But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?
Why? Why ask why?
An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”
Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.
And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.
1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he also helps re-establish the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.
10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too
Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)
Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja) Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM) Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone) Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM) Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT) Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside) Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM) Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)
BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION: Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)
I’m going to say it was 1993 because who’s going to tell me it wasn’t, right? It was, in any case, one of those blessed years when a good chunk of my weekly salary was earned talking regularly to jazz musicians and I was having an especially jovial and illuminating conversation with McCoy Tyner about, mostly, the big band he sometimes, though not often enough, drove onto concert stages. Somewhere, the talk took a slight veer into the tricky issue of progenitors and I asked Tyner what he thought of Erroll Garner.
Why? This is where it gets hazy, because I’m not altogether sure how it came up unless Garner came to my packrat mind as an example of a jazz pianist who rarely (if ever) fronted or accompanied large ensembles, owing to a sprawling, multi-layered attack that telegraphed plenty of orchestration on its own. I also think that I was hearing much of the same lavish, often rousing ornamentation in Tyner’s late style – though I thought it prudent not to frame the question in this fashion.
Tatum, Monk, Bud Powell…these were the names Tyner was willing, even eager to claim as influences. But Erroll Garner? Not so much and, though I never used his remarks on this topic till now, I distinctly remember him saying of Garner, not unkindly, that unlike the others in his pantheon, “he never made the piano sound like anything other than a piano.”
I thought, back then, I knew what Tyner meant; that Garner, whatever his many attributes, wasn’t considered one of those innovators who transformed the landscape around them, and not just jazz, or the piano. As I say, I didn’t use the material in my piece, in large part because I thought Tyner’s estimation was a kinder, gentler variation of the ways in which Garner’s once-glowing reputation had dimmed along jazz’s upper reaches.
Not that plenty of people weren’t trying hard twenty-something years ago to stoke those fires again; esoteric classicists such as Dick Hyman would talk Garner up any chance he got. Always there were the inexhaustible efforts of Garner’s manager Martha Glaser, whose devotion to her client’s best interests endured well beyond her client’s death in 1977. She was always ready to talk on the phone about Garner and promote an event celebrating his legacy – and on those occasions when I obliged her, I routinely insisted to my readers that Erroll Garner deserved to remembered as much more than the man who wrote “Misty.”
My readers, I like to think, may have been smarter about such things than musicians since Garner’s crowd-pleasing, readily accessible swing left them feeling very happy. Glaser herself died a year ago next month at 93. What’s happened since would make her very happy.
For this has been the year that Erroll Garner’s reputation has been rejuvenated by the release in September of The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony Legacy), a three-disc package that presents in unedited form on the first two discs the live performance on September 19, 1955 (yes, if you’re scoring, 60 years ago) by Garner, drummer Denzil Best and bassist Eddie Calhoun in what is now the Sunset Arts Center in Carmel, California. The third disc offers the same edited version of the concert that, along with Time Out and Kind of Blue, became one of Columbia’s evergreen jazz LPs of the decade.
Not everybody loved it, though I never quite understood the beefs since they seemed to have little if anything to do with the music. After I finally bought my own copy of the original LP in the mid-1970s having heard so much about it for years, a perpetually grouchy friend of mine sneered that it wasn’t an album so much as a mood-setting accessory for “swinging” bachelors. This jaundiced view, I’m embarrassed to say, held unjust dominion over my own; when at first, I was captivated by Garner’s high spirits, jaunty humor, and infectious cleverness, I would instead see these qualities as happy hour ruffles and flourishes intended to get a rise out of the Carmel crowd, which seemed cued to applaud every ornate lick and at every point when a familiar melody made its presence known. Then and now, I wondered what they were really clapping for: Garner’s prefatory inventions or their own ability to, so to speak, Name That Tune when it materialized.
And yet, my inner crank was at war with my even younger self, who was enchanted with Garner’s witty, crafty 1947 solo, “Frankie and Johnny Fantasy” or immersed myself in my parents’ 1967 LP, That’s My Kick, with its double conga drums and hooky original compositions, “Nervous Waltz” and “Like It Is.” A self-taught, ambidextrous pianist who couldn’t help growling at the keyboard seemed eccentric enough to avoid being diminished as lightweight. Yet as with such sui generis pianists as Ahmad Jamal and Keith Jarrett (who also makes strange noises while he plays), Garner’s popularity with the public seemed something of an indictment to jazz snobs.
But as with the futile complaints against Ella Fitzgerald’s unfettered glee in invention, carping against Garner’s similar instincts for joy and fun is ultimately a losing battle. Also, Garner is held in high regard by such jazz-snob favorites as Martial Solal and Cecil Taylor, who (again, if memory serves) thought the free-form preludes Garner often indulged before he dug into a melody were too often overlooked on their own merits. The peerlessly resourceful contemporary pianist Geri Allen is one of the principal forces behind restoring The Complete Concert by the Sea to the marketplace and her contribution to the liner notes makes a persuasive case for “Mr. Garner’s innovative, singular piano technique and exuberant musicality personifies a joy of fearless virtuosity and exploration…the very spirit of swing, free improvisation and the blues.”
Suits me, and apparently it likewise suits the critical cognoscenti who have all but unanimously deemed this package the year’s best re-issue – though I suppose it’s not technically a reissue if it’s more than doubling the original LPs 11 tracks with previously unreleased pieces, including a near-breathtaking turn on “The Nearness of You” and a deeply satisfying run-through of “Bernie’s Tune.”
More than anything, the set has put Garner’s name back in play for pantheon status, though who really wants to engage in that game when Joy is the final arbiter? I’ll let that somewhat confounding question sit in mid-air while one begins reconsidering how much Erroll Garner lives in the spirits of jazz pianists past and present, young and old, “progressive” and “mainstream” (or however you make such distinctions in your own mind). Other than similar re-packaged goods it augurs, Complete Concert by the Sea opens up that potentially delicious discussion. And whatever its virtues of resiliency, “Misty” hasn’t all that much to do with it.
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If this weekend’s most touted opener is a Noah Baumbach movie, then I guess we can close the books on the summer movie season. I’m not using this space to assess the grosses and trends. Better you should read this guy, who’s so much smarter about these things than I am.
Also be warned this makes no claims of being comprehensive: I’m saving my remarks on Straight Outta Compton for a separate occasion. There are a few movies from this summer that I wanted to get around to, but couldn’t. (Shaun the Sheep, come baaaack!!) There also are those I may still get around to before long (Trainwreck) and others (Jurassic World) that are on my prohibitive life-is-short list. So here, in no particular order, is most of what I saw in the dark since Memorial Day.
Mad Max: Fury Road – As with almost everybody else, I admired its eccentric (yet austere) design, the proto-feminist tweaking of heroic prototypes and its masterly narrative drive. George Miller may be the best in the world right now at such tension-release dynamism. And yet…as was the case with just about every action film I saw this season, even a movie as accomplished and engrossing as this, Fury Road seemed to have its way with me as I was watching it and then, as soon as it ended, was all done with me.
Tomorrowland– Was this summer’s prototype of Big Fat Bust until Not-So-Fantastic-Four (see below). I liked it better than most others and totally bought what it was selling despite its flaws because I, too, was a credulous, New Frontier-besotted 12-year-old in 1965 who thought a visit to the New York World’s Fair was the Best Day of His Whole Life up to that point. Maybe it would have been at least a more interesting movie if its focus had been on the Hugh Laurie character that questioned (as I often do) whether we truly deserve to have a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.
Dope – As of now, I no longer care how much it resembles Risky Business. But I still care, after so many other movies over so many weeks, about the cool jerks at this story’s core along with the bullies, thugs and airheads who make trouble for them. Say it with me: It’s not the concept. It’s the characters (stupid)!
Inside Out — So great that even kids loved it. But I’m betting they loved Minions more.
Ant-Man– Or, “What Would Have Happened If Leo McCarey directed The Incredible Shrinking Man With a Bigger Budget.” And does the hero really have to become an Avenger? Speaking of which…
The Avengers: Age of Ultron– I still snicker over Captain America saying how even he can’t afford to move back to Brooklyn, where he’d last lived in the 1940s. I can’t remember anything else that happened. Speaking of which…
(Not So) Fantastic Four –.We could ourselves be heroes if we found something to like about it, so let’s see…Kate Mara’s teeny little segue into a fake Balkan accent was adorable and Michael B. Jordan’s brash side deserves a movie all to itself. But paraphrasing the great Theodore Sturgeon’s observation about science fiction in general, ninety percent of everything is shit, especially this. And when the even the movie’s director agrees, what’s the point of being “contrary to received wisdom” at all?
Mr. Holmes– Fragment of a conversation, somewhere in London, 1893. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: You know, James, my good friend Watson seems to believe you and I have much in common. HENRY JAMES: Indeed! And how might that be? CONSULTING DETECTIVE: He is of the opinion, and I respect his instincts on such matters better than those of any man, that you and I are of a rare species of humankind that takes absolutely nothing for granted. Naturally, despite my disinclination towards reading fiction, I had to see if he was right and as I evaluate the available evidence, it’s quite clear you possess gifts for observing comparable to mine and for using such observations to assess the full range of human temperament with depth and felicity that exist nowhere else in our shared language. HENRY JAMES: (staring at his interlocutor, smiling) I am greatly honored, even mildly flabbergasted, by your remarks, sir. But…with respect to your Mister…. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Doctor… HENRY JAMES: Yes, of course. My apologies…Doctor Watson…I fear he labors under a misperception about our respective capacities. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: But, my dear fellow, I have become quite familiar with your work… HENRY JAMES: …And I with yours, Mister Holmes, for you are now quite possibly the most famous man in Britain. But…if I may speak frankly…. CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Please. HENRY JAMES: There is, in fact, quite a lot that you take for granted…Not much is lost on you, I will concede, but… CONSULTING DETECTIVE: (Back stiffened, peevish) And what precisely would these…omissions comprise? HENRY JAMES: (beginning to speak, then stops, pauses) Precision is difficult, even evasive, on such matters. I think it best that you find out for yourself…And eventually, I suspect that you will.
Love and Mercy – You see Paul Dano in the lead role and you think, “He’s Brain Wilson!” You see John Cusack in the lead role and you think, “What an astute and sensitively observed commentary John Cusack is making on Brian Wilson’s life!” This distinction in no way impairs your appreciation of either the movie or, most especially, Elizabeth Banks. But you’re aware of the distinction nonetheless.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Forget that set piece with the plane. That’s over and done before the opening credits, which will always be the best part of these movies because Lalo Schifrin is, if not God, at least the god of theme songs. (I’d see any movie version of Mannix as long as its theme comes along.) The best stunts in this movie are performed by its star’s vanity, which will outlast this franchise the way roaches will survive Nuclear Armageddon .
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – It didn’t try as hard the one directly above to achieve its effects and that’s why it doesn’t matter whether you remember the original series or not. Still wondering if it’ll get the chance to do a sequel because it deserves one. Henry Cavill, judging from the Dawn of Justice trailers, could use something else to do with his time and so, for different reasons, could Hugh Grant.
Phoenix – Nina Hoss could have been a superstar in the Silent Era, which is the supreme compliment you could make towards any living motion picture actor. I saw this on the day of TCM’s daylong tribute to Garbo and Hoss has the same magnetism, especially in stillness. If she were embedded in ice, she would continue to emit vibrations
Listen to Me, Marlon – Suppose, just suppose, that back in the early 1960s, instead of wasting everybody’s time and money with a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty that nobody wanted or needed, somebody had managed to secure the rights to Henderson the Rain King and convinced Brando to play the title role. We’d have had a better movie – or at least, a more interesting failure – and Brando’s slide off the rails, however inevitable, may not have been as precipitous. Or…maybe nothing would have helped. In any case, what he says towards the end about his a-hole father applies to him as well: He did the best he could.
Amy – Thomas Pynchon said it best: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before but there is nothing to compare it to now…It is too late…”
The Best of Enemies – Preening, pompous, patrician peacocks peck, poke, prod and prick pretentiously without profundity or pertinence.
The End of the Tour – Maybe the only movie on this list that doesn’t leave you tossed aside at the end as you begin forgetting what you just saw. It’s a little movie that keeps your head (and heart) toying with very big questions long after it’s over. Also it makes you curious to read a difficult book that it’s not based on – which is so much cooler than another metal object exploding in mid-air
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When I now think of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (1964-1968), it is as a toy, a plaything of youth. As with most toys, I locked the show away in a high, hard-to-reach corner of my crowded memory bank. I’ve taken it down a couple times in recent years through Netflix and assorted snatches on YouTube and, as you’d expect, it looks a lot smaller, even chintzier than it once did. But I also think it deserves a reassessment more nuanced than the too-casual shorthand even fans of the show use to dismiss what, for a brief time, was a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon.
When, for instance, people lazily describe U.N.C.L.E. as a “Cold War spy spoof”, they’re wrong in several shades of the same color. In the first place, labeling Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) as spies is as imprecise as labeling James Bond a spy. All three are international cops. Period. (Doctor No pegged Bond more or less correctly at the start of his movie career as a “stupid policeman.”) This made U.N.C.L.E. less a spy show than another cop show (or a western in business suits) only with outlandish (if often prescient) technology and even more outlandish villains.
Frame such factors with series co-creator Sam Rolfe’s deadpan-earnest establishment of the ersatz United Network Command for Law Enforcement (appreciation for whose cooperation in each episode’s closing credits prompted job applications from credulous eight-year-olds of all ages) and you have a show that was less an outgrowth of the espionage genre and more like science-fiction, an alternative depiction of the mid-sixties in which the whole USA-vs. -USSR Cold War back-and-forth poses less of a threat to the human race than lone-wolf maniacs, bonded by some bureaucratically-arranged netherworld labeled THRUSH, who try to outdo each other in threats of mass destruction and/or global domination.
Indeed, when I think back to the self-absorbed sociopaths targeted by U.N.C.L.E.’s rainbow coalition of sharply-dressed “enforcement agents,” it’s less reminiscent of the bad old days of Imperialist Dogs Toe-to-Toe Against Commie Ratfinks and more akin to the bad new days of free-lance terrorists and renegade masters-of-the-fiscal-universe who wont let anyone stop them from making themselves richer and everybody else poorer – or worse. Is it possible that a nearly fifty-year TV program could offer clues as to how to at least put up a cool front against such up-to-the-minute inchoate peril?
Some of the recurring gimmicks retain their modest appeal, even when they seem less credible than ever. That “ordinary tailor’s shop” in Manhattan’s East 40s that served as covert access to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters may have been the worst-kept secret in New York City. Some bad guys broke through the dressing room door in the very first scene of the very first episode. And after that, nobody thought of changing location in four seasons? Really? And you mean to tell us that none of those hapless civilians drafted for world-saving duty (especially in the first season) who dropped by the office for a gentlemanly pat on the back from U.N.C.L.E.’s stiff, avuncular COO Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) ever told their friends and family what that dressing-room hook did when the signal was given? There had to have been a front entrance, nondescript of course, for office-supply salespeople and take-out lunch deliveries – though the United Network Command etc. might well have been as much a trailblazer for today’s well-endowed employee cafeterias as it was for cellular communication. I’m already thinking too much here. This MAD parody, a sweet-little relic of its own kind, captured all the first-season absurdities as well as I can.
I’d never known this, but at the very beginning, the idea was that each week U.N.C.L.E. agents would somehow wander into the lives of a hapless civilian who would, either willingly or not, tumble through the looking glass into this aforementioned alternative universe of private militias, mountain garrisons, chemical weapons, psychological warfare and apocalyptic tactics. Even after this formula wore off after a season or so, it was responsible for Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s better episodes. You liked having someone who wasn’t in on the game wandering around this arcane world on your behalf partly because, as droll, charming and adroit as Vaughn and McCallum were in playing their respective roles, Solo and Kuryakin were basically well-tailored ciphers. Napoleon Solo remains the coolest name ever given to a TV action hero, thanks to Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who the producers brought in at the start for suggestions. But Napoleon (“Nappy Spice” would now be his new-jack moniker) was little more than a jumble of mannerisms encased in two-button suits with a suave-but-chilly intellect, somewhat reminiscent of the recently deceased John F, Kennedy. Maybe that was enough to keep us in Solo’s corner for those four seasons. But I now wish Fleming had left behind a better idea of who this Solo guy was and where he came from. Somewhere among the online clutter, there was something about him being Canadian. That wasn’t going to fly on American network TV in the early-to-mid-1960s, when it was OK for leading men to be Canadian – Dig that crazy Raymond Burr and who the hell is William Shatner! – but not leading roles.
(Most, but not all, of these notions – especially the absence of a back story for Napoleon Solo – are addressed in the new Guy Ritchie movie, about which I shall say nothing more except that it’s better than you’d expect it to be — even if you expect it to be just as it was when it was your favorite toy. Which it wont be. But that’s not our topic for today. So where were we?)
You know what else I wish? And this is nothing against McCallum, who managed to bring intriguing flashes of temperament into Ilya’s characterization. I wish the show had followed another of Fleming’s original suggestions and partnered Napoleon with a woman. Her name was supposed to be April Dancer, which was used as the title character’s name in the puerile spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. In a more far-sighted and progressive age of TV when networks weren’t concerned with offending white viewers in the Deep South, it wouldn’t have been too out-of-line for the producers to cast a woman-of-color in the role. Any number of beautiful, magnetic black actresses could have made the grade at that time; to name only a few, Diana Sands, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols or even Dorothy Dandridge, who back then was in dire need of a fresh new break. This Man From U.N.C.L.E. could have broken the barrier that I Spy breached a season later while giving Americans their own urbane, witty and altogether transformative version of British TV’s The Avengers. Anything’s possible in alternate universes, even my suggestion a year ago of a different lead for Hawaii Five-O.But if even the remakes and updates we’ve been seeing of these shows are any indication, producers’ visions still go only so far, and no farther.
OK, Stranger Than Paradise, right? Jim Jarmusch? 1984? That one. See it soon, if you haven’t yet. Holds up pretty well.
That’s not the main reason I’m calling this meeting, but anyway…
Remember how Screamin’ Jay Hawkins original 1956 recording of “I Put A Spell On You” was a recurring motif because it was the only record that Eva (Eszter Balint), the movie’s truculent teen-aged Hungarian émigré, wanted to listen to? Now remember, also, when Eva gets into a car with Eddie (John Lurie), her lizard-cool cousin from the Lower East Side, and his not-quite-as-cool sidekick Eddie (Richard Edson) for a New York-to-Cleveland road trip and she insists they put on her Screamin’ Jay tape. And even though Willie’s borderline-sick of the tune, Eddie’s really into it.
By the time I crawled off the Van Wyck and squeezed myself onto the Jackie Robinson Parkway, I was struck dumb by the following revelation: Ornette Coleman is kickass driving music! It doesn’t matter whether you’re cruising through the woods or mired in gridlock. Coleman’s music in all his varied settings, even on his inflammatory -at-the-time tenor album from 1962, can transfix you into a state that’s somehow both chillaxed and vigilant. In some quadrants, it’s called being Very Much Alive To Your Moment. Whatever you call it, it’s odd (but not really) that I’m somehow more attentive to Coleman while in motion than when sitting still, either when watching him live or listening to his records.
Indeed, I was fond of telling city folk of varying ages claiming they could not, or would not ever engage Ornette Coleman’s compulsively renegade art that in the era of digital-portable music being piped inside one’s head, there were rewards and maybe even illumination to be found in letting, say, “Lonely Woman.” “Change of the Century,” or “Song X” weave through the beautiful mosaic of ambient urban sound. Whether your day needed added propulsion or a demilitarized zone, the music, at any tempo or tone, could provide both. To think that there are people who remember when all this music was able to do was make people mad — even those who should have known better, and eventually did.
Did anybody take me up on it? Don’t know, don’t care, because I kept at it even though I knew what I was up against: Trying to explain “harmolodics.” It was Coleman’s own term for his aesthetic principles, and while there is no altogether satisfying definition for the word, it may be characterized in part as organic music that invents and re-invents itself off improvisation itself and not on chords. Even though his music has been around for at least a couple generations, there are those who still have trouble with the harmolodic concept, however much the music associated with it evokes powerful strains of both bebop and the blues at full cry.
Listen to that saxophone! I would say to the hardheads. If a singer made those sounds, you’d be swooning, swaying and even rocking with it. Those sounds over time did make my point, and then some. I’m hardly the first to insist that, however much Coleman’s ringing, vibrating tone was associated with all things modern and abstract, there was also something about his phrasing that was deep-rooted, even embryonic. But then there was the music’s relationship with its rhythm section. What was there to hold onto? the hardheads complained. I insisted that were always beats you could not only ride, but also dance to, if you bothered to look for them.. The problem (I always added mostly for their benefit) was that the dancing that went along with those beats hadn’t been invented yet.
That last part, of course, is so very wrong. Lost of people I knew did dance to Coleman’s music; sometimes spontaneously, even organically off the improvisations as the music mandated; and sometimes, as they did at Lincoln Center in the summer of 1997 to the jams laid down by that aforementioned Prime Time band. This was at the climax of a weeklong tribute to All Things Ornette, whose sundry participants included the New York Philharmonic and the downtown power company known as Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. I reviewed that festival for Newsday, concluding somewhat cheekily that we’d all been living in Coleman’s world for decades now, only we’re now beginning to notice it.
I’d still like to believe that, especially given the play given last week to Coleman’s passing in major news outlets. Yet there somehow seemed greater attention paid in mass-market precincts to Christopher Lee, the venerable British character actor and horror-movie cult star, whose death was reported the same day. I’m as much in thrall to movie cults as any dork, but there’s a very big difference between being a reliably accomplished bogeyman and changing the furniture in people’s heads.
Yet the deep sadness that reverberates among those who do appreciate Coleman’s significance over his death comes from two places. One is the belief that, even at 85, he was ready and able to keep working in public. (There was at least one scheduled tour date for later this year, in Paris.) The other, more complicated, resides in a melancholy suspicion that with Ornette Coleman’s departure, we’re also saying goodbye to the future; or perhaps more to the point, a belief in the future’s possibilities. The risks he took back in the fifties embodied jazz’s last great modernist convulsion. As long as he was around, it was possible to imagine him still leading the charge for further discovery.
But as long as there remain multitudes out there who still don’t quite “get” what Coleman was up to, the future he mapped out will always be with us, indoctrinating new enlistees in the harmolodic cause, tempting fresh crops of painters, poets, dancers and, of course, musicians in all marketing categories to think organically – or think different, at least. As I wrote 18 years ago, it’s still Ornette’s world, no matter how long it takes for the rest of that world to figure it out.
In the meantime…If you think you’re missing something in Ornette’s music and really wish to “know” more, the way to do it is not by sitting rock-still and barber-close to the speakers hoping to somehow catch a key phrase or progression that will somehow reveal the universe’s secrets. Take the music with you when you move, whether on foot or in a vehicle. When his sounds merge with the colors, sensations, thoughts and white noise passing through you, they still may not make anything resembling what you consider “sense, but they may well pry open your senses to new ways of living and feeling your way through time. There are, as Art always knows, no conclusions and Art doesn’t want you to find them anyway. Art says: Here are new frequencies and stations for you to follow. Carry them with you and everything you think is old may turn out to be shrink-wrapped and shiny.
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Suppose – just suppose – Orson Welles had made The Magnificent Ambersons in 1941 and followed it with Citizen Kane in 1942 instead of the other way around? A Booth Tarkington tale about Midwestern gentry at the hinge of the 19th and 20th centuries may have lacked the without-a-net audacity of an epic inspired by the life of a powerful media lord. But one guesses that Ambersons would have been just as innovative and, over time, just as influential as Kane turned out to be.
Welles still might have gotten into the same amount of trouble with William Randolph Hearst and his friends over Kane. But maybe Ambersons, assuming it was successful enough, would have smoothed the director-impresario-genius’ path at the outset, making smear campaigns or other potentially nasty dustups less damaging over the long haul.
Think of what an empowered, professionally secure Welles could have done throughout the subsequent decades…
Of course, such “might-have- beens” and “should-have- beens” are littered all over Welles’ life story. (I still think Welles, who by that time had little else going on, should have run in his native Wisconsin against “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy for the U.S. Senate in 1946. Talk about a real might-have-been…)
Anyway, here’s what really happened: Welles’ control of The Magnificent Ambersons‘ final cut was taken out of his hands by the same RKO Studios that had all but given him the keys to the castle a few years before. The movie’s original 2 1/2-hour and 12-minute running time had been whittled down to 88 minutes. (The whole time this surgery was taking place, Welles was spending a lot of time in Brazil directing the visual potpourri whose surviving fragments would surface in theaters decades later as It’s All True.) When the dust settled, The Magnificent Ambersons, which many, including Welles, have contended to be an even greater movie than Kane, was regarded as a noble fiasco and marked the beginning of Welles’ wilderness years.
If you’ve never seen the movie before, prepare to discover, one of the most hauntingly
beautiful American films ever made. It transfigures elements of Tarkington’s novel into a vision of lost time. It tells of dreams literally squirming away from the grasp of its well-heeled characters.
There is, first and foremost, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), an auto tycoon who returns to his Hoosier hometown with his vivacious daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), partly to win the heart of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), whom he’d loved and lost as a younger man. With her husband’s death, Isabel seems poised to fulfill Eugene’s long-withheld yearnings – except that her son, George (Tim Holt), a spoiled, insolent brat, stands in Eugene’s way. Forced to choose between Eugene’s promise of love and financial security and George’s petulant, inchoate neediness, Isabel opts for the latter, with dire consequences.
As you watch this film, you’re so enraptured by its visual sweep, narrative detail and resonance that you wonder what its lost 44 minutes could have added. Or is one’s knowledge of irretrievable scenes and dialogue part of what adds to The Magnificent Ambersons aura? I’m still trying to figure it out.
But there are some things I do know for sure: for instance, the scene of Eugene and Lucy stepping out of a winter’s night into a luminous, festive parlor that seems to swallow us all in a welter of gaiety and promise. Generations of filmmakers would break their necks trying to match that set piece, and few have even approached its magic.
And then there are the actors. Holt, whose only other movie role of lasting consequence came in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, has been viewed as a surrogate for Welles himself as George, but the director wisely thought it would be best if he sit this one out. He couldn’t have done better than Holt. Cotton is grave, sad and unassumingly noble as Eugene, while Baxter shows precocious control of her character’s unsettled temperament. Most of all, there’s Agnes Moorehead as George’s Aunt Fanny, who may well be the most romantic dreamer of the family and feels the most pain from forsaken hope.
As with Kane, one is always aware of what Ambersons is transmitting, through the code of the subconscious, about its director’s personality and long-range future. The “comeuppance” that townspeople are awaiting for George Minifer looms larger with every rash act of hubris. And when it comes, hardly anyone is around to notice or appreciate it.
If you know anything at all about what happened to Welles after this film was made, this is the kind of detail poignant enough to sting your eyes.
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Each of us who loves Billie Holiday in all her mercurial variations favors the one we saw first. For me, it was a clip from the TV recital she gave in 1957 for the nonpareil CBS special, “The Sound of Jazz.” It was the kind of show my parents would have watched attentively with their friends in our living room if only because there were so few TV shows of any kind in those primordial days that featured so many black people in one place playing music. And I was the kind of five-year-old who’d have stopped and stared at it while all the grownups alternately chattered and listened. But I don’t remember much about the show’s first telecast and didn’t see Holiday’s performance until ten years later when her segment was excerpted on some black history special on the same network. And what I saw, however fleeting, haunted me forever.
For starters, I never heard a voice like hers before – and this was about the time that, according to conventional wisdom, that voice was less powerful, less robust and more frayed than it had been in its earlier bloom. It still sounded special to me; so much so, that I couldn’t find the words to characterize it. Even now, I feel myself groping for adjectives like “sultry,” “pliant,” or even “delicately spiced.” (Wince.) With any force of nature, to describe is to diminish its power.
Yet the voice was for me the least of it at that moment. What hit me in a deeper place was what my older, wiser self would now call her sang-froid. The composure, regal and raw, was a compound I’d seen before in dozens of singers, black and white, old and young, male and female. But never before had I been aware that such commanding presence could be as inscrutable as the main character in a mystery story; a master thief, say, blithely slipping into a dark alley concealing gilded swag, or a cynical detective who’d stumbled onto a solution she wished she hadn’t, but wasn’t going to let its horror trip her up — or keep rough justice at bay. She was fire and ice, calibrated with a perfection that I’d dimly suspected was harder to achieve than it looked.
And by “harder,” I am not speaking of the legendary tribulations of Holiday’s life. For too long, her heartbreak and (sometimes self-inflected) pain have been placed at the center of her story at the expense of her craft. Her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, provided the lens through which people continue to view Holiday’s life and work, even if the intervening years have disclosed many flaws and inaccuracies, beginning with its memorable first sentence. I now believe that book has a lot in common with her rendition of a pop standard. They share many of the same attributes: dramatic timing, pungent lyricism and rueful wit coated with honey and bitters. Others may have used her music to wallow in their own sadness. She did not. The troubles were tools in her paint box along with all the other things at her disposal.
I`d rather hear her now. She`s become more mature. Sometimes you can sing words every night for five years, and all of a sudden it dawns on you what the song means. I played ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a long time – and didn’t like it – and all of a sudden it meant something. So with Billie, you know she’s not thinking now what she was in 1937, and she’s probably learned more about different things. And she still has control, probably more control now than she did back then. No, I don’t think she’s in decline.
“She sings way behind the beat and then brings it up – hitting right on the beat. You can play behind the beat, but every once in a while you have to cut into the rhythm section on a beat and that keeps everybody together. Sinatra does it by accenting a word. A lot of singers try to sing like Billie, but just the act of playing behind the beat doesn’t make it sound soulful.
“I don’t think that guys like Buck Clayton are the best possible accompanists for her. I’d rather hear her with Bobby Tucker, the pianist she used to have. She doesn’t need any horns. She sounds like one anyway.”
— MILES DAVIS ON BILLIE HOLIDAY, Jazz Review interview, 1958
I’m with Miles on this. I always have been. One’s first Billie, as I said earlier, is one’s best Billie. And it was with the later, presumably less vital Billie that I fell in love. For those like Nat Hentoff, with whom Davis was giving the interview, the younger, more buoyant Billie Holiday who broke into public consciousness in the mid-1930s singing with the likes of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and, most especially, her musical soul mate Lester Young, was the best by far. And I get that. The Columbia recordings from that period attest to a sense of joy and discovery in Holiday’s singing that burst through even the tiniest reproductions of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” or “I’ll Never Be The Same.”
As she became older and life got tougher, the joy receded and something more acerbic and world-weary crept into her singing. Yet I now believe what many regarded as decline was more like adjustment, realignment and even growth. Cops and cabaret owners may have pummeled the swagger out of her. But in all her performances, including her book, Holiday never came across as someone who took shit indefinitely. The struggle toughened her. That’s what struggle tends to do. And she used what she learned to get a better handle on what she was doing. The worse it got, the better she got. That’s what Miles Davis was talking about. It’s how I prefer to think of her, whether she’s deep in thought listening to a playback, as in Milt Hinton’s mesmerizing photographs from the 1958 Lady in Satin sessions or making her way through an especially tricky passage across a song’s bridge.
And the joy never really went away. Look again at that clip from “Sound of Jazz.” Notice how her head shakes when she’s listening to the other musicians and how her eyes shimmer as each soloist cruises by. And When her once-beloved Prez steps to the plate and blows what I and many others believe to be his last great solo, her face glows brightest, the years fall away and you could swear you can feel the same energy she had in her 20s when everything that happened to her, good and bad, was still ahead.
Why am I handicapping the Oscars yet again? Because I still can’t afford to buy live ammo, live trout and a barrel thick enough to withstand the former and big enough to carry the latter.
That’s how easy this game is, despite mass media’s insistence on playing it over and over and over, year after year after bloody year. It’s gotten so that even when there’s the prospect of suspense, as there was a year ago, the evening itself ends up being about as suspenseful as a congressional Electoral College vote. Even the things I was wrong about last year, didn’t surprise me; notably “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture, though I was mildly surprised to have been right about its screenwriter, John Ridley, winning one.
Anyway, since I think this year’s crop is even easier to forecast than usual, I’m going to do to try making things interesting (at least, for me) by adding a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) section beneath sundry categories. Mostly, I’m going to suggest missing contenders. Otherwise it’ll just be whatever pops into my jejune lil’ head.
Oh, and my projected winners, as usual, are in bold.
Best Picture American Sniper Birdman Boyhood The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Selma The Theory of Everything Whiplash
Boyhood seemed ahead by many lengths at the start of this season; not so much, now, even though some still believe its BAFTA prize keeps it in the game. They’re wrong – and this says as much as (and far better than) I could as to why this is now a foregone conclusion. The only thing I might add to Mark’s diagnosis is that Hollywood narcissism is as much a device for denial as it is for self-congratulation. Editors and pundits, especially those who have no idea what movies are about, believe that controversy and buzz are all a movie needs to become anointed Best Picture. You’d think that, by now, they’d know that’s the LAST thing the Academy Awards want unless – and only unless – they can somehow exalt themselves by recognizing the controversy and embracing it. But all the money American Sniper‘s raking in isn’t going to make these people any braver about such things. Not in this century, folk. At least not yet.
FWIW – Overall, a good-but-not-great list appropriate for a good-but-not-great year. Only Lovers Left Alive, for those who keep asking, was my number one movie of last year and, similar to what one of its characters says about Detroit (where it’s set), it is the one 2014 movie I think is best equipped to endure and ultimately prevail through 2064.
Alejandro Innaritu, Birdman Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
For reasons already mentioned, I’m less sure about this one than I was several months ago, though Best Picture/Best Director splits have at least since the century’s turn gone from being a rarity to a semi-regular occurrence. Innaritu’s winning the DGA prize boosts his standing, though it doesn’t necessarily make him inevitable. I’m still inclined towards Linklater because just his investment of time and effort is too impressive to ignore, no matter how you may feel about the result.
FWIW – The omission of Selma’s Ava DuVernay from this category caused an outcry of such breadth that it came across like the pop-cultural equivalent of Ferguson/”I Can’t Breathe.” In terms of racial profiling (as in raising of profiles as opposed to diminishing races), I don’t think things are as bad in Hollywood as they once were, say, fifty, thirty, even ten years ago. But as this shortsightedness proves, they could still be a lot better. And the movies better recognize that on this and many other matters, TV is way out in front. The Unbearable Whiteness of this year’s Oscars will, I think, end up as an anomaly, but can we talk sometime about Dear White People’s complete absence, too?
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
It’s essentially a race between the last two names on this list and as impressed as Hollywood can be with actors who go through the kind of physical transformations Redmayne does here, it’s the larger, deeper transformations embedded in Keaton’s weathered visage that will make more of a difference with voters.
FWIW – Lots of MIAs here; notably Timothy Spall in the title role of Mr. Turner and Ralph Fiennes’ embattled concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The first is something you’ve never seen before while the second is a polished exemplar of Mannered Screwball reminiscent of movies made in the decade its movie purports to chronicle. Though Philip Seymour Hoffman wouldn’t have won for A Most Wanted Man, a posthumous nomination would have been a nice gesture. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of Gone Girl, I was sure Ben Affleck’s wry, limber rendering of sad sap Nick Dunne would get a nomination, especially given his previous snub for a Best Director nod two years back for Argo. He wouldn’t have won here either. But his absence points to the kind of harder-than-it-looks acting style that the Academy routinely overlooks in favor of the Big Bravura Effect.
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Done deal. And she deserves it…
FWIW – …but Cotillard, the most compelling film actress in the world, deserves it more for a performance that is (once again) too subtle and contained to satisfy the Academy’s inclination towards the aforementioned Big Bravura Effect (hereafter known as BBE). Here’s a little irony to put in your tea: Seven years ago, Cotillard’s grand, eerily detailed rendering of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose won this award over the favored Julie Christie, whose performance as an Alzheimer victim in Away From Her that year was a much rawer depiction of the disease’s ravages than Moore’s, which, as noted, has unsettling graces of its own.
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
As with Christopher Plummer a couple years back, he’s so inevitable that he’s already sweeping up the foam packing peanuts that came with the statuette’s advance delivery to his home. But as long as we’re here, let’s idly speculate. What if Simmons’ performance had been placed where it properly belongs: In the lead actor category? Would he have been as decisive a shoo-in as he is here? Let’s go even crazier. Since Denzel Washington is the only living actor who could have matched Simmons volt for volt in this role, would HE have been given a lead actor nod because of his relative professional standing? Or would he have likewise been nominated for supporting actor? Keep in mind that my comparison with Denzel doesn’t shortchange but, if anything, amplifies the dimensions of Simmons’ work here and I can only hope that the good vibes continue for him well beyond awards season.
FWIW – Some people consider Norton the runner-up while I think Hawke’s work in Boyhood is every bit as committed and resonant as that of the woman who’s a lock for Best Supporting Actress. (See below.) The guy who got screwed here is Josh Brolin, whose gonzo LAPD cop in Inherent Vice, was inspired, magnetic daffy-duckiness.
Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
As with Moore and Simmons, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this doesn’t happen. And Arquette’s pitch-perfect evocation of a smart, decent woman seemingly condemned to making foolish choices in life partners stood out in her movie even more than its twilit reveries.
FWIW – I’ve already mentioned Affleck’s understated comedic turn in Gone Girl, whose one great performance belonged to Carrie Coon. As Nick’s sister, she was the beating, breaking heart of that movie. She didn’t get a nomination, but she’s now got my attention, and deserves yours.
Best Adapted Screenplay American Sniper The Imitation Game Inherent Vice The Theory of Everything Whiplash
I could imagine any of these walking away with the statuette, but I can’t imagine Harvey Weinstein’s typically robust campaign on behalf of his leading entry coming away from this thing empty-handed.
FWIW – Any script that would even try to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen, even one as relatively accessible as Inherent Vice, is worthy of a party favor, even if the result bemused as many people as it amused.
Best Original Screenplay Birdman Boyhood Foxcatcher The Grand Budapest Hotel Nightcrawler
Birdman is Wes Anderson’s only worry here. That’s more of a director’s movie. Which is to say Wes Anderson has nothing to worry about.
FWIW – There were some who believed Whiplash belonged here and would have won easily if it had been in its rightful category. Simply put, yes and no.
Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 The Boxtrolls How to Train Your Dragon 2 Song of the Sea The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This has already won an “Annie” in this category and nothing else here seems to have the legs to beat it.
FWIW – Always easier to handicap when Pixar has an entry. Except they don’t this year. (Whaaaat?)
Best Documentary Feature Citizenfour Finding Vivian Maier Last Days in Vietnam The Salt of the Earth Virunga
You ignore currency and/or vitality in this category at your peril, as recent winners have proved. Nothing else in this year’s group has both in such quantity.
FWIW – Still, I was beguiled by Vivian Maier’s one-of-a-kind story and wish there was still room for such quirky, gnomish movies to finish with the gold. We – most of us, anyway – don’t live in a quirky, gnomish world.
Best Foreign Language Film Ida Leviathan Tangerines Timbuktu Wild Tales
Ida has swept most of the critics’ awards and will likely continue its run here. It’s an austere, beautiful piece that mostly lives up to its hype.
FWIW – But, I dunno, I preferred Leviathan’s overall weight and power; the kind that usually mugs austerity in Oscar’s back alleys. Wouldn’t be an upset if it won here.
Best Cinematography Birdman The Grand Budapest Hotel Ida Mr. Turner Unbroken
Any of these would be a legitimate winner, but I’m guessing the voters will prefer the one that makes sure you can see an almost-naked man walking through Times Square.
FWIW – Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr Turner (If I say it often enough, will they come to their senses? I’m pressing on, anyway!), Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner…..
Best Original Score The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Interstellar Mr. Turner The Theory of Everything
Alexandre Desplat finally wins one. But for which one? Competing against yourself in the same category seems a formula for canceling yourself out. But Budapest’s music is far more striking than Imitation Game. So Desplat beats Desplat here by a length.
FWIW – I, too, would have liked seeing Antonio Sanchez’s trap-set dynamics for Birdman in this group. But there’s no way Hollywood tradespeople give props to a lone musician inventing a score as he goes along. The Oscars go to…people who help make more work (and money) for everybody in the industry, whether in ensembles or orchestras.
Best Original Song
“Everything is Awesome,” The Lego Movie “Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Going to Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again
No one, not Joe Califano, not Harvey Weinstein, not Maureen Dowd, is going to stand in this one’s way…
FWIW — …though “Everything is Awesome” may yet become the anthem of the next collectivist revolution. (As if.)
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Every damn year we go through some overheated foofaraw over whether a movie up for an Academy Award is somehow — how to put this — LYING about history, or History. This year’s chew toy is Selma; mostly, so far, over whether Lyndon Johnson is fairly, accurately depicted as a roadblock to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against voting restrictions. Just for starters: Couldn’t such time be better spent assessing and attacking those now responsible for dismantling what King and others (including, dammit, LBJ himself) fought for a half-century before instead of showing off our erudition and/or grievances? Seems to me that’s a far more urgent matter and a FAR more productive use of one’s time than being aggrieved over who gets dissed in a dark room that smells like melted butter.
Well, the counterargument goes, for the great masses of people, movies ARE historical fact; becoming fairly or not the means through which all our history gets filtered and then hardened into something jocularly known as Collective Wisdom. At the risk of boring those who’ve heard me say such things before. especially me, I counter the counterargument for what I hope, in vain, will be the last time: If you really think that something as loose, baggy and relatively undernourished in nuance as a fictional feature film based on true stories is a plausible substitute for History itself, then you not only get the History you deserve, but the government and culture you deserve, too.
Nevertheless, as we are now less than 24 hours away from this year’s Academy Awards nominations being announced, I’m almost 99.9 percent certain than someone’s going to ask me to write about this and other similar controversies over this year’s crop of Big Movies That People Will Forget By Summer as well as those of the past. I don’t expect what I’m about to post will in any way innoculate me from such assignments. Nonetheless, since I bring this movie up every time the matter rises from the muck, I figured now was the time to make a pre-emptive strike.
So here’s something I wrote some years back on one of my favorite westerns, included in a journal listing the greatest of the genre. It says just about everything I have to say about fidelity to facts in historical movies — and how little it matters in the very long run.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature. Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs, John Ireland.
Even the least conscientious historian can get the bends accounting for the historical inaccuracies in My Darling Clementine. And you don’t have to get very deep into John Ford’s version of events leading to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral to find them. The movie opens with the Earp brothers herding cattle to Tombstone, Arizona in 1882 when the youngest brother James is shot dead (in the back, of course) by the rustling Clanton family.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s see:
1.) James was the eldest of the Earps, not the youngest,
2.) The Earp brothers never had any cattle either heading towards or ensconced within Tombstone’s city limits and …
3.) Though James death is depicted as the spark that eventually led to the Earps’ confrontation with the Clantons at the OK Corral, that famous gunfight actually occurred in 1881 – if you’re scoring, that’s one year earlier.
We could go on and on and on, cataloguing Ford’s blatant manipulation of fact throughout this movie, which credits Stuart N. Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, published two years after Earp’s death in 1929, as its principal source. But fact never mattered much to Ford, whose attitudes towards historical veracity were pithily summarized by a journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “This is the West, sir! When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” This gnomish sentiment both tickles and irritates the American psyche: We know something’s wrong with it, but how much do we care?
In the case of My Darling Clementine, probably not much, because the movie has over time proven more resonant and more powerful than any other about the Wyatt Earp story, no matter how historically faithful those films are.
Begin with its visual graces. Few black-and-white movies have ever conveyed such stark contrasts between the illuminated prairie landscape and the twilit corners of so-called civilization where savagery is ready to swallow innocence whole. Within this panorama, Ford orchestrates not a factual account, but his own mythic vision of history. His set pieces are adhesives to a movie lover’s memory: the town dance in an unfinished church, the woozy Shakespearean recitation sharpened by Mature’s tubercular Doc Holiday (looking as if he’s perpetually staring at his own wake) and Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in varied states of wary repose, whether in a barber’s chair or rocking jauntily in front of the “Mansion House” as Darnell’s Chihuahua hectors him.
Indeed, Fonda’s insouciant balancing act hints at mischief burrowed beneath Ford’s decorousness. It doesn’t emerge often enough to qualify as irony, but you have to wonder (as generations have) about this “say what” exchange that takes place between Earp and the saloon’s barkeep.
WYATT: Mac, you ever been in love?
MAC: No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.
At moments like this, one remembers that My Darling Clementine was made after Ford, Fonda, and co-screenwriter Winston Miller had returned from World War II military service. Comparing Fonda’s depiction of a ramrod American icon in this film with that of 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln (also directed by Ford), one detects a serrated edge applied to the solitude and resolve in the pre-war portrayal of Lincoln. With Fonda and Ford, wartime experiences inspired in both a need for traditional American values of community, honor, and law and a lingering perception that traditions were ready for tweaking, even bending here and there.
Put another way, it is possible to claim that My Darling Clementine provides a definitive model for the standard Western film while it discloses clues to undermining that model. The willful disregard for fact is arguably part of the subversion. OK, whatever. In the end, the best way to watch this movie is just to embrace its evocative dream of a past that never was.
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Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.
Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)
Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this
Scarlett Johansson –I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.
Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown– The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.
FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)
The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.
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