Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Six

26 river

#26 — Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

At the midpoint of this particular countdown, this is the fourth Howard Hawks film included. It says something significant about the director that each has belonged to a distinctly different genre. Sure, there’s a little bit of film noir blood running through both To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, but the former is a wartime drama and the latter a detective story, the shared pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall making them seem more similar than they really are. The other film covered thus far, His Girl Friday, can make a claim on being the quintessential screwball comedy (though Hawks’s own Bringing Up Baby probably can’t be surpassed in that mythical competition). And now we come to Red River, which is such a wise, wily western that it’s incredible to consider that it was the filmmaker’s first pass at the venerable Hollywood genre, though surely not his last.

The film follows a cattle rancher named Thomas Dunson (John Wayne), first in his aspiration to find a place in Texas where he can settle in and start building a homestead and then years later, when his significant success is being tamped down by a post-Civil War South that can no longer afford the meat his ranch produces. Dunson decides he needs to drive his large herd northward, in the hope that better prices can be fetched there. This begins a grueling journey, with Dunson’s desperation and dwindling resources causing him to engaged in increasingly unkind treatment to the men he’s enlisted to aid in the drive. Wayne is remarkable and resourceful in the role, adhering to his already well-established screen persona as a paragon of frontier masculinity while also offering suggestions that such an approach to life, done relentlessly and without empathy, inevitably triggers a rotting of the soul. Wayne doesn’t relinquish the role of hero, and yet shows how easily defeat can ruthlessly creep in.

Borden Chase co-wrote the screenplay, adapting it from his serialized story “Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail” (Charles Schnee is the other credited writer), and Hawks fearlessly emphasizes all that’s bleak within the tale. The film is visually striking, indulging effectively in the rhapsodic beauty of the landscapes of the on-location shoot. That makes the sense of danger even more effective. There’s a sense that these beautiful, welcoming vistas are also heartless and uncompromising. Dunson is a hard man. The film argues that maybe he needs to be, doing so without absolving his brutality. The moral ambiguity is somewhat surprising for a film of the time, when the Hays Code was still very insistent of clear outcomes of properly aligned justice. It’s less surprising considering Hawks was the man behind the camera. Besides his expertise with the mechanics of narrative, he knew how to let uncertainty and shadow infuse the spirit of his works. Red River showed that he could truly bring that approach to any genre of film, even the one that was notorious for reducing complicated human struggle to easily discernible conflicts where the good guys and bad guys were identifiable by their hats of opposing colors.

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Great Moments in Literature

“‘Well, Tommy,’ he said, pulling on his Albert-Einstein-riding-an-invisible-bicycle sweatshirt, ‘the fact is that most childhood fears that carry on into adulthood tend to be sexual in nature. Particularly, I would think, if they have to do with monkeys.'”

–Bradley Denton, Lunatics, 1996

“NEW YORK IN AUGUST. THE VERY BEST TIME NOT TO PLAN A TRIP TO FUN CITY, AS ITS EX-MAYOR USED TO CALL IT…BEFORE HE GOT OUT! THE TEMPERATURE RARELY DROPS BELOW EIGHTY…THE AIR HANGS HAZY AND BURNS IF IT GETS IN YOUR EYES…AND THE CLOSEST THING TO RAIN IS THE SCATTERED DRIPPING OF EIGHT MILLION AIR CONDITIONERS. NEW YORK IN AUGUST…A TIME WHEN ONE WOULD THINK IT’S BE TOO HOT…TO COMMIT MURDER!

–Bill Mantlo, MARVEL TEAM-UP, Vol. 1, No. 39, “Any Number Can Slay!” 1975

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College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1995, 24 and 23

24 sparkle

24. Everclear, Sparkle and Fade

When I was at the height of my imperious, combative, disgruntled twenties, my contrarian streak could lead me to come dubious judgments, at least where new music was concerned. For example, while there’s some haziness around this memory (many of my most spirited music debates took place in the wee hours of beer-soaked evenings), I expended some of my taste capital announcing to whoever had the misfortune to be across the table that Everclear was one of the more underrated bands on the day and their 1995 release, Sparkle and Fade, deserved prominent mention in any discussion of the top albums of the year. I was hardly championing some beset underdog in doing so, as the group led by Art Alexakis had a major label berth with Capitol Records and a healthy radio hit in the single “Santa Monica.” Still, as any number of music fans tripped over one another to praise the genius of the middling likes of Eddie Vedder and psychedelic flim-flam man Billy Corgan, it felt important to stand up for a band that was committed to a more direct brand of punk-inflected rock.

Everclear were from Portland rather than Seattle, but that didn’t stop most observers from including them in the rash-like grunge rock scene. It was sloppy categorizing to so. Everclear owed more to Bad Religion than any of bands that tried to capture Kurt Cobain’s echo and pass it off as their own brainstorm. The songs on Sparkle and Fade exude a commitment to the plainspoken agitation of punk, with the lyrics constantly circling around tales of disenfranchised rebellion and drug-dappled misery, very nearly to the redundancy of a concept album. The album can’t reasonably be said to be raw as a wound, but it throbs briefly and intently like skin after a Band-Aid was ripped clean off of it.

Much as Everclear’s directness was a blessed counterbalance to the pretentious nonsense lyrics that filled much of the hard rock of the day, it could also get a little wearying, with songs like “Heroin Girl” and “Chemical Smile” coming across as too on the nose, especially after repeated plays (though the latter song deserves some credit for coming remarkably close to musically channeling Hüsker Dü in convincing fashion). When, on “Her Brand New Skin,” Alexakis sings, “I do not want to be a broken record/ But I don’t want to live in the shadow of a twelve-step,” he could be expressing a valid worry about the album itself. At least those songs have a punchy tunefulness that can make the didacticism forgivable (or easy to ignore, anyway). It’s the self-congratulatory lyrics about the struggles of having a “black girlfriend” on the track “Heartspark Dollarsign” that have aged into pure embarrassment.

The album is at its best when at its simplest, exploring the youthful distance from a homogenized world that is the lifeblood of most punk. “Santa Monica” deserved to be a hit, building casually and steadily throughout, suiting the lyrics’ satisfying triumphant nihilism (“We can live beside the ocean/ Leave them far behind/ Swim out past the breakers/ Watch the world die,” that last line presumably what prompted Clear Channel Communications to temporarily ban it from its radio stations after September 11th, 2001). And “Summerland” nicely keeps up the note of isolation and necessary escape, Alexakis urging, “Forget about our jobs at the record store/ Forget about all the losers that we know/ Forget about all the memories that keep you down/ Forget about ’em, we can lose ’em in the sparkle and fade.” It’s far from revolutionary punk, but not every band needs to be the Clash.

Surprisingly, Everclear has had decent longevity, though it’s really been Alexakis and a rotating band of sidemen since the start of this century (including touring members, Wikipedia currently lists twenty-two individuals besides Alexakis who can claim membership in the band at some point). They’re also really good at mining their own past success, with at least four “best of” albums and two separate releases that find them re-recording old songs. They are also evidently unashamed about releasing truly hideous cover songs.

 

23 brown23. Citizen King, Brown Bag LP

Milwaukee band Citizen King specialized in heavily whipped meringue of musical styles, jammy funk and punk hip-hop chief among them. When competing with cheap beer and the noisy din of boisterous Midwesterns at cramped bars, keeping the music bouncy and chunky is a pretty good idea. Brown Bag LP was the first full-length album from the band. They had their real breakthrough a few years later when they cracked the Billboard Top 40 with the single “Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out),” which also enjoyed undoubtedly lucrative placement in the first and last episodes of Malcolm in the Middle.

Previously….

An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model
— 76-74: Gag Me with a Spoon, Where I Wanna Be, and Ruby Vroom
— 73 and 72: Horsebreaker Star and Wild-Eyed and Ignorant
— 71 and 70: 500 Pounds and Jagged Little Pill
— 69-67: Whirligig, The Basketball Diaries, and On
— 66 and 65: Alice in Chains and Frogstomp
— 64 and 63: Happy Days and Exit the Dragon
— 62-60: Lucky Dumpling, Fight for Your Mind, and Short Bus
— 59-57: Good News from the Next World, Joe Dirt Car, and Tomorrow the Green Grass
— 56 and 55: …And Out Come the Wolves and Clueless
— 54-52: We Get There When We Do, Trace, and Twisted
— 51-49: Thrak, Stoney’s Extra Stout (Pig), and You Will Be You
— 48 and 47: Shamefaced and Here’s Where the Strings Come In
— 46 and 45: 13 Unlucky Numbers and Resident Alien
— 44-42: Elastica, Private Stock, and Death to Traitors
— 41-39: Optimistic Fool, Ben Folds Five, and Above
— 38-36: Collide, Cowboys and Aliens, and Batman Forever
— 35-33: Taking the World by Donkey, One Hot Minute, and Dog Eared Dream
— 32 and 31: Straight Freak Ticket and Besides
— 30-28: Sixteen Stone, Big Dumb Face Shoe Guy, and Cascade
— 27-25: Born to Quit, King, and Hate!

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From the Archive: Knocked Up

Now seems an opportune time to retrieve one of the old reviews of a Judd Apatow film that I wrote for an online site, but not this one. My original plan was to post my take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I remember as one of my first stabs at reviving my film criticism for the brave new digital age. It was, but there’s barely anything to the review. It not’s even worth a hyperlink. By the time Apatow’s sophomore directorial effort arrived, I was more clearly back in the realm of full-length reviews. 

If you want to understand why writer-director Judd Apatow though Seth Rogen was the right person for the lead in the new film Knocked Up look to the episode “The Little Things” from the rightly adored TV series Freaks and Geeks. In fact, nearly everything that makes Knocked Up a success in found in that particular program. There is the discovery of uncomfortable truths in risque subject matter and the challenge of exterior perceptions when making one’s hard choices. And, in the end, the protagonist must simply make the decision to grow up a little bit, lay claim to previously unappealing maturity not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because embracing that maturity is simply better.

That’s a pretty heady way to analyze a film that, above all, is extremely funny, but Apatow thankfully invites that. The surprise of his feature directing debut The 40 Year-Old Virgin was the deep understanding and sympathy that infused it. There were jokes at the expense of the title character, to be sure, but the film never bullied him for cheap laughs. It was always in his corner, and, in its own way, it insisted that the audience do the same. No matter how ribald the material, Apatow keeps it grounded in a deeply felt humanity. The films succeed not because they’re packed with great jokes and surprising moments. Instead, the humor arises from the spirited, smart interactions between well-conceived characters acted with supreme dedication.

In terms of plot, Knocked Up is simply about a one-night-stand that results in a pregnancy and the attempts by the driven beauty and stoner shlub who are now parents-to-be to come together in a meaningful partnership. More than that, it is about the honest fear of growing up, that sense that the reckless enthusiasm and playfulness of young adulthood will turn into a slow march through days of mundane hostilities and deadening demands. When you’re watching a long-married couple at each other’s throats over who will take responsibility for getting the kids to school, that filthy couch loaded with laughing, drug-addled buddies starts to look like a pretty fun place to stay.

Have I mentioned that the film is very, very funny? Maybe it’s time to focus on that.

No matter how real Apatow keeps it (and there are scenes that are markedly raw in their content and content), the film is loaded with inspired comedy, benefiting from a loose, free structure that leaves equal room for out-of-left-field moments that stand as little more than grand silliness and depth charge gags that deepen themes and characters. While Rogen plays his lumpy and sweet moments with an endearing openness, his limited range shows through occasionally, and Katherine Heigl is stranded somewhat with an underwritten role as the other half of the lead tandem. For the real acting achievements, there’s Leslie Mann as Heigl’s married, quickly-angered sister, a role that calls on her to convincingly be both the film’s moral compass and cautionary tale. Quick to anger, the character could be little more than a caricatured shrew, but Mann flashes levels of vulnerability that keep the character movingly well-rounded. There is just enough of a sense of how her patience has been worn down through the years. It helps that Paul Rudd plays her husband with the same charmed ease that have marked his welcome mid-career spin into perfect comedic support.

Since I already invoked Freaks and Geeks, I should mention that the film immediately gets extra points from me (as it will anyone who wisely purchased the greatest DVD set of all time) for reuniting so many key contributors to that great show, including one cameo that was enough of a surprise to me that I won’t spoil it here, beyond saying, as brief as it is, it’s the best work the relatively busy person in question has done since the series was unceremoniously canceled. (Somewhere, I have at least one friend who is pleased that I mentioned Freaks and Geeks so much and is clapping her hands over the hyperlink connected to the word “that.”)

And I must emphasize that it’s all exceptionally funny.

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One for Friday: Ednaswap, “Torn”

cover

By the summer of 1998, the song “Torn” was practically unavoidable. I used to join a friend on an annual summertime jaunt intended to hit as many Major League ballparks as we could over a long weekend. While we always made sure the vehicle was stocked with plenty of mix tapes (competitively so), part of the ritual was scanning through local radio, including carefully cataloging which songs we heard the most. On that trip, “Torn” was the clear winner (though, to be fair, we likely zipped right past “The Boy is Mine,” which topped the Billboard charts for essentially the entire summer). I’m referring, of course, to the version of “Torn” recorded by Natalie Imbruglia, an important distinction to make because there exists a small musical mountain of different takes of that particular song.

As Ednaswap lead singer Anne Preven once told Spin magazine, “you could make a 12-song album and call it Torn.” Co-written by Preven, her bandmate Scott Cutler, and producer Phil Thornalley, Ednaswap’s first recorded version of the song appeared on their 1995 self-titled album. Before they even got to it, though, a Danish singer named Lis Sørensen released a version (translated to “Brændt”). In 1996, Norwegian performer Trine Rein offered up another pass at the song. And all the while, Ednaswap kept reworking “Torn,” releasing a different, grungier take on the 1996 EP Chicken and this a slightly remixed version of that of their sophomore album, Wacko Magnetic, from 1997. Basically, a bunch of music professionals were convinced this song was a major hit waiting to happen, and they kept tinkering with it like someone engaged in trial, error, retreat, and modification of a particularly vexing puzzle. It was Thornalley, orchestrated of many of the versions, who finally happened on the proper combination, not coincidentally the one that involved a photogenic, sexy yet approachable female singer who’d developed screen charisma working on an Australian soap opera.

Once I figured out there was an indie-acceptable version of the song I there, I was on the hunt (it really is an irresistible song), eventually finding a copy of Chicken at one of the local outlets that had rows upon rows of used CDs. I have a weakness for covers, which intensifies when it’s actually earlier and original versions of songs that are far better known for their later covers. It’s a manifestation of that elitist, know-it-all, dumb hipster snob inside of me, the one that — let’s face it — all intense music fans have as some embarrassing part of their DNA. I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I can admit it.

Listen or download –> Ednaswap, “Torn”

(Disclaimer: I believe Chicken is out of print, though a CD copy can apparently be purchased for two cents off of Amazon. I’m not sure about the rest of the Ednaswap discography, but surely Preven and Cutler made a tidy sum off of Imbruglia’s recording, since songwriters are usually generously rewarded for airplay. So I don’t really feel all that bad for sharing this track here, and I certainly intend no fiscal harm to them or anyone else. Still, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from the internet if asked to so so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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The New Releases Shelf: Pageant Material

kacey

Best as I can determine, the only significant flaw of Pageant Material, the new album from Kacey Musgraves, is that it seems to inspire a unstoppable fleet of music writer think pieces, the sort of essays that helpless consider music only in the context of some imagined greater trend. It can’t simply be that her second album for Mercury Nashville is a splendid example of songcraft, warmly and wittily performed. It somehow has to provide entry to commentary of the very nature of modern country music, usually delivered with withering condescension by music writers who’ve probably not listened to more than a half-dozen new country songs in the past year but are all too happy to adopt a purist attitude, certain that Blake Shelton is no Hank Williams.

I match the description of someone with only limited exposure to the broader music genre. I can’t contextualize Pageant Material against the output of Musgraves’s labelmates and marketplace rivals, and I don’t care to. The album doesn’t need a grand evaluative thesis attached to it. Entirely on its own merits, it’s a wise, relaxed marvel, grounding Musgraves in the obligatory culture of southern living (she hails from Texas) while also firmly declaring her independence from the expectations that come with that. Musgraves knows the rules, but that doesn’t mean she cares to play the game, which she addresses directly on “Good Ol’ Boys Club”: “There’s a million ways to dream and that’s just fine/ Oh, but I ain’t losing any sleep at night/ And if I end up goin’ down in flames/ Well, at least I’ll know I did it my way.” That’s the track that’s garnered a flurry of attention, given the perception that it takes a swipe at Taylor Swift, the slender Paulie Cicero of the music business. Musgraves rejected that reading while still remaining a little cagey about it, but the overall point of the song is echoed elsewhere on the record, as on the title track, which acknowledges her distance from the refined southern darlin’ suited for the runway before settling on a confident appreciation for her lack of accompanying artifice when she sings, “Sometimes I talk before I think/ I try to fake it but I can’t/ I’d rather lose for what I am/ Than win for what I ain’t.”

Across the album, Musgraves and her songwriting collaborators (Musgraves has a piece of every song, except a hidden track cover that closes the record) create a marvelous sense of place and purpose, returning to well-worn country song tropes while miraculously avoiding a descent into cliche. “Dime Store Cowgirl,” is a  pledge of allegience to country girl simplicity (“I’m happy with what I got/ Cuz what I got is all I need/ Just cuz it don’t cost a lot, don’t cost a lot/ Don’t mean it’s cheap”), and “This Town” breaks down the inevitable tack of gossip in a small community (“This town’s too small to be mean”). Then there’s lead single “Biscuits,” which just might be the best track of the year, managing to slyly encompass just about every message Musgraves deploys across the album, with a killer hook and brightly playful lyrics (“Takin’ down your neighbor/ Won’t take you any higher/ I burned my own damn finger/ Pokin’ someone else’s fire”). And it’s all packed into just over three brisk minutes.

The pleasures on the album keep unfolding, such as the tender “Somebody to Love” (“We’re all livin’ til we’re dyin’/ We ain’t cool, but man we’re tryin'”) or album opener “High Time,” which is about as plaintive and elegant as a song can get when it’s (likely) about getting stoned. There’s barely a misstep to be found. I doubt Musgraves intends what’s here to be some big statement, beyond a clear expression of herself. Pageant Material needs have no greater intellectual heft or voluminous subtext. It can stand as one of the most important albums of the year simply because it’s one of the best albums of the year. Think on that.

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Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty-Seven

27 have not

#27 — To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)

Lauren Bacall was nineteen years old when she made her film debut in To Have and Have Not. Famously spotted on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar by Nancy Keith, the wife of director Harold Hawks, Bacall was given the role of Marie Browning. Nicknamed Slim, just like Keith, the character was a singer in a bar, spotted by Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), the captain of a small chartered fishing boat. More importantly, Slim was designed to provide the formidable match for the film’s leading man. As Hawks explained to Bogart, “You are about the most insolent man on the screen, and I’m going to make the girl a little more insolent than you are.” In the unpredictable alchemy of moviemaking, Hawks got exactly what he’d hoped for and more from Bacall. She’s utterly commanding every moment she’s in the film, sloping through scenes as if she not only owns them, but can confidently give them away with assurance that she can snatch them back whenever she wants. Her famed tutorial on the fine art of whistling is the understandable exemplar of this quality, and yet it’s not even her strongest moment in the film. There are probably half a dozen instances peppered throughout in which she’d even more striking and casually forceful in announcing her presence as an instant star, someone who was made for the movies.

Hawks saw Bacall’s talent right away, not only casting her in the first place but expanding her role once he saw what she could do, particularly in that famous chemistry with Bogart. If the director wanted an actress who could metaphorically jab back at Bogart, he got it. If the word “dame” didn’t already exist, they would have needed to invent it for Bacall. Luckily, the film started in fairly raggedy shape, giving Hawks the latitude to make adjustments to accentuate the best of what he saw in front of him. The film is based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, but ever so loosely. Hawks reportedly deemed it to be the author’s worst work, choosing to rework it with the Hemingway’s permission and assistance, eventually enlisting no less than William Faulkner to help complete the screenplay. The finished product is heavy with echoes of Casablanca, which had its premiere less than two years before To Have and Have Not hit screens. Bogart is once again an expatriate reluctantly drawn into the French resistance movement during World War II, all while pining after a beautiful woman. There’s even a friendly piano player, portrayed in this instance by Hoagy Carmichael.

Indeed, the film is similar enough to Casablanca, and really any number of wartime dramas, that it should feel like a retread, a film locked into amenable but intensely familiar pattern. It transcends that, though, in part due to the legendary dynamics between Bogart and Bacall, but more because of the consummate skill of Hawks. While he was hardly perfect every time out — the directors of this era worked so much and so fast that a flawless record was practically a statistical impossibility — when he was at his best, few could build a movie with such a flawless sense of pace, tone, and timing. As with other peaks in the Hawks oeuvre, To Have and Have Not is so splendidly aligned with its own storytelling goals that it is almost unimaginable to think of it in any other form, presented in any other way. Like Bacall, it is preternaturally meant for the big screen.

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July 2015
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