Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City at least a dozen times in the past two decades. Since another visit right now is out of the question, here are a few favorite pics from those trips. Above is a view of West 23rd Street taken from the High Line in 2013.

Given how massive (and ubiquitous) NYC is, I’m eschewing landmarks for selected obscurities teeming within this metropolis. This tunnel, one of many in Central Park, may be my most recognizable image from here on out.

Manhattan architecture is a caustic mixture of old and new (and Duane Reade stores.)

A typical block in the East Fifties that could be just about anywhere in Manhattan.

This block’s much more distinct: MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village, not too far from Washington Square Park.

Even less fancy corners, such as Avenue A and East Third Street in the East Village are marked with such oddities as this zigzag-bricked building.

Despite all-encompassing gentrification, remnants of old New York hang on, like this ancient supermarket on the Upper West Side…

…or this established-in-1950-and-miraculously-still-looks-it steak joint on the Upper East Side.

Took this in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in 2006. The business has since closed but the sign remains, sort of.

21st Century signage in NYC doesn’t have to be dull or uniform, as seen at the Soho outpost of this five-store chain.

However, clever can only take you so far: my gut reaction at first seeing this in 2015 was, “OH NO THEY DIDN’T.”

This cleverness I can appreciate, given my folks were Des Moines-ers for twenty years.

This sign is still my favorite ever spotted in NYC: April 2006, on Broadway in Soho.

Over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, six months later. There’s something funny about a “Teabag Variety Hour” that I’m guessing the proprietors of this establishment never intended.

Over to the Bowery and Spanjer Signs on Chrystie Street (enhanced by some whimsical graffiti) in February 2012.

In terms of attitude, this pic from the West Village circa 2007 might be the New York-iest of them all.

Well, this jalopy found a parking spot; god knows how long it’s been left there.

My last couple of trips to NYC have included dinner at Lilli and Loo, a cozy, bi-level pan-Asian restaurant in Lenox Hill.

Around the corner from Lilli and Loo, May 2014. I just love the exaggerated, lackadaisical posture of the guy in the middle: Candid New York, if you will.

In my opinion, one of the city’s most beguiling oddities, spotted at the John Derian Dry Goods store on East Second Street in 2017. Half Carol Channing, half Buster Brown?

Thankful I thought to take a pic of Gonzalez Y Gonzalez restaurant and its gaudy, giant sombrero back in 2009 because this location is long since gone (though relocated sans hat on the exterior.)

El Quijote, a venerable Spanish restaurant next to the Chelsea Hotel, is also now gone (and sadly has not relocated.) Took this pic of one of their typically ancient menus on my last visit there in 2015.

I was last in New York about three years ago for the funeral of my closest friend who lived there. After the service, my husband and I took a restorative walk around Stuyvesant Square Park where I spotted this tableau: like a mighty stone fortress emerging from the flora, providing hope that through all the inevitable changes in a city like New York, some things remain and appear indestructible.

I leave you this pic from Greenpoint, October 2006: Endless Brooklyn. I hope someday to return to this maddening, magnificent metropolis.

1985: You Will Find It

Whether 1985 qualifies as Peak ‘80s is a matter of personal taste (personally, I’d lean towards ’86 or ’87), but mid-decade is by design an ideal place to assess when we think of its music as a whole. This playlist’s run from the greatest up-tempo Madonna single of her imperial phase to Murray Head’s musical-project-written-by-Benny-and-Bjorn-from-Abba oddity (I remember it sounding like nothing else on syndicated TV series Solid Gold at the time) exhibits the lofty heights mainstream radio could then ascend to. And yes, I unironically love “The Power of Love” and still might even if it wasn’t from the best studio blockbuster movie of the era.

Sade and Prince also scored pretty neat leftfield ’85 hits too, undoubtedly scanning as Top 40 while reinterpreting the very notion of such in ways that were beyond, say, Phil Collins or Dire Straits. Not as much as Kate Bush, of course—her sole top 40 hit in the US still startles, not least because it doesn’t dilute one whit of her otherness. Although built almost entirely on era-specific synthetics, it somehow sounds as out of time now as it ever did.

Punchy singles from New Order, Big Audio Dynamite, The Cure and OMD would suggest 1985 was the year of Brit postpunk bands making big pop moves (I didn’t even include the fine but overplayed Tears For Fears), but I spot a more novel trend: a cool, crisp, slightly jazzy subgenre dubbed Sophisti-Pop: Sade, definitely, but also Prefab Sprout, Everything But The Girl, Fine Young Cannibals (to a lesser extent) and even a few old(er) souls like Bryan Ferry and Leonard Cohen (transforming his sound from monochrome folk to Casio keyboard pastels.) I’ve also slotted in some Sci-Fi Sophisti-Pop: The Rah Band’s daffy but strange and charming “Clouds Across The Moon”, a UK top ten hit I’d never heard of until two years ago.

As for the INXS album track I’ve highlighted, it doesn’t particularly sound like 1985 or anything else the band ever did; however, it does remind me of another underrated, pastoral, anomaly-within-the-artist’s-catalog ballad that will likely be the centerpiece of my eventual 1986 mix.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1985 on Spotify:

  1. Prefab Sprout, “Bonny”
  2. Sade, “The Sweetest Taboo”
  3. Kirsty MacColl, “He’s On The Beach”
  4. Suzanne Vega, “Marlene On The Wall”
  5. Wall of Voodoo, “Far Side Of Crazy”
  6. Fine Young Cannibals, “Johnny Come Home”
  7. Everything But The Girl, “When All’s Well”
  8. Tom Waits, “Clap Hands”
  9. Felt, “Primitive Painters”
  10. Madonna, “Into The Groove”
  11. Aretha Franklin, “Freeway of Love”
  12. Huey Lewis & The News, “The Power Of Love”
  13. Murray Head, “One Night In Bangkok”
  14. Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party”
  15. Camper Van Beethoven, “Take The Skinheads Bowling”
  16. Prince, “Raspberry Beret”
  17. R.E.M., “Driver 8”
  18. Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”
  19. Big Audio Dynamite, “The Bottom Line”
  20. Echo & The Bunnymen, “Bring On The Dancing Horses”
  21. New Order, “Love Vigilantes”
  22. Leonard Cohen, “The Law”
  23. INXS, “Shine Like It Does”
  24. Grace Jones, “Slave To The Rhythm”
  25. Bryan Ferry, “Slave To Love”
  26. Commodores, “Nightshift”
  27. The Jesus and Mary Chain, “Just Like Honey”
  28. Talking Heads, “Road To Nowhere”
  29. The Smiths, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore”
  30. The Cure, “A Night Like This”
  31. OMD, “So In Love”
  32. The Rah Band, “Clouds Across The Moon”
  33. Mekons, “Last Dance”

Joyride

The “Smiley Face” Barn.

An April Friday, my Sophomore year at Marquette: I had no classes that day and I’d opted to spend a long weekend at home twenty minutes away instead of on campus in my dorm room. My mom had evening plans to attend a going-away party for a co-worker. She was even getting a ride from someone, so I had her car all to myself.  She was a bit fanatical over that white four-door Pontiac Grand Am. I never had much of a curfew as a teen unless I borrowed her car.

Coincidentally, I also had a party to attend that evening; it was being thrown by my English Lit professor, a thirtysomething redhead who once began a lecture by saying to us, somewhat sheepishly, “Would you guys feel at all cheated out of your tuition if we didn’t have class today?” She lived across town in the tony suburb of Shorewood, and my original intent was to stop by. I’d know some people there, including a girl I’d recently, rather unsuccessfully tried to date (I was still a few years away from coming out)—not an emboldening reason for me to attend.

An evening before me with a car in my possession and absolutely nothing better to do, I left our South Side bungalow a little after 6:00 and got on the freeway in the direction of Shorewood. When I reached Downtown, however, I impulsively turned onto the West exit ramp. As I left Milwaukee County, I felt a little rush. When I passed the yellow barn with the giant smiley face painted on it at the Highway 83 exit, it suddenly was possible that I could keep going and going, another sixty or so miles all the way to Madison. I could make it there and back without Mom ever finding out. I often spent afternoons and evenings driving all over Milwaukee, putting mileage on the Grand Am but usually remembering to fill up the tank. I had more than enough cash on me for gas and food.

Crossing over from Waukesha to Jefferson County, I started picking up Madison radio stations (much to my chagrin, Mom would never splurge to install a tape deck or a CD player in her car.) I found a channel that only played hits of the 1970s, something of a novelty in the mid-90s. Passing through the flat terrain typical of Southeastern Wisconsin, all cornfields and the very occasional leafy tree, the sweet disco groove of Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel (Part 1)” filled the vehicle and I was positively giddy—I was drivin’ all the way to Madison by myself!

I arrived in in less than an hour and a half. After passing through a succession of strip malls, chain restaurants and freeway exits with unfamiliar names (“Fish Hatchery Road” always stood out—did it, in fact, lead to the titular destination?), I left the interstate and headed directly towards the sprawling UW-Madison Campus. I found a parking spot a few blocks away from Sellery Hall, a typical 1960s-built ten story cinder-block accented dorm; this was where two of my high school friends now lived.

I walked up to Sellery’s lobby and rang Ewa’s buzzer, but she wasn’t in. I left a message and tried ringing Sam; he wasn’t in either. Where were my friends? Didn’t they appreciate me driving all the way up there, unannounced, just to see them?

I thought of another high school classmate I knew, Aimee (who happened to be Sam’s ex-girlfriend); she lived in the all-girls dorm Chadbourne (which Sam crudely dubbed “Chastity Chad”.) Luckily, she answered her phone. A petite, blonde Biology major, Aimee was ecstatic to see me although I’m sure she sensed she wasn’t the first person I tried contacting, given how close I was with her ex. We sat and chatted in her cramped room, complete with loft beds and plastic milk crates full of boxes of Cheerios and store-brand pasta. Using Aimee’s land line, I left additional voicemail messages for Ewa and Sam.

After 15 minutes, we had to get outside. It was unseasonably warm for April and not yet dark. With a comfortable breeze in the air, we walked a few blocks to State Street, a mile-long stretch of restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores, and the occasional apartment complex. It was closed off to vehicular traffic apart from city buses and led towards Madison’s epicenter, the mighty, imposing State Capitol building.

We stopped at Steep and Brew for some herbal tea and caught up on how we were each doing in school. At the time, unhappy at Marquette, I was considering transferring to Madison, but did not disclose this information to Aimee. In retrospect, I probably should have uprooted the comfortable life I was used to in my hometown, though if I did, I might not have had the gumption to move out to Boston for grad school two years later, which was the best choice I ended up making—to leave Wisconsin and escape my comfort zone for something entirely new, to truly be on my own.

As things stood at the time, I was afraid of change, of even moving less than one hundred miles away. An hour-and-a-half joyride was all I could handle.

Aimee and I finished our tea and we walked toward the student union, where the setting sun rippled over Lake Mendota. We stood for a minute on the vast patio dotted by ‘70s-vintage yellow and orange canvased umbrellas and lights. I found a pay phone and tried Ewa again; this time, success! She was purposely waiting for me to call back.  “Chris – WHERE ARE YOU???,” she yelled.

Within ten minutes, Ewa joined Aimee and I on the student union patio. As we hugged hello, I noticed her brown hair had grown out a bit since the last time I saw her (at a They Might Be Giants concert in Madison five weeks before), but she still wore her standard outfit of jeans, flannel shirt and dark green Chuck Taylor hi-tops. I’d known her for nearly five years; we’d met in a theology class Sophomore year at our Catholic high school. On the first day, we were required to introduce ourselves by listing some of our hobbies. Before the beginning of the next class, she came up to me and said, “So, you play guitar? That’s cool, I’ve been wanting to learn.” We were pals from then on; our friendship just developed naturally, never requiring any effort—we just had an instant rapport, one that felt like it had always been there.

The three of us strolled down State Street as the sky gradually changed from orange pink to dark blue. We browsed in a used CD store, briefly looked over the previously worn wares at Ragstock, and picked up some takeout at one of the numerous cheap Chinese joints littered up and down the thoroughfare. Aimee, having eaten at the dining hall earlier, said she had to go back to her dorm to study; we hugged goodbye and Ewa and I continued walking towards Sellery carrying bags of takeout cartons brimming with Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Lo Mein, Spring Rolls and White Rice. Ewa’s roommate had gone home for the weekend, so we had plenty of room to spread out our cheap, mostly fried bounty.

I tried calling Sam again and got his voicemail. It was a recording of Barry Williams as Greg Brady, excitedly talking about The Brady Kids, the band he and his siblings were part of and how excited they were to record their brand-new album. Sam’s own voice was nowhere to be heard on the message, which is how he preferred it. Even today, he eschews social media—my only contact with him in the past two decades has been through our Spotify accounts, which should tell you how much we’ve actually kept in touch since I moved to Boston.

As was our tradition, Ewa brought out a package of clove cigarettes, and we smoked a few. I then called home and left a voicemail for Mom, notifying her that I was “staying at the party late.” We listened to Rubber Soul three times in a row and chatted about our classes, our jobs, what new music each of us was listening to. She mentioned her upcoming summer trip to Poland (where she and her family emigrated from to the States when she was a young child), while I told her my plan to get a summer job on campus as a residence hall desk receptionist.

I felt more at ease sitting and chatting with Ewa in her room at Sellery than at home or even in my Marquette dorm, where I spent very little time. I had a packed schedule that semester, with most of my days and nights hunkered down in the library or the photography lab, and I went home most weekends to work a part-time retail job in the suburbs. I didn’t have a roommate, and I didn’t make much of an effort to hang out with the other guys on my floor. I’d moved on campus that year because I hated commuting from home, which during my Freshman year had the effect of college feeling like a supersized version of high school.

Living on campus didn’t magically solve all of my problems like I hoped it would. I’d later realize that the problem was me and my unwillingness to reveal much of myself to other people. I was deep in the closet and not yet ready to deal with or admit to myself whom I actually, honestly was. Hanging out with an old friend in Madison didn’t exactly bring me any closer to working through this issue, but it made me feel temporarily good, uplifted by spending time with someone I knew well.

11:00 PM turned into Midnight, and the next time I looked at my dark tan leather-banded Fossil watch, it was almost 1:00 AM. I’d given up on the possibility of Sam calling me back; later, I’d find out he was at his girlfriend Beth’s dorm room the entire evening. When I next glanced at my watch, it was nearly 2:00 AM. I knew what I had to do—get the car back home before sunrise and get some sleep before I had to go to work. Dragging my feet from the floor, I said my goodbyes to Ewa and headed out of Sellery over to where I parked the car. Thankfully, it was still there—no tickets or attempted break-ins. I pulled out of the UW-Madison campus and headed for the highway.

Driving on I-94 in the middle of the night, there were few other cars. Everything seemed much darker than usual, although it was probably no different than if I’d been driving at Midnight like I should have. I was completely sober (I was not a drinker yet) but miserably tired. I had the volume on the radio turned up loud to keep me awake.

Halfway home, I stopped at a Mobil to fill up the tank. Back on the expressway, I could sense my eyelids getting heavier by the minute. I switched from New Rock 102.1 to Classic Rock Station WKLH and cranked up the volume further. “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” came on and I began singing along. I wasn’t the world’s biggest Billy Joel fan; at my auto parts store job (yes, really), someone put a copy of the entire Piano Man album into one of the display auto cassette players and we listened to it on an endless loop—it was a perpetual hell of people putting bread in jars and microphones that smelled like beers, but still preferable to the country/western station one manager liked.

I still believe Billy Joel saved my life that night—singing along to his punchy, sarcastic, faux-rockabilly/faux new-wave number one hit from the Glass Houses album kept me awake and sharpened my focus. “HOT FUNK, COOL PUNK, EEE-VEN IF IT’S OLD JUNK!,” I shouted along, keeping my eyes as wide open as I could, never daring to take them off the road. The song ended with its jazzy final chord, and orange sodium lamps began dotting the expressway again. I was nearly in Milwaukee County and almost home.

I pulled into our alley around 3:45 AM, drove up to our garage, put the car in park, got out and turned my key in the garage door, slowly lifting it up and trying not to make too much noise (we didn’t have an automatic opener.) I eased the car inside, got out and pulled down the garage door as gently as I could. I opened the back door to my parent’s house in a similar manner, nearly walking on my tiptoes as I stumbled into my bedroom, took off my shoes and jeans and plopped into my childhood bed. As usual, I could faintly make out my dad’s snoring from the other bedroom. As far as I knew, I’d managed not to awaken either him or Mom.

I never told my parents about my joyride, and they never asked. Given what a goody-two-shoes I was all through high school, I felt a slight thrill at having gotten away with something forbidden, unexpected, a little gutsy. In a way, I was a step closer to being an adult, to making my own decisions and facing the consequences (I sure was tired at work that next day.) I’m not saying a joyride never hurt anybody, but for me, it pointed the way towards a road I desperately needed to take.

Film Journal: April 2020

Day For Night

Honestly, few films I’ve viewed in this second month of quarantine have provided as much pleasure as the first two seasons of Succession, which I binged after HBO made it and a few other shows temporarily free to non-subscribers. Epic, hilarious, nasty and blatantly (and effectively) Shakespearean, it’s both a balm to and a mirror of these times.

Still, as I work through my various streaming queues, a few close contenders emerge. Day For Night, the first post-Jules and Jim Truffaut I’ve seen is one of the great movies-about-movies in part because it delves so deeply into process without seeming too inside-baseball; it also reactivated my interest in the Antoine Doinel films, so Antoine and Colette, the first one after The 400 Blows is a trifle by design (thirty minutes, part of a multi-director anthology), but Truffaut’s perfectly suited for crafting trifles with heft and weight.

Also pretty good: that long-unreleased Orson Welles film on Netflix, which is a mess at first but eventually stumbles upon the genius you’d expect from the man; a Mike Leigh short that neatly condenses material for a feature-length film into a compact frame; Fleck/Boden’s best effort since Half-Nelson; Beineix’s ultra-stylish-and-just-as-moving early ‘80s thriller (which I tried watching once years before but must’ve dozed off pretty early into it, because I didn’t remember a thing about it); and, a relatively late Powell/Pressburger flick that’s unlike anything else they did and, simultaneously, something that could come from no one else.

I last saw Scenes From A Marriage more than two decades ago in a film class and it remains my favorite Bergman (television origins and all) for its surgical focus, wringing so much thought and emotion out of such bare essentials. Stories We Tell, which I rewatched for a work project, also remains the most innovative documentary from the past decade, while Klute also holds up nicely though this time I was more in thrall to Gordon Willis’ cinematography than Jane Fonda’s admittedly iconic performance.

Biggest letdowns included Hale County This Morning This Evening, especially after all the raves it received at the end of 2018 (“Pretty but aimless” is my three-word review) and Kinetta, an early film from the director of Dogtooth and The Favourite (a case of not-quite-there-yet.) As for most notable What-Did-I-Just-Watch titles, Greener Grass is silly but almost enchantingly weird at times for its commitment to such weirdness, while Bunny Lake Is Missing starts off as Hitchcock before turning into proto-Haneke in the last half hour—if you think of Keir Dullea as something of an automaton based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, well, this will irrevocably change that.

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.)

The Booksellers (D.W. Young, 2019) 6
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018) 4
Welcome To L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976) 5
The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949) 8
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (Nicholas Zeig-Owens, 2019) 7
The Short & Curlies (Mike Leigh, 1987) 8
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) 7
Day For Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973) 9
The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968) 6
Isn’t It Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2019) 5
Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, 2015) 8
Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)* 10
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, 2004)* 8
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)* 10
The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014) 6
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) 7
Kinetta (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2005) 5
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)* 8
The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) 6
Cinema Verite (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2011) 5
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965) 8
Antoine and Colette (Truffaut, 1962) 7
The Other Side Of The Wind (Orson Welles, 2018) 8
Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019) 6
Hector and The Search For Happiness (Peter Chelsom, 2014) 3
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981) 8
Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, 2019) 6

The Park

I live a ten-minute walk from an enormous park; it’s in Boston, but up against the city’s Western border. From here on out, I’ll refer to it simply as The Park.

I frequented The Park with my husband and our dog for years before I lived so close to it. To be honest, its proximity was one of the most compelling reasons to buy our current home about four years ago.

Since the COVID-19 quarantine began, as with many green spaces for most people, The Park’s one of the few places I’ve been able to leave home for, apart from the local supermarket and various restaurants offering takeout. I’ll walk over there about once, maybe twice a week depending on the weather.

Apparently, The Park was once a landfill, filled up and transformed into its current state about two decades or so ago. It’s laid out with paths in three concentric circles, each one significantly more elevated than the last.

As a result, the walking paths contain many curves.

With each walk I’ve taken this early Spring, the grass has turned a little greener…

…and trees have begun to blossom more fully.

The Park isn’t empty as these pictures make it seem; after all, as previously noted, it’s one of the few places people can go. Still, it’s not unusual to see such spaces as this vast soccer/rugby field nearly uninhabited.

For me, walking is a lifeline. Before, I spent at least an hour a day on my feet, to and from the Commuter Rail station, using my lunch break at work to walk through the leafy streets of Brookline, making the rounds through the Back Bay to kill time before catching a train home.

I have a treadmill in my basement that I use more frequently now, but it’s not the same as being out in the open air, taking in my surroundings as I move forward.

As the weather gets warmer, I hope to visit The Park more frequently.

I anticipate all the pastels of Spring gradually becoming greener until Summer returns and it’s difficult to remember a time when it was too chilly to go outside at all.

Presently, everything’s in limbo; I wonder, among many other things, when I’ll be able to rent a canoe to paddle along the Charles River (seen in the background above) again.

For now, the kiddie playground at The Park remains empty, closed off as the Prudential Center and the John Hancock Tower loom way off in the distance.

I’ll always love The Park, but I long to return to all the other places I love as well.

Film Journal: March 2020

First Cow

I used to post monthly reports collecting thoughts (no matter how succinct) about every film I watched. While I still write individual reviews (which can be found on Letterboxd), I thought I’d start doing a monthly summation here as well—at least as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and I have time to watch close to twice as much stuff as usual.

Four of the first ten titles here were viewed for Chlotrudis Awards (where I managed to see all but four of the nominated films.) The keeper in this bunch was The Art of Self-Defense, a love-it-or-hate-it indie whose dry, bordering on absurd humor was right up my alley (see also Lemon.) Thankfully, First Cow was one of the last movies I got to see in a theatre before the mass shutdowns (snuck in to the second-to-last screening—full disclosure, I work at an indie cinema); more than a month on, I’m so grateful for this, as Kelly Reichardt’s latest might be her best: applying considerably high narrative/emotional stakes to such richly detailed “slow” filmmaking, it’s also a fine portrait of friendship between two men (a concept still very much a rarity in 2020.)

Most of what follows was viewed on The Criterion Channel, Hulu and Amazon Prime, though not everything—most notably, The Green Fog, which is streaming for free on Vimeo and essential for fans of Guy Maddin and Vertigo (a guaranteed crossover?). Criterion, in particular is an invaluable resource for filling in the cracks in my extensive moviegoing, from Malle’s wistful but never foolish depiction of an anachronism in a changing world to the delightfully anarchic but compulsively watchable Daisies. Also revisited The Swimmer, which I absolutely hated sixteen years ago. Now, in my mid-40s and having consumed seven seasons of Mad Men, I sort of get it, admiring its innate weirdness rather than being repulsed by it.

Also nice to finally see a proper presentation of Teorema (first viewing long ago was a poorly dubbed 16mm print-to-VHS), A Place In The Sun (on my watchlist forever, and maybe my favorite Clift performance, if not the best film he was ever in), first features from the directors of Toni Erdmann and It Follows, and most of all, Glitterbug, a montage of Jarman’s Super 8 work I’ve owned for over a decade (as part of the Glitterbox set) but never got around to seeing until now. Thank you, pandemic?

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.) *Denotes I’ve seen this title before.

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020) 6
Auggie (Matt Kane, 2019) 3
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin, 2020) 4
The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns, 2019) 8
Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020) 5
A Moment In Love (Shirley Jackson, 1956) 7
The Times of Bill Cunningham (Mark Bozek, 2018) 5
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) 9
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018) 7
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) 6
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) 8
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)* 8
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell, 2010) 7
Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) 8
Bullfight (Jackson, 1955) 6
The Green Fog (Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, Guy Maddin, 2017) 8
The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)* 7
Cold Case Hammerskjold (Mads Brugger, 2019) 7
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) 6
The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, 2003) 8
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) 6
A Place In The Sun (George Stevens, 1951) 8
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)* 7
Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966) 9
Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018) 8
Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 1994) 9

1970: We Had Our Own Kind of Heaven

At the dawn of a decade, no one can possibly predict where music will go over the next ten years. In that respect, 1970 was probably no different from 1990 (or even 2020.) With hindsight, looking over these selections from half a century ago, one notices how Laura Nyro’s “Blackpatch” anticipates Tapestry and Todd Rundgren, but most of them could’ve easily come out in ’69 or ’68.

A fair amount of musical icons appear on this playlist, from relatively early Bowie to prime James Brown to late Simon and Garfunkel. There’s also the best track off The Beatles’ last released album, plus choice cuts from three of the Fab Four’s post-breakup Major Solo Statements (sorry, Ringo.) Album cuts are favored over massive, overplayed hits, with a few exceptions like Sly & The Family Stone’s ridiculously-titled but undeniable number one single or The Temptations nicely acclimating themselves beyond the old Motown sound (as for the now Diana Ross-less Supremes, “Stoned Love” studiously but successfully clings to it.)

Among the weirdos and one-offs: Polish vocal quartet Novi Singers’ quirky vocalese; Linda Perhacs’ wild psychedelia, somehow both firmly of and way ahead of its time; a charming novella of a song from future adult-contemporary art-popper Al Stewart; and a deep cut from British folk singer John Martyn and his wife Beverly—one of my all-time favorite songs first heard on Saint Etienne’s curated mix The Trip in 2004. Also, don’t forget the inimitable Tom Jones, whose “Daughter of Darkness” has to be one of the most over-the-top, transcendentally demented top twenty hits ever. Coincidentally, I also first heard it in 2004 and remember thinking how difficult it must’ve been for the studio musicians to keep a straight face while playing on this gloriously (and probably unintentionally) goofy gem.

Click here to listen to my favorite songs of 1970 on Spotify.

  1. Desmond Dekker, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”
  2. David Bowie, “The Man Who Sold The World”
  3. The Free Design, “Bubbles”
  4. Sly & The Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinmee Be Mice Elf Agin)”
  5. Cat Stevens, “I Think I See The Light”
  6. Rodriguez, “Crucify Your Mind”
  7. Van Morrison, “Into The Mystic”
  8. Al Stewart, “A Small Fruit Song”
  9. Novi Singers, “Torpedo”
  10. Laura Nyro, “Blackpatch”
  11. John Martyn and Beverly Martyn, “Auntie Aviator”
  12. Joni Mitchell, “The Priest”
  13. John Lennon, “Look At Me”
  14. Dionne Warwick, “Paper Mache”
  15. Dusty Springfield, “Spooky”
  16. George Baker Selection, “Little Green Bag”
  17. The Beatles, “Two Of Us”
  18. Aretha Franklin, “Pullin’”
  19. James Brown, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine”
  20. Tom Jones, “Daughter Of Darkness”
  21. Randy Newman, “Have You Seen My Baby?”
  22. Harry Nilsson, “I’ll Be Home”
  23. Paul McCartney, “Every Night”
  24. Linda Perhacs, “Parallelograms”
  25. Neil Young, “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”
  26. Linda Ronstadt, “Long Long Time”
  27. Nick Drake, “Northern Sky”
  28. The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”
  29. Simon & Garfunkel, “The Only Living Boy In New York”
  30. The Kinks, “This Time Tomorrow”
  31. George Harrison, “What Is Life”
  32. The Velvet Underground, “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”
  33. The Supremes, “Stoned Love”

Stung

“BZZT!”

A sound immediately followed by a sharp pain at tip of my left index finger. I had opened the screen to my tent and placed my hand on my sleeping bag. It was the last night of a week of Boy Scout camp in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Northeastern Wisconsin.

I never actually saw the bee, or fully determined how it invaded my tent; it probably snuck in earlier in the day when Dan or I had opened the screen (which might’ve had a hole in it.) However, the quick procession of buzz-then-sting confirmed it. Thirteen years old, and one of my worst fears had finally come true.

I knelt there for a few seconds, a little dumbstruck. My tentmate was a few yards away, helping to put out the campfire along with Mr. Runkle, father to Bill Runkle, a scrawny eleven-year-old who had joined our Troop last year. His dad was one of four who’d come along on the trip to supervise us dozen Scouts.

I walked over to Dan and Mr. Runkle. “I think I got stung by a bee,” I announced.

Mr. Runkle asked, “Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Nope”, I replied.

“How are you feeling? I don’t see any hives or puffiness.”

“I think I’m fine,” I said. “It just hurts.”

“Well, you need to go to the infirmary. We don’t know if you’re allergic or not.”

An allergy to beestings had never occurred to me; however, given my long-festering hatred of the insect, I wasn’t all that surprised one existed.

Mr. Runkle grabbed his flashlight and ordered me to fetch mine. It was after 10:00 PM, and we were off to the camp’s infirmary. At least half a foot taller than me, broad shouldered and sporting a walrus mustache, Mr. Runkle in his lumberjack red flannel shirt led the way through the woods along a series of paths I barely recognized in the dark. As a city kid, the forest always seemed immense to me—you looked up and all you saw were impossibly tall, towering trees in every direction. If a clearing was anywhere near, you couldn’t sense it.

My finger throbbed a bit, the pain still present but contained, not necessarily getting any worse. As we walked for ten, fifteen minutes, I thought about my long-standing fear of getting stung. Ever since a bee flew into our dining room one summer when I was four or five, I’d been deathly afraid of them. Much of that had to do with the buzzing noise—like the roar of the titular weapon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just the sound indicated the possibility of something going horribly wrong. From an early age, I was taught by my mom to stay away from them. For years at my pediatrician’s office, the waiting room, amongst all the wrinkled back issues of Highlights, there was kind of a faux Golden Book with a story where some kids got into trouble for poking a beehive. One illustration portrayed them running away from the swarm, their faces covered in welts and sores as the bees followed, their stingers pointed directly at them. That would never be me, no sir.

Blame Fear of the Unknown: as a kid, you’re told not to mess with bees because they’ll sting you and it’ll hurt. I suppose some kids take that information in stride, not actively seeking out a swarm of bees to mess with but not caring much about encountering the insect either; I did not fall into that category—the possibility of suddenly getting stung was for me a phobia right up there with fire alarms, angry barking dogs and neighborhood bullies.

Thus, when this first bee sting finally arrived, so quick and finite, it almost felt anticlimactic. Sure, it hurt, but not nearly as much as the horsefly bite I’d received on the back of my neck two summers before. As I did my best to keep up with Mr. Runkle in the woods that night, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s it? This is what I was afraid of?”

By the time we reached the infirmary, the pain in my finger had lessened considerably. Mr. Runkle rang the doorbell and the Camp Medic, a wispy, white-haired man let us in. I followed him into an examination room towards the back of the cabin while Mr. Runkle waited in the entryway. From a large metal cabinet lined with rows and rows of pill bottles, the Medic selected one and from it gave me a capsule to swallow, along with a glass of water. “This is for just in case you’re allergic,” he instructed.

I don’t remember exactly what I was given, only that it was *enormous*, much larger than anything I’d ever been told to swallow before. It easily could’ve been a Horse-Sized Pill, although I didn’t yet have the language to describe it as such. Swallowing this behemoth capsule took some effort; it felt as if I were consuming a pinky finger (even though it couldn’t have been that big.)

Having downed the pill and the entire glass of water, Mr. Runkle and I said Goodnight to the Medic and made our way back to our campground. Everyone was in their tents, asleep or feigning sleep by then. I thanked Mr. Runkle for taking me to the infirmary and he responded, “You’re welcome; just let one of the dads know if you feel sick during the night.” The pain in my finger had pretty much disappeared, replaced by a nagging itch that would stay with me all the way home to Milwaukee the next day.

After my first bee sting, I still steadfastly avoided the insect but no longer feared it. I now considered them a mere annoyance more than the Insect Antichrist I’d previously made them out to be(e). I’d get stung again in my early thirties after trying to move a large opened bag of apparently bee-infected potting soil that had been left on the ground for hours. It happened as rapidly and unexpectedly as when I reached for my sleeping bag two decades before. It hurt like a motherfucker, but the pain gradually lessened and once again, I survived.

Best Films of the ’10s: #10-1

10. BOYHOOD
Richard Linklater’s best films dissect how the passage of time shapes our perception of narrative (Dazed and Confused,The Before Trilogy, Slacker); this is arguably more ambitious than all of them, and even more blatantly driven by a gimmick. But the cumulative effect of Boyhood is unprecedented, realizing a new way of seeing and storytelling only possible via the moving image; through his deft use of this structure, Linklater enables us to witness something both so singular and universal.

9. THE MASTER
As innovative as Kubrick and enigmatic as Malick, The Master builds on the sharp turn Paul Thomas Anderson took with There Will Be Blood, scrutinizing post-World War II America while often playing like a fever dream come down to earth. Joaquin Phoenix’s meticulous, intriguing performance is but one of many he gave this decade, so look to one of the last great ones from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman—his L. Ron Hubbard-esque figure perhaps the key to this film’s slippery, near-unknowable soul.

8. SHOPLIFTERS
As with his great forebear Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to familiar, familial themes across his discography with a rare consistency. So, place this well-deserved Cannes Palme D’or winner about a family of sorts up there with Nobody Knows and Still Walking and admire his ever-present humanism and kindhearted but fair depiction of what ordinary, flawed people do in order to survive while also seeking solace in each other (whether they’re able or even willing to reciprocate.)

7. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY
Peter Strickland’s strange, arresting film is not just a kinky parade of verbal abuse, face-sitting, being tied and locked up and other unmentionables alluded to behind closed doors; it’s also a profound, intriguing, complicated love story. Come for the dizzying homage to Italian horror and soft-core erotica and stay for a fascinating, eloquent exploration of what it means to play a role in a loving, sexual relationship—and how not fulfilling your partner’s expectations throws everything out of whack.

6. OSLO, AUGUST 31
This film follows a man on a one-day leave from rehab. We see him drift through a city (and traces of a former existence) teeming with life and pleasures running the gamut from the mundane to the sublime. And yet, director Joachim Trier never makes light of the conundrum of addiction and how effusively it colors both one’s surroundings and perceptions. Cold and unsentimental, yet affirmative and at times unexpectedly buoyant, Oslo, August 31 is a one-of-a-kind meditation on life itself.

5. STORIES WE TELL
Anyone can make a documentary about one’s own family; for her first nonfiction feature, actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley does just that, but she also explores how such a story can be told, considering differing points of view from each family member, the abundance (or absence) of found documentation available and how all that information is shaped into a narrative (what’s emphasized, what’s left out). As these details accumulate and overlap, Polley crafts a hybrid that does nothing less than open up and redefine what the genre’s capable of.

4. PARASITE
What more is there to say about Parasite? That it genuinely lives up to all the hype and then some? That it’s so well-constructed, you believe every facet of it even as it threatens to spiral out of control? Is it a class-conscious satire, a race-against-the-clock thriller or a revenge-driven horror story? Why not all of these things, and simultaneously at that? I won’t be surprised when I revisit this in another five or ten years if it feels more like a definitive record of its time than any documentary.

3. FRANCES HA
At first glance, Frances Ha shouldn’t work. It’s full of precious anachronisms like black-and-white cinematography, deliberately old-fashioned opening titles and a jarring soundtrack. Besides, the world did not need another tale of a single 27-year-old white woman in New York. And yet, for all of its quirks, actor Greta Gerwig (prefiguring her subsequent work as a filmmaker) and director Noah Baumbach’s collaboration is an utter delight—especially whenever Frances/Gerwig is paired with Sophie (Mickey Sumner), transforming the film into a closely observed study of female friendship.

2. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Reining in the excess that sometimes cheapened his earlier work while retaining his passion and drive, director Luca Guadagnino crafts almost an embarrassment of riches, from a monologue for the ages for the great character actor Michael Stuhlbarg to the exquisite modern classical/Sufjan Stevens score to Armie Hammer’s solid presence to Timothée Chalamet, whose breakthrough here is iconic as, if nothing at all like Dustin Hoffman’s in The Graduate. Beyond that, however, this film locates something vital and deeply affecting at the core of giving yourself completely over to love, and also loss.

1. CEMETERY OF SPLENDOUR
I’ve loved all of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films since Tropical Malady, but none have stayed with me like this one. Set in a military hospital in the director’s rural hometown, which he positions as a sort of purgatorial waystation for sleep-prone soldiers, it’s another magical realist mood piece. He draws connections between psychic mediums, ghosts, mythic sites and dreams, feeling both familiar and otherworldly. The film practically glides from scene to scene, concerned with such ephemera as the light in the sky or the unusual therapy provided by symmetrical rows of glowing neon tubes at the foot of the soldiers’ beds. Seductive and inscrutable in equal measure, it’s like nothing else I saw this decade.

Best Films of the ’10s: #20-11

20. MINDING THE GAP
A documentary rife with all the euphoria and turmoil (and every emotion in between) of day-to-day life via three young male skateboarders in Rockford, Illinois; one of them is director Bing Liu, whose editing and cinematography are both exceptional for a film of this scale and budget. Building to a powerful finale without calculation, this could serve as a definitive portrait of its time and place in the decades ahead.

19. STAYING VERTICAL
A drifter stumbles into a variety of not-so-pithy (and sometimes life-altering) situations, among them cruising, fatherhood, screenwriting and holistic medicine. Destitution, sheepherding and loud, vintage progressive rock also play into it, along with a birth, a death and a whole lot of sex (after those three things, what more could one want?) Like an Antonioni film scripted by Hal Hartley, it’s quirky for sure, but also hypnotic and transformative.

18. ROMA
Concerning a middle class family in early ’70s Mexico City as filtered through the perspective of its maid, Cleo, this draws heavily from director Alfonso Cuaron’s own life. Although individual scenes register as slice-of-life vignettes, their order and procession is key, for they lead towards something both heartbreaking and life-affirming. When Cleo says to a co-worker and friend, “I have so much to tell you,” it could be Cuaron’s own epitaph.

17. MOONLIGHT
In following three life stages (child, teen and adult) of a black man from a rough Miami neighborhood, Moonlight could have easily succumbed to its potentially gimmicky structure or turned out an Issue Picture about how an outsider never truly escapes his confining environment. Instead, the end result is uncommonly lyrical in its fluid pace (and camera movement), often gorgeous imagery and narrative/structural leaps—not to mention the rare intimacy it also achieves.

16. DRIVE
We go to movies for the seductive thrill of entering a world that, no matter how relatable, exists apart from reality; Drive not only does this but proudly, blatantly references other films to a degree that would shame even Quentin Tarantino. And yet, it never seems derivative or empty because it’s so gleefully, compellingly drunk on its own allure, crafting a Los Angeles tableau full of gripping chase sequences, brutal (but rarely gratuitous) violence and magnetic, minimalist cool.

15. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance gains so much from the barest essentials, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. One feels and absorbs the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen that culminates in a simple but profound final shot.

14. THE ACT OF KILLING / THE LOOK OF SILENCE
This two-pronged examination of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide of over two million Communist citizens focuses on the perpetrators (The Act of Killing) and their victims (The Look of Silence). The first film’s somewhat more effective as cinema, swerving fluidly between riotous absurdity and appalling horror as these men are asked to recreate the various ways in which they committed their acts. However, the second film is nearly as essential in its attempt to start a necessary dialogue about something that’s still verboten in this culture.

13. KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER
Built around a reference to Fargo (the movie, not the TV series), this wondrous mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch traverses from Tokyo to Minnesota and features a singularly odd protagonist who has a noodle-eating pet rabbit named Bunzo. Rinko Kikuchi, best known for Babel and The Brothers Bloom, brilliantly portrays the stubbornly insular misfit while filmmaking team the Zellner Brothers survey a structure that allows for both rigid symmetry and inspired surrealism.

12. HOLY MOTORS
Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) mysteriously travels in his stretch limo around Paris to a series of appointments where he slips from one role to the next, ranging from a heavily-costumed actor on a motion-capture soundstage to a foul, gibberish-sprouting sewer creature. Writer/director Leos Carax offers no explanation or rationale for why Mr. Oscar is hired to do what he does, only exploring to absurd heights what it means to inhabit a role and assume an identity.

11. MARWENCOL
A masterful illustration of art-as-therapy but also a riveting profile of Mark Hogenkamp, who deals with his trauma by constructing an ever-more elaborate facsimile of a World War II Belgian village populated with dolls he then photographs. Serious and contemplative rather than kitschy and flippant, he creates great art—as does director Jeff Malmberg, who carefully reveals the hidden layers of Hogenkamp’s story one by one without any exploitative slant.