I know Christopher Nolan doesn’t have to make good movies, not as long as the crap he does make earns millions at the box office.  He just has to keep throwing together production ingredients in a haphazard way and letting the franchise momentum carry him on to his next blockbuster.

But doesn’t he at least want to learn his craft, learn how to make shots and choreograph action and tell stories?  How dead do you have to be to take money, more money than you could ever possibly spend, for canny incompetence, punching a gold-plated time clock year after year after year?

The guy is a zombie artiste.



In the process of revisiting the films of Terrence Malick I recently watched Days Of Heaven again.  I hadn’t thought much of it when it first came out and I wondered if I’d missed something, but it still struck me as a colossal misfire.  The film has some beautiful shots in it — it is, among other things, an epic celebration of magic hour — but it never gave me a strong sense of place, the way Malick’s later films do.


The farm where most of the story takes place feels synthetic, perhaps on purpose, to suggest a mythic location — with its surreally isolated and enormous main house — but in fact it just suggests a movie location.  There are lots of lovely shots of wheat harvesting, but you never get a sense of the reality of a wheat harvest, the way you get a sense of combat in The Thin Red Line.


The story is interesting on its face but the clunky dialogue and miscalculations by some of the actors make the tale feel synthetic, too.  Brooke Adams, pretty as she is, doesn’t have a lot of presence on screen, and Richard Gere for some reason chooses to strut around the prairie like a would-be 50s hipster — he doesn’t really inhabit the period setting.


It’s always fascinating to watch Sam Shepard on screen, with his intriguing mixture of reticence and physical self-possession, the physical self-possession of a good horsebacker, a mixture familiar in many Western stars of the past.  But it’s 15 year-old Linda Manz who provides the film with its only real juice — she’s always riveting as a screen presence, and her quirky voice-over narration gives the film a kind of coherence that it would otherwise lack.


Apparently her narration was an afterthought by Malick, which he tried when he couldn’t get the film to cut together in a way that satisfied him.  It helps, but not enough.


Something happened to Malick in the legendary twenty-year sabbatical from filmmaking he took after finishing this film.  The next film he made, The Thin Red Line, is a much more assured piece of work, in which brilliant images create palpable spaces and places, and in which his use of actors is more adventuresome and exciting.


Days Of Heaven got a mixed reception on its initial release but has since grown in stature among critics — maybe just because it reminds us today of a time when filmmakers actually knew how to make memorable shots.  It hasn’t grown in stature for me, however — it still feels like a dessicated work, with ambitions its director didn’t quite have the means to realize.


What I remember of it most vividly is a long take of Manz doing a kind of clog dance on a board with a black field hand.  It’s a simple but magical piece of cinema, and points the way to many such moments of simple magic in Malick’s later films.


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I originally watched this on DVD in the theatrical cut — just recently watched the extended cut on Blu-ray.  I had different reactions to each viewing, due perhaps as much to my evolving thoughts about its director Terrence Malick as to the differences between the formats, although those differences are important.


I was somewhat underwhelmed by the film on my first viewing, finding the resolution of the narrative unsatisfying.  Since then I’ve come to realize that the narrative Malick hangs his images on is not necessarily the narrative he’s trying to tell, or the narrative he’s most interested in.  The images have their own story, or stories, to tell, and these sometimes serve the narrative and sometimes expand it into a new territory.


At least since The Thin Red Line, Malick has been concerned with evoking the physical experience of spaces and places as they relate to, and sometimes confound, the literal events of the narrative.  The Thin Red Line is, most obviously, a drama about the command problems that beset a company of soldiers fighting on the island of Guadalcanal during WWII, and it works very well on that level.  But it’s more centrally concerned with the experience of combat itself — the minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day reality of it.  On the first level it’s a good war movie, on the second level it approaches something profound.


The New World tells the tale of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America, incorporating the familiar (and perhaps apocryphal) story of John Smith’s love affair with a Native-American woman, Pocahontas.  Its images, however, move on a far deeper level, in which the strangeness of the landscape and its inhabitants to the Europeans comes to stand for any kind of strangeness in human experience, especially the strangeness of falling in love, the strangeness of second chances.


The fates of the characters in story terms become secondary — what they feel and experience, existentially, become the film’s true subject.  One can imagine a much more riveting and economical retelling of the story of Smith and Pocahontas — one cannot imagine a much better film about discovering a new world, about the phenomenon of sexual love.


Malick is not deconstructing narrative here, he’s expanding narrative, in a purely cinematic way.  He’s suggesting, for example, to put it as simply as possible, that when you make out with someone on a blanket under the stars, with a light wind blowing, the stars and the wind are not just the setting for an extraordinary event, they’re part of what the event is, as intimate a part as the taste of the kisses themselves.

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Since the true subject of The New World is to be found in its images, one has greater access to the whole work on a big screen in a theater than on a TV, and on a big TV screen in the Blu-ray format than on a smaller screen in the DVD format.  With anything less than the Blu-ray format on a big TV screen, I’m not sure it’s worth watching a Malick film at all — you certainly won’t have meaningful access to the movie he’s trying to make.


By the same token, the extended cut of The New World, which lingers longer on the landscape and on the people moving through it, is more satisfying than the theatrical cut (about 35 minutes shorter), because it takes you deeper into the visual heart of the film — at least if you can manage to relegate the nominal narrative to the level of a pretext for something much more interesting and involving.

This is the epigraph that opens the extended cut of The New World:

How much they err,
that think every one which has been at Virginia
understands or knows what Virginia is.

— Capt. John Smith


It might as well read:

How much they err,
that think every one which has been in love
understands or knows what love is.


Indeed, the film opens with images of naked women swimming underwater in the river the colonist are sailing up for the first time, with John Smith in chains in one of the ships’ holds, condemned to be hanged.  Instead he’s pardoned and given a chance at a new life in this new world.  Malick undertakes to show us what Virginia is, what love is, in one of the most ambitious, one of the most original movies ever made.  Your response to it will depend a lot on your willingness to sail up unfamiliar rivers and creeks with Smith and Malick, your willingness to take your time looking around you, and your openness to what you find at journey’s end.


The ending of the film made sense to me on the second viewing — if John Smith lost faith in, didn’t value highly enough his second chance in life, Pocahontas did.  The “new world” she was born into stayed alive for her — while Smith sailed past his Indies, into oblivion.

Click on the images to enlarge.



I just recently watched this and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that it’s the greatest movie ever made, or the most enjoyable movie ever made, or the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen in quite a while.


It’s trash of the very highest order, with Marlene Dietrich playing a cabaret tramp making her way around the islands of the South Pacific, charming the locals and whatever sailors happen to be in port while infuriating the authorities, who inevitably send her packing off to the next island.

This description doesn’t really do it justice , though.  You might say it’s like They Were Expendable with Dietrich playing all the PT boats, or like Casablanca without the idealism, or like Gone With the Wind without the Civil War, or like . . . well, whatever it is, it’s a masterpiece of its kind.



The Blu-ray edition of this 1952 film is the first release from Twilight Time that I found genuinely disappointing.  It’s a mediocre Western starring Tyrone Power given a mediocre Blu-ray transfer — the images don’t have the brilliance and depth that a Technicolor film from this era can and should have on Blu-ray.

The only real virtue of the release is the isolated score by Alex North, which is expertly crafted and sure-footed dramatically.  If you watch the picture with only the isolated score playing, and think of the images as merely illustrations to an admirable piece of program music, the experience is actually quite enjoyable.



Combat is largely about terrain — natural elevations, depressions, cover, open ground, obstructions.  To be a good tactical commander in combat you need to have the mind and eye of a great landscape painter, which is one reason it’s hard to portray combat in prose.


You can read everything ever written about Pickett’s Charge — and sometimes I think I have — but until you go to Gettysburg and walk the ground (above) where the charge was made, you have only a dim idea of what it must have involved, the lethal variables of the event itself.


Movies could theoretically do a better job at portraying combat , but rarely do — rarely present us with a comprehensive and coherent view of a battlefield that can be read for the problems of terrain that need to be dealt with in combat.  Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line is an exception — the assault on the ridge in that film and the engagement in the river are two of the most brilliant and convincing evocations of combat ever created.  We not only see the individual agony of the soldiers, we see the conundrum of the terrain they’re faced with, clearly enough to feel on a gut level how terrifying it is.


The film as a whole is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, evoking places and spaces with a vividness that is almost hallucinatory.  It’s probably as close as a non-participant can ever get to the experience of island warfare in the Pacific in WWII.  It has its faults — poetic voice-over meditations on the meaning of war that sometimes sound convincing as soldiers’ thoughts but just as often sound like the highfalutin’ mystical musings of the filmmaker.


Malick was moving towards the form his later films like The Tree Of Life would take, in which the mystical voice-over musings would flow into and out of the extraordinary images in a more organic way.  It seems to be part of a lifelong project to re-orient viewers towards cinematic images — to promote a deeper reflection on them, a greater appreciation of what they can mean.


Godard was after the same thing in many of his films, as was Kubrick in 2001.  It’s not a traditional “avant-garde” strategy, like that of Antonioni, who used conventional images in conventional ways in the service of a fractured, ambiguous narrative — which is essentially a literary ambition.


Malick’s desire to seduce us into a more intimate relationship with cinematic images themselves is about revealing the stories they can tell on their own terms.  The Thin Red Line is, on one level, a conventional war movie, a genre piece — it tells a story, or a series of stories, that aren’t exactly unfamiliar.  What’s unfamiliar is how deeply Malick draws us into those stories by means that are purely and uniquely and magically cinematic.

Click on the images to enlarge.



Sometimes with beef stew simpler is better.  There’s nothing in this one but onions, green peppers, mushrooms, garlic, red wine, salt and pepper, a bit of Worcestershire sauce and beef.  I didn’t even sear the beef beforehand.  The only real work involved was chopping the onions, peppers, mushrooms and garlic, which takes about ten minutes — then six hours in the Crock Pot set on high, with the top off for one of those hours to thicken the liquor.

This is the second batch of it I’ve made in as many days — I need lots of extra for freezing.

It tastes wonderful, as good as any beef stew I’ve ever made.

Here are some tips for making beef stew in a slow cooker which may seem obvious but took me a while to learn.  Chop the onions, peppers and mushrooms in fairly big chunks, to preserve their texture and distinct flavors during the long cook.  Chop the garlic up as finely as possible, to better disperse its flavor in the stew.  Keep your beef in the refrigerator until the last moment and transfer it directly from there to the cooking pot, which will slow its cooking process and make for chunks that are less well done and dried out.



Cormac McCarthy often comes up with really good stories but he doesn’t know how to tell them, because he can’t write his way out of a paper bag.  His original script for Ridley Scott’s movie The Counselor is a case in point.  It’s not a terribly original story — lawyer with financial problems thinks he can take a one-time step into criminality to save himself and finds himself trapped in darkness.  It’s basically the plot of the John Garfield classic Force Of Evil, updated, with a more downbeat ending.

But it’s still a good story, set in lots of interesting locations, handsomely photographed by director Scott.  The dialogue bounces back and forth between the pretentious and the banal, but it’s quirky stuff, refreshing as a change of pace from the cookie-cutter writing in most modern thrillers.


Sadly, McCarthy is a soi-disant artiste, so he can’t just let the story have its way — he has to weigh it down with philosophical claptrap, which eventually sinks the tale.  His stories are better served when real storytellers, like the Coen brothers, take his narratives and cut the bullshit — cut to the chase.  The Counselor dribbles away at the end into nihilistic gobbledegook, into supposedly intellectual conceits that don’t bear much actual intellectual scrutiny.  McCarthy is a literary poseur, who turns stories into tiresome post-modern parlor games.



My New Orleans friends Adrienne and Bill gave me this album for Christmas but I’ve just had a chance to spend some serious time listening to it.  I knew it would be cool, because Adrienne and Bill know what’s cool when it comes to New Orleans music.

Dr. John called James Booker “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.”  He was a virtuoso keyboardist who combined a lot of traditions, stride, Latin, classical, jazz, gospel, blues, into a distinct style that’s still recognizable as a variant of a traditional New Orleans musical gumbo.  He sometimes added plaintive vocals to his recordings.

Booker died at the age of 43 in 1983 — this album contains his last commercial recordings.  They’re strange and spooky and wonderful — something in that gumbo you haven’t tasted before and can’t quite put a name to.

Click on the image to enlarge.



Few things make me as happy as surf music, the shittier the better.  I once saw Dick Dale play at the beach in Ventura, California and that made me unreasonably happy.  Dick said, “I always use the thickest strings I can find for my guitar to get this sound — I’ve cut my fingers to ribbons for you.”

Thank you, Dick.



This is a very enjoyable album.  You might argue that some of the mixes are a bit too Spector-ized — a bit too mushy — but Lennon’s voice cuts through them like a knife, full of his joy in these basic rock and roll numbers.  I’m especially fond of his version of “Stand By Me” — I remember dancing to it on a juke box at McManus’s Irish pub on 7th Avenue in New York, with my girlfriend of the time, back when I was young, and thinking, “This is our song.”

As far as I’m concerned we’re still dancing to it, and it’s still our song, and John Lennon, long dead, is still singing it just for us.