I sometimes have difficulty separating an artist from their art, although I’ve been able to accomplish it several times. Would I be able to do so when the artist in question was a President of the United States whose art included not only films, but policies that transformed the Republican Party, the American economy, and the course of the Cold War? Movie Nights with the Reagans by Mark Weinberg has arrived to pose this question.
Whatever your feelings about Reagan’s politics, and mine are by no means completely positive, this new book affirms any belief in the influence of film on society. It is written by Mark Weinberg, who in 1981, when the book begins, was serving as an assistant press secretary at the White House. He was one of the few staff members invited along on the Reagans’ weekends at Camp David, where there is a movie theater. In the privacy of the Aspen Lodge, the First Family and their guests sat in comfy chairs as popcorn was served in baskets, and watched contemporary and classic movies on Friday and Saturday nights, in good times (landslide re-election) and in bad (assassination attempts).
The book is organized mostly chronologically, with one chapter per film, beginning with the first weekend trip of Reagan’s presidency in February of 1981 (the film was 9 to 5) all the way up to 1987, including September of 1985, when the chosen film was Ronald and Nancy’s only one together, Hellcats of the Navy, which was also the last feature in which either Reagan appeared. The connections between the films and the memories in each chapter can be tenuous but are nonetheless fascinating. Weinberg was in a unique position of truly unparalled access, enabling him to now deliver an assortment of anecdotes; he seems to have been both an employee and a friend of both the Reagans, with a closeness verging on that of family.
I don’t usually get political on here, but I had to when I saw this post about a different place and time, yet so so relevant. A dangerous precedent of destruction was set yesterday when Tr*mp reduced federally-protected land. Call your US senators and reps today: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
“Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?” asked the bold headline in white above the photo in 1983. The party in question has been in power in Australia since 1975, led by patrician Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was a transformative prime minister, who gave the aborigines of Australia more control over their traditional lands, encouraged immigration from Asia, welcoming the Vietnamese boat people, and led the pressure against apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa.
But by early 1983, the economy was in a rut, Fraser’s parliamentary majority had been reduced and the future of his government rested on an attempt to dam a river in Tasmania. For years, this dam had been festering on the public consciousness: a fledgling Green movement was trying to save the river through concerts, candle-lit vigils and a write-in campaign, which reached its feverpitch in late 1982 when 42% of voters wrote in “NO DAMS” at a by-election…
As regular readers know, I sometimes stray away from the mainstay topic of this blog — film — into music of all kinds. Obviously, the two have been tied since film’s birth. One aspect of both industries that has fascinated me for some time is the odd relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., our highly influential older siblings with the cool accents, who seem to have even cooler record collections, more avant-garde taste in movies, and cutting-edge fashion senses. And yet, for every British artist in any medium that slays Stateside, either by popularity or influence — and the list of those is endless — there are some, for whatever reason, that just don’t click. This is also true of celebrity/entertainment culture in general…some U.K. celebs cross the pond to become household names in the U.S….and others just don’t catch on here. For every Graham Norton or Ricky Gervais, there’s a Cheryl Cole or Robbie Williams.
I’m not sure which category Alesha Dixon will fall into, or if she’s even interested in U.S. success, but at the moment, she is one of the most recognizable women on U.K. television. As an admired presenter and judge on prime-time shows, she’s known to millions of viewers, as well as being a talented singer and dancer, lending her more versatility and overall credibility than many others in the “unscripted” field. Continue reading “The Rise and Rise of Alesha Dixon”→
I totally ran out of time for a year-end music post in 2014 (the last one was published in 2013), but they are just too much fun to put together, so here’s the 2015 edition. The cutoff is 50 or more plays (as in previous years, the source here is my iTunes). These are songs that I loved this year; though some were released before 2015, but almost all of these reached triple-digit plays. I don’t do a lot of description of these, they are in no particular order, and linking instead of embedding is not indicative of preference (it just means I couldn’t get it to embed). I feel like if you actually take a chance by clicking and listening to the songs, you’ll hear why they made the list. There’s a WTF factor to some of my choices, so go ahead…read on and judge away after the jump. You can also check out the 2012 list.
I didn’t plan on writing this post, it just sort of happened. I was more emotional about Mad Men ending than I thought I would be, and pretty soon there was this list…in no particular order of preference, just chronology. As I look back through the list, it’s pretty clear it’s really the The Don and Peggy Show, at least to me, though I must ask you to pretend that most of Roger’s one-liners and every scene involving Rachel Menken is on this list (she was Don’s best mistress). Also, one of the greatest and most memorable things about Mad Men didn’t happen on TV…Lane Pryce’s funeral. Episode numbers and titles from Basket of Kisses.
As you may know, one of my favorite film genres is the spy picture. I’ve spent enough hours with James Bond, Jason Bourne, Miss Froy, Captain Hardt, Gus Bennett, Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, and Evelyn Salt to know a good spy story when I see one, or in this case, read one. And quite appropriately — since Britain’s spies dominate the world’s pop culture consciousness — it’s about as British as you can get.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6’s original and still official name) in 2009, its then-chief Sir John Scarlett commissioned Keith Jeffery, a History professor at Queen’s College Belfast, to write a history of the organization from its founding in 1909 through its adolescence in the early Cold War, 1949. The result is The Secret History of MI6, a fascinating tale of dedication, determination, occasional infighting, and patriotism.
Right away, I was surprised to learn that one of the most famous and highly-regarded intelligence services in the world was so underfunded that, at various times until the early 1940s, most personnel were not paid. So only those with sufficient private incomes could afford to work there, which would explain that upper-crust style that has carried through to many of the movies.
Other aspects of the book will seem familiar as well. After all, the two authors who are arguably most responsible for our collective notions of how spies and spying work — Ian Fleming and David Cornwell (aka John LeCarré) — were both employed in British intelligence (Fleming was in naval intelligence, Cornwell in SIS). Graham Greene, another purveyor of espionage tales like Our Man In Havana, was recruited into SIS by his sister, Elisabeth, who already worked there. (His supervisor? Now-notorious double agent Kim Philby.)
For instance…the chief of the Service was always known by a single letter — not M, but C, from the last name of the first chief, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming. There is an actual Q or Quartermaster Branch, officially known as “Stores and Equipment Administration.” Q Branch’s first project, in 1915, was secret writing ink. Agents were often referred to by numbers, though not double-0s.
From the very beginning, many field agents and “local talent” did (and probably still do) enjoy the high life. As early as 1910, Cumming wrote in his diary that spies always wanted more money than their information was worth and “‘all…without exception make a strong point of [eating and drinking] in the best style and at the most expensive restaurants.'” Cumming himself was “a keen pioneer motorist and a hair-raisingly fast driver,” who helped found a yacht club and got his pilot’s license in 1913 when he was 54 years old.
And, just like Austin “Danger” Powers, most British operatives conducted their business under their own names, usually with international business cover. Just like James Bond’s Universal Export. (A catch-all governmental office was also invented early on, specifically to provide cover — Passport Control, employees of which all have diplomatic immunity.)
On the other hand, there are the stories I hadn’t heard. Jeffery was faced with a tough task when he agreed to write Secret History. SIS routinely destroyed all its intelligence. Almost as soon as information was received at headquarters and distributed to the relevant department or office, the papers were burned. However, he managed to find material enough for several great movies or mini-series.
One aspect of espionage I never thought of before is the difficulty the British had in disguising the intel they got from the signals interception and decryption at Bletchley Park during World War II. Jeffery illustrates in several instances that If they had acted on everything they knew, it would have been obvious they had broken the code, and the Nazis would have changed it. I wonder if this will be addressed in The Imitation Game, the upcoming movie about Alan Turing.
Another movie-ready WWII story is that of the “Dick Jones” network, which ran very successfully in Tunisia, after a rough start. “Jones” was captured, imprisoned and sentenced when first dropped into the country in late 1942, but was released by the French authorities when the Germans invaded. He had organized well during his stay in prison and by November 1942, his network was supplying information “‘so operationally valuable that First Army were literally hanging on our daily signals to them.'” The network grew with “high grade morale,” which led to “low grade security,” and many were arrested in January 1943. Some were executed and “Jones” himself landed in Colditz Castle as a prisoner of war.
A biography of Cumming, the first chief of SIS, would also make an interesting film. Cumming endured various personal tribulations while fighting to keep the fledgling Secret Service alive and separate from other agencies and branches of government. Now universally acknowledged to have been the perfect choice for the job, he was basically making up the espionage playbook as he went along, and his position was never secure at the time. Aside from fast vehicles, he was fascinated by gadgets and tradecraft, and some of his techniques are still in use today.
The book also includes accounts of British/French espionage successes during WWII. One in particular is that of Marie Madeleine Fourcade, and I hope it gets optioned soon. Fourcade, born the same year as SIS, led the French Resistance network Alliance, which gathered intel about German logistics inside occupied France and transmitted it by various means to Britain. This was incredibly dangerous work, and many Alliance members were captured, tortured, and killed by the Gestapo. Fourcade herself was captured four times. She was released twice, and twice she escaped — once by disrobing and squeezing herself out of a cell window, and once by being smuggled out in a mailbag. She and all her network had animal codenames, thus the title of her book, L’Arche de Noé, or Noah’s Ark.
The Secret History of MI6 is a scholarly work and does sometimes get bogged in bureaucratic minutiae, but the vast majority of it is a compelling read. I do hope there will be a second volume, at least covering the rest of the 20th century.
I had a lot of fun doing the 2012 year-end music post so here’s the 2013 edition. These are songs that I loved this year; though some were released in previous years, almost all of these reached triple-digit plays (source: my iTunes). In most cases, I’ve had to link to remixes, but you can still listen or download for free. And yeah, YouTube ads are still a drag.
“Shot at the Night,” “Just Another Girl,” and “Read My Mind” – The Killers Two are new and I’m obsessed with the other. “The stars are blazin’ /Like rebel diamonds/Cut out of the sun…”
“My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” and “Alone Together” – Fall Out Boy One of the better live shows I’ve ever seen. Ever. All the sweeter because I thought they were broken up for good and I’d never see them live.
“Roar” – Katy Perry If you are about to dive into a swimming pool that only has about a foot of water in it, “Roar” is the track to have around. Katy says it’s like armor and I agree.
“California Blue” – Roy Orbison Orbison’s last album was released in 1989 shortly after he passed away. But I never let that stop me. “One sunny day/I’ll get back again/Somehow someway/But I don’t know when…”
“Don’t,” “It Feels So Right,” and “I Slipped, I Stumbled, I Fell” – Elvis Presley I hear the greatest new-to-me Elvis tracks on Sirius channel 19.
“Kansas City” – Wilbert Harrison Another Sirius find, this one from ’50s on [channel] 5.
“Ways to Go” – Grouplove “Tongue Tied” is a forever love but this one is pretty good too.
“Dancing On My Own,” “Hang with Me,” and “Call Your Girlfriend” – Robyn I don’t know how many times I’ve asked this and I still don’t have a good answer: why isn’t Robyn more popular? She kicks so much @$$. Sigh.
“Get Lucky” – Daft Punk You knew this would be on here…right?
“Royals” and “Team” – Lorde So sue me. They’re catchy and smart songs.
“Do I Wanna Know?” – Arctic Monkeys This witty little ditty will drill itself into your brain. Really weird video too. No, they aren’t Northern, they’re from Sheffield. Anyway. Song of the year honors.
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend Sing along everybody!
Battle Born and Direct Hits – The Killers. This band is DEADLY live, I lost my mind and my voice at their show. If you haven’t seen them, do whatever you have to get there next time. You will not regret it.
Cut It Out EP – Kitten
Crazy for You – Best Coast
Only in Dreams – Dum Dum Girls
Static – Cults
The Bones of What You Believe – Chvrches, everything except “The Mother We Share.” I liked that track when it came out, but it is possible to overplay a good thing.
Observator – The Raveonettes
Move in Spectrums – Au Revoir Simone
Days of Being Wild soundtrack – Music from Wong Kar-Wai’s 1990 film. It seems to be quite rare. I’ve assembled most of the Xavier Cugat tracks from Emusic, but I’m missing the title track, Anita Mui’s Cantonese version of “Jungle Drums.”
As I mentioned in one of my award posts, music is a close second to movies as my favorite thing. This year I decided to compile my Top 30 or so tunes, based on iTunes’ play count. Since January 1, 2012, I’ve given all of the following songs more than 30 plays, and in some cases, more than 50. There were a few surprises…I like a good hook I guess. So sue me…
These are in no particular order. Click through to listen, or maybe even download legally and for free! Yep, I hate YouTube ads too, but someone’s got to pay for all this.
“Tongue Tied” — GrouploveProbably my favorite song of the year.
“Video Games” and “Born to Die” — Lana Del Rey Exact same number of plays. Even before i saw this clip for The Smiths/Lana mashup “This Charming Video Game,” her vocal style reminded me of Morrissey.
“To Win Your Love” – Dominique Pruitt Winner of the 2012 “Every Breath You Take” Stalker Award. Sample lyric: “I know you don’t realize / How much you love me too / So open up your eyes and see that / You’ll be mine before I’m through.” This one was a late entry, I think I first heard it in September or October, but it’s just as much of an earworm as “Call Me Maybe” or “At Home.” And it is not country. It’s Americana. I swear.
“Lights” (Bassnectar Remix) – Ellie Goulding I’ve been a fan of Goulding’s for a year or so, on account of she was on some chat show with Tom Hardy.
“Hold On” – Alabama Shakes Actually I highly recommend the whole album this comes from, it’s called Boys & Girls, and if you like ’60s soul, it’s a must. $7.99 on iTunes until Jan. 7. No one is paying me to say that.
“Loca People (What the F*ck)” – Sak Noel What can I say…it’s good to work out to. And who among us hasn’t wondered about their fellow human beings?
“I’m Always In Love” – Wilco Yes, this little slice of pop heaven came out in 1999 on the album Summerteeth, but I never appreciated it properly until this year. It sounds just as fresh.
“Madness” – Muse The only Muse song I like. It’s sort of operatic, like a lost Queen track.
“Come Home” – CHAPPO I’m not yelling, that’s how they write it. This song is actually 2 years old and it’s like the first day of spring.