The B.S. Movie List, Vol. I

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This is a (mostly) unsolicited and (mostly) unnecessary list of 100 films that I personally have deemed significant for some reason, in some way. At various points in my life each of these films has made an impression upon me; a select few are enduring favorites. I’ve presented them alphabetically rather than ranking them because 1) this list is far from comprehensive and 2) the point is not to try to figure out whether one film is better than another, but rather to illuminate all of these films.

 

I have made some deliberate exclusions of worthwhile films because I felt that they’re already well represented elsewhere: big franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Pixar films, anything by Quentin Tarantino. Of course everyone loves them, but chances are you’ve already seen them. Conversely, it does include Citizen Kane and other critically acclaimed masterpieces that you’re more likely to have put off watching, mostly because I’m a pretentious film snob who enjoys letting everyone know how good his taste is.

 

THE FILMS:

(500) Days of Summer (2009, dir. Marc Webb)

12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

8 1/2 (1963, dir. Federico Fellini)

A Clockwork Orange (1971, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

Adaptation (2001, dir. Spike Jonze)

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012, dir. Alison Klayman)

Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)

Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)

Amélie (2001, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

American Splendor (2003, dirs. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini)

Annie Hall (1977, dir. Woody Allen)

Apocalypse Now (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Band of Outsiders (1964, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Barton Fink (1991, dir. Joel Coen)

Being John Malkovich (1999, dir. Spike Jonze)

Being There (1979, dir. Hal Ashby)

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007, dir. Ridley Scott)

Blue Jasmine (2013, dir. Woody Allen)

Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)

Broken Flowers (2005, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Casino (1995, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)

City of God (2002, dir. Fernando Meirelles)

Coraline (2009, dir. Henry Selick)

Crumb (1994, dir. Terry Zwigoff)

Dead Man (1995, dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2007, dir. Michel Gondry)

Fanny and Alexander (1980, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Fargo (1996, dir. Joel Coen)

Full Metal Jacket (1987, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Groundhog Day (1993, dir. Harold Ramis)

Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Her (2013, dir. Spike Jonze)

I’m Not There (2007, dir. Todd Haynes)

In Bruges (2007, dir. Martin McDonagh)

La Strada (1954, dir. Federico Fellini)

Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sofia Coppola)

Manhattan (1979, dir. Woody Allen)

Metropolis (1927, dir. Fritz Lang)

Midnight in Paris (2011, dir. Woody Allen)

Million Dollar Baby (2004, dir. Clint Eastwood)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, dirs. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, dir. Terry Jones)

Moonrise Kingdom (2007, dir. Wes Anderson)

Mulholland Drive (2001, dir. David Lynch)

Nashville (1975, dir. Robert Altman)

No Country for Old Men (2007, dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen)

On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)

Onibaba (1964, dir. Kaneto Shindô)

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo Del Toro)

Persepolis (2007, dirs. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud)

Philomena (2013, dir. Stephen Frears)

Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Ran (1980, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Rear Window (1954, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Requiem for a Dream (2000, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Road to Perdition (2002, dir. Sam Mendes)

RoboCop (1987, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

Rushmore (1998, dir. Wes Anderson)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Stephen Spielberg)

Seven (1995, dir. David Fincher)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960, dir. Francois Truffaut)

Sideways (2004, dir. Alexander Payne)

Stagecoach (1938, dir. John Ford)

Stardust Memories (1980, dir. Woody Allen)

Strangers on a Train (1951, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Submarine (2011, dir. Richard Ayoade)

Super (2010, dir. James Gunn)

Synecdoche, New York (2009, dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese)

The 400 Blows (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut)

The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel Coen)

The Departed (2006, dir. Martin Scorsese)

The Elephant Man (1980, dir. David Lynch)

The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The Godfather, Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966, dir. Sergio Leone)

The Graduate (1967, dir. Mike Nichols)

The Hustler (1955, dir. Robert Rossen)

The King of Comedy (1980, dir. Martin Scorsese)

The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)

The Squid and the Whale (2005, dir. Noah Baumbach)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston)

The Truman Show (1998, dir. Peter Weir)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, dir. Martin Scorsese)

There Will Be Blood (2007, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Touch of Evil (1958, dir. Orson Welles)

Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood)

Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

Wild Strawberries (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Y tu mamá también (2001, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

 

Discuss it in the comments! People do that!

Bobsongs No. 2: “The Boxer”

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What? you say. “The Boxer?” That isn’t even a Bob Dylan song! What about “Knocking on Heaven’s Door?” “Blowin’ in the Wind?” “Mr. Tambourine Man?” So many classic songs to choose from, and you go with “The Boxer?” What the hell are you thinking, wasting everyone’s time writing about a song that nobody cares about?

To which I say, hypothetical and likely nonexistent reader, that you have a point, but I write what I write. The song exists, and we, the fans, must contend with it: such is fandom. Sometime between Paul Simon’s composing “The Boxer” and Marcus Mumford’s ruining it, Bob Dylan recorded a bizarre cover version for his infamous Self-Portrait album. Even on that album, which is full of (mostly failed) experiments, Dylan’s “Boxer” stands out, and not in a good way: the song is a mostly straight reading of the song which is rendered ridiculous by its two vocal tracks. That’s right folks: modern recording technology, ca. 1970, has reached its culmination in allowing the Voice of His Generation to record a duet with himself. Blonde on Blonde Dylan and Nashville Skyline Dylan, together at last!

It’s difficult to imagine why any serious recording artist would choose to release a recording like this. One of the predominant narratives surrounding Self-Portrait is that it was an attempt to get rid of that annoying and not-all-that-accurate “Voice of a Generation” tag; Dylan himself makes this claim in Chronicles. At least he sounds like he’s having a bit of fun while recording it, though, definitely more fun than I’ve had listening to it. I guess that’s the kind of thing you can expect from one of the most notorious albums in rock.

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10: Another Self-Portrait did a lot, in my opinion, to show what kinds of things Bob was doing musically as the sixties gave way. A lot of the songs on Self-Portrait, when stripped of the overdubs that are on the finished album, are actually really good! “The Boxer” isn’t one of those songs, though. It just sucks.

(I would include a link to the song, but Columbia appears to have cracked down on YouTube postings of Dylan material.)

Photo Source

The Dream is Dying

The dream is dying;

The thrush proclaims it from the bony branches of the trees,

The old man looks up from his cart, briefly, before returning to his wares,

The young man stops, samples, moves along.

At the bank, a man in a dark suit deposits a check,

The clerk slips it into a drawer, bats his eye,

Remembers an old rhyme he once heard.

His grandfather played it on a blue guitar,

His voice breaking across the high notes like a bottle on the bow of a ship.

In a jazz club beatniks wait for recognition,

The smoke from their cigarettes dissipating around the light spheres.

One eyes a boy at the end of the bar;

Later he will lie beaten in an alleyway, broken,

Weeping for his aching groin.

In an apartment on the forty-third floor a young woman sits in her underwear,

Alone but for the cum stains on her sheets.

The scars on her forearms reprimand her touch,

Her leathery tongue fails to moisten her lips,

An unheard message from her mother waits on the machine:

Honey, I love you, please come home.

The troubadour closes his guitar case and counts his change:

$2.76. Enough for a fast-food burger,

And no gigs.

The dream is dying.

Ben on Bob: Bob Dylan (1962)

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This is where it all begins. Bob was twenty years old when he recorded his debut and had been cutting his teeth in the Greenwich Village folk scene for a year or so, and the youthful energy and enthusiasm that he brings to his debut is unrivaled in his discography, save perhaps for his first two electric albums. It’s not unlike the Beatles’ debut, Please Please Me, which was released in Britain the same year: exciting, good fun, and indicative of great things to come.

There are some major differences between that album and Bob Dylan, though. John and Paul were able to boast half an album’s worth of originals – the classic “I Saw Her Standing There” among them – and their most famous cover in “Twist and Shout.” Dylan’s debut has only two original songs and none of his covers are particularly well known. The originals are interesting but hardly classics: “Talkin’ New York,” one of seven or so talking blues songs that Bob was playing around the Village at the time, and “Song to Woody,” a pleasant ode to his hero, Woody Guthrie. “Song to Woody” especially is noteworthy, and hints at things to come, but, in spite of the fact that he’d already written plenty of great original songs, this album is not by Bob Dylan the songwriter so much as it is by Bob Dylan the performer and folksinger. There’s something to be said for this: you hear a lot about how great a songwriter Dylan is and how poetic his lyrics are and so on, and while he deserves the praise, his abilities as a performer and song interpreter tend to get swept under the rug as a result (to say nothing of those who question those abilities, but that’s another debate entirely). Only rarely would Dylan hit the high notes that he hits in “Freight Train Blues” and “You’re No Good” to such great effect, and his growls and whines of impending doom in songs like “In My Time of Dyin’” and “Fixin’ to Die” wouldn’t be recreated until Oh Mercy in 1989.

The song selection all around is pretty solid: even casual listeners will have heard “House of the Rising Sun” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and maybe even “Gospel Plow” before – albeit in radically different versions by different artists. Add that to the fact that several of the songs served as blueprints for some of Bob’s later masterpieces – “Highway 51 Blues” lending its riff to “It’s Aright Ma” and its title to “Highway 61 Revisited,” for instance – and, in Bob Dylan, we are hearing not only Dylan’s roots, but the roots of a significant amount of the pop music of the past fifty years. Maybe the nuttiest thing about the whole affair is that there were tons of other great songs that Bob was playing at the time that didn’t make the cut, some of which he didn’t even record. Thankfully, we have rarities collections for all of that.

It’s That Kind of Night

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It’s the kind of night where you don’t sleep.

It’s the kind of night where you make hot tea, maybe.

It’s the kind of night where you listen to your favorite records.

It’s the kind of night where you run your fingers along the spines of all your books.

            That one I read on an airplane.

            That one I read by the riverside.

            That one I read in bed.

            That one I read in one sitting.

But even if you go out on the porch and smoke a whole pack,

Even if you throw on some gym clothes and go for a drive,

Even if you turn the dial on your car radio,

It won’t stop being that kind of night.

Take your fingers off the keys.

You’ll never come up with a convincing rhyme scheme,

That will burrow into the soul of some kid twenty-eight years down the line,

And give him dreams of grandeur,

And delusions of genius.

 

2 December 2013

Bobsongs No. 1: “All Along the Watchtower”

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“All Along the Watchtower” is Bob Dylan’s best folk song. I don’t mean by this that it is the song that adheres closest, musically or lyrically, to folk traditions – there are dozens of songs from his early acoustic years which draw more explicitly from the musical forms and/or lyrical themes of traditional folk music. I don’t mean that it is his best song, either, though it is easily one of his most popular and enduring, and any list that attempts to catalogue Dylan’s greatest work would definitely have to include it. When I say that “All Along the Watchtower” is Dylan’s best folk song, I mean that, more than any other Dylan song, it opens itself up wonderfully to interpretation, meshing effortlessly with the musical styles of a diverse range of artists. I have yet to hear a bad version of it, and no two are alike.

Not that there isn’t a lot to love about Dylan’s original studio cut. Quiet, moody, and atmospheric, its focus is on enigma and its own mystery.  The original track – released in 1967 on the John Wesley Harding album – is radically different from the version that Jimi Hendrix would make famous six months later. Hendrix’s cut is a tempest, Dylan’s is a fog: the two versions are opposites, reverse sides of the same coin, even down to the number of players in each band. In the wake of the success of the Hendrix cover, the Dylan original remains largely forgotten; even Bob himself has been making an electric romp of the song as long as he’s been playing it live, with varying results. However, I’ve attached it above, as it’s worth a listen.

Debating which version is superior is, I believe, somewhat pointless. One might as well try to decide whether he prefers noise or ambience. Each version of the song – and not just Dylan’s or Hendrix’s, but every version – presents its own vision of apocalypse. Death may come with a bang or a whimper – or a groove, perhaps (XTC), or a creeping fury (Dave Matthews Band) – but it will still come. Or, due to its circular nature, perhaps it has already. I can say with some confidence that Bob should not be trying to copy Jimi Hendrix’s version of his own song. Ever since he went electric, live Dylan has been about reinvention – part of the pleasure of listening to him is hearing how the arrangements of his songs have evolved over the years, changing as his relationship to them changes. “Watchtower” hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, though. He’s played it pretty much the same way ever since the Isle of Wight concert. Even the MTV Unplugged version is a rock-and-roll song.

The studio version remains, though, in spite of all of this: and isn’t that the point of recording songs in the first place?

Listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YanjY9CsPDQ

Welcome to Diet Vanilla Ben Smith

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Hello old friend(s), and hello new friend(s)! As you can see, I’m in the process of giving the site a facelift. The intent is to expand beyond the stories and poems that I’ve been posting — although I will continue to do so, hopefully with some new stuff up soon — and use this blog as a vehicle for not only my literary writing, but other forms of writing as well. My plans for the future include:

-writings on Bob Dylan, including album reviews and essays on songs, perhaps with more writings on music later on down the road, with a focus on Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or whatever happens to strike my fancy

-my own original music, which, once I’ve written and recorded enough worthy material, I hope to make available for download

-various essays on cultural phenomena, etc.

Hopefully I’ll be able to get this off of the ground. Stay tuned.