Sound Opinions :: Why the Ramones Matter
Breaking down the importance of New York’s great punk band.
Planet Money :: Deep Learning With Elephants
Studying elephants by recording the sounds they make and then the technology needed to break down all that data.
Sound Opinions :: The Legend of Robert Johnson
Separating the reality from the myth of the great Delta Blues guitarist. One thing that struck me is that Johnson was born after my grandparents, people I knew, making the Johnson shrouded in myth seem closer to me than I’d ever though before.
Decoder Ring :: Ice-Cream Truck
The history of ice-cream trucks in New York City, and more startling, the mob-like operation of different trucks and different companies staking out territory in the city.
Fresh Air :: Sister Helen Prejean
An interview that discusses the life of the great activist and spiritual leader.
Hit Parade :: The Bridge: Nostalgic for No. 1’s
I’ve long been a fan of Chris Molanphy’s analysis of record charts on Hit Parade and recently also began reading Tom Breihan’s column in Stereogum reviewing The Number Ones from 1958 to the present. This show brings them together.
Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:
Title: Battleship Potemkin
Release Date: December 21, 1925
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Production Company: Mosfilm
This classic Soviet propaganda film dramatizes events of the Russian uprising of 1905, which the filmmaker Eisenstein saw as a prelude to the successful October Revolution of 1917. The film depicts sailors aboard the Potemkin returning after the Russo-Japanese War and the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the officers.
When some of the sailors refuse to eat maggot-infested meat, the tyrannical captain sentences them to death for insubordination. But a revolutionary sailor inspires the firing squad to lower their rifles, and the sailors stage a mutiny instead. Grigory Vakulinchuk, the Bolshevik sailor, dies in the uprising and when his body is brought to Odessa, thousands of civilians pay their respects. The people join in the revolution, but it is quickly repressed by a detachment of Cossacks who massacre them on the city’s giant stairway. The sailors escape on the Potemkin as Tsarist ships refuse to fire on them.
The movie impresses with its innovative film-making techniques, most notably editing between long and close-up shots, and creating connections among a sequence of shots. The most famous sequence is when the Cossacks fire upon the people on the Odessa Steps, which depicts brutal violence and cuts between the precision of the soldiers and the faces of their victims on a seemingly endless set of steps.
This is definitely a movie worth watching for its technical brilliance and its role in film history. That being said, it’s not a particularly enjoyable experience, not just due to the violence but the almost complete lack of characterization of the people depicted. They are merely cogs in a propaganda machine with no opportunity to empathize with them as individuals.
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Narrator: Kim Staunton
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 1998 [Originally published in 1979]
I’ve only recently become aware of the late science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose contributions to the genre have likely been overlooked due to her being an African American woman. This novel, starting in the bicentennial year of 1976, tells the story of Dana, an African American writer repeatedly torn from her own time in California and sent to antebellum Maryland plantation. There she has to save the life of a boy, and later a man, named Rufus, the heir of the plantation owner. Early on, Dana discovers that Rufus is her own ancestor, so her existence depends on his survival.
This book does not shy away from the malignant evils of slavery – beatings, selling off family members, and rape. But it get’s even more uncomfortable in how on Dana’s increasingly longer visits to the past, she grows to consider the plantation as home, and develop a fondness for Rufus. Dana’s devotion to protecting Rufus is unsettling considering that Alice, a freed black woman who is reenslaved by Rufus over the course of the novel, is also her ancestor, and Dana never shows the same level of concern for protecting her. It’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, or more accurate the way in which its possible for one to look past the most grievous faults of family members and friends.
Dana is married to a white man named Kevin, and one occasion she brings him back in time with him, stranding him there for several years when she bops back to the future. Although Kevin is a progressive white man, he is still not capable of understanding the power dynamics that privilege him in the past over Dana. Nevertheless, Dana’s knowledge of the future and seemingly magical power to appear and disappear over time gives her something of a an advantage over Rufus in their ongoing relationship.
This is a powerful and well-constructed novel that feels very contemporary despite being over forty years old. Much like reading Ursula Leguin, I had to remind myself that Octavia E. Butler actually inspired and informed many of the conventions of later time-travel fiction.
Title: The Gold Rush
Release Date: June 26, 1925
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
The Little Tramp joins the Klondike Gold Rush, although his bowler cap and coat make him look like an English gentleman compared with the more rugged-looking prospectors he encounters. The majority of the film is focused on a cabin where the Tramp and his colleagues escape from a blizzard. The cabin belongs to Black Larsen (Tom Murray), identified as a wanted criminal, and the Tramp’s friend Big Jim (Mack Swain) also ends up occupying the cabin. In fact, while Larsen is identified as a villain, the Tramp and Jim pretty much take advantage of him, and send him out to get food.
The comedy of the cabin involves wind blowing characters in one door and out the other, starvation dreams of a giant chicken, and eventually the cabin itself takes flight. There’s also a romantic subplot where the Tramp meets with a self-confident dance hall girl (Georgia Hale) who dances with him to avoid unwanted attention from an aggressive man. The Tramp falls in love and in one of the most famous scenes he imagines entertaining her with dancing dinner rolls.
It’s a clever comedy that makes the special effects and physical acting required of a silent film its strongest assets.
Title: Safety Last
Release Date: April 1, 1923
Director: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios
Harold Lloyd’s most famous comedy film features Lloyd playing a character named “The Boy” who leaves “The Girl” (Mildred Davis) behind in their hometown while he goes to the big city to save up money for their marriage. With lots of scenes filmed on location in Los Angeles, this is a great document of a bustling urban center in the 1920s.
Lloyd’s Boy sends lots of gifts to The Girl, making her think he’s doing well financially when he’s actually struggling. She arrives and he has to pretend he’s a manager rather than a clerk at the department store. Unfortunately this leads to a lot of cringe comedy, where Lloyd builds lie upon lie, getting himself into an increasingly worse situation. Lloyd comes off as kind of a jerk, rather than a protagonist the viewer wishes to support. Luckily this film offers a good share of physical comedy and stunts as well, which Lloyd carries off well.
The most famous stunt is Lloyd climbing up the outside of the Los Angeles skyscraper where his character works. This sequence takes up a significant portion of the latter half of the film. It all begins when The Boy thinks he can get a $1000 reward from his boss by having his friend Limpy Bill (Bill Strother) climb the store building as a promotional event. Unfortunately, Bill is recognized by a cop he’d had a run in with early in the movie and Lloyd climbs a story hoping Bill will take over, but various comic events force him to continue the climb on his own. It’s a great comedic sequence.
Release Date: March 4, 1922
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Prana Film
This German Expressionist horror film has a strange history. It was based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, but since the filmmakers never got permission for the adaptation, the Stoker estate sued and ordered all prints of the film destroyed. Obviously some prints survived, but they were released in various “bootleg” editions.
I’m not sure which version I ended up streaming, but the title character is known as Count Orlok in all the film reviews I’ve read, but they straight up call him Dracula in the version I watched. Similarly, the heroes are known as Thomas and Ellen Hutter in the literature, but the version I watched called them Jonathan and Mina Harker. I guess that’s the advantage of silent film is that one can just rename all the characters with minimal effort. At any rate, this is a long way of explaining why I’ll be using particular names for characters in my review.
The story begins in a German town where Jonathan (Gustav von Wangenheim) works in real estate for the creepy Renfield (Alexander Granach), who is secretly a minion of Count Dracula. Renfield sends Jonathan to Transylvania on the pretense that the Count wants to buy a house in their town. Jonathan entrusts Mina (Greta Schröder) to some friends for safety, but she has premonitions about his travels.
In Transylvania Jonathan meets the locals who are frightened of the Count and the things that happen after dark. Wangenheim does a good silent movie acting job of showing his derision of their superstitions. Jonathan finally arrives at the Count’s castle and meets the Nosferatu (Max Schreck) who he treats warmly despite his chilling appearance and comments about Mina’s lovely neck. Jonathan ends up being held captive and Wangenheim now does a great job of acting terrified.
Jonathan escapes and the Nosferatu follows him to Germany. One of the interesting aspects of Dracula-lore I wasn’t aware of is that Nosferatu has to be transported in coffins with soil from the burying grounds of the victims of Black Death. So when he arrives in Germany he brings the plague AND feasts on the blood of the town’s citizens. It’s up to Mina to make the sacrifice to offer herself to the Nosferatu to keep him feeding until daylight. This film actually introduced the concept of a vampire being killed by sunlight.
The movie is terrifically atmospheric and spooky. Some of the filmmaking conventions that may seem laughably outdated today are countered by the eeriness of silence, scratchy film, and uncanny production values. I’m not a big horror fan or have much interest in the Dracula story, but this film was worth watching for its part in the history of one of the world’s great legends.
On the Media :: Repairing Justice: The Prosecutor
Prosecutors wield enormous power in the criminal justice system, contributing to racial inequality. Can progressive prosecutors help with criminal justice reform?
Throughline :: Milliken v. Bradley
The effort to end school segregation by way of busing lead to this Supreme Court case decision that still affects our schools and communities to this day.
Throughline :: Huey Long vs. The Media
Louisiana’s most famous politician was loved and hated in equal measure. A populist who favored social programs, he also ruled in a dictatorial manner and carried out a long war against the free press. Long seems to be an odd combination of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and a fascinating figure in American history.
Tiny Desk Concert :: Lizzo
An electrifying performance at a tiny-ass desk by the great Lizzo.
Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 808
The story of the drum machine that changed popular music.
Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:
Release Date: July 5, 2019
Kokoko! is a collective of artists from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They use instruments fashioned from trash to create sounds for a musical style that blends electronica with dance punk. The synths layered on by their French producer Débruit also gives it an 80s freestyle dance pop sound. Kokoko! makes refreshing music that functions equally well at a dance club or a political protest.
Title: The Kid
Release Date: February 6, 1921
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Productions
Charlie Chaplin and his Tramp character were already film superstars, but this is the first Chaplin’s feature length film as a director and also the first time the Tramp appeared in a feature. The movie starts with a bit of melodramatic social realism as a woman (Edna Purviance) leaves a charity hospital with her newborn baby, remembers her lover who abandoned her, and decides to leave the baby in the backseat of a car in front of a mansion. She reconsiders, but before she can go back for the baby, thieves steal the car and drive it into the city (with no baby seat, aigh!). When the thieves discover the baby, they leave it on the sidewalk where it’s found by the Tramp. He initially is reluctant to have anything to do with the baby, but finally decides to adopt the kid as his own son.
Early scenes show the Tramp putting the baby in a little hammock and the baby just being cute doing baby things. It’s a remarkable bit of humanity on a film from nearly a century ago, and it made me think that the baby would be 100 years old if still alive. So I looked it up and discovered that the baby actor Silas Hathaway IS still alive (and turned 100 in March). This was Hathaway’s only film but what a great part to play in film history!
Of course, The Kid is most famous for introducing Jackie Coogan who became Hollywood’s first child star as a result of this movie. Coogan’s kid is the Tramp’s accomplice in their semi-legal activities, and they have a lot of cute father/son moments, and have good set pieces with the Kid standing up to the neighborhood bully and the Tramp having to fight the bully’s much bigger brother.
Social services discover that the Kid is not the legal son of The Tramp and they have to go on the run to avoid being separated. Meanwhile, the mother has become a wealthy celebrity in the intervening 5 years and visits the neighborhood to perform charity for poor kids. She is inadvertently reunited with the Kid. There are heartbreaking scenes where the Tramp has to chase down the car taking away the Kid, but in the end, all three – mother, Tramp, and Kid – are reunited for a happy ending. There’s a weird part just before the end where the Tramp dreams of angels and devils, but it’s really the only diversion from a sweet and heartbreaking movie.
Apparently Chaplin and Coogan spent a lot of time doing fun things together off the set so the close relationship they have on screen is for real.
Only three new songs for the month of July, probably because I’ve been too busy listening to “Old Town Road.” All of these bands share in common band names that are challenging to find in a search engine.
Necking :: Still Exist
Punk rock women from Vancouver.
Abjects :: The Storm
Punk rock women from London.
CUP :: Soon Will Be Flood
Electronic experimental music from Brooklyn