I have a complicated relationship with the music of Billy Squier.
For better or worse, I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio, so my youthful musical diet consisted of “Fly Like an Eagle” sandwiches and “Stairway to Heaven” blue-plate specials. At the time, I thought it was the Best Music Ever; since then, my musical tastes have diversified tremendously, and I return only very rarely to the kind of stuff that dominates the classic-rock airwaves. (Seriously, guys: Your songs have remained the same, as it were, for three-plus decades. Time to shake up the playlists a bit.)
Now and then, though, I’ll still listen to Billy Squier. Back when I was listening to classic-rock radio, Squier’s tunes — mostly the several big hits from his still-terrific 1981 album Don’t Say No — showed up with some frequency, as, I gather, they still do today. I’ve always considered Squier to be a cut above most of the other “arena rock” performers with whom he is often grouped: Styx, Bad Company, Boston. His music rocks a little harder; he has a fine ear for melody; he’s got that distinctive, plaintive voice; he’s a hell of a guitarist.
Last week, I experienced an unprecedented and utterly joyous moment of cinematic serendipity. By pure chance, I stumbled across a little oddball jewel of a film on Netflix — a film that, I think, must somehow have been made with me in mind. I am this film’s ideal spectator. Phase IV is one of my new favorite movies.
Netflix gets a lot of flak for having too shallow a library in its streaming service, but, in my opinion, this criticism is inaccurate. Netflix has a gigantic library; it’s its search feature that’s crappy. Subscribers’ Netflix home screens are presorted by viewer preference, and highlight only several dozen titles in a small handful of categories. Though it’s difficult to find hard numbers, the Netflix catalog clearly runs deep, and certainly offers the widest array of titles of any of the major online streaming services. Yet it’s nearly impossible to get past the small number of “Recommended For You” titles. How to access Netflix’s “deep tracks”?
Robert Carlyle on the hunt for a coherent protagonist in Ravenous
As a longtime fan of the films of Peter Greenaway, I kind of coincidentally have become a fan of that director’s frequent collaborator, composer Michael Nyman. I love me some beautiful minimalism, I do.
Though I can take or leave the music of Damon Albarn, I suppose it was Nyman’s and Albarn’s collaboration on the soundtrack of the 1999 film Ravenous that inspired me to watch it this past week. I’d heard that the soundtrack was unusual and exceptionally good, and I did enjoy its curious combination of American folk tunes and stark Euro-minimalism. I still prefer Nyman’s scores for Greenaway’s films, but I could certainly see myself listening to the Ravenous soundtrack as a stand-alone work. Certainly, it’s the best thing about the film.
It ain't easy being an extra: "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra"
Supposedly, something like half of the films made before 1950 are lost forever, the victims of quick-decaying nitrate film or indifference to their artistic and historical value. That's a lot of lost films, and it causes me no end of sadness that they're done. But my tears dry up when I marvel at the fact that among the survivors are some pretty unlikely films.
One film that is, thankfully, in no danger of disappearing from the earth is "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra," directed in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich. That's a small miracle, as this odd and inventive short film was allegedly made for less than $100, mostly for the purpose of amusing the filmmakers' friends. It's essentially a low-budget home movie with an avant-garde streak.
I experienced an unusual and vanishingly rare cinematic pleasure last week. It occurred during a viewing of André de Toth's 1944 gothic thriller Dark Waters, which I hadn't seen in more than 20 years. The time since my last viewing of this film wasn't the unusual thing, nor was the film itself, though I do wish it were better known. The most unusual feature of my home viewing of Dark Waters was that it was entirely uninterrupted.
The digital age has altered the cinematic experience in countless ways. It has given us high-resolution videography; computer-based, nonlinear editing systems; revolutions in special effects and animation; and many, many other changes. The digital age has also caused seismic shifts in the nature of film exhibition. I'm not talking about digital projection, though of course that's a Very Big Deal, especially for small theaters that can barely afford expensive 2K or 4K projectors. I'm referring to the fact that, now that many of us are surrounded by internet-enabled devices for much of our waking days, filmed entertainment is constantly available to us.
Often, when someone I meet for the first time learns that I am a film historian, I am asked, "So what's your favorite film?" Since I don't think it's possible to have just one favorite film — and since my favorite today is likely to be replaced by a different one tomorrow — I sometimes resort to dorky (and, yes, snide) responses that would intrigue only other film historians. "Well, 'Fred Ott's Sneeze' is an old favorite, but these days I'm really into 'Gus Visser and His Singing Duck,'" I'll say.
I probably deserve a good cinematic slap in the face for such obnoxiousness, but there's a hefty dollop of truth in that response. What excites me about certain works of cinema is not just their artistic brilliance, but their historical importance.
The final shot of Ned Kelly, in which the title character invites his hanging judge to join him in Hell.
My love of the Rolling Stones continues to this day, but was at its apex in high school, when several friends and I were nothing short of obsessed with this great band. In those pre-internet days, that meant scouring record-store bins and having endless, wonky discussions about the relative merits of Brian Jones' and Mick Taylor's guitar skills. (Taylor, duh.) We also investigated the extra-Stonesy pursuits of the bandmembers, which is why I still have my old LP of Ronnie Wood's (excellent) solo album, I've Got My Own Album To Do, and which also accounts for my seeking out, in approximately 1989, a VHS copy of the film Ned Kelly.
Ned Kelly, made in 1970, was Mick Jagger's film début, so of course high school me had to see it. Though I had generally positive memories of watching it Back In The Day, I recalled very little detail about the movie. When I found a used DVD of Ned Kelly at a recent shelf-clearing sale, I pounced on it. Having just watched it for a second time, I can only assume that, back in high school, I must have seen the world through Stones-colored glasses. Ned Kelly is really not much good at all.
A purple, double-exposed George Chakiris in The Big Cube
By a stroke of what is surely unintentional irony, the 1969 youthsploitation film The Big Cube, which I watched last week, is really, really square. Though it was marketed toward a youthful, late-'60s audience, The Big Cube certainly missed its mark. It plays like an old-timey melodrama just barely seasoned with a soupçon of counterculture.
Directed for Warner Bros. by Tito Davison, a prolific journeyman Mexican-American writer-director, The Big Cube is a plain attempt to cash in on the "threat" ostensibly posed by the drug-taking, hippie-hippie-shaking countercultural movement of the late 1960s. The film makes no distinction between gentle, pot-smoking flower children and violent, leather-clad motorcyclists — as far as it is concerned, no one under 30 is to be trusted.
We live in an age when digital technology grants us unprecedented access to pop-culture texts. Mostly, this is a very good thing. I can't express how delighted I am to be able to type a short phrase into YouTube's search engine and then watch, less than two seconds later, the goofy, excellent video for Utopia's song "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," which I watched roughly two million times when I was a kid in the early 1980s. When I was in college, I used to lament that it was so difficult to relive such youthful media moments; now, many of us carry that potential in our pockets. I can watch "Feet Don't Fail Me Now" on a crosstown bus, should I so desire. This is a pretty remarkable moment in human history.
Sometimes, though, that nearly unlimited access to beloved cultural products of the past winds up yielding a disappointment. I experienced that disappointment the other night after using the power of the internet to view, for the first time in probably 15 years, Die Hard 2. Used to love it. Now, I see that it is not much good at all.
I do not observe Christmas, and do my best to avoid all its attendant hoopla. And I didn't grow up watching "Pee-wee's Playhouse," a show for which I was a bit outside the target demographic when it originally aired. (The show ran for five seasons, between 1986 and 1990, when I was a teenager.) I'm generally familiar with the show and its characters, and admire Paul Reubens as a comedian, but somehow was never part of the show's large and devoted cult audience.
I offer the above as a humble apology for not having seen "Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special" until just a week ago. As I'm sure many readers already know, this one-hour special from 1988 is basically pure pleasure from start to finish. I feel a lesser person for having missed it all these years, and plan to do some serious catching up, Pee-wee-wise.
I'm not sure I have anything revolutionary to add about Pee-wee Herman's show, comedy or Christmas special, but bear with me as I marvel at the show's very existence from a newbie's perspective.