The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, January 16, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION: On the Reason site today, I
review Chris Willman's book Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.

Also, January's print edition of Reason is now online, so those of you who don't subscribe to the mag can now read my brief squib on A Force More Powerful, a video game that simulates nonviolent revolution.

Finally: CounterPunch ran another one of my music lists this past weekend.

posted by Jesse 3:56 PM
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IN HONOR OF MLK DAY: A line from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal."
I think the political rhetoric of the '80s hit its low point when Oliver North's apologists tried to defend his Iran-contra operation as an act of King-like civil disobedience, as though there were no difference between citizens refusing to respect unjust laws and officials refusing to respect the legal limits on their power. I suppose it's only a matter of time before someone trots out the same argument to excuse the NSA's illicit wiretaps.

posted by Jesse 3:36 PM
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Sunday, January 15, 2006
I CAN'T DRIVE '55: Another top ten list. So far we've looked at my favorite films of
1995, 1985, 1975, and 1965. Can you guess what year comes next?

1. East of Eden
Directed by Elia Kazan
Written by Paul Osborn, from a novel by John Steinbeck

The best movie James Dean ever made. Kazan's best picture, too.

2. Diabolique
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by Clouzot, Jerome Geronimi, Frederic Grendel, and Rene Masson, from a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The Hitchcockian thriller that inspired Columbo and, less happily, a terrible remake with Sharon Stone.

3. The Trouble with Harry
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes, from a novel by Jack Trevor Story

The most underrated movie in Hitchcock's canon. It's also the most appealing portrait of rural life I've ever seen, which surely says more about me than it says about the picture.

4. Smiles of a Summer Night
Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

At first glance the phrase "life-affirming Bergman comedy" looks about as plausible as "Pauly Shore's four-hour Shakespearean drama." But that -- the Bergman comedy, not the Shore epic -- is exactly what this is.

5. The Night of the Hunter
Directed by Charles Laughton
Written by James Agee, from a novel by Davis Grubb

"Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?"

6. Pather Panchali
Directed by Satyajit Ray
Written by Ray and Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, from a novel by Bandyopadhyay

I saw this one in a film class when I was 18. N.B.: I think I was the only one who liked it.

7. One Froggy Evening
Directed by Chuck Jones
Written by Michael Maltese

This feels like folklore, doesn't it? The legend of the singing frog?

8. Night and Fog
Directed by Alain Resnais
Written by Jean Cayrol

There's such a glut of Holocaust movies out there, and so many of them are essentially trite, that it's a relief to watch a documentary that really engages what happened and what it means to remember it.

9. The Man from Laramie
Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, from a story by Thomas T. Flynn

Lear in the old west.

10. Ordet
Directed by Carl Dreyer
Written by Kaj Munk

A rarity: a religious movie that emerges from deep faith, not greeting-card sentimentality.

posted by Jesse 11:28 AM
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WE GET THE FUNK: A while back I
quoted Joe Henry and David Cantwell's noble attempt to define the blues impulse, the gospel impulse, and the soul impulse, and I asked my readers what the funk impulse might be. Immediately after I posted that, I realized that the correct answer would have to be some version of George Clinton's free your mind and your ass will follow. So the prize goes to Eric Dixon of Shrubbloggers, who came closest with this: "Instead of looking within, or to a higher power, or to the person next to you, you look to the ass of the person next to you and realize how much better it might look if it were a-shakin'."

posted by Jesse 10:43 AM
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Thursday, January 05, 2006
FORWARD, INTO THE PAST: Having reviewed the best movies of
1995, 1985, and 1975, we now plunge backwards to 1965:

1. Repulsion
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Polanski, Gerard Brach, and David Stone

The most claustrophobic and horrific of Polanki's claustrophobic horror movies.

2. The Saragossa Manuscript
Directed by Wojciech Has
Written by Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, from a novel by Jan Potocki

A story within a story within a story within a...

3. The Battle of Algiers
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas

Torturers battle terrorists in colonial Algeria. In the '60s, would-be Guevaras watched this to teach themselves revolution; nearly four decades later, the Pentagon screened it for tips on fighting terror. Whatever else they found in it, both groups got to see one hell of a movie -- a film so utterly unflinching in its amorality that it feels more like a dispassionate documentary than a propaganda picture.

4. The Loved One
Directed by Tony Richardson
Written by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, from a novel by Evelyn Waugh

The Duck Soup of pet cemetery movies.

5. A Game with Stones
Written and directed by Jan Svankmajer

Many surrealists have directed abstract films without narratives, but only Svankmajer made movies as rich and engaging as the paintings of Dali, Ernst, and Magritte. The stones in this film arrange themselves into simple shapes, into more intricate patterns, and eventually into human beings who swallow each other. Sorry if that description sounds a little abstruse: It isn't easy to describe the plot of a Dali poster either.

6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
Directed by Martin Ritt
Written by Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, from a novel by John Le Carre

A spy movie that plays like a film noir. In Le Carre's bleak story, the intelligence agencies of the Cold War aren't entirely separate -- they're more like competing forces within one vast corrupting system.

7. Simon of the Desert
Directed by Luis Bunuel
Written by Bunuel and Julio Alejandro

A meditating monk faces off with the devil. This being Bunuel, there's no reason to assume the devil will lose.

8. Chimes at Midnight
Directed by Orson Welles
Written by Welles, from plays by William Shakespeare

Falstaff was always more interesting than Henry. Now he gets to take center stage.

9. Looking for Mushrooms
Directed by Bruce Conner

There's actually four versions of this psychedelic travelogue: a silent 8mm loop first shown in 1965; a 16mm version set to the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," first screened in 1967; a slowed-down 1996 version -- my favorite of the lot -- set to Terry Riley's "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band"; and, in 2001, an interactive installation that lets you move the film at your own speed. The only one of those I haven't seen is the 1965 edition, but by the arbitrary rules I've set for these lists, this is a 1965 movie. Go figure.

10. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Written by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller, from Farrell's novel

Frequently written off as a retread of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, this over-the-top gothic soap opera is a fine film in its own right.

And speaking of arbitrary rules: In theory, I'm assigning these movies to the year in which they were first screened, not the year they went into general American release. But when I realized I had left The Secret of Roan Inish out of my 1994 list last year and Swept Away... out of 1974's top ten, I bent the law to include them this time around. Also, I've secretly authorized a warrantless wiretap on your phone. Sorry about that.

posted by Jesse 12:47 PM
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Wednesday, January 04, 2006
SELF-PROMOTION: My latest Reason
column is about Sandy Springs, the Georgia town that privatized everything -- or did it? (Cue eerie music.) Geoff Segal has written an interesting response at the blog Out of Control, which I in turn replied to at Hit & Run.

Also, last weekend CounterPunch published another one of my music lists, alongside playlists from Phyllis Pollack and Jeffrey St. Clair.

posted by Jesse 5:40 PM
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THE SOUL IMPULSE: I haven't abandoned my series of year-end top-ten lists, but I've been a little swamped with other work lately. We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming in a day or two.

In the meantime, here's an excerpt from David Cantwell's interview with singer-songwriter-producer Joe Henry, published in the January-February
No Depression:
Cantwell: In his book A Change Is Gonna Come: Race, Music And The Soul Of America, Craig Werner builds on [Ralph] Ellison's idea to describe what he terms the gospel impulse. The gospel impulse starts at the same place as the blues -- it still faces and expresses the pain and limitations of the world -- but it also believes that in finding something larger than ourselves, human beings can, working together, change the world.

Henry: I think those guys are on to something there!...[T]he gospel impulse is driven by the same kind of earthly passion, but you're looking outside yourself instead of only looking inward. And maybe soul music on its own comes from the same [gospel] impulse but, instead of looking within or to a higher power, you look to that person next to you, to love.
A question for my readers: How do you define the funk impulse? The best answer will be published on this here blog, where the other four of you can read it.

posted by Jesse 2:22 PM
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Thursday, December 29, 2005
SELF-PROMOTION: The February issue of Reason won't be online for another month, but it's available now at newsstands. I have one substantial article in it (a review of the silent Soviet comedy
My Grandmother and the ethos that produced it) and one shorter item (about flexible manufacturing networks).

posted by Jesse 7:04 PM
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THE 30-YEAR ITCH: For those who came in late: Rather than listing the best films of the year now ending -- a task I'm especially ill-qualified to do this December, since I haven't made it to many movies since my daughter was born in July -- I'm recommending my favorite pictures of
1995, 1985, and now 1975:

1. Nashville
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Joan Tewkesbury

Some of my friends dismiss this one as a smug left-coaster giving a raspberry to flyover country. To them I point out that the least sympathetic characters in the whole vast cast are the rocker from LA and the reporter from the UK. Altman's withering satire is nothing if not universal.

2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben, from a novel by Ken Kesey

Perhaps it wasn't obvious at the time, but this scathing attack on the nanny state suggests an invisible fissure in the counterculture. I imagine some young hipster watching All in the Family one night in 1975 and then heading out for a late screening of this movie, never dreaming that his hero Rob Reiner would turn out to have more in common with Nurse Ratched than with McMurphy.

3. Love and Death
Written and directed by Woody Allen

His funniest film, and his most pointedly political picture too.

4. Dog Day Afternoon
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Frank Pierson

Best bank-robbery movie ever. "Sal, Wyoming's not a country."

5. Picnic at Hanging Rock
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Cliff Green, from a novel by Joan Lindsay

If you want to understand the mass media's fixation on disappearing white girls, start here.

6. Swept an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August
Written and directed by Lina Wertmuller

A comedy about the complexities of love, lust, and power, and the difficulties in discerning who wields the latter when the first two forces are in play. I'm reminded of a line from the Firesign Theatre: "It's a new world now, honey! Nobody's gwine have to be a slave all de time no mo'. We's gwine take turns."

7. Fox and His Friends
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Written by Fassbinder and Christian Hohoff

Fassbinder was a trailblazing gay director, a man who somehow managed to fuse the aesthetics of Douglas Sirk and John Cassavetes, and, like Wertmuller, a radical with no patience for political correctness. I'll steal a passage from Roger Ebert: "Years before Hollywood made its first faltering steps in the direction of a new frankness about homosexuality, Fassbinder was miles out in front. He was so comfortable with gay characters that he felt no hesitation in portraying some of them as selfish, brutal and grasping -- as evil, indeed, as heterosexuals in other movies. Here is a movie about characters who define themselves by their sexuality, but the movie doesn't. It takes the sexuality as a given, and defines them by their values and morals."

8. Jaws
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, from Benchley's novel

There's a small handful of Spielberg movies that I like, but if all his pictures were to disappear from the earth tomorrow this is the only one I'd miss.

9. Grey Gardens
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer

The best documentaries are about people, not events. This one captures two aging eccentrics whose relationship can never be entirely explained, just observed.

10. The Man Who Would Be King
Directed by John Huston
Written by Huston and Gladys Hill, from a story by Rudyard Kipling

"They're Masons!"

posted by Jesse 3:17 PM
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Thursday, December 22, 2005
THE WAY IT WAS IN '85: In which we continue our look back at the best movies made in years ending with the numeral 5. Monday we covered
1995. Here's my ten favorite films of ten years earlier:

1. Ran
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide

The story of King Lear predates the Bard, so it shouldn't seem odd that the best movie it inspired doesn't include a single line of Shakespeare.

2. Brazil
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown

They could have called it Monty Python's 1984.

3. Louie Bluie
Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Zwigoff's first film is a charming documentary about the bluesman, artist, and porn aficionado Howard Armstrong. It's also utterly fake: The living room it's filmed in is an artificial set, some of the people reminiscing with Armstrong barely know him, and the director had to persuade his subjects to play the early string-band songs he loved rather than the more complex music they preferred. You can decide for yourself whether all that artifice is a flaw or an enhancement.

4. Vagabond
Written and directed by Agnes Varda

Not a simple celebration of a free spirit, and not a disdainful condemnation of a marginal life either. Like a hobo Citizen Kane, it circles its title character but never touches her directly; instead it views her through other people's eyes, and never claims to have solved all the riddles she poses.

5. After Hours
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Joseph Minion

Better critics can weigh this picture's place in Scorsese's filmography. I'll just point out that it's the best movie Cheech and Chong were ever involved with.

6. Static
Directed by Mark Romanek
Written by Romanek and Keith Gordon

Before he was shooting videos for Bowie, Beck, and Johnny Cash, Romanek made this terrific indie flick about a man who believes he's built a machine that'll let you peek into heaven. Why doesn't this have a bigger cult following?

7. Prizzi's Honor
Directed by John Huston
Written by Richard Condon and Janet Roach, from Condon's novel

The godfather of mafia comedies.

8. Fluke
Directed by Emily Breer

An animated collage.

9. Chain Letters
Written and directed by Mark Rappaport

In most conspiracy movies, the plot -- funny word, that -- reveals a hidden order lurking behind our seemingly chaotic world. This one's about the order we invent to make sense of the world's genuine chaos.

10. The Purple Rose of Cairo
Written and directed by Woody Allen

A different sort of cinephilia: Mia Farrow's character falls in love with a movie character, and vice versa. Those of you who prefer Allen's onscreen persona to his offscreen life will appreciate the ending.

posted by Jesse 5:20 PM
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Monday, December 19, 2005
SELF-PROMOTION: Reason ran my
Christmas column today, titled "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and subtitled "The war on Christmas is over. Guess who won?"

Also, a few articles previously published in the print edition of Reason are now online as well: my review of America's Right Turn and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an extended version of my Web column on Katrina, and a brief bit about creationist roadside attractions.

Finally: This past weekend CounterPunch posted an annotated list of some of my favorite live recordings.

posted by Jesse 7:46 PM
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THE MOVIE THING: This blog doesn't run an annual countdown of the year's best films, on the grounds that I never manage to see all the movies I'm interested in before the year is over. That's especially true in 2005: Once you've got a baby, it's a lot harder to make it to the theater, or anywhere else for that matter. (Of the pictures I did manage to see, my favorite is either The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or The Dying Gaul.)

As a substitute, the tradition at The Perpetual Three-Dot Column is to list my favorite movies of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and on backwards until we all get bored. And so, without further ado: the top ten movies...of 1995:

1. Safe
Written and directed by Todd Haynes

Haynes made several exceptional movies before stumbling with the middlebrow Far from Heaven (which, naturally, became his biggest hit). This one's a parable about an egoless person who consumes her life rather than living it, even -- or especially -- when she turns her back on "consumerism."

2. Smoke
Directed by Wayne Wang
Written by Paul Auster

A loving ode to coincidence.

3. Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge, from a novel by Irvine Welsh

A sad, hilarious, disgusting, and inspiring movie about drug abuse. Refreshingly, it never condescends to its characters: There's no question that these are individuals making choices, not zombies possessed by a disease.

4. Twelve Monkeys
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by David and Janet Peoples, from a story by Chris Marker

That shot of a giraffe galloping through the city is one of my favorite moments in any film.

5. Mabarosi
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Written by Yoshihisa Ogita, from a novel by Teru Miyamoto

Ozu lives!

6. The Secret of Roan Inish
Written and directed by John Sayles, from a book by Rosalie K. Fry

Aside from Limbo, which doesn't entirely fit the mold anyway, I'm not a big fan of Sayles' big-canvas movies -- those labored flicks where he tries to create a politically engaged portrait of an entire community but ends up producing a clockwork-powered speechmaking machine instead. But his small movies can be wonderful, especially this eerie and endearing fantasy.

7. Toy Story
Directed by John Lasseter
Written by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, Pete Docter, and Joe Ranft

"One minute you're defending the whole galaxy, and suddenly you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with Marie Antoinette...and her little sister."

8. The City of Lost Children
Directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Written by Caro, Jeunet, Gilles Adrien, and Guillaume Laurant

If Twelve Monkeys was 1995's best semi-surrealist science-fiction saga, then this is the movie for viewers who prefer their surrealism without a "semi" prefixed. Jeunet went on to make Amelie, while Caro seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Anyone know what he's up to these days?

9. Shanghai Triad
Directed by Zhang Yimou
Written by Bi Feiyu, from a novel by Li Xiao

A lush, hypnotic gangster movie. Like Miller's Crossing on opium.

10. Funny Bones
Directed by Peter Chelsom
Written by Chelsom and Peter Flannery

Fellini in Blackpool.

Honorable mentions:

11. Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld)
12. La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol)
13. Tierra (Julio Medem)
14. Casino (Martin Scorsese)
15. The Drivetime (Antero Alli)
16. A Close Shave (Nick Park)
17. Underground (Emir Kusturica)
18. Clueless (Amy Heckerling)
19. Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madam (Nick Broomfield)
20. Exotica (Atom Egoyan)

posted by Jesse 4:38 PM
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