Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens 01This story of a simple-minded mother and daughter, born into privilege and unable to generate the income necessary for basic survival, forces us to ask dangerous questions about social responsibility.  HBO Films enlisted two extraordinary actors, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, to create this compelling movie, that deserves a much wider audience than what the cable channel can generate.

Grey Gardens 02Based on historical events, this film tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Lange), aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy/Onasis (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter, also named Edith (Barrymore).  For simplicity, I’ll use the film’s reference of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” to distinguish the two characters.  Most of the movie takes place in 1975, when two filmmakers, Albert and David Maysles, filmed a documentary, called Grey Gardens, the name of the East Hampton estate, on Long Island, where the two women lived, but there are also flashbacks through their lives leading up to that time, beginning in 1936.

Big Edie (Edith Bouvier, sister of John Vernou Bouvier III, Jacqueline’s father) was a lady of high society who married New York businessman Phelan Beale (Ken Howard).  They settled on the Long Island estate of Grey Gardens and had several children, Little Edie being the oldest.  In 1936, as a young woman, Edie decides that she wants to become an actress and singer.  Although not overly talented, her energetic, bubbly personality could have carried her quite far, but both her father and mother prevented it from happening.  Phelan, quite aware of her simple-minded personality, thinks that she should marry a wealthy man who can take care of her, while Big Edie wants to keep her at home at Grey Gardens, where she can help to entertain their endless parties.  Big Edie is herself a singer and wants nothing more than to sip champagne, sing, and entertain.

Frustrated with the way his wife throws away their money, and struggling himself in the Depression era economy, Phelan takes Little Edie to New York City, where he tries to get her to stay within her allowance and find a husband.  She is more concerned with getting an audition, but falls in love with a married man, tycoon Julius Krug (Daniel Baldwin).  When Phelan learns of this relationship, he forces Little Edie to return to Grey Gardens.  With a big audition coming up, she drives back into the city and tries to see Julius, who becomes enraged that she might ruin his marriage.

Utterly dejected, she returns to take care of her mother at Grey Gardens.  Suffering from a nervous disease, exasperated by seeing her life fall apart, Little Edie loses all of her hair and takes to covering her head in scarves and blouses, creating her own unique look.  Ultimately, Phelan can no longer support their lifestyle.  He is disgusted by the continual round of parties and he divorces Big Edie.  When he dies, he leaves her the Grey Gardens estate and a limited trust for the survival of his ex-wife and daughter.  Gradually, all of their servants and friends leave until they are completely alone.

The older sons urge Big Edie to sell Grey Gardens so that she and Little Edie will have enough money to live on once the trust expires, but she feels that estate is her home, all she has left, and she refuses to sell.  With no one to maintain it, the estate begins to fall apart.  Big Edie adopts lots of cats and raccoons wander the house picking through the trash.  At last, the trust expires and there is no longer any income.  Scrounging for food and without heat, the two women barely survive the harsh New York winters, listening on a little radio as Jacqueline marries John F. Kennedy, survives his assassination, and marries Aristotle Onasis.

Neighbors complain about the stink emanating from the property and eventually city inspectors come to condemn the property, but the women carry on in spite of it.  The attention of the city brings a photographer to the house and Little Edie invites him in to take their pictures and when the word gets out that Jacqueline’s family is living in complete poverty and filth, she comes to visit them.  Fondly remembering the gay days of her aunt and cousin, she contributes the money to enable them to survive, hiring local contractors to clean up the house, fix broken windows, haul out their rusting old car, and provide for them going into the future.

When the Maysles show up with the idea of doing a documentary, Little Edie embraces it as an opportunity to showcase her talents to the world.  In the film, she sings and dances, argues with her mother, shows them around the property and sees a future in which she can finally escape Grey Gardens for good.  Big Edie, who has depended on her daughter so long, allows Little Edie to go to the premier and finally accepts that her daughter will have to go out into the world.

Directed by Michael Sucsy and written by Sucsy and Patricia Rozema, the script takes a great deal from the real lives of the two women, but especially from Little Edie.  Her surviving letters and journals were used by the director to flesh out the details of her life and used very successfully in the movie.  The camera is non-intrusive in the storytelling and fragments of the documentary have been recreated to great effect, intercut with the regular action.

Jessica Lange is terrific as Big Edie, showing a great range as we see the character grow from a woman of around forty into her old age.  A consistent and marvelous performance.

However, Drew Barrymore really steals the movie.  Her Little Edie, although every bit as simple-minded as her mother, is given an amazing degree of nuance that allows her to touch us with her own tragedy, yet soar with her indomitable spirit.  If anyone ever doubts that Barrymore is not one of the best female actors working today, please refer them to this movie, because she carries with a brilliant performance.

Nominated for 17 Emmy Awards, it won Outstanding Television Movie, Lange won for Best Actress, Howard for Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning for art direction, hair, and make-up.

Both a tragedy and a comedy, this is an emotionally engaged, beautifully written and acted movie.  I highly recommend it!

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North by Northwest

north-by-northwest Samt and GrantMistaken identity, an innocent man, bloodthirsty spies, a long train trip, a beautiful, sexy blond, and suspense building to a nail-biting conclusion—all these staples of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock drive his epic 1959 film, North by Northwest.  This review assumes the reader has already seen the film, and thus reveals many plot details that might spoil the movie for a novice film viewer.  Beware!

New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is about to conclude another busy day when he is kidnapped by two vaguely eastern European men (Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein) and taken to a mansion in the country. An erudite Englishman, whom Thornhill assumes is the estate owner, Mr. Townsend (James Mason) has mistaken him for a George Kaplan, a mysterious man who moves about the country making short stays in hotels before moving on.  Townsend recites Kaplan’s complete itinerary, demanding information from him.  When Thornhill tells him of his real identity and refuses to cooperate, Townsend tells his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to kill him.  They force a bottle of bourbon into Thornhill, then put him behind the wheel of a stolen car and aim it at the ocean, but Thornhill revives just enough to avoid the plunge and leads them on a wild car chase.

Arrested for drunken driving, Thornhill calls his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and tries to explain about his kidnapping. On a return trip to the mansion, Mrs. Townsend tells the police that he was there for dinner, got drunk, and went off on his own.  Thornhill then takes his mother back to the hotel where Kaplan was staying and they find evidence of his presence, but none of the hotel employees have actually seen Kaplan.  When Townsend’s flunkies show up, Thornhill grabs a taxi and goes to the United Nations, where he discovers that the real Townsend knows nothing about his adventures.  As he speaks to Townsend, Leonard sneaks up and stabs the diplomat in the back, leaving Thornhill holding the knife.  A photographer takes a picture, then Thornhill drops the knife and runs off.

Hitchcock usually includes a scene in his movies where the audience learns something that his hero doesn’t know. In North by Northwest, that scene occurs in a Federal Government building (FBI? CIA? Hitchcock never says) where a group of executives led by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) ponder Thornhill’s predicament and wonder if they should help him.  Kaplan, you see, doesn’t actually exist.  They created him in order to make the spies think that they were closing in on them, while actually they are simply trying to get them to reveal information.  They decide to allow Thornhill to sink or swim on his own.

Knowing that Kaplan’s next stop is in Chicago, Thornhill boards a train, the 20th Century Limited. With no disguise but dark glasses, he should be easy to spot, but the beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) appears and hides him in her private room.  While the porter is putting down the bed and Thornhill is hiding in her toilet, she slips a note to Luther Vandamm (James Mason), the man who had posed as Townsend earlier.  In Chicago, she pretends to help him by calling Kaplan to set up a meeting, but she gives him instructions to take a bus into the country.  That is where the famous scene with the crop-dusting plane occurs.  Waiting on the side of the highway, surrounded by bleak, empty fields, a small plane dives him, trying to run him down and spraying deadly poison on him.  He makes it to a field, then runs back onto the highway, stopping a tanker truck, which the plane then proceeds to hit, causing an explosion.  Stealing a pick-up left idling by a local, he returns to Chicago and goes to Kaplan’s hotel only to find out that Kaplan had checked out and left before Eve could have possibly talked to him.

Now that he knows she is working for his enemies, he goes to confront her at an art auction, only to find Vandamm and his henchmen. Disrupting the auction, he is able to save his own life by getting arrested.  Diverted to the airport, the police deliver him to the Professor who explains that Eve is actually working for the government, gathering information on Vandamm, and that Thornhill has now endangered her life.

North by Northwest - Saint on RushmoreFollowing the villains to Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill and the Professor have set up a little scene in the restaurant at Mt. Rushmore where Eve shoots him with a gun loaded with blanks, but when he finds out that Eve will be leaving the country with Vandamm, he eludes the Professor and goes off on his own to save Eve, resulting in the famous final scene at Mt. Rushmore where Thornhill and Eve clamor over the president’s faces running from Leonard and the others with a statue filled with microfilm.

At two hours and 16 minutes, this should feel like a very long movie, but Hitchcock keeps the tension building so that viewers will not notice the passing of time. Even so, I wonder if it couldn’t have been cut a bit to bring it down to a more realistic length.  As with most of Hitchcock’s films, there isn’t much in the story, but action and suspense.  When Ernest Lehman wrote the script, he definitely wanted this to be the best Hitchcock film of all time and there may have been a certain amount of collusion from all of Hitchcock’s collaborators to make this movie his “masterpiece,” resulting in a greater length than usual.  It is Hitchcock’s longest running film and although it was stunning at the time of its release, in retrospective, there are many other films that would better fit the description “masterpiece.”

Although Hitchcock pulls all the right strings to keep the audience involved, I thought that Cary Grant really just mailed in his performance. Aside from a few moments early in the film, I really didn’t care what happened to him.  Eva Marie Saint was considerably better, bringing a level of nuance that was involving, but Mason, Landau, and all of the other actors seemed to be on automatic pilot.

The opening credits by Saul Bass are quite captivating, especially with the music of Bernard Herrmann behind them. This may be one of Herrmann’s best scores for Hitchcock as it does much of the work of keeping the film moving along.  The cinematography by Robert Burks and the editing by George Tomasini, both long time Hitchcock collaborators are terrific.  The widescreen color by Vistavision is magnificent.

What makes the film most memorable are the two iconic scenes, by themselves kinetic masterpieces: the scene in the fields with the crop dusting airplane and the scramble across the President’s faces at Mt. Rushmore. The scenes between Grant and Saint on the train are also very sexy and quite suggestive for their time.

North by Northwest deserves its place as a iconic Hitchcock film and it should be seen anyone who is a fan of suspense movies, Hitchcock or 1950’s Hollywood. It is an outstanding film and it definitely has its place in film history.  Even so, I would not call it Hitchcock’s ultimate masterpiece, as Ernest Lehman called it, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” 

In fact, Hitchcock’s very next film, Psycho, would leave a much deeper impact on his audience.

Rear Window

Rear Window - James Stewart and Grace KellyA nation of Peeping Toms.

That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.  His left leg is encased in a great white cast bearing the inscription, “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.” He’s been housebound for six weeks recovering from an accident that occurred in the middle of a raceway as he attempted to photograph a racecar breaking apart.

Not only is he broken apart, but a long, slow pan at the opening of the film shows a camera lying in pieces in front of the photograph he took. The small apartment is full of his equipment, past photos, and magazine spreads, and presents a kind of homey messiness in the middle of New York City.  His entertainment is watching his neighbors. rearwindowloop2Through the back window, he can see several little adjoining patios and up to four stories of the apartment houses that abut his. It is a little world of its own. Across the way, Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) fantasizes about having a romance, while directly above her traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) argues with his invalid, bedridden wife. On the top floor, a man and his sleep outside in the sweltering summer heat.  They have a little dog that they let down into the patio in a basket on a pulley.  To the left, a young dancer, Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) exercises and fends off a spate of young admirers, while right below a middle-aged sculptress works on her latest project. At the upper right, a songwriter struggles to find a melody, while frequently entertaining his friends in show business. And on the far left, a newlywed couple honeymoons with the shade drawn most of the time.

Rear-Window-pic-2Jefferies hates his confined existence, but he has to live with the cast for one more week. After learning his trade in the Army taking photos from an airplane with his buddy Doyle (Wendell Corey), he is accustomed to traveling the world and putting himself in danger to get his award winning photographs. It is his life and he loves it. Unfortunately, he is in a serious relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a fashionista who works in one of the big stores downtown. Convinced that their lifestyles are too different for anything to work between them, he puts her off. She’s simply too perfect for him. Beautiful, worldly, she seems unreal, but she loves him and is willing to sacrifice her safe, cozy world to be with him.

One night, as Jefferies dozes in his chair, he hears a glass shatter and a woman scream, but is too tired even to look out his window. Later, it begins to rain and he stirs himself, noticing Thorwald leave in the middle of the night with his sample suitcase, not once but twice. In the early morning hours, as he dozes we see Thorwald and a woman leaving their apartment. The next day, he sees a change in the accustomed pattern.  The shades are drawn across the way and he can’t see Mrs. Thorwald, but later he sees the man cleaning a saw and a knife with a long, curved blade and his suspicion turns into a belief that Thorwald killed his wife. At first, no one believes him, but when Lisa sees the mattress rolled up and a trunk tied together, she also becomes convinced and finally Stella comes around. The only one who doesn’t believe that a murder has occurred is Detective Doyle.

The film contains everything Hitchcock does best and it is therefore the best example of all of his filmmaking techniques. In addition, it is a first rate suspense film with great comic relief that induces edge-of-your-seat tension. In other words, it’s a really good movie purely on its own merits.

Based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, the story unfolds in a confined space. The script, written by John Michael Hayes in conjunction with Hitchcock, initially contained one scene outside this confined space, at the office of his editor (Gig Young), but faithful and creative Assistant Director Henry Bumstead pointed this out to Hitchcock and the scene was not used in the final cut, although Young’s voice is heard over the telephone. By restricting the scene to Jefferies’ apartment and only what he can see through his rear window, Hitchcock has confined the universe to just one small area and everything you need to see is present and accounted for.

The world is further narrowed to just two points of view. The first and most significant point of view is that of the audience. Like a voyeur, we are allowed to see into Jefferies’s private life, his affair with Lisa, the care given him by Stella, his arguments with Doyle, and his phone calls, but nothing else. We are in the position of looking through our own little window into his life. The second point of view is Jefferies’, as he peers into the courtyard and the windows of his constricted little universe. Only once in the film are we allowed to see something he doesn’t–and that is when Thorwald leaves his apartment in the early morning accompanied by a woman. Jefferies is asleep when that happens. It is a little thing, but it makes us realize that Thorwald may have actually taken his wife away, rather than killing her. It implants a little seed of doubt that Jefferies may be wrong.

Part of the point that Hitchcock makes with this restriction of point of view is that we are all constricted, each in our own way. Jefferies is literally constricted. He cannot move from his chair. Lisa is constricted in that she is tied to a man who is pushing her away and it seems like the main event of her life takes place in this little apartment. Doyle is constricted because he can’t investigate something on such restricted circumstantial evidence.

The only evidence of the outside world is in one narrow view of the street and in the people who come and leave from his own apartment and those of the other characters in his rear window. Those connections are tenuous. Miss Lonelyheart is looking for romance, but the only man who responds to her wants her only for sex. Miss Torso can’t accept a steady man into her life, but we don’t discover why until the end of the movie. The songwriter is restricted by the creative process. And Thorwald is restricted by his wife and he takes violent action to escape to freedom.

The movie also says a lot about human relationships, as described above, and the relationships between men and women. Jeffries and Lisa are the prime example of two people who are miles apart in view and who find a common ground through the action of a murderer. Only when Jefferies sees that Lisa can be adventurous and take chances does he truly reveal his love for her. Even though she appears ready to embrace his adventurous lifestyle, she makes a statement for her feminity in the end.

But the best of this movie lies in the camera work and the way Hitchcock moves point of view through the lens. He uses the camera relentlessly to build suspense, moving in a steady arc that starts slow, languid almost, and accelerates into rapid montage by the end of the movie. The comic parts are organic, derived from the situation and the characters’ natural involvement with the story. When I saw this movie on its first run in theaters, I was moved by the shared tension of the audience in the theater, each person so involved in the story that we all seemed to react as one person as it raced toward its conclusion.

At the end of the film, you want to go outside and breathe fresh air, to walk around see what exists beyond your four walls.

Every element of the movie works, including the sound. Although it begins with a jazz score, denoting Greenwich Village in the 1950’s, and there are snippets of score dropped in throughout, most of the movie sound appears natural: the songwriter’s piano, the babbling of neighbors, the laughter of children and the traffic in the street. It is all slightly muted, as if we are hearing what Jefferies hears.

If I had to recommend one Hitchcock movie–and only one–for everyone to see, this would be it. It is absolutely representative and might very well be his best film.

Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes BoatingThis movie is about two relationships going in opposite directions. One of them, just beginning, is very sweet and the other is clearly at the end of its shelf life.

Jack (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a shy and sensitive New York limo driver who works for his uncle and lives in his uncle’s basement. He listens to raggae, tries to whirl his blond locks into dreads, and dreams about working for the MTA.  His best friend, Clyde (John Ortiz) also works for his uncle as a limo driver and is married to Lucy (Daphne Ruben-Vega) who works in the office of a mortician.

The couple sets Jack up with Lucy’s new co-worker, Connie (Amy Ryan), a shy, nervous girl who seems to be right for him. Their own shyness really works to their advantage as each one takes it nice and slow, careful to make sure of each other before taking any big steps at all.  As Jack walks Connie to a cab on their first date, she mentions that she’d like to go boating some time.  They are walking through the snow at the time and Jack remarks that it might be better to wait for summer.  But he takes it seriously and Clyde sets out to teach him how to swim at a Harlem pool.

Connie is approached by a strange man in the subway on her way to work and she violently resists, breaking her nose. Lucy calls 911 and she is taken to the hospital.  Jack buys a little stuffed koala bear for her and they talk about a second date, maybe for dinner.  She tells him that no one has ever cooked for her, so Jack decides to learn how to cook and make a splendid meal for her.  Clyde recommends a chef he knows from the Waldorf Astoria that he calls “the Cannoli.”  Without Jack prompting him, Clyde then volunteers that Lucy had an affair with the chef that lasted two years.  It’s obviously bothering him, but he tries to pretend that they’ve worked the problem out.

Applying himself to his swimming and cooking lessons, Jack gets good at both. After a few initial problems, he gets his application into the MTA and waits to hear whether he will be called for an interview.  As he and Connie become more intimate, he comes to understand that she has serious psychological issues about sex, but he is understanding and goes slow, much to her relief.

Without revealing how the movie ends, I will say that both situations come to a head when Jack finally cooks his big meal for Connie at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman directed this moving film, based on the stage play he appeared in, adapted for the screen by the playwright, Robert Glaudini. The study in opposites is very funny at times, but a feeling of tension runs underneath the surface and it kept me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen.  At an hour and twenty-four minutes in length, the pacing and timing are perfect.

Hoffman’s performance as Jack is just amazing. It is a pleasure to watch such a gifted actor creating such a layered character.  Amy Ryan gives a great performance as Connie and she works as a perfect foil for Jack.  You find yourself hoping that these two gentle, injured people will find a way to make their relationship work, even as it hurts to see what can happen to a relationship at the other end of the scale.  John Ortiz is excellent as Clyde and Daphne Ruben-Vega compliments him very well as the two cope with a relationship that doesn’t have the glue to hold it together.

I’m an innocent when it comes to betrayal. I’ll never understand how partners in a marriage can turn away and wound the other so deeply.  Jealousy remains one of the great emotional themes of art.

This is a very fine movie and it should be seen. When it was released, it kind of slid by me–and pretty much everyone else, I gather, but it is really good filmmaking.  It’s a story well-crafted and well-filmed and it deserves far more attention than it has gotten.  I highly recommend it for adult audiences.

Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

nick and norah book cover

This novel comes rumbling out of some torn up Manhattan tunnel like a queercore punk nightmare, full of profanity, revolt, degradation, and the sweetest young love you’ve ever tasted on some strange Jack Kerouac night full of piss and vinegar.

Much the way On the Road roared at the right side of the highway from America’s kick back against conformity in the 1950’s, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist assaults the reader from the first page and doesn’t stop jumping until literally the last word of the book, which is, appropriately: “Jump.”  Young adult authors Rachel Cohn and David Levithan trade chapters in this novel, with her writing as Norah and him writing as Nick.  That accounts for the distinctive voice of each character (written in the ever present YA Biblical tense of FIRST PERSON PRESENT).

The book begins with Nick on stage at some Manhattan club playing bass with his queercore punk band, The Fuck Offs. He’s the only straight guy in the group, comprised of high school seniors.  The drummer, Thom (with an H), is less than talented and waits for a solo that never comes in the two minute screaming slashes that they burn, and the lead singer, Dev, is a beautiful slut, ever on the make for his next guy.  Nick nearly loses it when his ex-girlfriend Tris comes smoking into the club with her newest guy because she is truly, eternally hot and he is still desperate for her.  After the set, he goes to the bar and when Tris approaches him, he turns to the girl next to him, who wears of all things, a flannel shirt in this den of trendy commercially run Ramones tee shirts, and says, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?” Norah answers his question by giving a deep, eye-opening kiss that begins a six hour trip for these two angst ridden teens that doesn’t stop until, well, like, you know, the end.

Alternately attracted and repulsed, Nick tries to deal with Tris strutting around with her new guy, while Norah, who is Jewish, tries to deal with her ex-boyfriend who has just returned from a kibbutz in Israel.  They are both POSITIVELY unhip and yet at the same time are the two COOLEST people in the novel.  Norah, it turns out, is the daughter of a lifelong A&R man and she grew up traveling the country, going to concerts, and listening to every kind of music there is and digging it all.  Right now, she is deeply, wholly, into punk and so, of course, is Nick, who himself is into all different kinds of music, even though right now he’s really into punk.  Although he doesn’t know who Norah is, she knows all about him because she’s an old friend of Tris and has listened to and admired the mixes he’s made and the songs he’s written.  They are both trying really hard to be people that they’re really not because they love this kind of music and nothing exhilarates either of them more than jumping into the mosh pit when Where’s Fluffy? plays their trashed out rejection of The Man.  As Norah sagely remarks: “The mosh pit never lies.”

Although there are things in book that made me seriously pause, look out the window, and wonder how it was possible to write something that sounded so trite and yet rang so true, I raced through the 183 pages in less than a day. The prose carries you forward as if you were just a passenger on their crazy train or a thrashing punk song, and after a while, you don’t really want to get off or see the song end.  Long sentences that riff like one of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness poems run into even longer paragraphs that run into pages that occur inside one brain or the other and at the end you realize that only a few seconds have passed in the story and it only felt like a few seconds as these pages devoured you!

Most of the book is just laugh-out-loud funny, although there are some pages where you might develop a permanent little chuckle. Cohn and Levithan have such a grip on their writing, however, that this humor can change to heart-rending angst or unexpectedly profound observation within a few words.

The push and pull back and forth between Nick and Norah is a kind of song in itself as they feel their way through their anxieties, work out their past failures, and grope toward a relationship. They are, in some ways, metaphors for our fractured world and if they can work it out, maybe we can work it out.  This must be considered a break-through novel in the YA genre, not just for the language, but for the compression of time, the driving style, and the unique young voices that push it forward.

This is a compelling book that should be LOUD on YA radar.

Like it or not.

My review of the movie is located at Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.