Welcome back to Five Cool Things, the weekly article where I discuss all the interesting, really good, and very cool things that I’ve discovered over the past week. I took the long, hot summer off but I’m done with all my vacationing, school is starting back, and I’m ready to talk cool things once again. I watched and read a lot of interesting stuff over the summer and I don’t have time to talk about it all, but here are some of the coolest things I consumed over the break.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
The Criterion Channel did a retrospective of a bunch of Pedro Almodóvar films. I had planned on watching them all, but after watching a few, I got distracted by some other cool-looking stuff on the channel, and a horror movie on Amazon Prime, and something else and…I only got to three of them. I was sure I’d seen Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown before. It was the film that put Almodóvar on the international film scene, and my memory says I’ve watched it, but seeing it this time I realized there was nothing at all familiar about it so my memory is either wrong or much worse than I thought.
Like most of Almodóvar films, Women involves a motley cast of quirky characters and some outlandish situations, all of which is underpinned by real drama. It stars Carmen Maura as a woman who decides to commit suicide (by drinking a blender full of gazpacho laced with a bottle of sleeping pills) but is interrupted by a series of ridiculous events flooding her home one nutty character after another. It is at times hilarious, tender, perverse, and sweet. In other words, a Pedro Almodóvar movie.
This has become the Summer of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In April (which I know is not technically summer but bear with me), I watched my second Fassbinder film ever, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. It was completely and utterly not what I was expecting. Having read a little bit about his life, I was expecting something more wild and debauched. I was very much not expecting a quiet, precise, intimate drama.
Then in June, I watched Satan’s Brew which totally fit the more debauched film I had expected. It is one of his few attempts at comedy and it is so over the top, so completely insane, it is hard to believe the same director made this and Ali.
Next came what has come to be called The BRD Trilogy which is Fassbinder’s take on three different women trying to make a life for themselves in post-war Germany. After watching several Douglas Sirk melodramas, Fassbinder set about making films using a similar style but that also contained his own sensibilities and often spoke directly to what he saw Germany going through after the war.
The films, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola are thematically similar detailing Germany coming to grips with itself in the aftermath of the war and their part in the Holocaust while trying to construct a new cultural identity. They each feature strong female protagonists forging their own paths. Stylistically, they all stay in that somewhat staid, Douglas Sirk melodrama format but they are different enough that you can tell them apart from only a few frames.
They are all great in their own way, though I'd give The Marriage of Maria Braun the edge. Together, they form a larger picture of Germany during this time and Fassbinder's critiques of what Germany was becoming. I wrote a full review of the collection here.
The Infinity Gauntlet
After enjoying Avengers: Endgame, I wanted to read the comic it was based upon. The basic framework of the story is still there - Thanos collects the Infinity Stones which give him God-like powers and a huge cast of superheroes try and stop him - but a lot of the specifics are different. Thanos's motivation is partially the same, the universe is overpopulated and using up its finite resources too quickly, but he’s also in love with Death and is also destroying half of all people just to impress her. The biggest change is that the main hero in the comics is the Silver Surfer who doesn’t appear at all in the movies.
I wasn’t really familiar with the Silver Surfer other than his appearance in that terrible Fantastic Four movie and vague memories of him in some TV show I watched as a kid. I found him quite compelling in this comic. He is something of a tragic figure having given himself into servitude to Galacticus (a cosmic being who consumes entire planets of which it becomes the Surfer's job to find and determine if they are worth being destroyed). He's recently left that service and is now consumed with guilt over his part in such destruction.
There is a whole lot of build up and side quests before getting to the big battle, much of which is very different from the films but is mostly quite interesting. I read the super-big omnibus which throws in every issue from every character that has a part to play in the larger narrative no matter how tangential, which can be a bit of a slog. I'd definitely recommend the collections that stick to the main story more but its well worth reading, especially if you need are still jonesing for more Thanos after Endgame.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
After an eight-year absence from public life, Bob Dylan took to the road with The Band in 1974 for an exhaustive 21-city tour where they played 40 concerts in 30 days. The music was loud and raucous with Dylan performing with a ferocity never before seen. While it was enormously successful in terms of finances, Dylan later said he hated every minute of it with both him and The Band left feeling like the performances were uninspired.
One year later Dylan created The Rolling Thunder Review, a roaming circus act of a tour where the music was more laid back and personal, the venues smaller and more out of the way, and the roster filled with a rotating cast of musicians including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, and others. Dylan rearranged many of his most popular songs and played most of what would become his great 1975 album Desire.
Martin Scorsese recently released a Netflix film about that tour. It is an interesting mix of concert footage, archival interviews, a new interview with Dylan, and totally fabricated nonsense. Scorsese has mixed up the real with the fake, inventing various characters who supposedly helped out with the tour and Sharon Stone makes up a story about her as a teenager hanging with Dylan.
Dylan has always loved playing with his own mythology, being notoriously squirrelly in interviews and changing his own back story as he sees fit. It seems he and Scorsese decided to have some fun in telling this story from this notorious tour. The new footage is kind of fun and I’m all for Dylan screwing with his mythology, but the real reason to watch is that concert footage. I have numerous not-so-great sounding bootlegs from this era and it is a revelation to hear this music in pristine quality accompanied by beautifully shot video.
Shake! Otis at Monterey
The late, great D.A. Pennebaker documented some of the greatest moments in rock in roll history including The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 which featured seminal performances from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding. He made a documentary out of the entire festival simply titled Monterey Pop that captures a few songs from most of the performers and later he released two short films that feature entire performances from Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding. He died on August 1 and The Criterion Channel almost immediately put several of his films up including this one. Before Monterey, Otis Redding had found success amongst black audiences sending numerous records up the R&B charts but had not managed to make inroads with white audiences. But with his electric performance at Monterey closing out Saturday night, his career took off and his reputation as the king of soul music was solidified. Sadly, his life would be over not six months later, dying of a plane crash in December 1967.
But good God Almighty, he left us with some intensely satisfying music. Watching his performance here is like watching dynamite go off. In just five songs, Otis along with his back up band Booker T & the M.G.s lights the place on fire. They rip through “Shake”, “Respect”, and a cover of The Rolling Stones's "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" like their lives depended on it. They slow things down with “I’ve Been Loving You So Long” and “Try a Little Tenderness” showing off Otis's eternally great voice before revving it back up into a heated frenzy. This is truly one of the all-time great performances and its a miracle it was caught on tape.
Probably the biggest news to come out about the upcoming Disney+ streaming service is that they are creating a new Star Wars series. They've not given us a lot of information about the series, but what we do know is exciting. It will be set a few years after the events of The Return of the Jedi and follows a lone Mandalorian gunfighter (think Boba Fett) somehwhere beyond the reaches of the New Republic (the democratic govenment set-up after the fall of the Empire). This is exactly the sort-of thing Ive been hoping for since Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas. Star Wars encompasses such an enormous world filled with fascinating characters that there are untold number of stories that could be told outside of main stories being told in the films right now. I really hope they do this series right, and by the looks of this new trailer they will.