Category Archives: Recommended viewing

Mama’s “Wonderful Life”

Mama and three of her sons.

Mama and three of her sons.

My grandmother used to watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. During the several years in which she lived with us in our ranch house in Wisconsin, Mama would usually retreat to her basement bedroom so she could view her favorite movie without all the noise of grandchildren and pets that surrounded the TV in our family room. After she moved out, it would strike me how dark and cold the room that was now used for storage was, when I would go grab something – one of Mom’s 1950s dresses, maybe — from it. Mama made the dank space warm and grandmotherly, with her constant crocheting and her love of old Frank Capra movies or TV shows starring Barbara Stanwyck.

The woman born Guyla Duncan didn’t have the easiest life; her World War I veteran, jack-of-all-trades husband had trouble staying in one place, and away from the bottle. They moved constantly, from Florida to Kentucky to California then back to Florida. So Guyla wasn’t too picky about her surroundings; a basement in the cold Midwest kept barely tolerable by the orange glow of a space heater was fine by her.hoooray

Mama survived the Depression, two world wars, six children, breast cancer, and her husband, so she had a pretty realistic view of the world. She knew damn well life wasn’t always wonderful. And yet she loved this sentimental holiday movie, with its beyond-happy ending and steadfast faith in bucolic small-town America. I came to love it too, once I got beyond my adolescent snobbiness. In fact, the screwball comedies of the golden age of Hollywood are one of my favorite things in the world, up there with Brazilian music, feminist art, and whiskers on kittens.

Using the tools of urbane high jinks, slapstick comedy, and witty romantic banter, filmmakers such as Capra, Howard Hawks, and Preston Sturges offered social commentary dressed up as popcorn entertainment. Stanley Cavell has written about how these comedies of remarriage reimagined the relationships between sexes, with women given equal footing with men as smart, classy, independent creatures — Katherine Hepburn was as adept at cutting repartee as Cary Grant. Many of these movies also flipped class structure – the department-store owner hanging with his employees, pouring coca cola into a glass of rare wine and discovering it really does taste better. It’s a Wonderful Life offers a blistering critique of Big Money and corporate banks and a plea for small, family-owned businesses. This is not old-fashioned mawkishness: In the TV show The Newsroom, Olivia Munn’s character uses Capra’s film to explain to Emily Mortimer’s the basis and importance of the Glass-Steagall Act.

It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 – scarcely a wonderful time in world history. It pretty much bombed back then, but it has become perhaps the most beloved movie in all of American cinema. That was the decade Mama’s son Leon was injured at Iwo Jima and she survived a double mastectomy. This movie, like all the screwball comedies, offered a vision of the way things could, and should, be, not the way they were. It provided relief, comfort, a good laugh, and hope, all while pointedly critiquing the evil of capitalism gone awry.

That was 70 years ago. On Friday night, you can relive that first run, when the San Pedro International Film Festival shows It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen at the historic Warner Grand Theater. I probably don’t need to point out how appropriate this film is to this moment in time, how it’s an example of art that speaks to, and not down to, multiple constituents who feel disenfranchised in our current society, while always keeping its thumb firmly on the real villain. Or how we need its humor, its love, its screwball hope.

I used to see Mama watching It’s a Wonderful Life, but I never once sat down and watched it with her from start to finish – just as my son never watches it with me. I wish I had asked her what she got from it, if she felt keenly its affirmation of rootedness – of characters who may dream of the travel they see in posters – of lassoing the stars — but in fact never leave home, and live happily ever after.

I’ll be introducing the film at the Warner Grand, 478 W. 6th Street, San Pedro, on December 23 at 7 p.m. You can buy tickets at Spiffest.org.

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Punk Made Her a Black Feminist

Punk inspired Chardine Taylor-Stone (drummer for Big Joanie) to be a black feminist, and she gave a great TedX talk about it.

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“A Danish Girl”: #winning

The_Danish_Girl_(film)_posterI saw A Danish Girl today and was deeply moved. This story of love and art earns my vote for best picture, actor, actress, and director. Okay, I admit: I’ve only seen a handful of movies this year that weren’t animated or didn’t star robots, and I have a soft spot (or is that a hard spot?) for movies about gender ID issues. I am also a really tough critic when it comes to movies: 90 percent of them disappoint me. This one surprised and stirred me from beginning to end. I weeped copiously. It’s a deeply feminist and humanist movie. The relationship between the two Danish girls is complicated and deep, and they are played superbly by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander. Plus, it’s a true story, and the 1920s styles and European landscapes are to die for.

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Ladies and Gents, Rock’s Next Great Singer: Screaming Females Shake It Off

Marissa Paternoster has a great rock’n’roll voice. The lead singer of New Jersey garage rock trio Screaming Females (ie the screaming female of the Screaming Females) stretches vowels like they’re taffy, pinching and shaking them with a piercing vibrato. In their cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” for the AV Club Undercover, “off” becomes a bellow and a solo. It’s the opposite of Tay-Tay’s thin reed, though the energy of this version owes a lot to that song’s compositional pop perfection. Plus there’s the way Paternoster holds off on playing her electric guitar until after the silly spoken break — and then rips into it, peeling off a lead as loud and unapologetic as her vocal burrs and the bangs covering half her voice. Yes, she screams with her guitar too.  Think Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey, Corin Tucker, Johnny Rotten, Mick Jagger, David Johansen.

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Sex Stains at OCMA

Sex Stains

Sex Stains

One of the originators of the Riot Grrrl movement celebrated by the Alien She group art exhibit showed just what girl revolution is all about at the Orange County Museum of Art Saturday night. Allison Wolfe, former singer for Bratmobile and editor of Girl Germs ‘zine, led her great band Sex Stains through a fast and furious set of punk and reggae songs.

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Theo and the Created

Burger Records act Kim and the Created opened, performing an equally thrashing set, with lead singer Kim House looking like a freaked-out glam doll in a red sparkling jumpsuit. Visually and sonically, House reminded me of Theo Kogan of the Lunachicks — always a good thing. Both Wolfe and House were coincidentally dressed to match the art work hanging behind the make-shift “stage” in the museum’s lobby. They also both wound up on the floor, an easy thing to do on the slippery concrete, though in their cases, covering a range of human motion was all part of the act, the riot act, so to speak.

“Thanks for being part of the commemoration and validation of women’s cultural activism,” Wolfe said at the end of Sex Stains’ set. DJs Emily Ryan and Wendy Yao, of Emily’s Sassy Lime, smartly segued into X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”. If you haven’t seen Alien She, it’s up through May, and well worth the slog through the suburban Southland.

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Poet Tracie Morris at LMU

Tracie Morris FlyerI’m honored and excited to be presenting one of my favorite poets from my old New York days, Tracie Morris, at LMU on March 12. If you can’t come Thursday, come see us Friday at the Orange County Museum of Art. Since her slam champ days at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Tracie has studied and nurtured her craft. She’s now a professor at Pratt Institute.

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Apocalypse Cancelled: New Sleater-Kinney Album Announced

Great news to start a week that otherwise seemed likely to be full of zeitgeist doom and gloom: Sleater-Kinney have announced that they will be releasing their first album of new material in a decade, AND will go on tour. No Cities To Love will be released January 19/20 by Sub Pop Records; if it’s as good as the first single, “Bury Our Friends,” released today, it’s a doozy. Together Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss released some of the best albums of the late ’90s, early ’00s, taking the bristling energy of the Riot Grrrl movement to dizzying heights; if you don’t believe me, buy the Sleater-Kinney box set, Start Together, being released tomorrow.

Since 1995’s The Woods, Tucker became a mom and fronted her own band; Weiss drummed with Quasi and Stephen Malkmus and the Hot Jicks, and Brownstein reinvented herself as a comic actor on a little show called Portlandia. They got back together early this year, recording in secrecy. John Goodmanson, who recorded and produced most of those records, is back for No Cities To Love. The video for the new song features filmmaker and writer Miranda July, another early ’90s graduate of Olympia-area Grrrrl Studies. Check it out:

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