’ve Never Found a Girl” by Eddie Floyd
“Plastic Man” and “Happy People” by the Temptations
“Okay” by Nivea
“Go On” by George Strait
“Back When My Hair Was Short” by Gunhill Road
“Birthday Party” by the Pixies Three
“Livin’ in the Life” by the Isley Brothers
“Kissing You” by Keith Washington
“The End of Our Road” by Marvin Gaye
“Ticks” and “Letter to Me” by Brad Paisley
“Nobody But You Babe” by Clarence Reid
“Like a Sunday in Salem” by Gene Cotton
“I’m Going to Let My Heart Do the Walking” by the Supremes
“Call Me Lightning” by the Who
“Ain’t It True” by Andy Williams
“Lazy Elsie Molly” and “Let’s Do the Freddie” by Chubby Checker
“Second Fiddle” by Kay Starr

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College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 18

18. The Smiths, Rank

Here is the sound of contractual obligation in the college rock world. By the fall of 1988, the Smiths were over as a going concern, the longtime fractious relationship between lead singer and Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr reaching an insurmountable impasse one year earlier, right around the time their last studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come saw release. According to Marr, the breaking point was the recording of a cover version of a Cilla Black, but surely it was only a matter of time anyway. The split was decisive enough that the Smiths remain one of the few shattered bands from the era who haven’t succumbed to the lucrative temptation to mount a reunion. It was a group full of people who were clearly fed up with one another. That’s even evident on Rank.

Though the band was done, they still owed a record to their label, hence the release of a live double album. Rank is culled from a 1986 concert at London’s National Ballroom. The performance wasn’t new to diehard Smiths fans, as the full show previously aired on BBC1 Radio. Morrissey did the trimming for the album, cutting such favorite songs as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” and “How Soon Is Now?” in the process. There are plenty of potential explanations for this (led by the fact that the Smiths catalog was monumentally impressive, despite their fairly brief tenure as a band), but the overall drabness of the album can’t help but suggest that leaving out tracks plenty of fans would be excited to hear was simply another manifestation of Morrissey’s petulance in the immediate aftermath of the band he was overjoyed to leave behind. Well, as close as Morrissey ever gets to overjoyed. Maybe it’s more accurate to say the end of the band nicely fueled the self-pity and persecution complex that represent his most natural state. Formally closing out this era of his career with a lackluster recording must have just felt right to him.

Then again, I don’t know for certain that Morrissey considered the album one of the dullest possible contributions to his still-burgeoning canon. He did opt to title it with a bit of British slang for masturbation, which seems a fair clue as to his state of mind. Then again, that could be nothing more than some chipper rock star brattiness, especially since it was partially a reaction to the label rejecting his original choice for a title: The Smiths in Heat. Even though absolutely everything Morrissey does is fodder for intense speculation and explication among the fans, sometimes details like the naming of an album don’t carry all that much meaning. Morrissey’s debut solo album had arrived earlier that year to great acclaim. It’s reasonable to think any project or task connecting to finishing off the Smiths was little more than an afterthought.

Of course, that doesn’t exactly explain the mediocre live performance from a couple years earlier. The Smiths have a reputation as an excellent live band, but they sound incredibly disinterested throughout Rank. “Ask” is a typical example. It’s one of the band’s most vibrant songs, luxurious and spirited in the studio recording. On Rank, it’s perfunctory at best, sounding like the product of a band idly marking time as they await the moment they can leave the stage for the night. They were hardly global superstars at this point, but they had a strong enough fan base that they knew it didn’t necessarily take much to satisfy the faithful. Being there was almost enough, and it often sounds like being there is the totality of the goal in the concert documented on Rank. Even Morrissey’s tendency to aggressively roll his Rs begins to seem oddly mocking to the crowd, just another theatrical affectation he knows they’ll lap up. It’s not all dire, though the pleasures are isolated (I like the way the song seems to powerfully splinter apart at the end of “London”). Certainly one the best and most influential college rock bands of the eighties deserved a better final bow than this.

An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues

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From the Archive: Phantom Power

This another of my contributions to the central Florida publication The Independent. I’ve had such a difficult time lately finding the time and energy to write full-length record reviews (despite very different ambitions, I’ve only managed two reviews in the past three months) that I may need to employ some variation on this hit-and-run kind of take. Just over 200 words, and I really did say everything I felt obligated to say about the album.

Super Furry Animals is one of those bands that tries to do a little bit of everything and winds up doing nothing particularly well. There’s certainly an appeal to a group that doesn’t feel obligated to adhere to their “sound,” especially as some of the most venerated albums these days seem like little more than fifteen mild variations on the same basic song. But for all the monkeying around with pedal steel guitars, electronic hiccups, and quasi-metal histrionics, most of the tracks on Phantom Power are overwhelmed by honey-drenched orchestral pop meanderings that sound like a more butch Belle and Sebastian. It doesn’t help that the “political” lyrics are so fragmented and simplistic that they’re little more than a game of word association played while channel surfing through the cable news channels. To be fair, these shaky lyrics are redeemed somewhat by the raggedly soulful voice of Gruff Rhys, especially when he’s tipping over into just a hint of glam-rock cracked beauty vocalizing on “Bleed Forever.”

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One for Friday: Peter Wolf, “Can’t Get Started”

There was a stretch during the mid-to-late-eighties when I gently transitioned myself from the sort of stuff played on album rock radio stations to the material that had a more comfortable home at the left end of the dial. It helped that I had a hometown radio station that was a weird hybrid of the two, embracing select college radio artists (R.E.M. chief among them, but also the occasional Camper Van Beethoven or Robyn Hitchcock song) even as it leaned most heavily on the rootsy classic rock likes of Bruce Springsteen, Little Feat, and the seventies output of the Kinks. If something was positioned somewhere right between the two, really belonging to neither world, it was especially helpful as I constructed my gateway. John Hiatt’s Bring the Family was a prime example of that. I think it’s probably still regarded as such all these years later. Another example in the same rough vein that’s largely forgotten now is Peter Wolf’s Come as You Are.

The second solo album from the former lead singer of the J. Geils Band, it was greeted with a decent amount of anticipation at the time. It was only a few years earlier that Wolf was front and center on one of the most unavoidable hits of the early eighties and he enjoyed modest chart success the first time he went out on his own. And the new album arrived with a buzzy music video back when a buzzy music video was the clearest path to broader airplay (surprisingly, that lead single charted about as high as “Lights Out,” Wolf’s previous Top 20 solo hit). I don’t think anyone was making an argument that Wolf was becoming a major artist, but there was a sense he was creating music worthy of attention.

I liked the clarity and punchiness of Come as You Are. There’s a directness to the songwriting that reaches back to the bluesy foundations of rock ‘n’ roll, but the music is constructed with respect for the forward motion of pop culture. It wasn’t quite tough enough (or, for that matter, dumb enough) for album rock radio and not quite edgy enough for college radio. It was a nice hybrid that has to settle for the indignity of simply being good. When I found my way into a college radio both approximately a year-and-a-half later, I think I did play the album’s opening track, “Can’t Get Started,” once or twice. In retrospect, I’ll bet it fit in just fine.

Listen or download –> Peter Wolf, “Can’t Get Started”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me that Come As You Are is out of print. I supposes it’s possible that this track showed up on some Peter Wolf compilation that may be out there in the world — it is the second single from the album — but I didn’t notice any such thing existing in the wild. Thus, it is my understand that this track can’t be purchased in a physical form from your favorite local, independently-owned record store and therefore posting this track impedes fair-minded commerce in no way. That typed, I understand how copyright law works, even if I don’t fully agree with it. Fair use is a concept that deserves to be respected, too. Anyway, I will gladly and promptly remove the track if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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Greatish Performances #17

#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid Magnussen in White Oleander (Peter Kosminsky, 2002)
This might be a good time to reiterate a central tenet of this series: highlighting a certain performance isn’t intended to anoint it as the best ever work of the thespian in question. I don’t lead with that information to undercut my celebration of Michelle Pfeiffer’s work in White Oleander, but to forthrightly acknowledge that I could slap any number of the actress’s cinematic efforts in this slot and feel equally certain that I am writing about something exceptional. For a stretch of about ten years, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, Pfeiffer was as good as anyone working regularly in film. Her very best performances — Ellen Olenska in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Selina Kyle in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Susie Diamond in Steve Kloves’s The Fabulous Baker Boys — can stand up against the work of any of her contemporaries. Even in lesser films, Pfeiffer was often the very best part, by a generous mile. With a refresher viewing, I could come up with a thousand words on why she deserved an Oscar nomination for Sweet Liberty. Sitting through an Alan Alda movie again is a step too far for this feature, though.

Somewhere around Wolf or Up Close & Personal, Pfeiffer became more inconsistent, as if she was starting to lose interest. Even in films that presumably should have provided ample opportunity to develop richness in character (A Thousand Acres, for example), Pfeiffer was overly distant, from the plot, from her character, even from her own process. That couldn’t be completely blamed on the material since she’d been transcending the films she was in almost from the beginning. In a way, that make the great work when it arrived a little more special, demanding attention as Pfeiffer was roused to her former forceful self. The last time I saw her truly engaged and employing every bit of her unique talent — flinty, sharp, quietly inventive, using her physical beauty as a tool to dig for something darker — was in Peter Kominsky’s White Oleander.

Adapted from one of those novels that roared to prominence because Oprah Winfrey insisted all her disciples read it, White Oleander primarily follows the miserable adolescence of Astrid Magnussen (Alison Lohman), a girl bounced around to various foster homes after her mother is incarcerated. That positions the film as a showcase for a procession of prominent actresses (led by Robin Wright and Renée Zellweger) as wildly different caretakers for Astrid. Lohman is exceptional in the role, perfectly calibrating a turn as a youth that is shell-shocked by her ill turn in life and gradually becoming more jaded as it becomes clear there’s going to be no respite for misery, at least no respite that she doesn’t conjure up on her own. I was prepared to tag her as a major-actress-to-be from her performance here, and I was never more sure of that in the scenes when she kept pace — just barely, but that’s no slight — with Pfeiffer as her mother.

Playing Ingrid Magnussen, Pfeiffer has to convey an internalized viciousness and tireless cunning that went beyond anything she’d done before. Ingrid isn’t some innocent who wound up in prison through some abuse of the system. She’s there as a natural endpoint of the sort of aggressive manipulation of others that has defined her approach to life. Further, the nuisance of being behind bars isn’t going to strip away a bit of her clenched-fist authority over others. The structure of the movie means Pfeiffer’s performance is largely confined to relatively straightforward dialogues with other characters — usually Astrid, but occasionally one of Astrid’s foster mothers — and the starkness of the scenes suits her, perhaps is exactly what enlivens her. Around the turn of the millennium is when the last concept of major movies as aspirations to prestige was being stripped for parts as franchise vehicles took over. Pfeiffer may not have know this would be one of her last opportunities to be a true actress rather than another cog in the machine, but she approaches it that way. Every one of her scenes is a decisive statement of what she can do, how she can hold the screen, the myriad of ways she can take over a moment with a glance or the slightest shift of expression. The character decides she’s going to use her overcharged intellect to destroy a person seated across her, and Pfeiffer lets a sheet of steel descend before her eyes.

Often, White Oleander feels a little too much like a transplanted novel. The mechanics of the writing are too present, like chapter headings are going to ping to life at the top of the screen at certain transitions. It is evident fiction, with Pfeiffer injecting the needed heat of reality, even though her character is the clearest construct. Ingrid is almost a supervillain whose power involves wrenching drama into the realm of melodrama. Pfeiffer plays it with a confidence that matches that of Ingrid, and that certainty deepens the truth of the character and therefore the entire film. One of the qualities I’ve long admired most about Pfeiffer’s acting is her uncommon ability to take her characters through the drastic changes that are the stuff of dramatic arcs while still clearly signaling that the same inner person remained intact through the transformation. In some ways, her work in White Oleander is the opposite: Ingrid remains resolutely the same, more obstinate in not abdicating her power as the turns in her life are meant to leave her cowed. Even the eventual and inevitable emotional shredding toward the end is somehow under her command. It’s easy to lament that Pfeiffer hasn’t gotten a chance — or maybe taken the opportunity — to deliver a performance this strong since. I’d rather relish the acting that does exist.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig Robinson in Hedwig and the Angry Inch

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Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Nineteen

#19 — Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Seven Samurai is an unassuming epic. It may seem a strange description for the three hour tale of a band of misfit warriors recruited by a desperate rural town to stand up to the bandits who plan to raid their food supply. This is arguably Akira Kurosawa’s most famous creation, the one that inspired a legion of other filmmakers, some directly (John Sturges’s acknowledged remake with The Magnificent Seven, John Lasseter and Pixar’s sly appropriation with A Bug’s Life) and countless more indirectly (George Lucas owes his billions to the many ways he lifted from Kurosawa for the Star Wars films). Its running time indicates the sort of scale that belies modesty. The sheer amount of story, of characters, of incidents all suggest a filmmaker of great ambition, one who is sketching out a cinematic adventure meant to stagger the viewer. And yet Seven Samurai doesn’t play that way. It lacks the sterling import of David Lean’s grand dramas or the shuddering grandiosity of the biblical sagas that were the norm for the era (Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments arrived in theaters two years later). Seven Samurai impresses not with its vastness, but with the tender intricacy of the work. At every moment, Kurosawa concentrates on the tiny details of the story — the characters, the motivation, the raggedness of a rough society. It’s only the accumulation of all these small details, a process that happens with the greatest of patience, that makes Seven Samurai big.

The threat of inflated rhetoric is also quelled by Kurosawa’s carefully consideration of the ravages of massive conflict. While incorporating battle sequences of physical vitality muscular enough to stir and then sate the urgent needs of any action film fan, Kurosawa and his collaborators take time to grimly assess the scorched earth after the aggravated flames have recede. The cost of confrontation shadows the film. There may be good guys and there are bad guys, but their swords don’t deliver damage in different ways. The separation between the nobility of battle and the futility of war is no separation at all. Either way, there is blood on the ground. Kurosawa doesn’t dwell on this or pound it into the viewer in didactic fashion. It is simply another part of his intellectual thesis, presented with an egalitarian compassion for all points of view. That evenhandedness, he seems to argue, is the only proper way to consider the rigors of a complicated world.

Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune, is present in a vividly juicy role, playing a passionate, unpredictable samurai anxious to prove himself given his suspect credentials when he joins the band of brothers. In keeping with the breadth of inclusion found in the title, Kurosawa refutes any temptation he may have felt to turn into a one-man showcase. In fact, Mifune’s character was a relatively late invention, an attempt to create a strident counterpoint to his half dozen compatriots, all of whom are more staid. Representing a fairly basic technique in shaping the dynamics of the narrative, the choice also reveals the film’s splendid interconnectedness. Rather than leads and supporting characters, Seven Samurai comes remarkably close to telling a story in which every person is central. The villagers carry as much narrative weight as the bandits, and the swordsmen-for-hire of the title don’t necessarily usurp anyone else. Seven Samurai effectively adheres to the adage that everyone is the star of their own drama. Of course, as with almost every film that bears his signature, the truest star of Seven Samurai is the artist in the director’s chair.

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September 2014
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