Five Cool Things and Robert Forster

With Autumn come many cool things.
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It is finally starting to feel like Autumn around here.  After an unseasonably hot September, October has come and with it cooler weather.  I love this time of year.  I love getting out the sweatshirts, roasting marshmallows in the backyard fire-pit, and watching the leaves change.  October also means Halloween, our annual pumpkin-carving party, and horror movies.

I spent a lot of time in September mapping out what horror movies I’d watch this year and then promptly ignoring it (so far).  I don’t know, exactly, what I love about horror movies but I’ve loved them as long as I remember.  I always try to watch a few classics that I’ve seen many times before and then catching some I haven’t seen (both classic, and not so much).  This week has seen a few of both.  Plus a few other cool things.  So let’s get to it.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

As someone who became a horror fan in the 1980s, I am very much a fan of the slasher genre.  But truth be told, even as a fan I can admit that most of them are terrible.  While I’m happy to binge a late-night marathon of the Friday the 13th films, I’m fully aware that they are bad movies in every sense of the word.  I love them anyway.

I love Freddy Krueger more.  When I was 14 or 15 years old, I bought a giant 8-foot poster of the burned monster with razor fingers on my bedroom door.  My parents never let me see one in the theater, and they wouldn’t rent them for me so I always had to catch them on cable television after they went to bed.   Because of this, I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen every film in the franchise.  They’ve all blended together in my brain.  I’ve owned the boxed set on DVD for ages but never gotten around to watching them.  Except for the first one, which I’ve seen numerous times.  So my big goal this October is to watch them all.  This week, I once again got through the first one.

Unlike this other slashers, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a straight-up good movie.  The idea of a monster haunting you in your dreams, but who can actually kill you in them is so much better than the standard knife-wielding maniac. Freddy Kreuger’s design is terrifically scary.  Since most of the action sequences occur in dreams, you can use dream logic which allows for all sorts of inventiveness.  Wes Craven creates so many iconic sequences and shots that the film is elevated way past its scary peers.  From Freddy pushing through the wall like it was rubber, to the melting stairs, to the knife-clawed hand reaching between Heather Langenkamp’s legs in the bathtub, the film is a visual feast.

Not many slashers hold up on repeated viewings decades after it was made, but A Nightmare on Elm Street remains a stone-cold classic.

Jenny Lewis at the Cain's Ballroom

Jenny Lewis pose.jpgThough I am a great fan of live music, I don’t actually get out to concerts very often.  Partially this is due to generally living in smallish towns, ones not all that close to big cities which enjoy the best live music.  But mostly its due to having an eight-year-old daughter, one who needs someone to watch her, and how crazy expensive most concerts are these days.

This week me and the wife caught a live show, and it was a good one.  We’d seen Jenny Lewis once before as an opener for Conor Oberst.  This was in 2008 or 2009, not long after Acid Tongue, her first real solo album, had been released.  It was a good show, but this one blew it out of the water.

Her latest album, On the Line, has a real 1970s vibe to it and she’s leaned into that vibe for all the promotional material for it and on the road.  The band was decked out in matching leisure suits with big white shoes and Jenny wore the most magnificent sparkly, sequined jumpsuit.

She played most of the new album and only a few songs from her older stuff.  I’ve not actually completely absorbed the new stuff, so I wasn’t able to sing along to most of the songs, but it was still fully engrossing.  Jenny Lewis has really learned how to work the crowd.  She had a little platform at the front of the stage and she’d stand on it and pose like a rock star, but then she’d sit down on it, lean into the audience, creating this intimate space.  Often, she seemed to be making an effort to look each member of the audience right in the eyes and give them a special moment.  I got at least a couple. 

Concerts are so expensive anymore and so often I find that the crowds are more interested in getting high and talking (really loudly) to their friends than actually involving themselves with the music.  This time the audience seemed to be really into it and the performance was dynamite.

Black Christmas

black christmas poster.jpgThere is a ton of debate over what movie constitutes the very first slasher film.  John Carpenter’s Halloween is often mentioned, but that leaves out the Italians, whose giallo genre very much influenced Carpenter's film.  Others cite Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho as an early example of the genre.  Round and round everybody goes debating what actually makes a film a slasher film rather than just a horror movie. 

I don’t have an answer but those who like to debate such things often point out that Black Christmas has all the hallmarks of the American slasher film and it predates Halloween by a good four years (it is also technically a Canadian film, but who’s counting?). Does any of this really matter?  Whether it was the first slasher or the one hundredth, at the end of the day all that really matters is if the film is any good. 

I liked it.  The plot is very standard slasher stuff.  It is the Christmas season (even the holiday theme predates Carpenter’s film) leaving the sorority house empty save for a few young ladies (and the kooky house mom).  All of whom (save the final girl) are picked off by a crazed murderer living in the attic.  It is based very loosely on that old campfire story where someone keeps getting disturbing phone calls only to find out they are coming from inside the house! 

The kills are pretty tame, and the characters are thinly drawn, but it has got some nice camerawork and they make good use of the large sorority-house setting.  John Saxon plays the cop assigned to investigate the murders and he’s always a treat.  It does feel like a warm-up for Halloween, but if you are a slasher fan then it is a must-see.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

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There is really no reason for this Netflix movie to exist.  I don’t think anyone was asking what happened to Jesse Pinkman after last being seen speeding away at the end of Breaking Bad finale.  It was a perfect moment for the character and a good ending for the series.  But Vince Gilligan loves to give us something completely unnecessary and make us wonder why we weren’t pining for it all along.  Better Call Saul is the perfect example.

El Camino picks up with Jesse screaming away from his past and driving as fast as he can into his new future.  A future he hopes Ed - the vacuum salesman who helped both Walter White and Saul Goodman disappear in the series - will help create for him in Alaska.  But first he has to get a few things and that means revisiting that past.

The film is full of flashback sequences in which we get to see many of our old favorite characters.  But more than just a nostalgia ride, these moments bring us into moments that were specific to Jesse’s character and not just ones that were part of the Breaking Bad story.  Ultimately, it is a movie about trauma and grief.  Had Jesse never met Walter White, his life would have taken a very different path.  He would have never become more than a small-time dealer.  He’d probably be sitting on a couch playing video games like we see Skinny Pete and Badger doing in the movie.  He wouldn’t be a murderer.  His girlfriends would still be alive.  He’d not spent several months as a slave to vicious white supremacists. 

Breaking Bad was so much Walter White’s story that it often glanced over the very real damage he did to the people around him, especially that of his partner Jesse Pinkman.  El Camino digs into the pain unleashed upon him and how much the character has changed upon it. 

There are quibbles you could make with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.  Certainly one might argue it left out the stories of many of its major characters, including its women, but as a Jesse Pinkman story, it is just about perfect.

Jerry Garcia: An American Life

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Jerry Garcia was a brilliant songwriter, a genius musician, and an intelligent, ever-curious man with an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music who was beloved by millions.  He was also, it seems, a terrible human.

I’ve been a Deadhead for a couple of decades now so it is surprising I’ve never read this definitive biography by Blair Jackson.  I have no excuse; I just never got around to it.  Now that I have, I can say it is a must-read for anybody interested in the musician's life.

As a fan, I already knew a lot of the information covered in this book.  I’m well versed in Grateful Dead lore but was not as familiar with Garcia’s personal life.  I knew the rough sketches - how he got his middle finger cut off as a boy, his addiction to drugs and the names of his wives - but the details were a little fuzzy.  Jackson brings those details to light by interviewing a great many of the people who were a part of that life through the years. But unlike other biographies of Garcia, he doesn’t make the sordid details into tabloid fodder.

Garcia’s life philosophy boiled down to having as much fun as possible and never telling anybody what to do.  That isn’t a particularly great philosophy for anyone but especially not someone who is the de facto leader of a multi-million dollar organization with dozens of people dependent on his success.  When things became not-fun, Garcia tended to bail.  Or turn to drugs.  Or both. 

In relationships, he seems to have enjoyed falling in love but when it came to the day to day mundanity of being in a relationship - cooking dinner, working through the arguments,  etc. - he wanted nothing to do with it.  Jackson details over and over how Garcia rarely lived with his wives, often cheated on them, and on multiple occasions broke up with them through letters sent through emissaries.  He barely paid any attention to his children and there were long stretches where his life consisted of playing with the Dead, his solo band, and smoking heroin. 

It wasn’t all bleak, when he was taking care of himself he was amazing.  Certainly, his guitar playing was brilliant and he left behind thousands of hours of incredible music.  This biography does a good job of detailing the good and the bad and now I can’t stop listening to my many bootleg tapes.

Robert Forster (1941- 2019)

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Robert Forster has a small role in El Camino, but a memorable one.  He died yesterday, the day it was released.  He had big and minor roles throughout his 50-year career, but from the ones I’ve seen, he made them all memorable.  He had a face that could convey the deepest emotions without saying a word.  His career took a big boost after starring in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.  That’s where I first discovered him, and afterward I was always excited to see him in anything. 

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