Friday, November 30, 2012


This is a gripping and emotionally fraught Iranian film from last year that is as taut and tightly wound as a thriller, but that deals with societal and familial breakdown on many levels. I'd been led to believe from my usual review-skimming that "A SEPARATION" was simply about an unhappy couple struggling to get divorced in Iran's mullah-ruled justice system, yet that's truly only the opening scene of the film - and it too is wonderful, as is the entire movie. Take the frustration and worry generated by that one scene, and then let it build and fold into multiple bizarre and overlapping prisoner's-dilemma scenarios over two hours, and you've got this outstanding film.

Director Asghar Farhadi has much to say about Iranian society, government, religion and morals, and surprisingly, he is able to say them all quite freely in his film. There are numerous schisms present in the film - between men and women, between moderately comfortable (I won't say rich, but perhaps so by Tehran standards) and poor, between the pious and the presumably secular, between rulers and ruled, and between old and young. These schisms prevent plain truths from being told, and prevent fairly simple matters of love, free movement and earning a living from happening in a natural and "human" manner. The Iran we are asked to look at here, while more advanced and varied than many might imagine, is portrayed as a cluster of lies and injustices that only deepens the many schisms.

The two arguing leads, Nader and Simin, are unable to file for their desired (sort of, we think) divorce because he won't leave the country for America with her, as Nader has his Alzheimers-ridden father to take care of, and Simin won't leave on her own out of love for her 11-year-old daughter, whom we're led to believe wants to stay in Iran with her dad. Nader hires a poor, ultra-religious, chador-wearing, pregnant housekeeper to watch over his elderly, incapacitated father while he's away at work. This does not go so well, to say the least. When Nader physically pushes her out the door in an attempt to fire her for neglect, and she later miscarries her baby and accuses him of killing it, the square wheels of justice start to clunk onward, and the layers of lies and deceipt begin to pile on.

The initial "unneeded" separation of the couple - Simin goes to live at her mom's house in another part of Tehran - is the accusation thrown at this mother for why everything happened as it did, which is patently unfair and true at the same time. Their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh, is perhaps the best part of the film - a quiet, watchful presence who is absorbing all sorts of life lessons, good and bad, from her quarreling parents and from her dysfunctional society. Her ability to cry on queue is one of those things expected of great actors and actresses, but which is nonetheless amazing when you see it done so easily on film. Termeh is truly the sole force of good in the film, though even with all of the frustrations and lies elaborated upon in Farhadi's film, it's clear that he wants us to know that there are good, honest people, and perhaps a few functional parts left in Iranian society.

"A Separation" has one of those powerful cliffhanger endings that remains deliberately unresolved, which is I tactic I loved (the film plays on in one's mind with two different outcomes) and my wife disliked (though she loved the film otherwise). It was Iran's entry to last year's Academy Awards, which it won, and it's absolutely one of the most powerful and compelling foreign films of the last year.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


I want you to pay attention to what I'm about to tell you because it is an important lesson about technology. You may have heard about "e-books". An e-book is an ELECTRONIC book. An electronic book is a book you read on a computer, such as an Apple Macintosh or a Hewlett-Packard. As I understand it, some of these computers are mobile these days, and can be taken outside of the house! Electronic books have become quite popular as of late. Hedonist Jive even invested in a "Kindle" some time back. Now it appears that there are authors writing short works of nonfiction and fiction solely and exclusively for consumption on these mobile computers. In an effort to figure it all out for you, we downloaded a couple of them and read 'em. They're about sports. You like sports, don't you?

First up was Nick Hornby's "PRAY – NOTES ON THE 2011/2012 FOOTBALL SEASON". Please note – this is English football, aka "soccer". Hornby wrote one of my first introductions to the wild world of UK football mania and devotion, the excellent "FEVER PITCH", back in 1992. His fingernail-chewing devotion to Arsenal, to dissecting the English love of the game, and to explaining its uniqueness and the sport's many weird foibles made that book a terrific read. He hadn't really returned to football/soccer writing since then, but after the English Premiere League 2011-12 season – one of the craziest of all time, with a final season-ending day for the ages – he was sucked back into writing about the sport, albeit in quick form. You can digest this one in an hour or so – think of it as a really long article, such that you'd find in two parts in The New Yorker or something. Hornby again captures the pathos of loving and hating your team when they win and lose, and does a great job revisiting the state of English football now that massive amounts of money have poured into the sport. If you've got slightly more than a passing interest in the game – and for whatever reason, my personal soccer fandom is off the charts this year, now that baseball season's over and hockey's on strike – this is well worth a few bucks and sixty minutes.

I also spent about an hour with "A DRIVE INTO THE GAP" by Kevin Guilfoile. Guilfoile is primarily an author of fiction, but he has the distinction of having grown up in a baseball-soaked world, with his father having been an executive at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY and an exec with the Pittsburgh Pirates. At first blush, the book looks to be a meditation on his dad's current Alzheimer's disease and a collection of memories from earlier times in the baseball world. Guilfoile does not wring cheap maudlin sentiment out of his dad's condition, and if anything, he plays it for non-tacky, non-malicious humor. He also relates what it was like as a younger man to work for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the clubhouse, helping the players get to their promotional photo commitments and to sign autographs before games. He says, without a doubt, the worst human being he ever encountered in any baseball capacity, ever, was Barry Bonds – and then proceeds to relay, in hilarious but sad detail, how Bonds acted when it came time to do anything for anyone else. It's abundantly clear why my San Francisco Giants want nothing to do with this clown anymore.

The book, though, turns into a big of a mystery midway through - namely, does Guilfoile unwittingly own the actual bat that Roberto Clemente used for his milestone 3,000th hit – the unfortunate last of his career? Turns out there are several versions of this bat, each claimed to be the one that Clemente used, which would make them priceless (and/or make someone a little bit rich). The book turns into investigative journalism to find out which one is the "real" one, and whether Guilfoile actually has had this thing in his possession since 1971 without even knowing it. I'll let you find out what happened. Also a very good read, though if pressed I'd recommend Hornby's e-book to you first.

Monday, November 26, 2012


This one's a good 15 years old and has been on my 70s-film-education reading list for some time. It's likely the most popular and perhaps well-regarded of all 1970s film histories as well, though let's be right up front about the fact that this is more a gossip book than a serious work of hardcore film criticism. Peter Biskind has (had?) been a longtime player at Premiere Magazine and must have spent a good chunk of the 1990s interviewing the surviving members of the American auteur pack and many of the writers, executives and wives who supported them. He certainly grabbed as much salacious content as must have been out there, as the book is full of drugs, sex, booze and megalomania. It's also a fairly well-done rise-and-fall story of "The New Hollywood", and in its way, it tells the story in a much more entertaining manner than a mountain's worth of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris essays ever could.

Biskind triggers the rise of the personal American cinema and the deification of the director with the machinations that brought both Arthur Penn's "Bonnie & Clyde" and Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper/Terry Southern's "Easy Rider" to the screen. Both barely got made, and both were assumed to be trash cinema that would quickly vanish even by most of the people who worked on them. Biskind trains the early part of the book on the executives who arrived in Hollywood and, with some cunning and lies and much foresight, found ways to get unusual, European-style cinema made by the larger American studios. It's clear that Euro films were a revelation for many and had been since the early 1960s. The directors we now associate with the wonders of 1970s filmmaking – Scorcese, Friedkin, Altman, Cassavetes et al – were already well-schooled in their Italian, French, Swedish and Japanese predecessors, and had been marinating in their films in student film clubs and art houses for quite some time before the studio system allowed them to try their hand at their own versions.

The excitement with which audiences greeted the loosening of scripts and mores on film is captured very well here. The system had a hard time adjusting to the new director-led cinema, but the directors had strong allies in film critics like Kael, who wielded considerable power with her reviews in this time before the web, home video and cable TV. After "Easy Rider" and "Bonnie & Clyde" showed that real money could be made catering to the new film audience of twentysomethings weaned in the wild 1960s, the floodgates opened, and experimental, political, character-based and raw, emotional cinema could be made and funded.

Robert Altman could make a film that mocked the Vietnam war while the war was still being fought ("MASH") and reap both critical and audience acclaim, setting him up to make classics like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", "Nashville" and "3 Women". Martin Scorcese could ride the critical acclaim from "Mean Streets" to make dark and disturbing hits like "Taxi Driver" and later, "Raging Bull". Dennis Hopper, of all people (he's portrayed as an absolute psychotic moron), could get money to make his unwatchable "The Last Movie".

The book definitely has its share of dolts and dupes and deadbeats. Bert Schneider, a producer and studio champion of many important 70s works like "Five Easy Pieces", "Easy Rider" and "The Last Detail", was the ultimate Hollywood left-wing creep, shepherding Huey Newton around the world and cheating on his wife with anything that moved. Director Paul Schrader (directed "Blue Collar"; wrote "Taxi Driver") was a suicidal, schizophrenic drug machine. William Friedkin was a egomaniac bully and blowhard. Peter Bogdonovich gets raked over the coals by many for his massive ego and the personal lives he ruined, with loads of schadenfreude dished out once he bombed with films like "At Long Last Love". Francis Ford Coppola is a central character in the book, also coming off as a first-class jerk totally lacking in adult self-control. Robert Evans is made to be a idiotic boob of legendary proportions. I could go on. Biskind certainly did.

"EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS" skimps on portrayals of actors, training its eye on the directors and writers for the most part. Some of them – Robert Towne is a great example, who gets a ton of play in the book – are fascinating studies of 70s excess and sometimes harnessed, sometimes lost talent. The book has a hard time coherently and consistently extolling a what-did-it-all-mean theme. When it comes, it comes in fits and starts; there's a great passage in which George Lucas convincingly argues that films like his "Star Wars" made so much money and opportunity for the film industry that it paved the way for the 1990s boom in great American independent cinema. Then someone like Altman comes in and almost convincingly argues that everything died in 1979, and that film has been running on fumes since then.

Biskind had a really hard time ending the book, and for some reason chooses the depressing death of relatively minor (comparitively speaking) director Hal Ashby ("Shampoo", "Coming Home") as the end point for the narrative. I have no idea why. He had plenty of opportunities to crash the narrative on the slick rocks of the 1980s, widely acknowledged as the worst decade ever for good film, but misses the mark except for a few asides here and there. My other complaint is just how much energy he expends to details who was sleeping with whom and when. After about 100 pages it was clear that in Hollywood at this time, getting laid was about the easiest thing in the world, even for looks-challenged, nerdish directors and writers who were married to their longtime sweethearts. Once established, it just gets boring after that. The drug tales are pretty great, though. Robert Evans in particular was just a wreck, as readers/viewers of "The Kid Stays In The Picture" already know.

The book certainly re-nurtured in me a desire to see every great American film of the 70s, starting right now. After more than three decades of close study, I still have some major gaps in my resume that I need to close, including "Night Moves", "Images", "The Parallax View" and "The King of Marvin Gardens". I'd certainly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in this era of film, as it's a terrific if sometimes infuriating supplement to true academic "film school" writing (much of which is dreadful, which is why I avoid most of it). Read it and watch the long version of "A Decade Under The Influence", and I'll bet you'll have that Netflix queue tipping hard toward 1974 in a matter of hours.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Joachim Trier made one of my favorite little-seen foreign films in 2006, a dramatically rich and intense Norwegian film of mental illness and friendship called "REPRISE". Saw it twice, in fact. It was Trier's first film, and it took a while to be seen and then to be distributed in the United States. Outside of the awful phony comedy-punk band who make a quick couple of appearances in it, "Reprise" is a sledgehammer of an emotional head trip, and I recommend it highly. Trier's second film is "OSLO, AUGUST 31st", and it was quite a bit easier to see than his last one, which was a film festival thing with a token blink-you-missed-it 1-week run in big cities. I watched it on Netflix, in fact, and you can too.

Anders Danielsen Lie, who was so terrific as the coming-unglued writer in "Reprise", has 100% screen time in this one. He's a handsome, vaguely threatening-looking guy who plays nice but unhinged men very well. The film takes place over 24 hours or so, with an early opening scene of Anders (his eponymous character) silently attempting suicide with the 'ol rocks-in-the-pockets while you jump in a lake trick. It doesn't work, and it's never referred to again except for in a very clever and jarring visual montage that ends the film. Anders is staying in a detox center outside of Oslo after 8 months of being sober from heroin and all the other intoxicant demons that have fed the majority of his youth (he's assumed to be in his early 30s here). He gets a pass from the center into the city for a job interview, full freedom for a guy not used to it or even wanting it. Self-sabatoge and pathos await.

Anders is unfortunately a shattered man. We get a sense that he was once happy and in love, and that Oslo, rather than representing demons and temptation, was a place of possibility for him and his youth cohort. His self-confidence has taken a huge blow, with the love of his life having left him during the ravages of stealing and lies that accompanied his heroin use, and is now living in New York. So even when Anders interviews for his literary magazine job, and proves himself to be intelligent and well-read, he admits to having been an addict and walks out – even though it's clear that the editor probably doesn't care all that much. Anders has a large collection of "missing years" in his life history, so whenever he turns up around old Oslo friends or enemies, it's obvious that he's still painfully reckoning with those years inside himself, even if they've moved on.

The pressure of being in Oslo, alone and miserable, leads Anders to break. We're not entirely sure until the very end of the film if he's really going to – there's an element of him that seems strong, and fit, and despite his torment, able to somehow withstand the psychic pain. That final shot I referred to is pretty cool – it's places we've visited in the film with Anders, which are shown in the here and now without him as he self-immolates. On the whole, I'd call this a very worthy successor to "Reprise" and a signal that thirtysomething Trier is going to be one of our more interesting and inventive filmmakers for some time to come.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


The nostalgic mythology we reserve for life-changing events and places in our lives exerts a powerful pull that only grows greater the older we become. Clich̩, right? Of course it is. Well, right up there with the birth of children, weddings, family moves and baby's first teeth are cultural touchstones, particularly for those who've defined a large portion of their life by their relationship to the "culture" or "art" of their choice. My first rock and roll show РThe Police at Oakland Stadium! Рwasn't particularly memorable or nostalgic, but, as I've written about before in other blogs, my youthful trips to record stores in other cities a few years before that had an absolutely mind-blowing effect on my psyche and my cultural development. I'm still frequently revisiting the crate-flipping sensations I got from those explorations at age 13 in dreams today, over thirty years later.

Last year I wrote a piece about my sacred pilgrimages to Los Angeles record stores in the late 1980s. As fruitful and "plenteous" as those many journeys were, they were also, at their core, simply fun trips to buy new records. My record store visits to Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, starting in 1981, were something way more mentally massive. They changed the way I consumed my culture of choice – rock music – for all time. Let me put it into some context for you. First, there's me. I turned 13 in October of 1980. I lived in San Jose, California with my parents and sister; while a big city now and a medium-sized one then, San Jose was and remains suburban and bland to its core, forever and always in the shadow of San Francisco, one hour to its north. My grandparents lived in El Cerrito, right next door to Berkeley, and we'd frequently stay with them for a week at a time and look for things to do together all over the Bay Area that might be cooler than what we could do in San Jose (and in case it's not clear: that was just about everything).

They started taking us to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for lunch & store-browsing. This is the main drag next to the UC-Berkeley campus, and a legendary countercultural hotspot from the 1960s onward. Head shops, pizza places, comic stores, t-shirt shops, bookstores, and most powerful of all for me: Record Stores. Telegraph's street scene in the early 80s was punk rock to the max. Colored mohawks – the real UK-style "liberty spike" look – were actually displayed by multiple peacocking boys and girls without irony. Not retro - this was real-time. This was a little intimidating for a suburban 13-year–old, but my grandpa was a calming presence, and someone who loved people – especially unusual people – and wasted no opportunity to walk up to some sneering punk and quickly disarm them with a, "How are you there today, young fella??". Telegraph was a real hangout spot, the sort of street where kids would come from all corners of the Bay Area in the morning, loiter all day, and leave late at night. To some extent, it still is, but its best days are way behind it.

I was in thrall to new wave and punk music by that first time I visited the Telegraph record stores in '81. I was pulling in a college radio station, KFJC, at my house, and they played everything from Adam and the Ants, to weirdo import 45s from England, to early US hardcore. I was trying to figure it all out, knowing that this stuff was so much better than the milquetoast Top 40 and disco I was raised on (and was equally obsessive about, from about 1975 to 1979). I would sit by the radio with a pen and paper, and write down the DJ's back-announce as quickly as I could, frequently muffing things up myself when the DJ himself hadn't. I discovered Roxy Music, Lou Reed, Devo and The B-52s this way, and would read about current bands from England that sounded even cooler than those.

OK, so that's a little context. Now let's talk about the stores themselves. From 1981 to about 1984, there were four that I visited every time we went to Berkeley: Rasputin's Records, Universal Records, Leopold's Records, and Tower Records. We can dispense with the last one first. If you consumed recorded music up until the early 00's, you certainly know what Tower Records is. Berkeley had one, and it had a great magazine section and many of the newest imports. It was usually an afterthought on these visits – I'd hit the three indie stores first, walk them up and down for hours, and only then go to Tower, mostly because it was just part of the established routine.

Rasputin Records – also known as Rasputin's, and currently known as Rasputin Music (and still on Telegraph, albeit in a different location), was the big mecca of the 4 stores. It was an absolute epicenter for new independent music from England and from small labels across the USA. The images from my first moments in the store are forever burned into my psyche. On the lefthand wall, a long row of 45s. Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Visage (!), Adam and the Ants, X, the Au Pairs, The Cramps and many more. To the right, more in the center of the store, were the LPs that the store wanted to feature. I remember my jaw dropping that first time when I saw this one

Everything unique and groundbreaking about punk and postpunk – music, sleeve design, band names, fashion, politics - had converged and was on display in this one store, at this one time, and I'll never forget how my horizons exploded in a few short hours. I would flip through these records multiple times (especially the singles, because I could afford them), staring at sleeves, reading liner notes, and carrying armloads of stuff around all afternoon until it was time to check out because my grandpa was going to pick me up outside the store.

Being a kid, and therefore having limited allowance money to spend, I bought two 45s that first day that I'd been hearing on KFJC: "Antmusic", by Adam and the Ants (yeah!), and X's "White Girl". Such was my musical cognitive dissonance at the time, though I suppose it's not as far a leap as it might once have seemed. Trouble was, I thought when I bought "White Girl" that I was actually buying a frantic, female-fronted punk rock song I'd heard on the radio once before, which was "100% White Girl" by San Francisco punk band THE VKTMS. Expecting that song, and instead getting Exene's whiny, nasally voice and the methodical pace of the original "White Girl", I was thoroughly bummed as I listened to it late that night, after my grandparents had gone to bed, of course. When you only have $6 to spend, and you "waste" $3 of it on one of the best days of your young life, it can be pretty crushing. Of course, now I love X's song, and I wish I'd held onto the Slash Records 45. Never did end up buying the Vktms record, either.

On later visits I bought Bauhaus' 12" single "Bela Lugosi's Dead"; the complete early Simple Minds collection (pre-stardom; this was when they were a futuristic dance band of sorts); the Surf Punks LP; Au Pairs' "Playing With a Different Sex" LP; the Human League's "Being Boiled", and a variety of new wave singles I've forgotten about now. This is likely for the better. I laughed at records by "Surgical Penis Klinik" and the Meat Puppets. I saw a lot of records that are undoubtedly paying for children's college educations now.

Practically next door to Rasputin's was Universal Records. I think they may have closed well before I left for college in 1985; I seem to remember them disappearing around 1983. This was the punk store. Cluttered, dirty, and with loud UK punk like Discharge and The Exploited blasting at top volume, it took all of my teenage courage to shop here and look cool. Actually, though, the pimpled punker behind the counter was totally friendly to me every time I came in – answering questions and steering me to new purchases. His punk name was Rob Noxious. There were many dudes with variants of that name back in the day, including Bob Noxious, singer for San Francisco's Fuck-Ups. This guy, I later learned, was the singer of a hardcore band called Intensified Chaos. He prodded me to buy my VICE SQUAD "Stand Strong, Stand Proud" record, and patted me on the back when I sold him my novelty Surf Punks record back in order to help afford it. My memories of this store are full of "Punk & Disorderly" record covers, Crass, Anti-Pasti, "Oi Oi That's Yer Lot" and so on.

Finally, there was Leopold's Records. This was a two-story store, housed next to Tower Records and both above and to the left of LaVal's Pizza, which itself was a must-visit on every trip (two slices for $2 or something like that – remember though that this is 1980s money. That's like $174 today). Leopold's would later gain notoriety for being a phenomenal store for underground hip-hop as that scene was exploding; I remember it as another place for British imports. I got the early Kate Bush records there! There were rows and rows of records in plastic polyvinyl sleeves (classy) - prog-rock from the 70s and 80s seemed to be something in high traffic there. Either that or the Gentle Giant and Marillion records were right next to the areas I would frequently browse. As amazing as this store was, it was a distant third for me to the glory that was Rasputin's and the eye-opening head trip that was Universal. I still made it a point to spend an hour here each time, however.

My trips to Berkeley continued even in college and afterward a bit, especially when Amoeba Records – the very first one – opened there in 1990. By then, Rasputin's was trying to be all things to all people (instead of an imports/punk/used vinyl kind of store), and went through a bit of a crisis in competition with Amoeba and almost closed. It's now a gargantuan store again, right there on Telegraph, in a new location, with a cool "history of Berkeley punk and metal" photo exhibit on the outside of the store today, right at street level. Leopold's is long gone. Tower is long gone. The great bookstore of the avenue, Cody's, is long gone, though Moe's hangs on for dear life. Berkeley was subsequently supplanted by San Francisco, and later by the internet, as the best location to shop for records from far corners of the underground. 

I miss that wide-eyed feeling of discovery I would get there, when "everything was totally new" and now-legendary 80s subcultures were still ripe for exploration. I was trying on a teenage mental identity, as every teenager does, and this was the perfect place to experiment. More to the point, it was the best place in the world (that I knew of) to buy some totally rad records. I wish I could somehow capture that frenzied, electric, worlds-of-possibility brain rush again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Back in the early 80s I’d hear the storming, shrieking “Caucasian Guilt” by San Francisco minimalist art-punk duo NOH MERCY on KFJC, and it would scare the hell out of me. “I didn’t put no JAP in a CAMP!!!”. An enigmatic song and band to say the least, I’d only been able to gather bits & pieces about them over the years. They were a 2-female duo, and two of their tracks were put on one of the Earcom 7”EP comps put out by Fast Records in the UK. I believe there’s a lone photo of them in the “Hardcore California” book which I read and read again at least 1,000 times in the 1980s. Found a photo or two on internet message boards nearly 10 years ago when I was writing something about Noh Mercy for my original music blog Agony Shorthand. That’s about it.
Now there’s this. A complete-works CD, all from 1979 – ten studio songs, plus four August 1979 live tracks from the Catalyst in Santa Cruz (which is still there, hosting shows to this day). I bought a copy, and immersed myself in it this past week. While not an “easy listen”, its sharp-edged experimentation marks it as something weird and wholly original & of its time.
The San Francisco of 1979 wasn’t just slamtastic punk rock bands – there was a dark, often synth-laden underground both on the Ralph Records side of the fence (Residents, Tuxedomoon) and more punk-friendly acts like Chrome, Factrix and many others. I fit Noh Mercy in with the latter, along with gay/political cabaret a la The Cockettes, spoken word attack-acts, revolutionary pre-Reagan-era doomsday rhetoric, and a general theater of the absurd. 
With only two women playing, one of whom (Esmerelda) who just loses herself in her vocals, it’s bound to be pretty minimal. Most are just drums and vocals; some guitar scrape and vocals; a couple are analog synth & vocals. All are biting, angry and a bit obtuse. The liner notes confirm art-drenched damaged souls at the helm; women who came to San Francisco as an escape from a previous life and found it to be a place where they could be whatever they wanted to be, and even find an audience for it. Great stuff. 

Friday, November 2, 2012


For years I knew that "THE FRENCH CONNECTION" was one of the more thrilling, dark and exciting 70s films I'd ever seen, but outside of the landmark chase scene and some of the key plot points, I'd truly forgotten just about everything else about the film. I saw it for the first time over 20 years ago, so there you go. A lot's happened since then, right? As mentioned in my review of "Bullitt", I was jonesing for some 1970s cop thrillers and watched this and that back to back on one long plane flight, and needed a shower to wash the figurative dirt and grime off my body and mind once I got home. "French Connection" is a masterpiece, and a lot darker and even grittier than I'd remembered.

As amazing as the chase scene is – one long, traffic-crunching terror through Brooklyn as Gene Hackman chases a subway train that's been hijacked by the bad guys – there are two other things I'd forgotten that loomed large this time. First of all, Roy Scheider. This actor really needs to get his due. His middlebrow profile might be due to the fact that he wasn't really in "art" films of the 70s; Altman and Cassavetes and Polanski didn't use him; and he was the star of "Jaws" and a key player in "Marathon Man" and "Klute", the latter two of which are two of my favorite films ever. He's such a presence in the films he's in, and that wry, sardonic wit of his is put to great use in this one as well as the others.

Secondly, "French Connection" is funny! I had forgotten all about the "bar bust" scenes, in which Hackman and Schieder (Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo) do drug busts at two 100% African-American bars in 70s Brooklyn. Sure, afro haircuts are funny in and of themselves, but the patter between these two as they shout down the hustlers and players and try only somewhat successfully to scare them to death is priceless. They then head out onto the mean streets of Brooklyn, all hopped up on adrenaline, to kick each other's asses around the block just for fun. Then get drunk. Good times.

The film, of course, turns very bleak and tense, particularly in its second half. Doyle and Russo (mostly Doyle) have a hunch about a massive drug delivery coming into NYC from France, but not a ton of evidence. The old-school beat detectives they work with think they're terrible cops. Slowly, the "French connection" starts to show itself, first quietly and subtly, then violently. Then there's the car/subway chase, one of the most heart-stopping scenes in film history. After this, it's tense, quiet and lean filmmaking a la "The Exorcist", director William Friedkin's 1973 follow-up to this one. The final scene in the abandoned island warehouse is sad, sick and tragic, while also being something of a triumphant redemption for Doyle in front of the fellow cops who didn't believe in him. Excellent piece of filmmaking from Friedkin across the board – totally glad I revisited this one.