Three Hours in Lisbon

Well, let’s see . . . I came inches from sliding off the mossy pier into the frothing Tagus River . . .

Losing my glasses, busting open my camera, bruising my hip, gumming up my shorts, making my shirt sopping wet. Leading to one embarrassed, unsteady walk through the gawking gallery.

Then I witnessed the picked-pocket that went awry just off Augusta Street. Leading a stream of curiosity-seekers on a chase to view the impassioned altercation between would-be thief and victim, under the uneasy, though occasionally bemused policeman’s eye . . .

Then there was the Starbucks I finally stumbled across, enabling me to score that elusive token country mug for my ever-expanding collection . . .

And the dance performance—a mix of classical, jazz and hip-hop—staged in a sunken amphitheatre beneath the street I happened to traipse past . . .

Don’t forget the string of restaurants whose open-air “patios” were the landings between sets of stairs that led away from Rossio Square and the sprawling Baixa Chaido. At those free-form eateries, patrons leisurely consuming their early-evening repast while pedestrians stopped to scrutinize (and comment on) their selections . . .

Not to mention the late afternoon sunlight pulsing against the pale pink and aquamarine and cadmium facades along the face of the Bairro Alto, looking like nothing, if not stacks of antique champagne glasses piled haphazardly behind a glistening art deco bar . . .

And then, of course, there was the restaurant I got steered to by the hotel concierge, after my foray in the city had ended; a receptionist who could easily have played Maurice the bellhop in Catcher in the Rye. Me (Holden, playing Holden!), letting myself get steered to the over-priced steak house by the inducement of a complementary drink--that turned out to be microscopic shots of after-dinner port. My easy acquiescence surely helping line Maurice's pockets, although, when I returned to recover my key, he didn't even think to thank me.

Do I sound bitter? But how could I be? All that--the mishap on the pier, the altercation, the dancers, the stairwells, the light, the comped drinks--was life lived. And not only that: life lived fully!

The amazing thing was the way that these events came: fast and unrelenting--as life often does. Crammed together without providing any chance to masticate and process. All of it happening within the space of three hours.

Those were my only three hours in Lisbon—well, ten if you count the time I showered and brushed my teeth and slept—before having to board a plane that would whisk me out of Portugal for good.

But were they a three hours worth living?

In hindsight: absolutely, unquestionably. But, in fact, it was an open question I had been asking myself all the way down on the train from Braga earlier that day. Tired as I was, all I could ask myself was: “should I or shouldn’t I?” (get out of my hotel room and wade into Lisbon life). Me, having had little rest the past week, working non-stop and battling a rare summer head cold. But three hours in Lisbon . . . who could turn that down? Or could they? Would pushing over cobblestone and elbowing past waves of tourists and Portuguese revelers in the sweltering heat only add to my misery--my bone-weary, muscle-rending fatigue--which, in turn might undermine my ability to negotiate the twenty hour Lisbon-Amsterdam-Narita-Sendai ordeal that faced me less than a day hence?

Or (in the alternative) would the pain of regret (for not being ambitious, for not forcing myself out the door) be so burdensome--so debilitating to consciousness over the next few years—day after each irreclaimable day that I wouldn't be able to return to this country, imagining all that I may have foregone--that I would be unable to bear the empirically indisputable (but unprovable) certitude of all glories that I had missed?

Even worse, I worried: would I have forever deprived myself of essential truths, deeper understandings of our human universe (for which I could never forgive myself)?

But, of course . . . how would I ever know?

Which was precisely the point. Unless I did, I wouldn't.

On the other hand, there was nothing in the long walk from Alameda subway stop to my hotel that suggested any great loss; the very pedestrian promenade made it appear that Lisbon was far from an astounding, can’t miss, shimmering oasis. And so, thus seeded with doubt, I heard myself trying to convince my deeper self, “perhaps a trip into the streets will merely amount to three hours of hard labor.” Three hours of sweating buckets into my shirt with very little of value to show for it when all is said and run.

Yet . . . on still another hand, since peripatetics make it a habit to seek out the unknown, I surely was compelled to try. (As a corollary, it should be observed, in order to ensure that all remains mysterious and subject to discovery, we peripatetics refrain from traveling with a guide book--thus the only way to ever truly know for sure is to physically venture forth) . . .

Which is why, in the end, after dropping my bag in the room, I performed a quick towel bath, then got into my street gear, grabbed my camera, some spare batteries, a pen and paper, a map, and some euros, and headed back out the door.

Which ultimately reminded me of the valuable lesson I should never have forgotten: when you have a chance to open a door into life—no matter where you are—do! Because even if nothing comes of it, you will have at least put yourself in a position to have gained—a new incident, a set of faces, some pictures, a lesson or idea or way of seeing.

For instance . . . in this case: an exchange in the square, a makeshift sculpture, the play of light, a lover's tryst, a vendor on the stoop, nature choked by development . . .

. . . something. Everything. So many things.

Things beyond knowledge, beyond expectation or daily imagination.

If you are lucky.

And if you aren't? Well, nothing lost, other than a little sweat. A little more fatigue acquired. It is one of the basic premises of peripatacity.

Even three hours—even three minutes—is sufficient to make a difference. Whether it is a tree growing through the dance of form, or three old ladies engaged in serious discourse, or the fortuity of variables in random assembly..

It is worth pushing yourself out the door, putting yourself out there, in life’s stream. For you can only live that particular moment, or set of moments, once.

If I had ever forgotten that basic truth--that imperative of enlightenment--Lisbon reminded me. In just those brief three hours.

And I am far richer for having been so schooled.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

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