Friday, July 02, 2004


For about ten years, Brando was the response I gave whenever someone would ask me who my favorite actor was. Now I say "Cary Grant" to that question, but in my youth, Brando possessed this iconic masculinity that was incredibly appealing. But more than that, I think, in his best performances, Brando appeared like a wounded lion, scuffling yet dangerously proud and feral. He's a vulnerable anti-hero who's still a man's man. In his revolutionary performance as Stanley Kowalski in the original A Streetcar Named Desire run, he reportedly exuded an animalistic sexual energy that electrified the stage. Women soaked their panties. Men shuddered in awe. Brando didn't front that energy, but generated it from within as demanded by Stanislavsky's Method. The Method revolutionized acting by imploring actors to search for the character from within themselves, and nobody came to represent the Method like Brando.

That authenticity can be hard to watch. When Pauline Kael first saw Brando on stage (I think it was I Remember Mama), she turned away, embarrassed for the actor who was apparently having an epileptic attack on screen. She later realized that she witnessed a new kind of authenticity in acting, and Kael never stopped being a fan. Even at the nadir of Brando's powers, critics as divergent as Stanley Kauffmann and Manny Farber got his back.

Brando was a strange man. Stubborn, idealistic to a fault, contradictory. I've read two of his bios and came away not understanding the guy any better. Unlike Welles, with whom he's often compared, he trashed his own career not because he wouldn't compromise, but because he believed his whole art was a compromise. He wasted his prodigious and singular talent out of spite, intent on coasting on dubious projects. His first six screen appearances were each stunning in their own way: from The Men, where he played a paraplegic veteran to On the Waterfront, Brando captured this propulsive blend of leading man and vulnerable anti-hero that was unseen and unmatched. Newman came close, but he's too closed-off an actor to project that Brando intimacy. His only other peer is Montgomery Clift, an exceptionally sensitive actor, who's really more of a character actor in a leading man's body.

After that brilliant beginning, his career slowly faded. His attempts at doing conventional leading roles were downright boring (Guys and Dolls, otherwise a treat; Sayonara - zzzzz), and over time, his acting became ever more eccentric and mannered. He'd resort to his arsenal of method tricks: he'd brush his face and mumble, and rely on inelegant movement and prissy gestures to throw off audiences, as he did in Mutiny on the Bounty. His performances began to work against the film, as Dan Sallitt smartly observed elsewhere. But he was still capable of great things in his lost decade of the Sixties: his masochistic fugitive in One Eyed Jacks (one of the most underrated movies ever made) contained that self-loathing vulnerability of his Fifties performances, and his repressed homosexual military man in Reflections in a Golden Eye was a revelation.

Some say he gave interesting performances in Pontecorvo's Burn!, and The Night Following Day, and hopefully I'll see these pictures one day. But his late achievements are, of course, Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and the haunted Paul in Bertolucci's magnificent Last Tango in Paris. Detractors say Brando gave a gimmicky performance in The Godfather, but I never failed to be moved by him in the garden, taking that orange peel in his mouth to scare his grandson before dropping dead. In Last Tango, it was hard to tell where acting ended and confession began, as in the justly lauded coffin scene. I know no other big stars who have revealed so much of themselves in one performance.

The autumn of his years brought us daffy self-parodies, but I always enjoyed seeing him in throwaway performances. His last memorable work is Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, where Brando basically became the auteur of the film's last 1/3 by imposing his willfully obtuse antics on to the film. As weird as Brando was (and I think he's a flaw in the film), it's hard to imagine another Kurtz in that film. It's the impenetrable mystery of the last act that turns Apocalypse from just an audaciously staged, bombastic treatment of the Vietnam War into a brilliant kabuki of warfare's inner demons.

Every so often, "a new Marlon Brando" bursts on to the scene. It's Mark Ruffalo now, maybe Russell Crowe or Ed Norton a few years back. All good actors, but there's nobody like Brando. For good and ill.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Top 70s Albums

What better way to blow twenty minutes than to post another list!

Indie music site Pitchfork Media produced a list of the Top 100 Albums of the 70s. Conventional, sure, but what's a poll if not a restatement of the canon. As such, this isn't bad, as they covered most of my favorites from this era. Now I prefer the hooks of Hunky Dory over the Eno-produced sprawl of Low, but the Bowie album is a worthy top choice. By the way, hasn't Bowie's rep really gone up in the last ten years or so? In the early Nineties, the general rock consensus was that the best 70s albums came from the classic rock gods (Stones, Led Zep), soul legends (Gaye, Green, Mayfield), and Trouser Press faves (Television, Gang of Four, Wire). Bowie's albums, however distinctive and influential, were treated as curiosities. Like Brian Eno's, in fact. As densely textured electronica-tinged rock became prominent, Bowie, a forefather to bands like Radiohead, appears to have surpassed the likes of the Stooges and New York Dolls in influence and esteem. Prog rock has similarly ascended. No way would Low have ranked above Exile on Main Street or Pink Flag in a critics' poll fifteen years ago.

Here's a top 25 from the malaise decade, not counting the Serge Gainsbourg compilations that collected the awesome shit he made in this era. (Disclaimer: the biggest holes in my music collection come from this decade, as I've never bothered to put out the $10 to pick up SuperSavers Marquee Moon, Who's Next, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, and many other essentials.) Btw, Serge Gainsbourg rules.

01. 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. (1974)
02. London Calling, The Clash (1979)
03. Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones (1972)
04. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)
05. A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles Davis (1972)
06. Loaded, The Velvet Underground (1970)
07. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan (1975)
08. Innervisions, Stevie Wonder (1973)
09. Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young (1979)
10. Parallel Lines, Blondie (1977)
11. There's a Riot Going On, Sly and the Family Stone (1971)
12. Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star (1978)
13. Superfly [Soundtrack], Curtis Mayfield (1972)
14. Moondance, Van Morrison (1970)
15. Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon (1970)
16. Hunky Dory, David Bowie (1975)
17. La Question, Francoise Hardy (1971)
18. Call Me, Al Green (1973)
19. Off the Wall, Michael Jackson (1979)
20. Transformer, Lou Reed (1972)
21. This Year's Model, Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1978)
22. Sticky Fingers, Rolling Stones (1971)
23. Exodus, Bob Marley and the Wailers (1977)
24. Pink Moon, Nick Drake (1970)
25. Let It Be, The Beatles (1970)

Honorable mention: Stone Flower, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Low, David Bowie; In a Silent Way, Miles Davis; Led Zeppelin IV, Horses, Patti Smith, Tonight's the Night, Neil Young.

Big holes: Brian Eno's solo stuff, Kraftwerk albums, Can, Gang of Four, Who's Next, Marquee Moon, King Crimson, Yes, and Prog Rock in general.

Bands I find dated: Wire, Sex Pistols, New York Dolls.

Better on compilation: Queen, Nina Simone, The Kinks, Caetano Veloso.

Not that into: Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Dick Loserman

Some time in the next two or three weeks, John Kerry will make his first big public decision. Picking a running mate, as Bill Clinton has said, may be the defining act of a challenger's campaign, the one decision a voter can use to evaluate the guy. Moreso than petty electoral concerns, picking the right sidekick -- as the Big Dog did with Gore -- can spark the campaign with new energy and credibility. Pick the wrong Robin, and you'll reinforce existing doubts about your judgment.

Kerry says he wants someone with "stature" and foreign policy experience, a guy who can be a credible commander-in-chief immediately should misfortune befall Kerry.

Nice lofty goals, but one problem: Dick Gephardt fits the bill under this criteria while John Edwards, reportedly the only other guy in serious consideration, doesn't. That's what scares me, and it provoked me to tackle this tired topic yet again, just a month after that last anti-Gep rant. Many insiders think Gephardt might have the inside track, and that's unacceptable.

My hope really, is that this is a red herring. Kerry's lowering expectations in the media by pretending that he's gonna pick the most uninspiring, plodding, feckless old fart around. Without this bait & switch, Edwards' selection would be more or less inevitable and unexciting. But by floating Gephardt's name, making the "surprise" Edwards pick will generate all kinds of excitement, much of it no doubt from relief that an antique sofa-bed wasn't tapped for the job. So it's a brilliant ploy, if in fact this is Kerry's ploy.

Consider the alternative. If he goes with the browless Missourian, Kerry would show himself to be exactly the lifeless, uninspired, risk-averse establishment figure we fear that he is. Together, they'd be Dull and Duller, generating all the ebullient synergy of Frankenstein and the Mummy. They would, in effect, look like a feeble Dem Duo from 1985, except with voting records stretching 95 years. Lt. Flip-Flop meets Sgt. Flip-Flop, the attack ads will cry.

In short, Gephardt is the loser's candidate. (Check out that link.) Dick Loserman. Not Dick Gethard, as mention of his name will elicit not erections but groans among liberal activists and pundits. Indeed, he's not even popular in Missouri. Only vocal supporter for Gephardt? The National Review.

I'm sure former House majority leader is a nice guy, a decent man, a fine candidate for a cabinet post. But please, no more Dicks at No. 2.

Public Service Annoucement

If you want your kid to live a healthy, fulfilling life, do not raise him or her to be a Red Sox fan. End of announcement.

Firefox over IE

I'm using a new browser, Mozilla's Firefox (currently in its last test version before a full release), which Slate wrote about here. The installation was quite easy, and so far, the browser is fast, sports a clean interface, and best of all, it's seemingly more secure. Lately, hackers have been exploiting an unpatchable defect in Internet Explorer by infecting web sites with viruses that plant malicious programs, including ones that record your keystrokes, in effect swiping your passwords and credit card info without you noticing. Unlike the uninformed paranoia that surrounded Gmail, this is a clear and present danger, the worst security breach this guy has seen, in fact.

Experts recommend that you avoid IE until Microsoft gets its act together. So I'd switch to Firefox or Opera, or Safari if you use Macs.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

this 'n that

  • A follow-up on the discussion between me and Donna on polarization. Here's David Brooks making some of the same points.

  • Speaking of partisanship, here's an interesting discussion about Bush's loathsome ad splicing Hitler into footage of Democrats railing against his policies. This is under the guise of Bush's retarded "Optimist" theme, which Kinsley eviscerated here. I suppose when you can't possibly make a case for your credibility, competence, or effectiveness, why not go with "Optimism"? You don't have to point to a record of achievement; all you gotta do is smile a lot. But politically, the optimism angle pre-empts any criticism by tagging the critic as "pessimistic." And Kerry, stupidly, is playing into Bush's hands.

  • Hipster meccas springing everywhere? An interesting thinkpiece in the LA Times about how urban planning is now about attracting a hip crowd -- gays, single folks, and the creative class -- by throwing money at museums, trendy bars and restaurants, loft developments, etc. What's sacrificed is a stable population in a neighborhood with schools, factories, etc.

  • Lastly, for those movie nerds sparring about Fahrenheit 9/11 elsewhere, check out prominent liberal blogger Kevin Drum comparing Moore's dishonest techniques to those deployed by war supporters. A well-argued post that gives fodder to both sides.

  • Monday, June 28, 2004

    My pathetic day job...

    includes defending patriotic, upstanding proprietors of muscle relaxation therapy from the malicious discrimination of The Man.

    Next week for your intrepid attorney for justice: defending Darwin's teachings from small-town rubes, and pinning down the man in the Bush Administration who leaked covert CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.

    (Btw, can anyone hook me up with freelance writing gigs so I can get out of this racket?)

    The First Black President

    No, I'm not talking about Clinton. Here's a piece by E.J. Dionne on Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama, easily the most impressive candidate I've seen in the last two or three election cycles.

    Dionne's piece follows up this fine portrait from the New Yorker. Surely he'll be groomed for the top job after he beats whoever's gonna replace public-sex-lovin' Jack Ryan, who dropped out last week. His only liability is his name.

    Dargis poached by the NY Times

    Ouch. And thus, the LA Times' edgier film coverage takes a step back, though I never thought Manohla was an especially good fit for them. Or rather the Times for Dargis, one of my favorite critics (though one with whom I disagree often). Dailies deprive her the chance to write nuggets like the following:

    The actress has a slight, childlike body with tiny breasts and boyish hips, but she has a monumental bush that sits on her vulva like a throw rug. Her pubic hair is the most adult part of her anatomy, and it might not be worth commenting on if all that dark, luxuriant hair, so at odds with the vogue for neatly manicured, little-girl pubes, didn't give her sex a vaguely menacing quality -- it's like a small animal ready to jump up and bite the nearest appendage.

    Though prone to overwriting, Dargis' LA Weekly pieces had a lot of bite. That sharp edge was necessarily dulled by the Times. Still, I had to applaud the paper for putting her reviews of such high art obscurities as Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home and Godard's In Praise of Love on the front page of the Calendar section. After Dargis' addition, the paper paid more attention to the kind of demanding auteurist films that would otherwise slip through the cracks. With her departure, the LA Times is now left with the resolutely unexciting Ken Turan and plot-summary specialist Kevin Thomas, a non-entity. The company town paper desperately needs to add a strong critical voice to the mix ASAP.

    Over in the Big Apple, Dargis, who's an ardent champion of difficult films, will provide a better balance to the more mainstream A.O. Scott than her predecessor, the overwrought stylist Elvis Mitchell. However, I think Keller and co. would have been better off hiring a younger, brasher voice, like Mike D'Angelo who recently parted ways with Time Out New York.

    NB: The NY Times is evidently delighted with Dargis' addition. Check out this post from LA Observed, which posted an interoffice memo from the Times.