Defending Your Life,
and a few more films

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Streaming free at Internet Archive

#255  [archive]
MAR. 8, 2024

When punk hit America, I read the zines and loved the attitude, but the music never did much for me. That's where I'm coming from, you should know up front. 

This is a documentary by Penelope Spheeris, chronicling L.A.'s underground scene when punk was still new. The movie is a kick in the nuts, and reinforces most of my punk prejudices, but it's gotta be seen.

For laughs (and it is funny), the film opens with punk performers on stage who've been asked to read the movie's release contract to the crowd: "Please be advised that by your entry upon these premises, you are consenting to being photographed and having your ugly likeness used in a filthy motion picture!"

Spheeris talks with performers, fans, promoters, and security guards, but the heart here is the music. The performances have enormous energy, and audiences respond with pogo dancing, slamdancing, slugdancing, and occasional fist fights.

There are about a dozen songs in the movie, of which a few are openly racist, and some of the stage banter is decidedly anti-gay. The crowd at the shows is entirely white, wisely, because there's enough nihilism, anger, and bigotry in the room that attending would be unsafe for anyone black or brown or openly gay.

That said, there are assholes in any crowd, on any stage, and most of the people talking to the camera seem to be decent souls and with functional hearts and minds.

"I'm a total rebel. I rebel against everything."

What surprised me most was the music. Some but not all of the songs are subtitled, which is helpful, because punk singers aren't generally great at elucidation. Not all of the music is angry, off-key screaming, and some of it sounded like rock'n'roll to me. I even added X's "Beyond and Back" to my permanent playlist.

The most memorable interviews include Germs manager Nicole Panter, fanzine writer Kickboy Face of Slash, and the entire Black Flag band at their semi-squat in an abandoned church. Crazy to think that all these punkers are in their 60s now, like me. Or dead.

Hey, that guy looks familiar — Lee Ving, the lead singer from Fear, repeatedly insults the audience, until a few drunken fans storm the stage and get beaten down. Ving had a supporting role in Black Moon Rising, which I watched a few weeks ago.

Doug the non-punk says, see The Decline of Western Civilization for the music, the history, and the kickass spirit of it all, except for the racism and sexism.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Defending Your Life (1991)

Is there a general consensus that Albert Brooks is brilliant? There should be, but nobody I know talks about him, mentions him, even knows who he is.

Mr Brooks makes (or made; he seems to be retired) very funny movies, and this is one of his best. Writer, director, and star Brooks dies in the first few minutes, and spends the rest of the movie in the afterlife's Judgment City.

He's charged with living his life in fear, as most people do, but the verdict won't be between heaven and hell; the question is only, did he live his life good enough to "move on," or should he be sent back for another reincarnation to try, try again?

At his trial that everyone insists isn't a trial, it's Lee Grant for the prosecution, and Rip Torn and Buck Henry for the defense. Brooks is shown vivid flashbacks of fearful and embarrassing moments in his life, and in the evenings between his days in court, he meets an equally dead Meryl Streep. And let me tell ya, French Lieutenant's Woman and Silkwood and Sophie's Choice are fine, but Meryl Streep should do more romantic comedies. She's heavenly, and so's the movie.

It's never huge, never gets overtly profound, but there's a message here, and the movie is consistently heartfelt and funny in every scene, all the way to its ridiculous tearjering finale.

My old friend Joe (a/k/a Capt Hampockets) said this was his all-time favorite movie. We saw it together a few years after it came out, on a double feature with Lost in America at the U.C. Theater in Berkeley. Joe snuck in cheeseburgers, and I brought Milk Duds and cherry cola. It is a damned fine flick, and I miss ya, Joe.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Destino (1946/2003)

Streaming free at Internet Archive

This was a joint effort of Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, when Disney was still a man, not yet a corporate conglomerate. They were contemporaries, but it's a surprise they were collaborators.

Disney ran out of money, though, so the project was shelved until long after both men were dead. It was completed by Walt's nephew Roy Disney, with funding from Disney Inc, in 2003.

In its final form, this is a 6½-minute short, with no dialogue, only visuals, and for seven minutes, my heart raced. Destino has an undeniable Disney touch, but it's the Dali imagery that rules here. Having seen and admired many of Dali's works, watching this feels like I've just seen a dozen more. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Detroit 9000 (1973)

Streaming free at Daily Motion

It's the 1970s, and a black person has never been elected Governor in America, so it's a big deal when Detroit Congressman Aubrey Clayton announces his candidacy. Bad guys wearing masks storm his fundraiser, though, and make off with $400,000. It's an instant political circus, with questions about why there was no police presence at the fundraiser.

"In your opinion, Inspector, was this a crime by blacks against blacks, or do you think that it was a honky caper, to keep black power from taking over the state government?"

In the racially-uptight aftermath, two cops — one black and one white — are assigned to investigate. They don't particularly want to work together, but darn it, there's a case to be cracked.

The script is as respectful of the police as any Clint Eastwood movie, and Detroit 9000 is mighty white for blaxploitation, with Alex Rocco (white) clearly the star, and Hari Rhodes (black) in a secondary role. But it captures the racial and political tensions well, with crackling dialogue, gunfights and chases and such, and it finishes with a flourish so memorable that any shortcomings earlier must be forgiven. 

If the meaning of '9000' in the title was explained, I missed it, but this is primo stuff. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dimensions of Dialogue (1983)

Streaming free at Vimeo

This is a beautiful short, twelve minutes or so, comprised entirely of stop-motion animation. That's the technique pioneered in King Kong and used in oodles of other classic sci-fi, that involves posing inanimate objects slightly different, frame by frame, to simulate movement. It takes enormous patience, dedication, and especially skill, so of course modern films have mostly switched to cheaper but heartless CGI.

Dimensions of Dialogue consists of three stop-action vignettes, showing kitchen utensils and vegetables, and later people, which/who usually end up talking with each other, and often eating each other. The third vignette is my favorite, and seriously made me laugh, as two old men argue without words, by spitting various objects out of their mouths.

It's from stop-action superstar Jan Svankmajer, and it can't really be described, must be seen to be appreciated. Like Svankmajer, the film is from Czechoslovakia, but there's only the animation and some music, so no subtitles are needed.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dishonored (1931)

Streaming free at Internet Archive

Marlene Dietrich plays a war widow and prostitute in Vienna, pressed into service as a spy during World War I. As Agent X-27, her mission is to expose an Austrian military officer suspected of treason. 

Dietrich always owns the screen, but the man she's trying to catch is played quite badly by Victor McLaglen. Director Josef Von Sternberg tosses in several very, very slow dissolves and double exposures, to what purpose I'm unsure; it's a distraction from the drama.

In the first act, there's a long party where everyone's tooting kazoos, nonstop and apparently all night long. I didn't stopwatch it, but it felt like five minutes of kazoos, and I watched the rest of the film with a kazoo headache.

The movie gets better, though. Eventually Dietrich goes in disguise as a dull-witted maid, and somehow switches off everything 'Dietrich' about herself. She's so ordinary, it took me a few minutes to realize that she was Dietrich. She also plays the piano to crack a code, and it's Dietrich tinkling, not a piano double.

The film has its weak points, but it's stylish and wild, with a very strong ending. The story is basically Mati Hari, with Dietrich at Full Dietrich, and that's enough.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Do the Right Thing (1989)
La Dolce Vita

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. A documentary about Albert Brooks (née Einstein) just dropped a few months ago, haven't seen it but it appears the kids are indeed talking about the brilliance of Albert Brooks:


    His supporting role in "Drive" was one of his best. You think okay we're going to have Brooks play a vicious gangster and that doesn't work at all, but having him play a tormented vicious gangster who seems to have accidentally slipped into the whole murder/stabbing business and regrets the whole thing to the bottom of his ponderous soul and yeah, that role was almost made for Albert Brooks.

    Also love the fact that him and his brother Bob (aka Super Dave Osborne) overlapped in radically different parts of Hollywood and never made a big deal about their relationship or even their parents, to the point that if you missed an interview or two you would have never known...

    1. Wait, what? Are you fuckin' with me?

    2. IMDB confirmed, you are *not* fuckin' with me — Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) are brothers. Actually, now that I sit here and think about it for a minute, their sense of humor is sorta similar. It's just the delivery that's completely different.

      I've added Defending My Life to my list, and now I have a sudden hankering for some Super Dave.

      You're also right about Brooks in Drive, although there's so much else to love in that movie that I'd never thought it through about *why* Brooks was so good in the role. I just thought, weird choice but wow...

    3. Haha, at least I wasn't the last one! I had no idea until very recently that they were related.

      Drive is undoubtedly on my top 10 list.

      If you've never seen it, one of the best talk show appearances I've ever seen is in the debut episode of Norm MacDonald's video podcast. The overall series wound up very uneven, but in the first episode (in which Norm is wearing some strange makeup that makes him look a bit unreal) there's only one guest: Super Dave Osborne, who tells some great old stories about working for Redd Foxx and the Smothers Brothers (again, had no idea about most of this) but also manages to keep up the pretense of appearing to be both shocked by the content of the show and disgusted by how cheap and shoddy it is for almost the entire episode.


    4. My favorite Brooks is Mother, which has one of my all time favorite performances by Debbie Reynolds. But I like all of his stuff. Lost in America is great too.

      My favorite Dave Osborn appearances are his bits on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Marty Funkhouser. Just the driest, most disdainful delivery of every line, and some of the funniest lines on the show.


      And of course, it goes without saying that, whatever their talents, they came from Hollywood money, like Randy Newman, so many others. It never ends!

    5. I will watch the Norm Macdonald podcast tonight or soon, thanks. Took me seriously two minutes to catch up that it probably isn't new. How can Macdonald be interviewing Bob Einstein when he's dead. And then I remembered Macdonald's dead too. Are we old or what? We enjoy watching the dead talk to the dead...

      And he never capitalized the 'd'. Rebel.

    6. I can't remember much of anything about Mother *except* Debbie Reynolds. Added to the list for a rewatch. And a few others by Brooks.

      Yeah, Funkhauser was fabulous. I've watch lots of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and what it gets right is letting other people be funny. Which is a good strategy, because Larry's portrayal of 'Larry' gets grating after ten or twenty episodes.

      Did Brooks & Super Dave come from Hollywood money, or just from Hollywood? His parents were performers, but not famous enough that I know who they were. Nepotism, but not big money nepotism...

    7. Worse than that, I can remember what Norm Macdonald (thanks!) wrote when Super Dave died. Sadly Super Dave couldn't be reached when it was Norm's turn.

      That thought creeps into my head now and then: "almost everyone I'm watching in this movie is probably dead." It is not comforting!

      I watched the Albert Brooks doc last night (it gets better from the chummy intro which worried me). The brothers certainly seemed to benefit from being in an entertainment family but it seems like they benefited more from the connections than money (though I don't think they mention being hard up, and were attending Beverly Hill High School). At one point they go through everyone who was famous or the child of someone famous in their high school yearbook. Like my school graduated a backup quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals years before I was a zygote and that was it.

    8. What did Norm Macdonald write about Bob Einstein? I could only find the first paragraph of something he posted on Twitter, with a link that says "Show more," but Elon Musk won't let me see more. Hoping he wrote whatever he wrote somewhere besides Twitter?

      Everyone says 'success' comes from networking, and you can't get much more networky than Beverly Hills HS. It's a public school, I think, but almost all the next generation of Hollywood goes there, gets chummy, and sends their kids there. Gotta be crazy. Someone should make a movie about BHHS.

      That's the head start most of them have, even more than money, but cripes they have money too.

    9. You will be disappointed, his comment on Bob was just that. (I was going for the laugh on where Bob had no comment, because he was already dead, but it didn't land.)

    10. It landed. I smiled and giggled, which is more than I've done for the 'comedy' film now playing on my other device.

      Also forgot to mention, I love the realization that everyone who worked on some great old movie that came out when my pop was a kid is dead and gone but still we appreciate their work. Work in an office, flip burgers or cut hair or whatever, your work is forgotten later that afternoon.


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