Los Angeles Plays Itself

This is a video essay by a chap named Thom Andersen about how Los Angeles gets a raw deal when it is portrayed in Hollywood films.

At 2 hours and 49 minutes it is quite a slog, I actually watched it in two parts over two days. It uses a lot of clips from films that were filmed in L.A., some of them go way back to the thirties.

Thom talks in a monotone, and sounds like a real sad-sack as he laments how Los Angeles is depicted in films. He doesn’t like films like L.A. Confidential because of the buildings used in the film, he claims their designs are…actually I didn’t really understand what in heck he was going on about, I guess I need to go to film school as well as get a degree in post-modern gothic art-deco modernist cubism or something.

He did like Chinatown though, which was a relief. He also likes the Hollywood sign.

He showed us parts of Los Angeles that he thinks are the real city, as well as parts of the city shown in old films which have long since disappeared, and gave his thoughts on the Bradbury Building which you will recognise from Bladerunner.

There was also some very interesting history of the city including the Watts riots, the building of the waterway system, the trams, and about the freeways. The story of the waterways depicted in Chinatown was largely fictional even though some people think it is true, the real story is different and not quite as corrupt. The story of the disappearance of the trams was interesting too.

Another interesting fact I learned is that Culver City, in Los Angeles County actually makes more films than Hollywood itself.

So, it is a bit mixed. How Los Angeles (Thom does not like it to be shortened to L.A.) is portrayed in films doesn’t bother me at all, and what buildings are used just doesn’t matter either, but Thom got pretty wound-up about it. But then again, I can kind of see his point in some ways. Then again, it is Hollywood, where nothing matters except having perfectly white teeth, and making the next billion bucks.

Date watched: July 6th
Score: 7/10
Film count 2018: 38

Life On Earth

As I said at the end of my The Ascent of Man review, the next documentary series I wanted to watch was this one. Well, I blazed through it, enjoying every minute of the thirteen episodes.

As with The Ascent of Man, it is the narrator, Sir Dave, who makes the series what it is, no one can tell the facts like him (except for Jacob Bronowski of course). And Sir Dave does it all from scuba diving, spelunking, walking into a shallow pond getting his shoes and trousers wet, sitting incredibly close behind a rattlesnake, and all manner of other tasks to explain to us the story of nature.

The most enjoyable scene was to see him in a mountain forest in Rwanda, lying down next to a large female gorilla with it’s child gorilla practically lying on top of him, and he had a huge grin on his face. From Wikipedia:

The best remembered sequence occurs in the twelfth episode, when Attenborough encounters a group of mountain gorillas in Dian Fossey’s sanctuary in Rwanda. The primates had become used to humans through years of being studied by researchers. Attenborough originally intended merely to get close enough to narrate a piece about the apes’ use of the opposable thumb, but as he advanced on all fours toward the area where they were feeding, he suddenly found himself face to face with an adult female. Discarding his scripted speech, he turned to camera and delivered a whispered ad lib:

There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not—and that we are.

When Attenborough returned to the site the next day, the female and two young gorillas began to groom and play with him. In his memoirs, Attenborough describes this as “one of the most exciting encounters of my life”. He subsequently discovered, to his chagrin, that only a few seconds had been recorded: the cameraman was running low on film and wanted to save it for the planned description of the opposable thumb.

And another example of Sir Dave’s bravery was a shot of him in a large plaza, it looked to be St Mark’s Square in Venice. The camera was set up quite some distance away high-up in a building. It started off with a medium close-up as he talked about modern man with a huge crowd of tourists casually wandering around him, doing what homo sapiens usually do on their day off and giving him quizzical looks. Then the camera pulled back quite a way so that we could see he was quite alone with no film crew around him, so seemingly talking to himself like a nutjob, not something I could do. To Sir Dave we are all animals too, worthy of observation in our natural habitat.

One of the most fascinating things I learned is that the whales evolved from a land-based mammal similar to a shrew, but over time it decided the sea was a good place to be, so lost it’s rear legs, gained a tail, got a whole lot bigger, and started munching on krill, amongst other changes. Makes you wonder what we will look like in several million years, although I doubt we will last that long. Actually, I hope we don’t last that long, the other animals that have lived on this planet, such as the dinosaurs, have behaved responsibly, and the animals that currently share the planet with us are getting a bad deal.

The filming techniques in this were obviously very tricky, and very well done. The cameramen also must have spent a lot of time getting the shot they wanted. From Wikipedia again:

One cameraman spent hundreds of hours waiting for the fleeting moment when a rare frog, which incubates its young in its mouth, finally spat them out.

If there is one criticism though it would be one aspect of the sound. Overall it was good, but at times it was clearly a Foley adding in the sounds post production. The sound of a monkey munching on a plant for example sounded a lot like a person munching on a celery stick in a studio. Of course this was probably the only choice they had, getting the sound of these things happening in a happening forest with all of the other sounds around was probably a tricky thing with 1979 sound-recording technology, so I can forgive it for that. Mostly though the sound was done on location.

After watching this I have a whole lot more respect for animals and natural scientific research, but most of all for Sir Dave who is a top television producer and narrator, as well as an excellent spokesperson for animal and plant-kind. He is 92 now, but is still working in television and writing books. Tonight I ordered a book of his from Amazon called “Life of Birds” which I am looking forward to reading.

I of course will add him to the MBMS Page of Fame, with highest honours.

The Ascent of Man

A few weeks ago I wrote that I had started watching this 1973 BBC documentary, developed by David Attenborough, and presented by Jacob Bronowski, a very smart fellow.

Just a few moments ago I finished the last of the thirteen episodes, and I must say that it is one of the best scientific series I have ever seen, mostly due in part to Mr Bronowski who not only presented it but wrote it. He was a mathematician by trade, but he was also one of those chaps who just seemed to know everything when it came to science.

And in typical BBC fashion it was extremely well made with great photography, and filmed in places all over the world. The last episode was partly filmed in Mr Bronowski’s house in California, which was very interesting as you could tell that he is passionate about what he was talking about with the books, sculptures, and paintings in his house which were all directly related to what he had been talking about in the series (they could have been placed there of course, but I doubt it).

Something we notice early on is that Mr Bronowski does not read from cue cards, he talks directly to the camera with his very distinct British accent (he was born in Poland, but went to England when he was 13, and had to learn English). Some of the scenes contained continuous shots which went on for minutes before a cut was made to another camera, and he did all this in such a natural way, as if he was just making it all up from the top of his head. Respectamundo.

One of the most remarked on scenes in the series is this one…

I had read online that he found the visit to Auschwitz to be very difficult and that he wanted to spend as little time there as possible. That scene though was the most powerful scene in the whole series. The episode began with Mr Bronowski introducing us to an old fellow who was being used to help demonstrate the various kinds of light such as infra red, x-ray, and visible light. He appeared a few times in the episode, but after the video clip you watched above, we were shown a headshot of a much younger version of this man, probably taken by the Germans at Auschwitz in World War II…he was a concentration camp survivor. Quite a stunning end to any television programme I have ever seen.

Despite it’s age this series is well worth a watch for anyone who loves science, but even if you don’t it is worth watching just for Mr Bronowski because it reminds us that there are people out there who can explain to us in simple terms why the world is the way it is and that we must not let ignorance and orange people undo everything science has achieved so far. He was also a very thoughtful and articulate chap who Michael Parkinson considered to be one of his most favourite guests.

Next, I am going to make my way through Life on Earth, another excellent BBC series.

And I was so impressed with Mr Bronowski that I have added him to the MBMS Page of Fame, a most worthy addition if I ever saw one. I suspect that Sir David will be joining him soon, but that is a forgone conclusion, is it not?

Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways

I was just expecting this to be a run-of-the-mill rock documentary about all things rock and roll, but it turned out to be quite a bit more…mostly tragic rock ‘n’ roll.

The Runaways were an all-female band formed in 1975 by drummer Sandy West (16 years old) and guitarist Joan Jett (17 years old), and they were then produced by a Malcolm McLaren-type character by the name of Kim Fowley (a much worse character than McLaren). From there three more girls joined the band including bassist Jackie Fox (14 years old), Lita Ford and Cherie Currie (both 17). So, they were all young, but reasonably proficient musicians.

The film was directed by Vicky Blue who replaced Jackie Fox after she quit, but lasted less than two years. She did a reasonably good job at directing, which was rough and ready, much like the band itself. Unfortunately though she chose to have music playing constantly throughout the whole film, basically with music in the left channel, and the interview audio in the right channel which got very annoying quickly.

The interviews with the band members were raw and delved deep into their past, with occasional breakdowns on camera as the members remembered some of the things that happened…or in Lita Fords case lots of cussin’ and bad attitude. The young bassist in particular survived some terrible things. In the years after the Runaways broke up the drummer had a very hard life and died in 2006 from cancer.

There were also interviews with Tim Fowley. This excerpt from Wikipedia gives you an idea of what he was like…

Kim Fowley, the band’s original manager, originally asked for $10,000 appearance fee in order to appear in the film, but eventually agreed to appear for free if he could sing his answers to questions, with a guitarist accompanying him. Vicki Blue agreed and this is how his appearance was originally shot. However, he then informed her that each of his answers was a song that would require a separate license. Fowley was shooting a segment for VH1 at about that time, so Blue sent her questions to the VH1 folks, who agreed to let her use their footage.

Yep, he was quite a manipulator, nutjob, and overall scumbag it appears. Lita Ford wanted to see him dead, which he did in 2015 from cancer, six years after this documentary was made.

It is a pity Joan Jett wanted no part in this, but she had her reasons. From Wikipedia:

“To me, the Runaways is my baby, so you have to understand my perspective. If there’s gonna be a Runaways movie, it should be about what we accomplished, the tours we did, the bands we played with, the people we inspired. I’m not gonna participate in a Jerry Springer fest, bottom line. With any band, you’re gonna have interpersonal conflicts, but if that’s what they thought the Runaways were about—about breaking a bass or putting on make-up—well, it’s very disappointing. Very, very disappointing. I wanted nothing to do with it because that’s not the band I was in. [The film] was a totally different take on what went down.”

I can’t really say I got into their music, which was pretty standard stuff. But they were reasonably big in the day (not superstars though), and were definitely big in Japan.

So it was a story of success completely over-shadowed by rock ‘n’ roll excess, abuse, and manipulation.

A biographical drama film was released in 2010 based on the Runaways story, and starred Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. I will have to look out for that.

Date watched: May 13th
Score: 7.5/10
Film count 2018: 34

Gary Numan: Android In La La Land

This is a 2016 documentary mostly about Gary Numan’s (real name Gary Webb) career, problems, his move from the U.K. to L.A., and the release of his 2013 album “Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind”.

The thing we learn the most about Gazza is that he is nothing like his music persona. He is a shy dude who does not like social interactions and heavily relies on his wife when out in public for events etc. He also has a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. He is a family man, but for a few years fell-out with his parents for reasons that were not clearly explained in the documentary, but all seems good now.

And we learned that he loves making music, which for quite some time he lost interest in, especially when he became depressed. But again, thanks to his wife by playing him a Nine Inch Nails album, and her encouragement, he got himself together and started making music again. He was in such a bad way that record companies would not even sign him, so he released some albums himself. We also learned that Dave Grohl, Trent Raznor, and Marilyn Manson all consider Gazza to be an influence. There was some footage of him joining Nine Inch Nails on stage to sing one of his songs.

So he seems like your typical musical genius really; troubled to some extent, kind of a recluse, and obsessive. But he is also just a very nice guy who loves his family and drinking Coca-Cola…we saw a lot of that throughout the film.

Recommended watching for music lovers.

Here he is at Amoeba…

Next: Another music documentary about the Runaways…more learning about bands that I know little about.

Date watched: May 12th
Score: 8/10
Film count 2018: 33

Until the Light Takes Us

This is a 2009 documentary about the beginnings of Black Metal in Norway, available free to watch on YouTube.

While I do like my metal, I am not into black metal at all, it just don’t grab me. But, I was intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, so when I came across this on YouTube I gave it a go.

It turned out to be quite an eye-opener as the fellows interviewed in this were very interesting, and not what I was expecting. The main interviewee was “Fenriz”, one of the OG’s of black metal and a very friendly guy with some interesting things to say. He is basically the John Jydon of black metal, he doesn’t like the direction black metal took as punk did in the 80’s, especially how it became satanic, but he is very mellow and not angry at all, unlike Mr Lydon.

Things get nutty though when we meet Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, the sole member his influential band “Burzum”. He was tried for the murder of his friend “Euronymous”, another black metal musician in 1993, with the interviews taking place inside his very nice looking prison cell (curtains over the windows and a computer on a desk). He was released from prison on bail not long after actually, he served only 14 years of his 21 year sentence. At one point he very matter of factly describes the murder which up to a point seemed to be in self-defense. But, the description takes a dark turn when he describes the actual stabbing, and well, from then he seemed more than just a bit odd. He is though a very well-spoken and obviously intelligent guy with strong convictions. He now lives in France with his wife and son, and has a regular YouTube channel. I watched one and was again impressed by his intelligence, and he seems very like-able. However, his nonchalant way of saying “After I had killed Euronymous…” (2:51) it makes you wonder if releasing him was a good idea. He was also convicted for burning three churches back in the day.


Varg reacting to his guilty sentence.

A lot of the film is quite dark as it was filmed in the Norwegian winter, I don’t know if I could stand that. I guess the constant darkness partly explains how black metal came about, but there are obviously other factors. Norway seems to be a very conservative place.

There is some criticism that the film makers did not question or push their interviewees on why they did what they did which is fair, it was all very one-sided really. But even so, it was a very fascinating look at a genre of music that I still have little interest in, but at least I know a little more about.

Next up: a documentary about Gary Numan.

Date watched: May 11th
Score: 8/10
Film count 2018: 32

The Ascent of Television

My film watching habit has taken a bit of a hit recently due to my increased viewing of YouTubes and television series. I am also buying less music than usual, so I am not writing as much in this blog as I would like to, and I do like to write don’t you know? So, I have decided to write about the television series I complete, and a brief post about any new series that I start.

I will start with series one of Stranger Things which I completed a few weeks ago on Netflix (I have since ended my Netflix membership). There was a lot of talk about how brillo this series was so I was looking forward to watching it. And while it was an excellent series overall it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The story was quite standard stuff, and the outcome was what you would have expected, and it left some loose ends. The acting though was superb, all of the kids were exceptional talents, and it was great to see Winona Ryder again.

Another series I completed some time ago was series one of 3rd Rock from the Sun, an old fave that I watched back in the day but wanted to see again. Very funny stuff, not so much for the jokes, but for the very funny physical humour from the cast, especially John Lithgow who can make you laugh without saying anything, Jane Curtin too. I am currently making my way through the second series.

And finally, I have just started on The Ascent of Man, a 1973 BBC documentary series about how mankind evolved to become what we are today. It was hosted by a very intelligent chap by the name of Jacob Bronowski who died not long after the series was completed. He was actually a mathematician/scientist who was also very good at presenting as it turns out. I watched a Michael Parkinson interview with him and it showed him to be quite an incredible fellow. Anyway, the first programme in the series looked at the beginnings of man in central Africa. In the first episode we got to see 1973 3D computer graphics, which were primitive but more advanced than I would have imagined…


Mr. Bronowski explaining the evolution of the human skull at his desktop.

I guess for most people this is rather dry stuff, but I was captivated not only by Mr Bronowski but also by the story he told. I shall report back after I have finished the last episode.

Scores
Stranger Things – 8/10
3rd Rock from the Sun – 7.5/10
The Ascent of Man (so far) – 8/10