The Lens of Fears and Dreams: Michael Ballhaus

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, most famous for his collaborations with the auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, passed away today at age 81. Here are scenes from eleven films (because ten just aren’t enough!) photographed by Ballhaus, unforgettable moments that are forever imprinted in my mind.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). An unhappy actress is fired from a film project after making too many demands; we watch her departure in an extended take that Ballhaus shot inside the boat taking her away from the set. I love the blueness of the water and the soft, golden light on Magdalena Montezuma’s face as she drifts further and further away as an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays on the soundtrack, before we are abruptly brought back to a scene of the film shoot. Perhaps Fassbinder’s choice of aria, “Il dolce suono,” which depicts the aftermath of Lucia stabbing her husband to death on their wedding night and subsequently fantasizing about marriage to a different man, is applied to Magdalena Montezuma’s farewell scene (trust me, she exhibited tremendous histrionics) by implying that after the bout of madness that destroyed her career opportunity, she can still dream of a brighter future, even if it’s one that probably won’t happen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In the first video, Michael Ballhaus discusses his work on Petra von Kant in an interview conducted by the Criterion Collection for a new DVD release of the film in 2015. In the second clip, we see a scene showing the beginning of the first romantic encounter between fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and a young protégée, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who is willing and eager to sleep her way to the top of the modeling world. The ornate costumes were designed by Maja Lemcke, her only film credit according to the IMDb.

Martha (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). One of Fassbinder’s greatest films was produced for TV, a melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk titled Martha. Margit Carstensen plays the main character, a young woman whose father (Adrian Hoven) dies while they are on vacation in Italy; on the same fateful day, she falls in love with an older man (Karlheinz Böhm), whom she soon marries (with disastrous consequences for her). Fassbinder introduces Böhm’s character and shows the instant attraction in the pair’s first meeting thanks to Ballhaus’s cinematography. The camera rotates hypnotically around the man and woman, a dizzying vision of lust. You’ll also note that the scene ends on a shot of a voyeuristic interloper played by El Hedi ben Salem, who played the male lead opposite Brigitte Mira in Fassbinder’s All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, that same year. Salem was Fassbinder’s on again, off again boyfriend in the 1970s and he eventually committed suicide in a French jail in 1977, having been arrested and convicted of stabbing three people in a bar fight.

Fox and His Friends (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Possibly Fassbinder’s greatest masterpiece, Fox and His Friends is the tragic tale of Franz, a working-class man (played by Fassbinder) whose naive, guileless affection for his wealthy boyfriend, Eugen (Peter Chatel), allows Eugen to manipulate and exploit him. In one memorable segment of the film, Eugen convinces Franz to go on a pleasure trip to Morocco, where the couple pick up a local “guide,” Salem (the aforementioned El Hedi ben Salem). The cinematography in the scene in which Franz and Eugen cruise the “Meeting Place of the Dead” is exquisite, decorating the landscape in bars of light from the wooden slats above the market.

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Although this clip does not have subtitles, all you need to know is that a cabaret’s emcee (Peter Kern) excitedly introduces a singer’s act (Ingrid Caven), while her new boyfriend (Gottfried John) and her embarrassed mother and brother (Brigitte Mira, Armin Meier) look on. The family considers the performance quite tasteless, given that the family’s patriarch has recently committed suicide; even in the face of personal tragedy, the daughter is too vain and hungry for fame to consider postponing her stage show. Fassbinder loved images of people experiencing shame, frustration and other variations of pain, and this scene is no exception.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen, playing an estranged husband and wife, embrace in a scene depicted magnificently in one long dolly shot revolving around the two actors. Without dialogue, we get an intense feeling of intimacy from the swirling motions of the camera and the images of the performers’ faces, especially the expressive Margit Carstensen (one of Fassbinder’s favorite leading ladies).

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese). Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who works for a publishing firm in Manhattan, experiences the worst night of his life after he meets an unusual young woman, Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), in a diner. As the two talk in Marcy’s apartment, Ballhaus keeps the scene minimally lit, but he zooms in on Arquette’s face when she leaves the room, a typically Scorsesean shot which is my favorite in the entire film.

Broadcast News (1987, dir. James L. Brooks). Television producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) leads news anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) through his first live show, a relationship that relies on her ability to direct his “performance” – a role-reversal of the Svengali and Trilby archetypes. Michael Ballhaus nicely conveys the depth of the TV studio, showing the distance and shifting perspectives of characters in the control room and down on the set.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese). One of the most celebrated scenes in the history of Martin Scorsese’s career is the unedited shot of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be wife Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub by way of the kitchen, a handheld shot achieved with the use of a Steadicam. The scene was shot eight times; reportedly, the eighth take is what Scorsese put in the finished film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Enjoy the lush visual atmosphere of Coppola’s Dracula set: the lighting by Michael Ballhaus, Gary Oldman’s dedicated performance as the title vampire and Winona Ryder’s underrated work as Dracula’s great love, Mina Murray. The beautiful score composed by Wojciech Kilar completes the picture.

Quiz Show (1994, dir. Robert Redford). One of my favorite moments in Quiz Show is the scene in which Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes close to revealing to his father, Mark (Paul Scofield), that he has been cheating during his winning streak on the TV quiz show Twenty One. Charles cannot bring himself to admit the sordid truth, though, and the cinematography reflects the metaphorical darkness weighing on Charles’s mind by displaying Mark Van Doren’s private study drenched in shadows. Michael Ballhaus’s use of close-ups, especially as Charles dances on the edge of revealing his secret, draws you in closer to the drama, but I also love the wide shot that the scene ends on, explaining without words that the brief window of opportunity for Charles’s confession has passed.

La Belle Michèle

Michèle Morgan, who passed away yesterday at age 96, was one of the great stars of French cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s. For some actresses (and their fans) it might have been enough just to be a beautiful presence onscreen, but Michèle was always much more than a pretty face. She had a remarkable ability to find the passionate depths of any character she was given, whether it was a beret-sporting gamine who casts her spell on an army deserter (Jean Gabin) in Marcel Carné’s proto-noir Port of Shadows (1938), a wide-eyed maid who falls in love with a valet (Jack Haley) in Tim Whelan’s musical comedy Higher and Higher (1943) or the kindhearted mistress of a butler (Ralph Richardson) accused of murdering his wife in Carol Reed’s drama/thriller The Fallen Idol (1948). Michèle knew when to play cool and assured and when to magnify the high-spirited, richly emotional aspects of a role; she owed some of her success to her exceptionally good looks, particularly her striking blue eyes, but the enduring truth of her appeal was in the way she could imbue the women she played with the intelligence and poise that only a genuinely gifted performer can possess.

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Three weeks ago I watched one of Michèle’s classic French films, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques (aka Stormy Waters) (1941), which is available via the Criterion Collection in the box set Eclipse Series 34: Jean Grémillon During the Occupation. In the film, Michèle plays a cynical young woman whose path crosses with that of an older sea captain (Jean Gabin) who rescues her from a ship stranded during a tempest. The two embark on an affair that ends, like all memorable French dramas must, in tragedy.

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Michèle’s finest scene in Remorques is at the end of the film, when Jean Gabin leaves their hotel room to return home and reunite with his dying wife. Michèle hands Gabin’s first officer a starfish that she found on the beach during one of the couple’s clandestine meetings. It is a quiet, tender moment made bittersweet by the tears in the corners of her eyes even as she insists on smiling through her sorrow – she knows that the romance has ended and that she will never see her beloved again.

Earlier, in September, I watched one of the few American films Michèle made in the 1940s, Joan of Paris (1942), a World War II espionage drama from RKO Pictures in which she plays a penniless Frenchwoman who helps an RAF aviator (Paul Henreid) and his comrades on their mission to get back to England after being shot down over Paris. At the time I saw the film, I was so struck by two particular scenes that I took many screenshots to capture those images; I have gathered some of them here to further pay tribute to Michèle. I implore you to seek out Joan of Paris, which is available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. Although the screenplay has a number of flaws and the film focuses more on action than on character development, the performances by Michèle, Paul Henreid, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, a young Alan Ladd and John Abbott are well worth seeing.

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In the second half of the film, Michèle goes to a church to pray for Paul Henreid and his fellow aviators as they attempt to carry out their perilous escape plan. I am certain that director Robert Stevenson deliberately sought to evoke the intense close-ups of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterwork The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). There is a dazed, haunted look in Michèle’s face as she begs God to spare Henreid from the Nazi antagonists’ bloody wrath.

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At the film’s end, Michèle and a compassionate local priest (Thomas Mitchell) come to terms with the grim consequences of her assistance to the Allied fliers. Michèle walks toward the camera, solemn and trembling yet certain that she has done the right thing. Cinematographer Russell Metty observes the shifting planes of Michèle’s face, the different reactions made visible depending on the angles of light and shadow. This is a performance which the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther described in January 1942 as having “deep poignance and real nobility,” an evaluation which still rings true three-quarters of a century later.

Anton Yelchin, 1989-2016

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I don’t really know what to write about Anton Yelchin. I’ve been thinking about him for the last four hours. Yesterday he was alive, and today he is not. I can’t believe I’m writing about him in the past tense.

He was usually the best part of any cast he was in. He broke my heart at the end of the “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” episode that he guest-starred on back in 2006; he gave the best performance in The Beaver, which I saw only three weeks ago; he was one of the saving graces of the Fright Night reboot; he was such a funny, adorable sweetheart in Only Lovers Left Alive, my favorite character in the movie. His voice had that wonderful way of cracking slightly; it could make even the silliest, most clichéd dialogue sound better.

I was so close to seeing Green Room when it was in theaters in April, but for some reason I kept putting it off until it was too late. I really regret that. And only last weekend, when I last went to the movies, I saw the trailer for Star Trek Beyond and I – a lifelong avoider of all things Star Trek – thought something along the lines of “I might actually, finally catch up and see these new movies; Anton Yelchin is in them.”

One of the reasons why I have pursued the career of film critic/pop culture blogger is that I love watching actors grow and change. Even when I don’t love the movies I write about, I look for ways to appreciate the performers’ abilities. Anton Yelchin was one of those young actors whose work I always enjoyed. I looked forward to seeing what he would do next. I was waiting for the moment when he would advance from a star of indie films and a supporting player in blockbusters to a major Hollywood leading man. It was, I was certain, just a matter of time. He had so many decades ahead of him.

I write about movies and actors because I care about them. When an actor dies as tragically and young as Anton Yelchin has, it hurts. It physically hurts. I felt sick when reading the obituaries earlier. For this devastating loss, I feel for the family and friends, the acting community, for the fans all around the world.

2016, you have caused us so much heartache and the year isn’t even halfway over. When will enough be enough?

Nothing Compares 2 Him (A Second Retrospective)

Whom would I be kidding if I said I had cared about anyone’s music but Prince’s for the last week and a half? I have found myself thinking constantly about how Prince intersected with pop culture and how the world around him inspired him. So, after my last post, which counted twelve of his finest moments, I return with a dozen more.

1. “The Beautiful Ones” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). When I went with a friend to see Purple Rain at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square last Tuesday, “The Beautiful Ones” stood out as one of the highlights of the film. To be clear, even though I know the Purple Rain soundtrack inside out, I had never actually seen the entire film, or if I had, it was many years ago and probably in a television-friendly cut on MTV or VH1. So it was a revelation when I saw the way that Purple Rain uses this particular song, which has quite possibly the best vocal on the album. As rising star “The Kid,” Prince pleads with Apollonia (same name for both actress and character) to choose between his love and the ill-gotten gains of stardom as a pop tart in the employ of antagonist Morris Day (again, same actor/character name). In an essay written for Rolling Stone on April 22, Tim Grierson wrote that “[Prince’s] finest movie moment jettisons acting all together and delves purely into the art form he mastered. Watch Prince’s performance of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ in Purple Rain, which — in a mere five minutes — embodies everything he did so incredibly: emotion, passion, sensuality, poignancy, combustible sex appeal, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him star power.” True, true, true.

2. “Darling Nikki” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Oh, “Darling Nikki.” Yes, this is the song that spurred Tipper Gore to create the “Filthy Fifteen” list of songs that she felt were destroying vulnerable young ears and should be kept at a distance from the youth of America. Prince is therefore single-handedly responsible for the creation of the Parental Advisory label on CDs, which were the result of the war waged by Gore. As if it could have been done any other way, the song’s inclusion in Purple Rain is a memorable one; bathed in brilliantly red stage lighting, “The Kid” taunts Apollonia (still torn between having her pop-star career and being with him), which is quite a feat considering her own big number in the film, the ridiculously cheesy “Sex Shooter.” Next to that, “Darling Nikki,” with its slow-burning buildup and almost ominous blares of keyboard from Revolution member Lisa Coleman, is one of the seven wonders of the world. The link between Prince’s music and sexuality is best described by Dodai Stewart in her essay “On Prince, Blackness, and Sexuality”: “Prince leaves us, as part of his legacy, a wholly unique case study for a black American male pop star. He didn’t have the put-upon polish or narrow repertoire of the smooth, seductive, quiet storm R&B guys. He wasn’t all braggadocio and brawn like the rappers. He had little in common with the slutty, sloppy, noisy rock gods. His sexuality funneled his feelings—emotional, spiritual, and intellectual—into a quest for physical connection, one twin’s craving to find, touch, and melt into his other half, which would then, finally, finally, make him whole. Two bodies coming together so that the minds and souls could follow. His sexuality was not monolithic; he was insistent and reticent, fragile and strong, curious, exploratory, experimental, horny. Not the typical American sex symbol. Not tall, not brawny. But deeply interested in the topography of pleasure: Discovering its limits, giving it, taking his own, finding someone else’s. ‘Sexuality is all you’ll ever need,’ he sang in 1981’s ‘Sexuality.’ ‘Sexuality, let your body be free.'”

More succinctly, I’m also reminded of what music critic Robert Christgau wrote about Prince in 1980: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”

3. “I Would Die 4 U” (scene from Purple Rain, 1984). Following the film’s apex, Prince’s performance of the title power ballad, there is joyous liberation in the exuberance of “I Would Die 4 U.” The audience (both in the film and the viewers watching on the other side of the screen) knows that this is going to be something different because after all the Sturm und Drang of the previous ten or so minutes, “The Kid” returns to the stage with a grin, totally aware that he now has complete possession of the adoring crowd. What follows is the stuff that Internet dreams are made of, given that people have made GIFs out of every single second, from the gliding movements of Prince’s high-heeled boots to this slick move to the slow-motion shuffle-slide across the floor. Maybe even more than by those specific images, you could sum up Prince’s magnetism with the first lines of the song: “I’m not a woman/I’m not a man/I am something that you’ll never understand.” Whatever their reasons for loving Prince, everyone at the Times Square screening (myself included) was cheering, clapping and stomping along to the beat.

4. Prince (with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman) accepting the Oscar for “Best Original Song Score” for Purple Rain (Academy Awards, 1985). It’s easy to forget that Purple Rain is an Oscar-winning movie since the “Song Score” category has not been awarded to any films since Prince won the prize. (You can read a bit more about that here.) I’m glad that Wendy & Lisa, Prince’s collaborators in his band The Revolution, were also on hand to accept the gold since they contributed so much to the impact of the film/album’s nine songs. One also must wonder how many boys and girls were watching the telecast and were mesmerized by sight of the Purple One draped in a glitter-covered caftan, looking kind of like a sparkly nun.

5. “When Doves Cry” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988). I can’t be certain where I would have seen this clip when I was younger since it couldn’t possibly have been on YouTube, but I have a definite memory of seeing it at some point during either high school or college because in those days I had a habit of passing time in any math or science class by scrawling stuff about music all over my notebook margins, and whenever it was that I saw this live video of “When Doves Cry,” I remember writing something the next day along the lines of “1988: Prince as a cover model from a Harlequin romance about pirates.” Who wouldn’t want that?

6. Sinéad O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (music video; studio version appears on the album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, 1990) and Prince featuring Rosie Gaines, “Nothing Compares 2 U” (from the concert film Rave Un2 the Year 2000, 1999). “Nothing Compares 2 U” has to be the most famous Prince song that he didn’t make famous himself. Originally penned by him in 1985 for one of his side projects, The Family, the cover by Sinéad O’Connor in 1990 went #1 around the world, was ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (#162) and has a music video which is considered iconic. O’Connor’s version influenced by the memories of her mother’s death in a car accident in 1985 is the definitive rendition but both expressions of the song are beautiful.

7. “Muppets Tonight” (guest host gig (as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”), 1997). Let it never be said that Prince didn’t have a sense of humor. Bless him, in the “Hoo-Haw” farmer segments, there are a couple of moments when he sounds like Dorothy Michaels from Tootsie.

8. “Purple Rain” (live at the Super Bowl XLI halftime show, 2007). Fittingly it rained during this epic presentation, which was seen by 140 million TV viewers. Watch and be amazed.

9. “Creep” (live at Coachella, 2008). Anyone who has ever heard Radiohead’s “Creep,” the 1993 single that launched them into the stratosphere of alt-rock deification, must recognize that it’s a song that takes on new life when covered by other artists. The song means one thing when performed by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, but it’s totally different when you hear it done by Macy Gray, an African-American woman who was in her mid-40s when she included it in her album Covered in 2012. Prince’s interpretation is also interesting; he changes up the lyrics but makes the guitar sound even more unsettling than I’ve heard previously. I like to think that Radiohead’s recent decision to remove themselves entirely from their social media websites is a strange little tribute to Prince, whose well-documented battles with the Internet are the stuff of legend.

10. “New Girl” episode “Prince” (2014). Did Prince share the same pastimes as us regular, boring people who watch sitcoms? Evidently, since he was apparently a fan of the FOX comedy “New Girl” and agreed to do a guest spot two years ago. He acts as a spiritual advisor to Jess (Zooey Deschanel), who needs some help in the crucial step of being able to say “I love you” to new boyfriend Nick (Jake Johnson). Pancakes, ping pong and butterflies are all involved in Prince’s magical process. And one of the absolute best parts? Jess’s makeover is set to the energetic sound of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (from his 1980 album Dirty Mind).

11. Interview with Arsenio Hall and fan questions (2014). I hadn’t seen this interview before last week. Arsenio gets some good answers out of Prince, and the fan Q&A part has some pretty nice moments.

12. “Baltimore” (feat. Eryn Allen Kane) (lyrics video; studio version appears on the album Hit n Run Phase Two, 2015). In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1990, Prince commented on an unreleased work, The Black Album (1987), by saying that “I was very angry a lot of the time back then and that was reflected in that album. I suddenly realized that we can die at any moment, and we’d be judged by the last thing we left behind. I didn’t want that angry, bitter thing to be the last thing. I learned from that album, but I don’t want to go back.” Since Hit n Run Phase Two is the last Prince album released in his lifetime, I think it means even more that he wrote and recorded a deeply political song concerned with Freddie Gray and the Black Lives Matter movement. For a long time – most of his career, I guess – Prince avoided covering overtly political topics in his songs, but he was obviously so moved by this cause that he had to speak out. If he were still here, he would undoubtedly hold more concerts like the “Rally 4 Peace” in Baltimore last May.

A last word: D’Angelo featuring Princess, “Sometimes It Snows in April” (performed live on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” 2016). I don’t usually cry over celebrity deaths. It’s simply a fact of my emotional makeup; I can weep at the drop of a hat while watching a movie, but when a singer or actor dies, the reality/finality of it is usually numbing more than anything else. Days passed after Prince’s death, and I listened to his music obsessively, but I didn’t cry. Not until this past Wednesday morning, that is. I was on an Amtrak train to Boston, exhausted because I hadn’t slept at all that night so that I would be ready to leave my house at 4:45 and board the 6:55 train. As I sat in my window seat I watched the video of D’Angelo performing on “The Tonight Show” on Tuesday night, which I had missed because I had been busy getting ready for my trip. Backed by Princess, a Prince cover duo made up of Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, D’Angelo delivers a moving performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April,” the last song in Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and also the last track on the Prince and the Revolution album Parade (1986). Obviously the song has taken on a new, tragic meaning given Prince’s passing on April 21 and you can hear the heartbreak in D’Angelo’s voice as he gives the song his all. It had me quietly shedding more than a few tears in the bright morning sunlight.

I was crying not just because of how sad I was, but also because I was so angry. I was confronted with this overwhelming feeling that Prince’s death wasn’t right, that it should not have happened in a compassionate universe. He should still be writing and recording songs with powerful messages, songs that could open people’s eyes to the injustices of the world (but maybe also continue to make the slow jams that everyone loves). I used to read his Twitter page, marveling at the fact that he actually wanted to have a presence on social media, and the fact that he referred to his Instagram account as “Princestagram,” a name he would write out in capital letters and often with several exclamation points. (The man certainly popularized what we now think of as text-speak, “U” and “B” and “2,” etc.) I realize I’ve hit upon what distresses me the most; for so long Prince was this enigmatic, larger-than-life figure, but in recent years he had become more knowable, connecting with his fans in a way he never had before. Now we won’t get the chance to know him any better, or at least not in his own voice. We might get glimpses of the man in archival material released from his fabled Paisley Park vaults, but it won’t be the same as his existing in real time and telling us himself. We had a conversation going – one that still felt like it was only just beginning – and now it has ended. That’s what hurts the most.

Friday Music Focus: 4/22/16

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Today I pay homage to the music/pop culture icon known as Prince. He had the look, the voice, the soul, the rock, the funk, the pop perfection, the guitar chops and so much more that combine to make a person into a legend. Given Prince’s famous aversion to websites like YouTube, it’s anyone’s guess how long the videos I have been lucky enough to find will remain online before being removed by his estate and/or record execs so for now please listen, watch and enjoy.

1. “Controversy” (music video; studio version appears on the album Controversy, 1981). I’m pretty sure that my aunt had a copy of Prince’s Controversy album on CD, so that’s where I first heard the title track, years before iTunes or music-sharing websites. It might be considered Prince’s ultimate anthem: who is he? Do we know? How many things can this one artist represent? How well do sex and religion – the two most potentially taboo subjects on the planet – mix? And why should any prospective “controversies” matter (or they might still matter, but not in a career-destroying way) as long as the music has meaning(s)? The man had an appeal that transcended every label or barrier imaginable.

Regarding Prince’s religious conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness, a cause for which he was known to go door to door in Minneapolis, one fan wrote (and could not reiterate enough) in a forum online: “It’s Prince! I’d invite Prince in my home to discuss the Dewey decimal system. It’s Prince!”

2. “Little Red Corvette” (music video; studio version appears on the album 1999, 1982). Like “Controversy,” I first heard “Little Red Corvette” on CD, as part of the compilation The Very Best of Prince (2001) if I recall correctly. Put simply: it’s a flawless pop song. In the paragraph that accompanies its ranking as one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (at #109), the tune is described as “an almost perfect erotic fusion of rock and funk that builds slowly until exploding into a guitar solo. Fittingly, Prince wrote the lyrics in the back seat of a car, but not a red Corvette: It was a bright-pink Ford Edsel belonging to Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman.”

3. “When Doves Cry” (music video; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). This is definitely the first Prince song that I have any memory of hearing. Even without the amazing guitar solo that ends the album version of the song, the music video is as exciting as it was for me when I was a kid. True to the name of Prince’s backing band, The Revolution, there seemed something so rebellious and thrilling in the imagery that opens the clip: Prince in the bathtub, then crawling across the floor. Did men in the pop world do such things? (As I imagine ten-year-old me asking myself.) Wasn’t it always the women – Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher – who were tasked with providing sensuality for the viewers? Was this the moment, the little click in my brain, when I understood the power of male sexuality in popular music?

4. “Kiss” (music video; studio version appears on the album Parade, 1986). I think I actually knew the 1988 cover of “Kiss” by Tom Jones/Art of Noise before I heard Prince’s recording, but once I heard the original song, it instantaneously became the only version that mattered. If anyone else had made this music video, the dance moves and outfits (or lack thereof) probably would have looked completely ridiculous, but Prince could do it.

5. “The Cross” (live from the Lovesexy tour, 1988; studio version appears on the album Sign o’ the Times, 1987). A guitar-and-sitar sermon intended to sear your skin off with sheer rock-and-roll strength. Great to see Sheila E. on the drums as well.

6. “Electric Chair” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 1989; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Batman, 1989). A weekend update: SNL’s Prince tribute show on April 23 featured this funky gem.

7. “Summertime” (live during a soundcheck before a concert in Japan, 1990). During a rehearsal for a show in Osaka, Prince improvises some impressive piano licks on this cover of the Gershwin jazz classic.

8. “Purple Rain” (live on TV; studio version appears on the soundtrack album Purple Rain, 1984). In a way my recollection of “Purple Rain” is of not hearing it rather than hearing it; on the night of the 2004 Grammys, when I was 11 years old, I went to my aunt and uncle’s house with my parents – probably a normal dinner get-together – and when I got there I was met by the two girls who lived next door, raving about some performance that had opened the Grammy show. It was the biggest thing possible, Prince and Beyoncé duetting on “Purple Rain” and other songs in a medley, and I was too late to have experienced it. When you listen to the lyrics, it makes sense: “Purple Rain” as a theme to missing out, wanting something you almost had but have now lost, even though you have hope that one day you’ll finally be able to attain it.

9. “Gett Off” (live at the MTV Video Music Awards, 1991; studio version appears on the album Diamonds and Pearls, 1991). I think my favorite assessment of this VMAs performance comes from a YouTube comment: “Everyone thought 2004 Janet Jackson and Justine Timberlake’s nipplegate halftime show at Superbowl XXIII was raunchy, huh…think again. This was a Sodom and Gomorra Whorehouse on stage and in 1991.” Orgy aside, “Gett Off” might not be as great a song as another definitive Prince track from the early 90s, “Sexy MF” – the music video for which I got a kick out of seeing on VH1 Classic at 6:00 pm on Saturday, when any susceptible child (or adult!) might see it – but as far as MTV showmanship goes, he deserved all the points for creative costuming.

10. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (live at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004). At the same ceremony in which he was himself inducted into the hallowed music organization, Prince performed with a who’s who of rock musicians in tribute to inductee George Harrison, who had passed away in 2001. Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison (George’s son) lead the pack, but when Prince’s electric guitar solo kicks in at the 3:27 mark, it’s like the theater has only just come alive. Has there ever been a cooler sight or sound? And while we’re at it, where on Earth did that magical guitar go at the end after it was tossed up to the heavens?

11. “Black Sweat” (music video; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). I remember when this video came out ten years ago and it was a pretty excellent feeling, knowing that Prince was so effortlessly modern. Although I couldn’t be sure that everyone who had already loved Prince for years would necessarily dig the song (perhaps contingent upon the genres you prefer – it’s not a magnet for the rock crowd), I figured it would undoubtedly draw younger generations. If ever the term dope jam could be applied, this would be the place.

12. “Fury” (live on “Saturday Night Live,” 2006; studio version appears on the album 3121, 2006). This, ladies and gentlemen, is the zenith.

Every weeknight from Monday to Thursday, Comedy Central broadcasts reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” and some time ago – a few weeks ago, I would say – the channel showed the episode from February 2006 which featured Steve Martin as the host and Prince as the musical guest. Prince’s rendition of “Fury” became an immediate classic for me when I first saw it ten years ago, so when Comedy Central showed it I knew I had to see it again and I knew the performance would be 100% as superb as I remembered it. Wailing with a voice full of passion, shredding the guitar like Jimi Hendrix reborn. When Prince bounces off the stage at the end, the reverberations of his guitar still echoing through the space, you know that you’ve just witnessed something special. It’s hard to process the fact that he’s gone when the fire of that show still burns so bright.

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With the digital universe continuously crying out for our exponentially divided attention, we are living in hyperbolic times. So it’s good to be reminded what The Best Thing Ever truly looks, sounds, shimmies, shakes and shrieks like.

That would be Prince.

– Chris Richards, Washington Post (2015)

Turn and Face the Strange: Remembering David Bowie

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(From The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976, dir. Nicolas Roeg.)

David Bowie represented a lot of things to me. He wrote some of the best songs of the last half-century, covering so many themes I wouldn’t know where to begin, although I particularly like the songs related to outer space (either literally or metaphorically) and to the pressures of fame. He was an actor so weirdly gifted that he could play an alien (see GIFs above), a vampire (The Hunger) and Pontius Pilate (The Last Temptation of Christ) without anyone thinking twice about it. He was an artist who painted, sculpted and worked in different kinds of digital media. Whatever Bowie did, I always knew it would be worth my time.

It’s hard for me to put every emotion I have about David Bowie’s music into words. He recorded so much and I feel, at my young age, that I still know too little – about his career, about how to write a good piece of music criticism, about how to eulogize someone who means so much to you and passes away quite suddenly. So in some of the cases below, I won’t say anything (or very little) except to quote a passage from the lyrics. I’m sure that David Bowie’s own writing will ultimately do a better job at convincing you of his talent than I can. I picked sixteen musical selections – it’s 2016, so that was the first number that came to me – but if I had not set that limit for myself, the list could have gone on ad infinitum.

1. “Space Oddity” (on album Space Oddity, 1969) – “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” What do you do with a song about an interstellar journey made by a character named Major Tom? Not to mention a song that has a Stylophone solo (starting at the 2:42 mark)? It’s amazing to me that this track successfully launched David Bowie’s career, rather than remaining a weird one-hit-wonder novelty song from the psychedelic era.

2. “Changes” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) – “Turn and face the strange…” The opening track of one of the most important albums of my teenage years, Hunky Dory. This song can, and has been, interpreted as Bowie’s artistic manifesto.

3. “Oh! You Pretty Things” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (TV appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972) – “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior…”

4. “Life on Mars?” (on album Hunky Dory, 1971) (music video from 1973) – “But the film is a saddening bore/For she’s lived it ten times or more…” On Bowie’s 69th birthday this past Friday, I was listening to this song most of all. I told whoever would listen to me that this was one of the greatest songs ever, no question. It is the high water mark of a career filled with numerous milestones, rule-breaking and boundary-pushing. Everyday human life is the most outrageous, unbelievable yet captivating spectacle out of all the entertainment forms in our world, and this song takes note of that truth quite eloquently. If you dare ask me to name the single best David Bowie song, this is the one I choose.

5. “Starman” (on album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972) – “There’s a starman waiting in the sky/He’d like to come and meet us/But he thinks he’d blow our minds…” Just last month I was in a theater at the Museum of Modern Art, watching The Martian in 3D, and I was pleased to hear “Starman” pop up in the movie. After many years of loving the song when heard through headphones, it had an even more exciting resonance in the theater.

6. “Rebel Rebel” (on album Diamond Dogs, 1974) – “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey babe, your hair’s alright/Hey babe, let’s go out tonight…” One of the definitive examples of 70s glam rock, featuring an unforgettable guitar riff played by Bowie himself (as opposed to being recorded by any of the other musicians he often worked with, like Mick Ronson). A small anecdote: I once tried to convince a high school friend of mine to listen to “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars?”; I don’t think she ever bothered with the former and when she finally got around to listening to the latter (it took about a month before she made time for it), she said that “it was alright.” (Swear to God.) Hey babe, your song’s alright!

7. “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (on album Low, 1977) – “Every chance, every chance that I take/I take it on the road/Those kilometres and the red lights/I was always looking left and right…” I once titled an essay written in a college creative writing class after this song.

8. “‘Heroes'” (on album “Heroes,” 1977) – “Though nothing will drive them away/We can beat them, just for one day/We can be heroes, just for one day…” Another of Bowie’s greatest songs. I think one of my primary associations with this song, even though it was years after I fell in love with it, was as the anthem for the UK athletes at the London Olympics in 2012.

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And now, moving forward into the 1980s…

9. “Ashes to Ashes” (on album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), 1980) – “My mama said, ‘To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom…'” Bowie plunges into the MTV era in style, saying goodbye to some of his old ways in order to experiment with new musical methods. I associate this song with the British show of the same name, much as I do with “Life on Mars?” and its counterpart show.

10. “Under Pressure” (David Bowie & Queen) (1981 single; on Queen album Hot Space, 1982) – “‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word/And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And love dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves…” A collaboration for the ages.

11. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” (Cat People soundtrack, 1982) (used in scene from film Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino) – “Don’t you know my name/Well, you’ve been so long/And I’ve been putting out fire/With gasoline!” This Giorgio Moroder-produced, synthesizer-heavy pop-rock song was given new life when Tarantino used it in a significant scene in Inglourious Basterds. Mélanie Laurent’s character, who was forced to flee the scene of her family’s murder at the hands of Nazis, has relocated to Paris and, under her new alias, operates a movie theater in Paris. When a German soldier develops a crush on her, Laurent uses this new bond to her advantage and crafts a radical strategy for revenge: when her cinema is chosen as the venue for the red-carpet premiere of a Nazi propaganda film (with Hitler, Goebbels, and many other heads of the Third Reich in attendance), Laurent makes plans to blow her building to smithereens by setting hundreds of film cans’ worth of celluloid on fire. Even though the use of the David Bowie scene, when Laurent puts on her makeup (or, more accurately, her war paint) to prepare for the big show, is anachronistic, the lyrics and the mood of the song make perfect sense in Tarantino’s context.

12. “Let’s Dance” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) – “Let’s sway under the moonlight, the serious moonlight…” Isn’t it terrific how Bowie could transform from persona to persona? I dig the suits from this era. Also, this song was a #1 hit in both the UK and the US, so that’s pretty cool.

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Speaking of “serious moonlight,” here is my sole David Bowie shirt, and it is a treasured possession. Originally bought and worn by my aunt, this tee has gone through some rough times – it once was covered in white paint after I accidentally collided with a wet wall – but little mishaps couldn’t ever keep a good shirt down. For a long time I have associated the article of clothing with good luck. Just two months ago, when I was getting ready to do a presentation in a graduate school class, I told two of my friends in that class that “everything is going to be OK because I’m wearing my lucky David Bowie shirt.” And indeed that day was blessed with a terrific teaching experience.

13. “Modern Love” (on album Let’s Dance, 1983) (used in scene from film Mauvais Sang, 1986, dir. Leos Carax) – “There’s no sign of life It’s just the power to charm I’m lying in the rain But I never wave bye-bye/But I try/I try…” The first Bowie song I can ever remember hearing, and I loved it immediately. In the clip from the French film Mauvais Sang, the “magic” of the radio gives Denis Lavant the opportunity to express his feelings for Juliette Binoche physically, turning his emotions into kinetic energy. When I saw the movie at the Film Forum in the summer of 2014, this scene was a standout because of how great it was to see Carax’s images paired with the sounds of “Modern Love” pouring from the theater’s speakers.

14. Guest appearance on British TV show “Extras” (2006) – “See his pug-nosed face/Pug, pug, pug, pug…” This ranks as one of my favorite television moments of the last decade. Ricky Gervais’s character, Andy Millman, has a chance encounter with David Bowie at a London pub and it does not go as well as Andy would have liked. The results: comic gold.

15. “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” (on album The Next Day, 2013) – “Stars are never sleeping/Dead ones and the living…” From what I recall, The Next Day was an album that came out of nowhere. It was David Bowie’s first since 2003, and after a decade I suppose most people thought he had retired. You can imagine how pleased I was that the songs were so good, particularly “Stars,” in which Bowie contemplates the poisonous nature of celebrity and media saturation. Plus Tilda Swinton co-starred in the music video, which led to this great photo of the two of them.

16. “Lazarus” (on album Blackstar, 2016) – “This way or no way/You know I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Now, ain’t that just like me?” I watched this music video last Friday, part of my annual ritual of listening to my favorite David Bowie albums and songs on his birthday. Like most people, I didn’t imagine that the video referred to Bowie’s actual state of health; I thought it was a fascinating artistic statement but not a representation of real sickness. (I figured he looked older and more worn because everyone ages, right?) As a reviewer wrote on iTunes, after having listened to previews of Blackstar in November: “Bowie will be a synonym of eternal change in music, a continuous hunt of proposals and new ways in sound.” I’m not entirely sure what “hunt of proposals” means, but I think the overall idea is the right one. He was defiant to the last, turning life into art and vice versa. And even when he was seriously ill, as we know now, he kept his off-kilter sense of humor. Vale, Starman.

I’ll close with one of my favorite photos of David Bowie (from back in the day) and two recent pictures – among the last ever taken of Bowie, I think – from a promotional photoshoot for Blackstar (photos by Jimmy King, courtesy of this Daily Mail article).

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Remembering Setsuko Hara

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In many of her films, [Setsuko] Hara’s luminous smile communicates a variety of sentiments – sometimes she smiles out of genuine love, sometimes as an attempt to hide pain. In the rare moments when Hara’s characters cry, after otherwise accepting all of life’s misfortunes, the emotional release can be heartbreaking. – Ronald Bergan

Last night I found out that Setsuko Hara, who was one of the five “divas” of Japanese cinema in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (along with Kinuyo Tanaka, Isuzu Yamada, Machiko Kyô and Hideko Takamine), passed away on September 5. She had been hospitalized with pneumonia, and in accordance with her wishes that “no fuss be made,” her family did not tell the media of her death until yesterday. When Hara retired from acting in 1963 (though her last film was released in 1966), she never gave a definite explanation. She remained almost completely isolated from public life for the next half-century, a Garbo-like recluse, although she lived near her family in the Kanagawa prefecture of Kantō. Except for one interview that she gave in 1992, Hara kept out of the public eye and I don’t think there are any confirmed photographs of her from after the 1960s.

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Hara, who was nicknamed “The Eternal Virgin” for the kinds of roles she usually played onscreen, never married and I don’t think anything is publicly known about her love life, if she had one. Some rumors about her reasons for retiring were that she had been in love with her most frequent collaborator, director Yasujirô Ozu (who died of cancer in December 1963) – although I have also read rumors that Hara may have been a lesbian, a hunch probably based solely on her never having wed – and another rumor was that she went blind. In her final press conference, Hara said that she had only gone into acting to support her family and she had never enjoyed doing it, so maybe she simply stopped when she was secure enough financially. Whatever the reason, perhaps it is better that the details of Setsuko Hara’s life remain a mystery; that’s the way she wanted it.

Here are a few clips from some of my favorite films starring Setsuko Hara:

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946, dir. Akira Kurosawa) – Here is an assortment of clips from the film, set to Bach’s “Air on the G String.” In a 2008 essay written for the Criterion Collection, Michael Koresky noted that “alone in Kurosawa’s body of work, this film aligns itself with the point of view of a female protagonist: Yukie, played by the brilliantly expressive Setsuko Hara. Moving from bourgeois complacency to social activism, Yukie—the daughter of a conservative university professor and eventual wife of one of his students, an anti-imperial intellectual from a peasant family—is the film’s emotional anchor, guiding us through the political and cultural turmoil of Japan from 1933 to 1945.”

Late Spring (1949, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – This is a great example of the loveliness of Setsuko Hara’s smile, a grin that could light up the whole room (or, in this case, the outdoors). In 2005, Roger Ebert wrote that Hara was “a great star who would drop everything to work with Ozu. When the studio asked Ozu to consider a different actress for the second film, he refused to make it without Hara.” Furthermore, “Late Spring tells a story that becomes sadder the more you think about it. There is a tension in the film between Noriko’s smile and her feelings. Her smile is often a mask. She smiles brightly during a strange early scene where she talks with a family friend, Onodera, who has remarried after the death of his wife. Such a second marriage is ‘filthy and foul,’ she says, and it disgusts her. She smiles, he laughs. Yet she is very serious … So much happens out of sight in the film, implied but not shown. Noriko smiles but is not happy. Her father passively accepts what he hates is happening. The aunt is complacent, implacable, maddening. She gets her way. It is universally believed, just as in a Jane Austen novel, that a woman of a certain age is in want of a husband. Late Spring is a film about two people who desperately do not believe this, and about how they are undone by their tact, their concern for each other, and their need to make others comfortable by seeming to agree with them.”

Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujirô Ozu) – As Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian in 2010: “[Hara] had a recurring role as Noriko in a trilogy of Ozu films: Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1954), the first of which was reworked as Late Autumn (1960). Of these, it is Tokyo Story – routinely hailed as one of the best films ever made – that can never be forgotten once seen, and Setsuko Hara’s exquisite performance is surely a vital part of what makes this film Ozu’s masterpiece. It is about an elderly married couple who make the tough journey to the big city to visit their busy grown-up children, only to find that they have no time for their parents, and the only person who does is their daughter-in-law Noriko, played by Hara. She is the widow of the son who is still listed missing presumed killed in the second world war. This vulnerable old couple are the only link she has to her husband: they are the only people it makes sense for her to love, and she appears to be the only person who loves them. Her desperately polite smile, her dignity and the quiver of heartbreak in her voice are absolutely captivating. I defy anyone to watch this film and not feel simply overwhelmed with a kind of love for Hara – however absurd that may sound.” Indeed, watching clips of Hara from the Tokyo Story trailer, or the brief scene at the end when she looks at her late mother-in-law’s watch, one knows without a shadow of a doubt that Setsuko Hara was one of the truly great actresses in our world’s cinema.

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