Friday

"Life tends to come and go"

Wednesday

Return of the Repressed


At first glance, Steven Patrick Morrissey and Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart would seem to share little in common: a sexagenarian male Brit recently noted more for his (to put it mildly!) highly dubious political views than for his musical output and a 42-year-old, bi-coastal (at this point, equal parts NYC and LA) American woman with at least semi-reclusive tendencies and neurotic compulsions. Yet, first appearances can be deceiving: both Morrissey and Apple are unapologetic iconoclasts and sometime pariahs, united, despite their obvious political differences, by a profound and scathing distrust (for better or worse) of "the media," the music industry and record labels, and established "authority" and "institutions" in general. Both are borderline misanthropes who seem fonder of non-human animals, incapable of deceit and duplicity and in need of protection and advocacy, than of (most) human beings. And, though Apple has taken strides forward as an increasingly remarkable sonic stylist where Morrissey has always depended on the musical gifts of his collaborators, both are first and foremost brilliant singer-songwriters, marked by idiosyncratic literary sensibilities (Apple's famous admiration of Maya Angelou compares well with Morrissey's lifelong Oscar Wilde obsession) and singularly affected vocal performances.

The consequence of these significant commonalities is that both Morrissey and Apple--despite having enjoyed accomplished careers, earning the "distinguished veteran" status that many such artists simply coast by on in perpetuity--have delivered new albums that sound unmistakably like they still have something important left to prove. Urgent and powerful and intensely personal, these records are "edgy" in the fullest, truest sense of that over-used adjective, with titles tellingly selected as explicit thesis statements. Moz needs the world to know that, love him or hate him (or something in between those extremes), he's "not a dog on a chain," and will never be so. Apple opts for the imperative over the declarative, imploring her listener (or herself) to cut the thick, oppressive bars caging them (or her) in. It's not that Morrissey and Apple don't want to be liked, or to have their music purchased and praised. Of course they do. But what they both crave more than that, and perhaps above all, is "to be free"--a primal desire that can often be rather boring or banal as an artist's mission statement, whatever the medium. What makes these two albums so interesting and engaging (and often prickly!) is that neither Morrissey nor Apple is ultimately, totally sure of what "freedom" means, or what exactly it entails.

To each their own frustrations. They're not mine, that's for sure, but when the songs are this fucking good, personal and/or political identification takes a backseat to complicated, volcanic emotion impeccably translated into rhythm, melody, and dexterous lyrical poetry that might well have merited approval from the likes of Angelou and Wilde.

Tuesday

And you're wearing time, like a flowery crown

Holy shit, what a song!

And what a record! I've always *liked* her, but this new album is really something else! It's like peak-PJ Harvey--the visceral rawness/roughness of 4-Track Demos perfectly merged with the dramatic grandeur of To Bring You My Love; a knockout combination that deepens and surprises with each listen.

Saturday

Shut In
A Perfect Day of Cinema


I didn't agree with too many of Roger Ebert's particular views on film, but his observation that "no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough" was right on the mark. Personally, I love long, immersive movies –- so long as they're good or great –– and I always find myself perplexed when people complain about the length of films (e.g., The Irishman!) that they otherwise admired and/or enjoyed. (Even more perplexing: many of these same people have no trouble binge-watching entire seasons of TV shows in a single sitting...) Below is one possible approach to a full, at-home day (=1440 minutes) of great, long cinema––or just slightly over that: 1443 minutes in total. Skip the end credits, if need be!

La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960, 180 min.)
Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975, 187 min.)
Fanny and Alexander [Swedish television cut] (Bergman, 1982, 312 min.)
The Puppetmaster (Hou, 1993, 142 min.)
Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994, 450 min.)
The New World [extended cut] (Malick, 2005, 172 min.)

Tuesday

Do you think you've made the right decision this time?


One more addendum: Apparently, Morrissey played a big arena show in London just two weeks ago; ironically, the King of Cancellations went forward with this gig, against all logic and sound public-health advice! For what may well go down as one of the more infamous/dangerous concerts of all-time (Morrissey himself is now 60 and has had significant health troubles in recent years, not to mention the thousands of fans, staff, and crew members packed into the arena...), he opened with an uncomfortable a cappela joke, segueing not to "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" but, even more appropriately, "London," performed under a memed image of the You Are the Quarry cover, rechristened "You Are the Quarantined" with a masked Moz (video above). Then, after working through a slew of deep cuts, recent covers, and new-album material, plus a terrific "Half a Person" mixed in for good measure, he closed with one of his very best (and darkest) songs, a plague-inflected "Jack the Ripper": "Rats! Rats! Thousands! Thousands of rats!"

Monday

Rank


As a follow-up to my last post, I thought it might be a fun thought exercise (/time-killing distraction) to rank all Smiths plus Moz-solo albums together. The list below, though, excludes compilations, live albums, etc. –– only proper studio LPs –– though, admittedly, if counted, records like Hatful of Hollow, Louder than Bombs, Bona Drag, and, above all, Rank (up there with Live at the Apollo and Stop Making Sense as one of the greatest live albums ever!) would place highly. But there are just too many such items, official and less-than-official, with much overlap in their contents. (My songs list from a few years ago, however, helps to account for the many great tracks that aren't on any of these studio albums, though obviously it doesn't include anything from I Am a Dog on a Chain.)

01. The Queen Is Dead (1986)
02. Vauxhall and I (1994)
03. The Smiths (1984)
04. Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)
05. Meat Is Murder (1985)
06. Ringleader of the Tormentors (2006)
07. Your Arsenal (1992)
08. Viva Hate (1988)
09. I Am Not a Dog on a Chain (2020)
10. You Are the Quarry (2004)
11. Southpaw Grammar (1995)
12. Years of Refusal (2009)
13. Kill Uncle (1991)
14. Maladjusted (1997)
15. Low in High School (2017)
16. World Peace Is None of Your Business (2014)
17. California Son (2019)
Time Will Come (But It Hasn't Yet)


I Am Not a Dog on a Chain is the best Morrissey album since Ringleader of the Tormentors. It's not quite as front-to-back excellent as that one (his most underrated classic album), but, to my tastes, it's roughly on-par with You Are the Quarry, and better than the two between You Are the Quarry and Vauxhall and I (still, by a mile, his post-Smiths best) ––– all considered, far higher praise than I thought I'd ever be able to extend to a new Morrissey record at this point. This is just a stellar collection of songs -- crisply, often surprisingly produced, sung with maximum conviction and/or affectation, and full of instantly vintage Moz-isms: "Time will send you an invoice / And you pay with your strength and your legs and your sight and your voice," "In the garden by the graves / I can just about behave," "Why can't you bring figs all pulpy and moist? / Roasted in passion and salty in voice?," "Congratulations / You're still OK / I'd kiss your lips off / Any day," etc. etc.

Apart from a couple tracks I'm still on the fence about (but will probably come around on soon enough), everything here is either really good or truly great, especially "Once I Saw the River Clean," "My Hurling Days Are Done," "Bobby, Don't You Think They Know?," "Love Is on Its Way Out," and "The Truth About Ruth." The first two, in particular, may well be up there with the very best of his post-Smiths catalogue: the former a vividly though impressionistically recalled memory piece harking back to his childhood, with shades of Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, and (most obviously) the self-consciously Dickensian early stretch of Morrissey's own Autobiography, and musically quite unlike anything he's sung over before; the latter a tender, soul-baring ballad along the lines of "Now My Heart Is Full" and "We'll Let You Know," but delivered here as a contemplation of mortality and time's passage that isn't archly morbid but poignant and honest. In lesser hands (or even just in a lesser Moz song), a line like "mama and teddy bear / were the first full, firm spectrum of time" would come off as awkward and maudlin. This song's so great that it sounds downright Proustian.

Sunday

If the Movie-Year Ended Right Now


Which, sadly, it might, give or take straight-to-streaming stuff...

01. Emma (de Wilde)
02. The Traitor (Bellocchio)
03. Onward (Scanlon)
04. A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Becher/Phelan)
05. Sonic the Hedgehog (Fowler)

A few points:

1) I have an eleven-year-old son, who also saw all of these except for the Bellocchio film--technically, a 2019 release, but first screened here in January as part of our Italian Film Festival. Sadly then, but far more sadly now, The Traitor –– which is quite good but not top-tier Bellocchio –– was the only screening I made it to during that mini-festival.

2) He liked nos. 3–5, but thought Emma was just 'meh.' But, to be fair, he still thinks romance is gross, and was disappointed that there was some snuck into Cabin Boy, which we revisited the other day and which he otherwise thoroughly enjoyed--as well he should, because it's one of the all-time great film farces.

3) There is a non-zero chance that Sonic the Hedgehog (which actually isn't bad, and has maybe the best Jim Carrey performance since The Truman Show, if not The Cable Guy, but is certainly no masterpiece) will finish in my top ten, if not top five, for 2020, if the multiple, successive 'waves' of coronavirus prophesied by epidemiologists come to pass. Very strange times.

Friday

Strange You Never Knew

Great song, terrific performance--and check out how young Conan looks! I miss the 90s.

Thursday

Viva l'Italia


Certainly, things are anxious and perilous almost everywhere right now, but the scale of the tragedy in Italy is of a different order (at least for the time being). I've been thinking a lot during this time of our trip to Italy (around Lombardy and down to Rome) last summer, of the wonderful places we visited and the kind and generous people we met; some photos from those happier times below.

MILAN




BRESCIA




PAVIA




ROME


Tuesday

If I loved it less, I might be able to talk about it more


So, suffice it to say that Autumn de Wilde's Emma. is the first really good –– in fact, really, really good, borderline great –– movie of the year/decade, and an instant entry in the canon of top-tier Jane Austen adaptations, up there with Love and Friendship, Clueless, Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, and the BBC Pride and Prejudice. Everything here works perfectly: the performances, the casting, the period design, the pacing, the tone. That it's a debut feature is nothing short of astounding.

Friday

It's the pictures that got small


This is, admittedly, profoundly dumb, but I would've been at least a little interested to hear him continue with a stream-of-consciousness list of movies that should've instead won Best Picture (putting aside the obvious problem that movies from 1939 or 1950 can't be named the Best Picture of 2019): Gone with the Wind...Sunset Boulevard: the former might be demographic pandering, but the latter is an interesting off-the-top-of-his-head pick; what comes next, I wonder? We already know he loves Citizen Kane.

My guesses for what else would've qualified for the Trump Hollywood Classics Canon had he continued naming movies: High Noon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Lawrence of Arabia and/or Dr. Zhivago, The Alamo and/or The Green Berets, The Great Escape, It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Ten Commandments, North by Northwest (I feel like this would be his favourite Hitchcock, or at least the first one that would come to mind***), and, if anything since 1980, Unforgiven, A Christmas Story, The Passion of the Christ (demo pandering pick), The Shawshank Redemption, Saving Private Ryan.


***Edit/reconsideration: His actual favourite Hitchcock movie is probably Vertigo (though he might still reflexively claim the safer NbNw), as it seems like there's a very high-percentage chance that he finds it intensely relatable in the same way he apparently does Kane. BUT does he relate more to the Jimmy Stewart protagonist or to the rich guy who hires him to spy on his wife? Inquiring minds want to know!

Wednesday

Buongiorno, notte

Sunday

Picks


PICTURE
will win: 1917
should win: The Irishman
should have been nominated: A Hidden Life

DIRECTOR
will win: Bong Joon-ho, Parasite
should win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
should have been nominated: Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life

ACTRESS
will win: Renee Zellweger, Judy
should win: Charlize Theron, Bombshell
should have been nominated: Rooney Mara, Mary Magdalene

ACTOR
will win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
should win: Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes
should have been nominated: Joaquin Phoenix, Mary Magdalene and Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
will win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story
should win: Florence Pugh, Little Women
should have been nominated: Juliette Binoche, High Life

SUPPORTING ACTOR
will win: Brad Pitt, Once upon a Time in Hollywood
should win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman or Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
should have been nominated: Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
will win: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit
should win: Steven Zaillian, The Irishman
should have been nominated: Arnaud Desplechin and Léa Mysius, Oh Mercy!

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
will win: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite
should win: Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, Parasite
should have been nominated: Céline Sciamma, Portrait of a Lady on Fire

CINEMATOGRAPHY
will win: Roger Deakins, 1917
should win: Roger Deakins, 1917
should have been nominated: Jörg Widmer, A Hidden Life

Monday

Novum Testamentum


Paolo Sorrentino is some kind of genius.

Without missing a beat, The New Pope continues the sui generis brilliance of The Young People, and yet it's somehow--if possible!--even more blissfully bizarre, sporadically profound, perversely hilarious, and full of weirdly perfect off-handed moments (we already have this season's equivalent to the Greenland Prime Minister closing credits dance).

It's a cliché at this point to observe that the best TV shows feel "cinematic." Sorrentino's ravishing, surprising compositions are undoubtedly that, but both Popes also rely heavily on the gradual, episodic structure of their medium, allowing for digressive interludes with minor characters and highly idiosyncratic sub-plots that few movies would have time to make work. And, in Sorrentino's baroque vision of the world, it all signifies--the high and the low, the sacred and the profane, the huge and the miniscule. This is Sopranos- or Twin Peaks-level Great Television, projected up onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Childhood's End


I've been watching NBA basketball for literally my entire life. Some of my earliest memories directly centre on it--staying up late on school-nights to watch west coast games that went into overtime(s); idolizing the '92 Dream Team and putting up decal cut-outs of all of them on my bedroom walls; collecting and trading basketball cards with NBA-obsessed friends; getting jerseys, Starter jackets, and player-endorsed sneakers for birthdays and Christmases; wearing said jerseys, jackets, and sneakers while shooting hoops for countless hours, pretending to be my favourite players.

It truthfully was my first love, and I still love it. My earliest "career goal" was to someday play in the league, though the reality of my limited talents set in soon enough. Nevertheless, some of the happiest (and, admittedly, most painfully disappointing!) moments in my life that did not actually involve me personally or directly were NBA-specific moments, including, most recently, experiencing the Raptors' championship run together with scores of exuberant Canadian basketball fans.

As a lifelong NBA viewer, watching Kobe Bryant was a supreme pleasure. He was just the best of the best: a totally singular combination of otherworldly talent, ferocious tenacity, and indefatigable dedication to his craft. Whether in the Finals or in an otherwise unremarkable regular-season game, he always threatened to do something stunning, something unforgettable, something that even the most constant and attentive of basketball fans had never quite seen before. His 81-point game (against the Raptors) and his 60-point swansong are just two notable examples among so many. He wasn't perfect (on or off the court), but it was his relentless, if quixotic, pursuit of absolute basketball perfection that made him so utterly compelling to watch--a drive brilliantly captured in Spike Lee's Kobe Doin' Work.

I guess I did know on some level that he was only 41, or around that age. It just feels like he's been present in my life for so damned long. Which, come to think of it, makes perfect sense, really--I've grown up alongside him, watching him enter the league as a teenager, straight out of high school, then rapidly ascend to dominate for most of two decades. That elusive sixth ring notwithstanding, his basketball career felt extraordinarily complete. His life after the NBA, so tragically, was not--and that tragedy is multiplied exponentially by the deaths of his young daughter and others. It's surreal, and it's awful.

Sunday


Just unbelievably fucking sad.