Friday, June 30, 2023

Steely Dan, "Bad Sneakers" (Track of the Week)

There's been a resurgence of interest in Steely Dan, a band I've long loved that inspires wildly disparate opinions. Even in my case, it was an acquired taste. I had liked a couple of their songs off of classic rock radio, but in the 90s I had been captured by the orthodoxy of punk, meaning I automatically discounted smooth music and anything that smacked of virtuosity. In the summer of 2000 (one of the most fun I ever had) a coworker made me a Steely Dan mix tape and demanded that I give them a chance. I did, and something finally clicked. It might have helped that I was just getting into jazz at the time. 

While I have been digging the Dan for over twenty years now, their songs can still surprise me. I was listening to Katy Lied the other week, and for the first time "Bad Sneakers" spoke to me on a new level. I had always enjoyed the song, and assumed that the lyrics were just another example of the group's playful "dark sarcasm." For whatever reason, I listened harder and found profound sadness. Every now and then Becker and Fagan let the hipster mask drop and got real about the human condition. 

I realized the song was written from the point of view of someone either in a mental institution or rehab facility. The first part of the chorus is pretty harrowing: "I'm going insane/ Laughing at the frozen rain/ I'm so alone/ When they gonna bring me home?" Perhaps I was distracted by Michael McDonald's distinctive voice backing Fagan and wasn't paying attention to what they were saying. I'd always thought of the song being more wistful, rather than a cry for help.

I listened to it pretty much every day during my commute home at the end of the school year. Like the song itself, it's a time that brings complicated emotions. I am proud of the seniors who are graduating, but sad to lose them. I am looking forward to finally having a summer but stuck in some of the most intense and stressful work of the year in terms of grading and report writing. I'm usually doing this while exhausted, and this year, despite being easier than any school year since 2019, was still harder than any school year I had before the pandemic. Maybe I was internally mourning that fact and the knowledge that they're never "gonna bring me home" to a time when my job was hard but not overwhelming. 

If you go online to sites where people parse song meanings you will find little consensus about "Bad Sneakers." That's usually the sign of a good song. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

70s Airport Movies as Pre-historic Blockbusters


Perhaps it's a reaction to the WGA strike, but all of a sudden I am seeing a whole bunch of older movies on Netflix again. Last week I saw that they had 1970s Airport and its sequels, and I figured they would make decent dumb entertainment for a lazy Saturday afternoon. 

They aren't great films, but definitely met the decent dumb entertainment criteria. The only one I had seen was the one from 1979 that took place on a supersonic Concorde, and I saw it at night on TV in a roadside hotel while traveling with my parents in the 80s. The airport movies were the kinds of movies shown on TV I grew up with, but the one I actually saw multiple times was Airplane!, a  hilarious spoof of the genre. I laughed at the jokes, but didn't get that the sick kid and stewardess flying the plane were direct calls to Airport 75. 

It's weird getting to known entertainment first through its spoofs, something that used to happen to me a lot when I first red MAD magazine as a kid. In a weird way, it's liberating. My expectations were already low, and it was fun to find the things that the parodists referenced. Because I am a cinema nerd, I became fascinated as I watched these films with their part in film history. 

I have an especially weird fascination with Hollywood's attempts to revive its lost relevance due to the rise of television and changing cultural values in the 1960s. Ultimately the way forward was to give the so-called "movie brats" the keys to the kingdom, a very well-documented story. The conventional narrative says that the era of "New Hollywood" ended when Jaws and Star Wars (made by a couple of movie brats) showed that the blockbuster could be Tinseltown's salvation, putting an end to the daring film-making of the early 1970s. 

While much of this narrative is true, I think the Airport movies show that blockbusters were already a thing before Jaws, but in a kind of pre-historic form in need of evolution, a celluloid trilobite, if you will. 1970s Airport was one of the first films to ever top $100 million in domestic box office. It also spawned numerous sequels, just like modern blockbusters.

The trilobite status of the first one is obvious in so many ways. The heroes are all film stars of the last generation (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, and George Kennedy) and so is the villain (Van Heflin.)  The film stars the great Jean Seberg, but in a secretary role where she is not given much to do. Similarly, Jacqueline Bisset ends up being the damsel in distress when Heflin's bomb blows a hole in the back of the plane. Absolutely nothing dates the film more than Dean Martin's rogueish Brat Pack act, which feels as out of place as singing "That's Amore" at a love-in. 

Unlike future blockbusters, the plot gets very soapy. It's less about the action and more about whether Burt Lancaster is going to divorce his shrewish wife, who is reasonably tired of him sacrificing his time to managing the airport. The film techniques are also very much in keeping with mainstream film-making of the late 60s, the kind soon to be swept aside in New Hollywood. The sets are pristine and the lighting so bright that you can see every corner of every room. The camera is pretty stationary, too. The use of split screens is the one nod to newer film-making styles. 

While it looks very old fashioned compared to the type of stuff Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Rafelson, Coppola etc were putting out at the time, from the point of view of 2023 I can say it's some of the most gorgeous cinematography of that particular late studio system style. People at the time certainly liked it, and much of the response was literally "they don't make them like this anymore!" There was a craving out there for big crowd-pleasing movies, the kind of thing TV (especially then) could not provide.

Airport 1975 (actually released in 1974) also had high production values, but it's also clear why Jaws and Star Wars would blow movies like this off of the screen. The special effects are really clunky, especially when the jet airliner gets hit by a small prop plane and a stewardess played by Karen Black has to take over. The scene when Charlton Heston, the ultimate sweaty token of Old Hollywood masculinity, gets helicoptered in is similarly laughable. Speaking of laughs, few come from the creaky, groan-worthy bouts of comic relief (with Jerry Stiller's drunk salesman the one exception.) 

Airport 1975 followed the formula of other prehistoric blockbusters like The Towering Inferno by packing the cast full of bygone stars that might get older audience members off of the couch and back in the theater. For example, Gloria Swanson shows up playing herself in her last film role. Karen Black is the only New Hollywood mainstay, and this film wastes her manifest talents as an actor. 

Beyond all of this, the Airport films like other prehistoric "disaster movie" blockbusters echo the downbeat themes of failure and disillusionment that permeated American society after the end of the 1960s. In Airport, Burt Lancaster has to fight against airport owners who are unwilling to finance necessary improvements. In the Towering Inferno, a new skyscraper catches fire, and in the Poseidon Adventure. a modern ocean liner sinks. The jet liner, once a symbol of advanced modern life, is shown to be fragile and a site of anxiety and fear. Star Wars had such an impact in part due to its optimism, of a human being heroically triumphing over the forces of evil in a "galaxy far away" not beset by our own problems. 

Star Wars would Airport movies look like the film equivalent of a horse and buggy in their own time. As more and more people begin to tire of CGI spectacles and Marvel's tiresome march of one blockbuster after the other, it's good to watch some prehistoric blockbusters and enjoy big popcorn entertainment still mired in the conventions of Old Hollywood. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

That Last Day of School Feeling

 I had my last day of school last week, and I was inspired to write a Substack post about the sublimity of the last day of school.  I hope you enjoy. I have a piece coming soon about the airport movies of the 70s.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Age of Trump Continues

I tend to avoid cable news, but when I got the news that Donald Trump had been indicted again, I fired up MSNBC like it was 2017 all over again. This reprehensible man is continuing his dominance of our public sphere, a position he has been in since 2015. Trump has been fading somewhat in the public eye, but today's events are a reminder that he never went away.

It has been eight years now, a ridiculous amount of time for a country's politics to be dominated by man so wretched and vulgar. This week I was talking to students and they told me the 2016 election was the first presidential election they were old enough to actually follow. I came to the depressing realization that they do not have a political memory of a time before our current insanity.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the Antebellum period the Age of Jackson, and others have spoken of an Age of Lincoln that followed. We have been living in an Age of Trump, one that like the other ages mentioned will outlast the man himself. He has set the tone for a dysfunctional politics rooted in a right-wing Leninism that justifies any rule breaking as long as it advances their ideology and power. Conservatives are not trying to push their movement in another direction, they are all vying to be the Next Trump. Ron DeSantis is only the most prominent example. 

The Age of Trump is also an era where democracy's guardrails have been shredded. Trump himself led a coup to stay in power. Not only is he still walking free, he is the front-runner for his party's nomination next year. We have reached a moment where nothing matters if you don't have any shame. I think here too of Ted Cruz, who stumped for Trump after he insulted his wife and father. Politicians like Lauren Goebert, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene have become celebrities by being as crass and shameless as possible. They learned at the feet of the master. 

It is hard for me to see a way forward, because in the Age of Trump we do not just disagree about politics, we disagree about reality itself. Trump the liar and fabulist has cultivated a following that lives in an alternate universe. They reject vaccinations and believe the last election was stolen. There is no way to convince them otherwise.

Today's news is welcome evidence that the rule of law may still win the day. This being the age of Trump, however, the prosecution will only raise his esteem in the minds of his followers. To paraphrase James Joyce, this age is a nightmare from which I wish to awake. 

Sunday, June 4, 2023

ZZ Top, "Jesus Just Left Chicago" (Track of the Week)

I was weirdly missing Texas this week. I lived there for three years in a kind of love-hate relationship. I came to adore Houston and Austin, the amazing food, the great musical tradition, and a certain kind of zest for life that was refreshing after spending the rest of my life in the staid Midwest. At the same time, I despised its fascistic politics, open bigotry, and suffocating provincialism. I went back to visit last summer and enjoyed myself, but also knew it was definitely not a place I wanted to live.

Despite my resolution on this count, there are days when I need a taste of Texas. So this weekend I thew on ZZ Top's Tres Hombres record. It includes maybe the greatest gatefold of all time (pictured above), a gorgeous still-life tableau of Tex-Mex food. Eat your heart out, Rembrandt. 

Beyond the imagery, the music is pure Texas. It's a perfectly executed blues shuffle shot through with the spirit of Lightnin' Hopkins. When I listen to "Jesus Just Left Chicago" I can imagine myself sitting at the bar in the Flashback Cafe in Nacogdoches, sucking down a dollar twenty five Lone Star on a sticky Friday night. My time in Texas wasn't all that fun, but it sure was memorable. Despite its faults, it's a place with a real unique culture and spirit that you just can't elsewhere. While ZZ Top is best known for their sleek 80s hits, their bluesy 70s stuff will give you some of that Texas spirit without having to go there.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Look at Academic Labor to See Why the WGA Strike Matters

 Just realized that I hadn't posted my last Substack. It's about the WGA strike, and why it's so important. Having seen what happened in academia when knowledge workers lost all power to the bosses, the writers are right to fight.