Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Gimmie Shelter (1970) d. David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

Book Review
Gimmie Shelter (1970)
 d. David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Criterion Collection #99

  Widely known as "the death of the 60s, on film" Gimmie Shelter is also maybe the best music documentary ever made.  It was also made by Maysles brothers, who are perhaps the world's most well known documentarians.  Their Grey Gardens is another Criterion Collection stalwart and their shorter work Salesmen, about door-to-door Bible salesmen, is also included as a Criterion Collection.

  Other than their extraordinary subjects, the Maysles are best known for their low key filmmaking style, but at the same time they appear as characters in their own films, most often as questioners from behind the camera.  In Gimmie Shelters, David is largely on screen, since they use editing sessions as a framing device for "flashbacks" that recapture the magic at Altamount, which ended with the Hells Angels stabbing multiple fans.

  To recap, at the height of their fame and the 1960s themselves, The Rolling Stones decided they wanted to throw a free concert "for the people of San Francisco" in the spirit of the Summer of Love and Woodstock.  They first reached an agreement with the Sears Point speedway, but that deal fell apart on the eve of the concert itself, ironically at least partially over the question of rights to the anticipated concert film.

  For whatever reason, The Rolling Stones decided to ask the Hells Angels to help with security, and the Angels were stationed around the stage.  During the concert, there was an altercation between the Angels and Meredith Hunter, and 18 year old African American. Hunter was then stabbed to death by an Angel, Alan Passaro, who was charged with murder.  At trial, a critical piece of evidence was film shot by Maysles' which appeared to show Hunter with a gun immediately prior to the stabbing.  Passaro was acquitted on a theory of self defense after the film footage was produced as evidence.

   The movie stops before the criminal case- you can only wonder how amazing Gimmie Shelter would have been if it had followed through to the trial where itself was instrumental in acquitting a man facing a life sentence.  Still, Gimmie Shelter is still amazing without any follow up, and is certainly the best music documentary film ever made on a number of different levels, both in terms of the technique and the subject matter.  The concert footage of the Rolling Stones nearing the height of their fame is priceless.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: The Big Sleep (1939) by Raymond Chandler

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the first film version of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Book Review:
The Big Sleep (1939)
 by Raymond Chandler

  If you have ever confused Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Carver, or thought that Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade were the same person because Humphrey Bogart played them both in the movie version, join me in the club.  First of all, Raymond Carver is a short story writer and poet, and did not write crime novels, although he did, like Raymond Chandler, write many stories which took place in the area of Los Angeles.

  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are the one-two punch of American crime fiction.   Hammett's Sam Spade worked out of San Francisco, and his other detective fiction had a decidedly western feel, whereas Chandler's Sam Spade was an LA cat, through and through.  Through the performance of Bogart as Spade in the Maltese Falcon and Marlowe in The Big Sleep,  the two characters have been joined as a kind of archetypical hard boiled American private detective.  Both characters have also been affixed to the idea of film noir, though strictly speaking that refers only to the movie portrayals, not the books, which belong to the "detective fiction" genre- an inspiration for but different from film noir.

  One important difference between Chandler and Hammett is that Hammett actually worked for the Pinkerton agency as a private investigator, whereas Chandler was employed as an executive at an insurance company before a mid-career lay off forced him into writing for a living.  I think you can probably make a good argument that this difference in personal experience explains stylistic differences between the two authors.  Hammett was more of the break-through pioneer, Chandler a more refined prose stylist with a better grasp of literary symbolism.

  The Big Sleep is embedded with memorable visual atmospherics- the hot house in the initial meeting between Marlowe and General Sternwood, and the various Los Angeles locations that surface throughout The Big Sleep from beginning to end.   You can hardly say you've read if you haven't read The Big Sleep- simply watching the film (which is also a must) is not enough.  I would say that The Big Sleep essentially invents the idea of Los Angeles as a noir location- the sub-genre of sunshine noir, even though as book, it is not a "film" noir. 

   The decadence and corruption of pre-war Los Angeles sticks with you, and it is possible to appreciate The Big Sleep without following the plot at all.  By the time Marlowe  fingers the General's younger daughter as the murderer, the narrative force is spent, and I closed the book with a sigh, sad to be at the end of such a glorious journey through a historic Los Angeles.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) by Winifred Watson

Book Review
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938)
by Winifred Watson

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day benefited from the 1998 movie version- the LIBRARY copy of this book was a movie version.  The foreword seems to indicate that immediately prior to the publication of the movie edition, Winifred Watson was "lost" because the writer of the foreword "discovered her" living in happy obscurity.

  The action of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day takes place during a single day.  Miss Pettigrew is a self-described dowdy, middle aged Nanny- and not a good Nanny- as she points out repeatedly who is sent- by mistake- to the apartment of Delysia Lafosse- a flamboyant English (in the book) or American (Amy Adams in the movie) starlet.

  Miss Pettigrew is a fun romp- racy, flirty and modern- and quite unlike Watson's other books which are more in the neo-Hardian mode of somber rural country novels.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Coming Up For Air (1939) by George Orwell

Book Review
Coming Up For Air (1939)
by George Orwell

  Coming Up For Air is some deep Orwell... a social satire about a 45 year old toothless fatty: George Bowling, who sells insurance and lives in the suburbs with a perpetually distressed, dried up wife and two anonymous young children. After a brief introduction to Bowling's day to day existence in pre World War II England, there is an extended flashback concerning Bowling's childhood.  Bowling repeatedly refers to himself as a Cockney, and his childhood is a kind of late 19th century semi-rural idyll, replete with nostalgic fishing holes.

 After the flashback ends, Bowling decides to tell his wife he's going away for week but instead goes back to his old neighborhood and laments the destruction of a more innocent world.  And drinks.  Personally, I was obsessed with Bowling's lack of teeth- at 45.  I don't think I'm alone when I say that this detail sends Coming Up For Air into the macabre.  Why just today I was at Chipotle, and the bags they had for to-go orders had a quote attributed to Aziz Ansari that simply said, "Do you ever see people without teeth and want to ask, what happened?"

 Of course, what happened is that they didn't receive proper dental care.  Thus, George Bowling, a toothless 45 year old, is emblematic of an English "every man" and not, say, a drifter/hobo riding the rails.  Coming Up For Air is minor classic territory, interesting for the committed fan, but nothing for the average student who reads Animal Farm and 1984 in class.

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