Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

[I put this up in very rough form mostly to be able to look at it in a format that wouldn't make my eyes bleed. You could pretend this isn't here until I take this bracketed disclaimer down; this is definitely a "work in progress."]

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy begins with the rhetorical question "Could we get much higher," spends nearly 70 minutes proving yes we can, then ends with a nice round of applause. The applause is Kanye's acknowledgment of his excellence, but it's also the tail end of the Gil Scott-Heron sample closing out the album: the response comes from a small but appreciative turnout, suggesting Kanye inexplicably still thinks he's undervalued. And in a sense he is. A partial list of the stuff he hasn't done is stab someone in full view at the Vibe Awards (like 50 Cent compatriot Young Buck), rape or assault anyone (like uncountable NFL players), or indeed do anything worse than talk some shit about George W. Bush on national TV (in a sentiment that would've been vigorously and unthinkingly applauded "Real Time with Bill Maher") and interrupt Taylor Swift, who's sold 13+ records million worldwide, made $45 million this year and presumably isn't crying into her beer about this. Michael Vick? Awesome football player without much sympathy for dogs. Kanye West? World's leading asshole. Go figure.

So Kanye certainly has a point in wondering why "South Park" spent a whole episode mocking him when his sins are venial rather than mortal; he finds himself seemingly more valued as a cultural punching bag than as a musician. That goes some of the way to explaining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's musical aggressiveness and lyrical defensiveness. Unfortunately, Kanye's version of "defensiveness" is talking about his dick relentlessly. He's never been shy about sharing his views on higher education (overrated, financially disadvantageous), AIDS (quite possibly a government conspiracy), his mom (awesome) and materialism (fun). None of the positions he's taken could be considered intellectually responsible, but they've all been presented in lively, upbeat fashion. With their loose academic theme, the upbeat trilogy of The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation presented a Kanye engaged with the world around him. With the title change and emphasis on broadcasts from Planet Kanye, 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are determinedly solipsistic and way less ebullient; the music pushes further, but lyrically Kanye's retreating from empathy even as his technique keeps picking up.

That makes the dour sexuality foregrounded here kind of a drag. When Prince was filthy it was funny because of how far he went; when Kanye talks dirty, that mostly means he wants to say "pussy" a lot. The lowlight is a three-minute Chris Rock "skit" consisting of a grateful post-coital man asking his girlfriend how she "reupholstered" her pussy, how she learned how to talk dirty, etc. "Yeezy taught me" is the unvarying response; Rock's grateful response "Yeezy taught you well" is about as creepy and sad as it gets. These are easily the worst three minutes of Kanye's official discography (yes, even worse than "Drunk And Hot Girls"). For all his bravado, Kanye isn't terribly specific on what, exactly, makes his dick the one to end all dicks: he appears to be interested in having sex with the lights on (as evidenced in "All Of The Lights" and the "fuck with the lights on" breakdown on "Hell Of A Life"), which is setting the bar fairly low bragaddacio-wise. The freakiest thing here for real is Nicki Minaj's intro, and that's mostly because she's capable of being really terrifying.

I'm being a little deliberately obtuse: "All Of The Lights" is about having sex with the lights on, but it's also a defiant statement of pressing on, of wanting the spotlight on you to assert you're here more than ever despite public shaming. "It's nice Rihanna is still OK," a friendly sarcastically noted, but certainly Kanye knows when using her chorus against his narrative of a spouse abuser. (On both this and "Blame Game," he — for the first time — sings from another male's first-person perspective, allowing him some distance; it's telling that whatever's bothering him, he can't talk about it specifcally and has to resort to narration.) The idea, presumably, is a heady mix of artistic ambition, sexual restlessness and the generic imperative to "push hip-hop's boundaries." But song length, in and of itself, is not inherently ambitious: a lot of songs here go 5+ minutes without developing musically, which is disappointing from the creator of "Gone" (arguably the five-and-a-half best minutes of aughts songwriting). Given all the dick talk, it's hard not to think that song length=dick length=ambition, at least in Kanye's mind, which isn't the case.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a very good album: in pure recording terms, it has the special sheen of someone with very expensive mixing boards who knows precisely what to do with all of them. Musically, Kanye's always endorsed stealing from whatever genre: he's as likely to sample Curtis Mayfield as he is King Crimson (!) or (as he does on "Blame Game") Aphex Twin. The "first rapper with a benz and a backpack" understands that he's playing both to mainstream hip-hop listeners and fussy, more underground-inclined fans, and that his audience is more racially balanced than most. I'm just guessing here, but in terms of pop stardom Kanye is beloved both by white collegiate types, NPR listeners and the passing booming cars of Bushwick, where I live. That's not a bad trifecta, and it lets him sample whatever he wants while consciously rewriting what "the black musical tradition" might mean.

Part of what's interesting about Fantasy is how explicitly Kanye seems to be modeling himself on peak '70s Stevie Wonder: as a one-man auteur drawing upon black and white musical traditions in equal measure for a crossover audience. He is, in fact, all that, but this isn't Songs In The Key Of Life; it''s a frequently brilliant album with lots of musical dead patches and too many guest verses. The album originated with the idea of paying tribute to mid-90s East Coast hip-hop; you can here that on the many repeating, basically static verses given from person to person. You can sense the album's rumored origins as a Pete Rock-produced, '90s East Coast tribute in the emphasis on verse after verse: more than ever, this is Kanye's most rap-oriented album, even as the song lengths and music call that categorization into question. Most of the guests are good (though Jay-Z's verse on "Monster" is kind of sad and dispiriting), but they're not all necessary, and they bend to Kanye's themes more often than not. One of his great hosted guests was Paul Wall on "Drive Slow." Wall's good at pretty much one thing only — proselytizing for grills to fuck up the inside of your mouth as bad as his — but Kanye let him do it uninterrupted, a generosity towards someone with completely different interests. It's hard to find a similar instance here,

Slave imagery runs rampant, from Kanye's modest self-description on "Gorgeous" ("the soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing") to the comparison of gang bangs to plantation workers ("and if we run trains we all in the same gang/Runaway slaves on a chain gang"). A crossover musician with a message, Kanye's sense of history is firmly one of racial wrongs and omissions, which is interesting and justifiable, but kind of queasiness-inducing when tied to his own sense of overinflated wrongs. (Not even going to touch his obsession with "white girls" and attendant apparent guilt. Apparently something's even worse when the lady's non-black.) He worries about what hip-hop is, mourns Michael Jackson reads some terrible poetry by Chloe Mitchell. The more he says how much he doesn't give a fuck, the more clear it becomes how desperately pissed off, paranoid and implosion-ready he is. Kanye's ego used to be his rocket: it was fun to brag along him. Now it's an albatross.

The most compactly successful song is "Power" and the best "Lost In The World" (more on that in a second). The undeniable centerpiece is "Runaway," the nine-minute behemoth of gorgeous self-loathing. The stark piano is gorgeous, the repeated "Reactions!" zipping from speaker-to-speaker unnerving like a mixtape DJ with sinister intentions, disrupting the prettiness like a sudden paint slash across a perfect white canvas. For some reason Pusha-T sounds exactly like Kanye (you want to see true egotism in action, start there). The three-minute outro, however, is pretty much a repeat of "Robocop" but much more flowery; the idea seems to be to say "See, I've confessed to being an asshole, but look at the pretty music I can make," which is kind of distasteful.

"Lost In The World," the final and best song (barring an extended sample outro) mashes up Bon Iver, pounding drums that can only be called "tribal," chanting voices and a repeated, urgent question: "Who will survive in America?" This is not a bad question to ask at this moment, and it's the only one Kanye asks that might strike workaday listeners as relevant. The song's so exciting it doesn't really matter that half of this is middle-school gibberish ("You're my angel, you're my demon" — brought to you by Dan Brown, presumably); it's all motion to the end, open to the outside world for once. This is a frequently near-great album, but ambition isn't execution until the end.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Social Network, Round 2

A month ago, I argued about The Social Network for a solid 45 minutes with Mike, one of the few friends my age who's actually been climbing the career ladder uninterrepedly since graduation. Three weeks away from moving from New York City to New Orleans in pursuit of a better job, he was way more qualified than me to weigh in on the vexing issue of whether or not the film's Mark Zuckerberg (who, let's stress, is basically fictional) is the hero or villain. For Mike, Zuckerberg was clearly defensible for a simple reason: no one got hurt. Eduardo Saverin currently has a 5% stake in Facebook worth $1.3 billion; the Winklevoss twins got a $65 million settlement. No one involved's strapped for cash; this was an abstract tussle for cultural cachet, not a truly despicable piece of corporate crime. Mike feels the same abstract urge to take risks and do whatever's necessary to move up not because he's fighting for his economic life — he'd be covered — but precisely because it's something he has the option of doing.

I argued the exact opposite for 45 minutes (that Zuckerberg's the loser, lost and alienated from his only friends), and we both had legions of supporting details. It was amazing we could both argue opposite sides for 45 minutes without either of us breaking down, and it made me want to see the movie again, trying to zero in on "what the film's about." Ambiguity seems to be the point: the reason the ethical rights and wrongs can't easily be sorted out is because they don't have real, firmly rooted moral precedents. You can't measure the lasting value of Facebook this early in its existence: there's simply no way to tell what it'll be, or how long it'll be a subject of worldwide obsession.

"We don't know what it is yet," Zuckerberg keeps insisting, and the film agrees. How can you evaluate something when there's no reasonable metrics in place to measure value? Facebook crashed the Harvard servers and made Zuckerberg the world's youngest billionaire by tapping into a need most people had never previously known they could feel. The movie proposes it's an overwhelming, sexually motivated urge for horny college students, but it could be any of the things the site does (allow you to snigger at less fortunate high school acquaintances or envy more successful ones, keep in touch with people you've met once for no apparent reason, etc). And it's seven years old. You could argue there's comparable internet precedents even in this foreshortened, but size matters.

The first lawsuit: whether or not Zuckerberg stole the idea from the Winklevoss twins, stalling them because he knew being first was more important. But that's not quite clear: "If you had invented Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook," Zuckerberg says in a particularly Mamet-y moment. His argument isn't that he didn't steal the germ of their idea; it's more that they presented the goal in a hamfisted, ineffective way (posting traditional Harvard studs for the presumed universal adulation of young ladies everywehre). Zuckerberg's big lightning bolt — the final piece of the concept he strains to grope for — is a sublimated, simple one line question about people's relationship status. It's the difference between a hard sell and a (sorry) inception. Given that his code was entirely different and that the Winklevoss' site would (in the film's conception) almost certainly have failed, does it matter Zuckerberg took a raw idea, made it substantially better and refused to give even token financial compensation to its source? It's unanswerable.

The second lawsuit: did Zuckerberg dick former best friend Savarin out from reasons of sullen resentment? Probably, the movie suggests: Zuckerberg sometimes disputes testimony, but most of the time everyone agrees on what's being said. You can take the linear narrative at face value, the same way Zuckerberg does while demonstrating his utmost contempt for the proceedings: the truth is simply irrelevant to the larger enigma. He did something evil (in the film's telling), but it's yet another lesson on why you should always read what you're signing, so it's hard to feel that bad for the wealthy Savarin.

Facebook's impact and financial value and ability to exploit people's self-created needs are simply immeasurable, the kind of dilemma sure to drive an OCD type like David Fincher nuts. All the verbal fussiness and back-and-forth is an increasingly frantic skirmish to avoid staring the informational void face-on. In Zodiac, Jake Gyllenhaal became increasingly the only one who cared, quantifying one thing for the record long after people had stopped paying attention. In The Social Network, the instigator at the center doesn't care about sorting out what he does; his obsession will be many people's mess to clean up. That's what scares Fincher and Sorkin, I guess: something that can't be measured. That weird, sickly horror film patina — the bags under Eisenberg's are the biggest since Tak Fujimoto shot Chris Cooper like a monster in Breach — is panic at the unknown. Fair enough.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pinkerton

Pitchfork's review of the deluxe reissue of Pinkerton is pretty infuriating for a number of reasons, but the main problem here is the eternal one: what do we do with Rivers Cuomo? How do you evaluate a new Weezer song in 2010? Here's a guy who came swinging with one album of radio-ready anthems, followed it up with an even more rocking, initially reviled cult classic, and then returned to destroy his following twice over: first by writing songs that were sonically identical to Blue Album (thereby opening himself to accusations of cynically retreading himself), and then going off to some other planet where it's acceptable to write a song like "We Are All On Drugs."

That planet, as it happens, is FM radio: the mostly wretched Hurley is the band's sixth album in a row to debut in the Billboard top 10. Weezer has fans, but (with some rare exceptions) their following is completely different from their first wave. They've jumped generational waves without missing a beat, a feat that's abstractly impressive. That kind of commercial success appeals to people who believe populism automatically confers cultural significance, while simultaneously alienating those who believe marginalization automatically equals personal significance. And no matter how much Pitchfork loves Lady Gaga or Ke$sha or whatever other goddamn populist pop thing we're supposed to genuflect before, when it comes to a band like Weezer, those '90s battle-lines and scars still linger. It doesn't matter if the album was vindicated long ago; any review will start from an inexplicably defensive position, because mentally it's still 1996.

In his mostly useless but sporadically amusing collection Eating The Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman claims that he really loves that song, "Beverly Hills" and "Freak Me Out" because, well, he's a populist. That's not what he says (he goes on for a few pages about how literal-minded a songwriter Cuomo is, which is true, and then lapses into a stoner reverie about weirdos lurking in shadows), but that's what he means. This is kind of a load of shit ("Beverly Hills" is abominable and no amount of college + Christgau hyperbolic essay-writing will ever convince me otherwise), but it's also an apt way to think about Cuomo, because it mirrors his approach to post-Pinkerton songwriting. Both Klosterman and Rivers are smart guys who at a certain point decided that the defense and preservation of lowest-common-denominator music (something so pervasive that it certainly didn't need their help) was their true calling. They're aware of other stuff; they just don't care. Last year I interviewed Cuomo, which had to easily be one of the five most pleasurable interviews I've ever done, and certainly with a musician. In the course of the interview, he mentioned studying Boulez and Schoenberg, which is certainly the long way round to writing a sub-Dandy Warhols piece of shit like "We Are All On Drugs." He also spoke about moving from the Pixies to the simplicity of The Beach Boys lyrically. Then I asked him what he'd been listening to lately, and he opened up his iTunes and geeked out on Gloria Estefan's "Anything For You."

This is a long way of saying that Rivers Cuomo knows precisely what he's doing: he's far smarter (both in understanding how songwriting and composition work technically, and also as a businessman) than most bandleaders, and the fact that most of what he does now sucks is kind of irrelevant. He made a conscious decision to discard most of what he knows in his songwriting, and he seems perfectly happy with it. Good for him. Anyway, most Weezer albums have at least one salvageable track (Red Album has the stupidly catchy "Pork 'N Beans" and the bizarrely compelling "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived," and "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" is a pretty good opener on Red Album). Worrying about latter-day Weezer is a total waste of everyone's time; either you have the time to sift through and abstractly appreciate what he's doing or you don't.

None of this is relevant in any way to the album Pinkerton, which in a bit I'll get to arguing for as a '90s keepsake as much as a musical monster. Here's my relationship to it: in high school — which is precisely when I should've been rotating it on repeat — I didn't much like it. I had enough problems of my own to contend with without sinking into Rivers Cuomo's sexual angst. I pulled it out about a year ago for the first time in years and basically haven't put it down since. My point here is that when I should've loved it I didn't, and now that it's irrelevant to me thematically I love it; it does not have to be appreciated through one confessional prism. It's pretty much near-perfect work, insofar as it flows immaculately from start to finish and almost every song can be listened to singly as a concise gem (except for "Butterfly," which is admittedly pushing it). The songs that freaked me out as too hysterical in high school now strike me as mostly awesome, especially "Getchoo." It's too much, but it's the good kind of too much. It's loud and it rocks. At times, it's almost dangerously ramshackle like Third/Sister Lovers but on purpose, with no drugs, which is impressive.

Lyrically, Pinkerton is problematic in a number of ways, but, again, it's the fun kind of problematic. Rivers Cuomo is writing from the heart of the '90s, a decade that would finally mandate sexual tolerance for anyone who wanted to be a Sensitive '90s Boy, which Cuomo is nothing if not: this is a guy who established himself by comparing himself to Buddy Holly and whining about Heinekens taking over his fridge. This is not a misogynist guy: he blames his mom for everything, sure, but on "Say It Ain't So" he blamed dear old dad for all his trouble, so that seems fair. This is the guy who wants to be your better boyfriend and can't stop worrying the girl will inexplicably leave or assert herself in some way: this is Scott Pilgrim before the gift of self-respect. What's brave about Pinkerton isn't the specific creepiness on display (although some of it is very creepy indeed, in ways that could only occur to this guy); it's that Cuomo is flaying himself, repeatedly, for not being the kind of good progressive 20something he should be. Instead, he's giving in to all his base instincts, no longer the guy he wants to be. He's making an awful lot of shoddy-sounding excuses for himself, but he can't stop himself.

In this respect I've always been particularly amused by "Pink Triangle," in which Rivers is straight-up pissed that some (faceless, nameless, personalityless) girl is a lesbian. This is not a very good (or tolerant) thing to admit to, but it's funny; in the decade where gay characters get mainstreamed on sitcoms, Cuomo's pissed his own heteronormative life has been disrupted. In a lot of ways, Pinkerton is an uber-90s album, in which a sensitive guy flagellates himself for not being sensitive enough. The '90s were the decade of ludicrous spectacles like Promise Keepers rallying in DC to, like, pledge to be good dudes. Being a guy in the '90s is rough if you have any degree of self-consciousness and desire to be a good person at all: pretty much everything is telling you all of your base instincts are horrible, horrible things.

This is not a problem special to Cuomo; he was just unusually open about it. Another '90s sadsack had similar issues: Elliott Smith told a "Spin" reporter that in his college time, "I was reading all this heavy-duty feminist theory—Catherine McKinnon, in particular. I really took it to heart, and it kind of drained all my energy away. I didn't want to do anything. If you're a straight, white man, she made it seem impossible to live your life without constantly doing something shitty, whether you knew it or not." There's not a single Elliott Smith song about this, but this is pretty much what every single song on Pinkerton is about. Rivers' transgressions, in the overall scheme of things, are pretty trivial: he's an immature jerk in relationships who thinks everything is about him, he has no empathy for his partners, he fantasizes about underage Japanese girls (though he knows he could "never touch you, that would be wrong"). That sucks, but no one's exactly getting scarred for life here except Rivers.

Here, of course, "sensitive" means something more like "empathetic" rather than "feeling everything way too much, which is the main problem.) But "Pink Triangle" gets even better because he heard she's a lesbian; he hasn't even talked to her. They were "good as married in my mind," which is pretty pathetic and not that far off from Don Gately in Infinite Jest who, "if a halfway-attractive female so much as smiles at [him] as they pass on the crowded street [...] has within a couple blocks mentally wooed, shacked up with, married and had kids by that female, all in the future, all in his head [...] By the time he gets where he's going, the drug addict has either mentally divorced the female and is in a bitter custody battle for the kids or is mentally happily still hooked up with her in his sunset years." This is basically Rivers Cuomo in 1996, and Pinkerton is unsparing at laying out what a dick he is. There's very little mediation or self-censoring.

There's no real reason to review Pinkerton and Death To Heavy Metal together, except to use the former as a stick to beat the latter with and fight the battles of 1996 all over again, which is basically what Ian Cohen's review is all about. In 2010, Pitchfork (and therefore, whether we like it or not, much of mainstream music criticism) is all about rewarding "embarrassing" "honesty" and "sincerity," terms which all deserve their separate scare quotes. It's the only way to explain a sentence like this: "The supposedly juvenile feelings of Pinkerton still pack visceral power years after listeners would've supposedly outgrown them." Those twin "supposedly"s are an aggressive statement: juvenile feelings are mature feelings, and we do not outgrow them. (Except for Rivers Cuomo, apparently, whose songwriting now displays absolutely zero emotions.) Arguable, I suppose: Cohen's repudiating someone who isn't there, someone telling him Pinkerton is for teenagers only. This is a pretty pointless: why can't the album be both juvenile and great? Why do we all have to embrace our gooey innards or risk being accused of being, I dunno, "supposedly mature"? What's this weird either/or divide when it comes to emotion in music? This is somehow all the Arcade Fire's fault.

ANYWAY. Here's my beef: Pinkerton is a great album, the band's last. That they have failed to live up since to the kind of standards of emotional self-disclosure is not a problem, or it shouldn't be. Ragging on latter-day Weezer for not being old Weezer is sort of like complaining that, say, The Limits of Control isn't like Stranger Than Paradise: it sounds like a compelling precedent, but it's mostly completely irrelevant. There are a lot of weird things to accuse Pinkerton of: witness, say, this bizarre diatribe on how Rivers Cuomo is everything wrong with man-boys these days. There are a lot of things to love about it. But you cannot insist that Pinkerton transcends context, or eternal, or eternally pathological, or whatever: praising it for being a gapingly sincere wound (and valuing it primarily for that) is as stupid as accusing Rivers of not being a good enough guy (which is what the whole record is about). It's a rock album: it's loud and it's fun, and it's absolutely inseparable from its year.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Misc. music, 9/10

• New Thermals album — Personal Life is the first one I've been able to listen to from start to finish, no problem. Normally it gets pretty exhausting pretty fast, but Personal Life has pacing, which is pretty new for Hutch Harris et al. Slow songs, fast songs, etc., less boomingly epic than Now We Can see, wiry and poised. It's taken a long time for these guys to grow on me: they're probably the only band on the planet that could cover Green Day radio hits without seeming like assholes and making even a hater like me enjoy. Despite their semi-annoying personas (all that kneejerk leftwing bitching), the fact that Harris kinda sounds like Placebo's Brian Molko and the annoying fact that the band's been known to use Twitter to score weed on tour, they're still pretty good at what they do. "I'm Gonna Change Your Life" is a nicely threatening piece of obsessiveness to open on, and it's an all-round no-nonsense piece of work. Reviews have tended to complain a little bit about the missing energy and speculate this is merely transitional; me, I get on the train here for real.

• New Eels record (Tomorrow Morning) is getting the usual mixed notices; it's certainly the best of the alleged divorce trilogy. Hombre Loco has its moments ("That Look You Gave That Guy," "My Timing Is Off") amidst the general melange of half-assed pastiches (Mr. E should never be thinking about Jack White, ever), but End Times was personally too much to slog through more than once. Tomorrow Morning is as peppy an album he's made since Daisies of the Galaxy, containing at least two highly enjoyable moments of uncharacteristic, nearly-hubristic peppiness. "My baby loves me!" he barks on, uh, "My Baby Loves Me." "Unlikely but true." There's also "The Man," whose lyrics are a little off (you really have an epiphany talking to a homeless guy? And you get a moment of "silent grace" from a skinhead?), but it's lots of fun. Over at Slant, Kevin Liedel bitches that the long instrumental bits (Mr. E somehow pulls off the six-minute-plus "This Is Where It Gets Good" with a supple, unexpected sense of menace) are borrowed from "decade-old work" by Radiohead et al., which is true but kind of irrelevant. I don't really understand why Mr. E does stuff like write concept albums from the point of view of a wolf-boy (or whatever Hombre Loco was about), or what he needs all those dinky interludes for, but all the chaff is part and parcel of the package. Point being he doesn't need originality; you just show up for the baseline pop-craft, and it turns out lightly menacing (with a disconcerting swagger) is a good pose for him.

• Been straggling through T.I.'s Fuck A Mixtape mixtape; he's in good form as ever, but that proverbial DJ just won't shut up, which is seven kinds of annoying. The skits are actually funny; the real stand-out song is "Get Yo Girl," in which T.I. quietly and semi-politely demands some get this female out of his face, on account of her being drunk, her breath smelling like Patron and marijuana (which is somehow a problem for the guy getting arrested for hotboxing just after getting out of jail, but whatever), and stating very specifically that "she's very unattractive." I've never heard a song quite like it, though my friend Andrew Unterberger suggested its possible kinship to Ludacris' "Hoes In My Room," in which an uncharacteristically non-jolly Luda — exhausted after a show and just wanting to smoke some weed with Snoop Dogg — demands to know who let these hoes in his room. But still, not quite the same thing. Relatedly, I suppose, I've had two really morally unsound misogynist tracts by Clipse — "Ma, I Don't Love Her" and "So Fly (Now We've Had Her)," which is kind of like their version of episode five of Berlin Alexanderplatz ("we call her hand-me-down"), with its unforgettably nasty final taunt "See sis? We do girl records, right?"

• I still haven't managed to make it to the end of Drake's album, but I do enjoy Mr. Rick Ross' Teflon Don, which is fine start to finish but features three particularly fun tracks. "I'm Not A Star" is awesome, "Maybach Music III" rocks like c.-1978 Stanley Clarke (those guitar solos are out of control) and "MC Hammer" — with its massive, thuggish, clobbering backbeat — is wildly entertaining, as Ross inexplicably insists that not only is he MC Hammer ("Too legit to quit"), but that means he's "about dreams," which makes zero sense. (But it's adorable that Ross aspires to be MC Hammer; not many people would admit that.) Nice one-liners too ("I'm ridin' dirty/My dick clean").

Metric basically make music for 14-year-old girls (the fact that they're good friends with Olivier Assayas is kind of bizarre; they're so much squarer than anything else in his iTunes), but they're pretty good at it, and their two soundtrack songs this year keep the string of slick hits coming. Emily Haines is an embarassing, oft-histrionic lyricist, but she's got a pretty voice and a very technically-proficient rhythm outfit behind her, so it tends to work out OK. As they've gotten more pointed in their aggressive moments and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have added on more ballads, they're basically becoming indistinguishable. And Haines' melodrama is a perfect fit for the Twilight: Eclipse theme song, the perfectly enjoyable "Eclipse (All Yours)." Their Scott Pilgrim track "Black Sheep" is only the second-best song released under that name this year (Suckers take the prize), but it's a respectable enough five-minute workout. And it is, of course, that Metric were chosen to be in a movie with this many Canadian jokes. The soundtrack also features Beck's "Ramona," which is like a happier, slightly more psychedelic version of Sea Change in 4:23. It's the best thing he's done in five years.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tea Party 8/28

Towards the end of Glenn Beck’s 200-minute mega-church-style “rally”/sermon “Restoring Honor” — as bagpipes blared an ill-advised version of “Amazing Grace” and cameras searched the crowd for those swept away in a patriotic frenzy — they stopped on an elderly man dressed on one of those folded yellow hats so popular at Tea Party gatherings (the “1776 Clothing Company” was doing brisk business handing out cardboard fans). Seeing himself on the big-screen, he about-faced, slowly saluted in a I’ll-never-stop-serving-you-Old-Glory gesture, then returned to singing along. It was as schticky and corny a gesture of Americana as any cynical TV director could’ve hoped for, and it worked: what Gawker dubbed with cruel but acute concision dubbed “America-porn for the elderly in lawnchairs” succeeded in squandering one of the biggest Washington D.C. gatherings in recent memory. The masses (or maybe just media train-wreck watchers) wanted fire and revolution: Beck gave them nearly three-and-a-half hours of Jesus and gospel.

The Tea Party’s vaguely libertarian gobbledy-gook is familiar to me having grown up in Austin, where you can pick up Lyndon LaRouche’s newspaper at Whole Foods; Austin’s famously liberal, but my dad’s medical office was full of the elderly, peeved and well-armored, so I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for years, and really didn’t want to miss Beck’s second big march upon Washington. The first was galling in its effrontery: using a march the day after 9/11 to ostensibly “reunite the country” under the guise of Chicken-Soup-ish “9/12” values, while in fact effectively serving anti-Obama/taxation notice under the guise of extreme patriotism. For this year’s follow-up, Beck chose another loaded date — 8/28, the day 47 years ago of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, a connection that promised to be all kinds of offensive. It was, instead, a dilution of the previous year’s questionable content, if not the size: estimates vary between 300- and 500,000 attendees, but no matter how you count it the share scale of the gathering was impressive. And wasted.

Sarah Palin was billed to speak as the biggest attraction after Beck, though in truth she came and left early without leaving much of a mark. The proceedings were Beck’s to ringmaster, and consciously modeled on a mega-church ceremony: long, with an endless closing sermon, gospel interruptions, would-be-flashy videos and lots of Jesus. If an observer with no knowledge of the Tea Party or any of the speakers were dropped in, he wouldn’t see anything that alarming: the ceremony was — with a few notable exceptions — apolitical and sappily religious, the kind of thing that should cause no one alarm. But context is everything, of course, and the racial dialogue (among other things) playing out onstage was more than perverse enough to compel attention.

The birth-certificate loons have mostly subsided; these days, we have new code words to talk around race, in the same way that “urban market” means “black.” The big Tea Party buzzwords for now circle around “judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin” — which means, in fact, that we should immediately all concede that we’ve finally achieved a post-racial society, and that anyone who claims otherwise is just self-servingly trying to start trouble, and everything’s cool except that the Democratic Party is keeping black people enslaved to a welfare nation. Or something.

It’s worth conceding, of course, that while the crowd was almost to-a-man white, the Tea Party as a whole — fringe types with straight-up apocalyptically paranoid signs aside — isn’t really into racism per se; what they’re worried about, as Christopher Hitchens correctly pointed out, is learning to live in an America where Anglos are the minority, because they suspect all minorities still secretly hate them and are just waiting for the chance to rise up. (See also: the ridiculous handwringing about whether or not Machete will incite riots and racial violence, when not even Do The Right Thing made that happen.) Not for nothing do Tea Party attendees tend to be past the half-life stage; they may not be racist, but they remember enough of their parents’ oft-dubious mores, and it leaves them concerned. That’s not say that they’re racist in any meaningful way, just that what they’re concerned about preserving (“white culture”) is pretty much of no interest to many people.

Let’s give them this: the crowd was overwhelmingly polite, never once even remotely threatening. The first 80 minutes or so unfolded in more-or-less rapt silence; as things dragged along, talk turned to the incredibly foul lavatories and people exchanging contact info, but never once did incivility rear its head, despite shirts depicting the eagle of justice sharpening its talons. In the same way you could argue video games let people get their violent energies out harmlessly, it’s possible to argue that Beck’s rallies serve some kind of useful cathartic outlet, plus money for local restaurants and businesses. This will my last concession to attempted fair-mindedness.

After a brief opener from Beck, there was a woman who spoke of how proud she was when her son died in the Marine Corps (first on-stage crying: 28 minutes in) and, after a series of intermediary speakers (and a shameless attempt to get everyone to text a $10 donation right then and there, thereby marking the first of the rally’s overt ambitions to “make history” out of the sheer numbers), Sarah Palin finally arrived. True to her reputation as anything but a team player, Ms. Palin struck the only contentious notes of the day, making a passing (and frankly weak) jab at “certain people” who believe we need to have “elemental transformation” in this country, rather than “restoration.”

What she meant was unclear, and would only be clarified as the rally wore on; Beck uses repetition and microcosmic definition expansions with the droning effectiveness of a particularly boring but inexplicably hypnotic lawyer. For now the only thing that’s clear is that Palin’s entering her Stephen Malkmus period, blurting out words with endlessly random emphases and weird starts and stops, never once becoming predictable. Palin awarded badges of merit dating back to Vietnam (in passing invoking John McCain to tepid audience applause), then was on her way.

Then came another chintzy video to introduce Beck’s most self-serving idea yet: presenting “civilian purple hearts,” effectively demeaning the entire military (and the idea of military tradition as still retaining meaning no matter who the country’s at war with) he claims to celebrate. Megachurch pastor C.L. Jackson, upon receiving his, immediately noted that he’d been at the 1963 rally and that Beck was eminently in the lineage, and that he personally considered him a “son of God,” thereby settling all racial unease definitively, once and for all. But just in case that wasn’t true, there was another hour of “Hey look! Minorities!” to prove it.

First, though, there was Tony LaRusso, the first non-Palin speaker to attract a real reaction from the crowd; St. Louis Cardinals fans were in evidence, and were just as pleased to see him as they were to see the great Albert Pujols, who spoke (naturally) of his love of Jesus. LaRusso and Pujols recently publicly disagreed over the Arizona immigration law; neither seemed to fully understand the implications of where they were speaking. (Pujols seemed to think he’d received a legitimate award, proceeding to thank people that had gotten him to this point in his life.) The award was for “hope,” though it seemed to qualify more for “faith,” but also for plain sports enthusaism; all LaRusso really seemed to say was that Pujols has a hell of a work ethic, which is almost certainly true.

After one more unnotable award (awarded by proxy), there followed, basically, a gospel hour, beginning with the awful Alveda King. She’s a niece of MLK and the right’s go-to for “See? Even one member of the King family agrees with us!” King’s books have titles like “How Can the Dream Survive If We Murder the Children?: ABORTION IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHT!,” endorsed Steve Forbes in 2000, works with Priests For Life, and is generally a terrible person. She made a majestically offensive speech directly connecting the tradition of King with the tradition of Beck and speaking of the need for unity, while simultaneously decrying abortion and gay marriage — a point subsequently hammered home by the young woman who sang a song about the same subject (“Unity/you and me”). Beck rallies have absolutely the worst, most maudlin, didactic political songs you’ve ever heard in your life, comparable in plausibility to those ‘80s Wendy’s training videos. Not that anyone expects great music at political rallies, but at least John Rich’s Christmas special appearance (where he played a song [skip to about 3:45] about his grandfather’s WWII experience called “The Man,” featuring the priceless chorus lines “Cuz we’d all be speaking German under the flag of Japan/if it weren’t for the man and Uncle Sam”) was legitimately offensive.

After yet another video directly linking Beck to MLK (dissolving from the memorial then to it even more filled up today), we then proceeded through what must’ve been an hour or more of Beck just speaking, at endless and tedious length, about faith/hope/charity, the importance of Jesus, ad nauseam. The only time, in fact, that he alluded to the conspiracy theories that constitute his stock in trade, was when comparing himself to the first guy on the Titanic to spot the iceberg. He wasn’t kidding. (Aside: the worst thing about Tea Partiers is that they're convinced that they're all incredibly well-educated and any kind of argument you shoot back, no matter how empirical, is just more of your liberal brainwashing shining through. You can't argue with someone who knows everything.)

This all went on forever and ever until, eventually, the whole thing came to a tasteless coup de grace with the aforementioned bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace,” of which he less said the better. The Tea Party effectively had a chance to scare the hell out of people with the prospect of angry, unarmed (“next time”) people coming together in the nation’s capitol to wreak all kinds of havoc, then put their best public face forward to say “Look, we’re really not that scary.” That is, if you didn’t know Glenn Beck was famous largely for peddling conspiracy theories that make Oliver Stone look like a paragon of restraint — convoluted tangles explaining how Theodor Adorno and Karl Marx tried to destroy America, or something — you wouldn’t object to his mild brand of American exceptionalism. It’s stupid but not evil to insist that America is, in fact, not the victim of changing economic tides, and that we can be exceptional if we just think so (as opposed to acknowledging changing economic realities and sucking them up) — but that’s not how Beck got big.

Or perhaps you didn’t know that Alveda King — the people’s champ! — has written things in her (self-published!) books like “Many women become bitter, hurt and disillusioned by relationships and life circumstances to such a point that they forget that their dreams ever existed. As a result, many women become lesbians, prostitutes, drug addicts, or other such courses in life." And so on and so on, all the way down the line (except for Mr. Pujols, who I exempt from blame). Once you have the context, it’s all very unpleasant: white Americans coming together to celebrate not paying their taxes as an issue worth taking up arms for.

When we were walking up to the Monument, my friend joked “It’s our generation’s Woodstock!” The Tea Party, of course, doesn’t do irony, and a guy in earshot responded “It’s gonna be even better than Woodstock!” Hating Woodstock is a very big deal for Tea Partiers; it symbolizes, for them, everything obnoxious and horrible about liberals and hippies and self-indulgence. (Which, honestly, I can sympathize with.) And if that was “revolutionary” — and if this kind of gathering is as well, which seems to be the whole point — then this is the first revolution in history to be conducted by people largely aged 40 and up. For people who really hated the ‘60s and lived through it (or the fallout), this is their chance to unironically pine for the ‘50s; it’s being reactionary as revolution. Which obviously is a load of crap.

It ended, then, with Beck calling for the people to go forth from this day, infected with the spirit of Christian humility and American exceptionalism and change the world. This won’t happen, for a simple reason: if you were, say, a principled hardcore Libertarian with all the atheistic tendencies that generally includes, you wouldn’t be happy. The rally brought together all the anti-taxes crowd — but that’s all they can agree on, and frankly in the overall scheme of things Glenn Beck’s legacy will sway less electoral votes than Ross Perot ever did. And that’s just embarrassing, but also an admitted relief.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Admin/links/Tea Party, 8/22/10

I keep meaning to post stuff here and then not doing it; there's so many failed drafts. But here's what I've been up to since we last spoke:

• Greencine posts on Wendy Carlos' Tron score, my totally unexpected conversion to being onboard with digital projection, and in praise of Michael Cera. I'm up on Greencine once a week (Tuesdays if we can pull it off), so think of that as one of my usual blogging places. There's more stuff coming on the way, but I can't talk about it yet.

• A fairly lengthy-ish write-up for the LA Weekly on Thom Andersen's new film Get Out Of The Car.

• I also updated my personal website's viewing logs with 8 months' worth of notes, if that's your kind of thing.

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What I've been watching: Zero For Conduct, Sacha Guitry's La Poison, 1931's French obscurity Bouboule's Gang (primitive sound filmmaking with novelty value and location footage, but definitely not Lubitsch), Claude Autant-Lara's Four Bags Full (not sure why this isn't better known, aside from Autant-Lara being damned by the New Wave; this is a terrifically dark, bold Occupation comedy, aside from the cop-out ending, and deserves to be rediscovered, not least by Inglorious Basterds lovers), Frederick Wiseman's The Store, Salt and Eat Pray Love for Sight & Sound review, Inception (seriously?), Soul Kitchen, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, 1971's The Burglars, Popeye, Kiss Me Kate (almost killed me: '50s MGM musicals are my least favorite thing), Swing Time, Flying Down To Rio, Raoul Walsh's 1953 3D rarity Gun Fury, My Night At Maud's, Ozu's A Hen In The Wind, and Rohmer's totally terrific Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle.

Read Ken Auletta's Googled. We can talk about that if anyone's game. He's way too paranoid, but it's still worth a vigorous skim.

New listening from this year: The School, Loveless Unbeliever; The Walkmen, Lisbon; Eels, Tomorrow Morning; Lloyd Cole, Broken Record; Jaill's highly recommended straight-out-of-1978 power-pop That's How We Burn, The Burns Unit, Side Show. From before: the acoustic version of Prefab Sprout's Steve McQueen, Wipers, Youth Of America.

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Lastly: for personal, masochistic reasons, I'll be almost certainly attending the Tea Party rally (er, the "Restoring Honor Rally") in Washington DC next weekend. Long shot here, but I don't suppose anyone would like to pay me to write about it (I'm not a political writer obv.). But if not I'll put something up here when I get back.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Admin/links, 7/31/2010

First things first. Material published this week:

Charlie St. Cloud review, the first of many for Box Office Magazine. Two additional notes: using Bloc Party to signal 2005 without a date-stamp was a nice touch (I remember that album far too well), and Amanda Crews is unbelievably crushable.

Some stuff about the visual reference points of "Mad Men," the first of what's planned to be weekly bloggage on Tuesdays for Greencine. Something I didn't get into (because it'd be totally counterproductive) is that the show still isn't as good as people think it is. Point of proof number one: the first episode of what's probably the most anticipated season premiere of any show this year begins with the words "Who is Don Draper?" I mean come on Jesus etc.

A book review of Suzanne Rivecca's Death Is Not An Option. If you didn't know I did book reviews, I do and would love to do more. The title story really is great, the rest not so much but always has its moments.

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Re: previous post. There is apparently no way to do this right, as I heard from at least two people who said the tone was so arrogant it was pretty offensive and one guy who said it was way too self-deprecating. What can you do. The specifically offensive bit was about "amateur writers," which was placed in scare-quotes to indicate that the distinction is meaningless; whether or not people get paid for their work increasingly has little to do with the quality of said work (cf. most recently A.O. Scott recommending the work of Dennis Cozzalio, Roger Ebert and Jim Emerson without making professional/amateur distinctions, which is absolutely correct), but the way it came out may have conveyed "I'M A PROFESSIONAL AND YOU'RE NOT." Which was not my intent, and I apologize if it came off that way; I'm grateful for any/all readers. Onwards.

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Stuff watched this week: 8 Louis Feuillade shorts from 1908-13, 2005's The Call of Cthulhu, Assayas' Carlos (review pending), Burr Steers' 17 Again as prep for the aforementioned Charlie St. Cloud, and Michael Ritchie's super-awesome Semi-Tough.

Stuff listened to for the first time this week: Rick Ross' Teflon Don, Suckers' Wild Smile, Stevie Wonder's Talking Book.

Reading: Joseph Heller's Something Happened, which is pretty much killing me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Status update

Nearly a year ago, I started blogging for IFC. It's been a blast; among other things, I learned how to write at a demon-on-speed pace, and discovered more about the internet than I thought possible. But all good things must come to an end, so 566 entries and 1,353 comments later (many of those latter variants on "The author did not mention Groundhog Day and is clarly [sic] a fool"), I'm no longer blogging for IFC. Consequently, I have a lot more free time and an urgent need for work. I'm putting this announcement out there/here because hey! New media! Why not. I've learned to (not) be surprised by unexpected things taking off sometimes. It's not really my style to self-hype and beg for work publicly, so I'll just do this the once. I am actually e-mailing people, rounding up options and so on; I just wanted to cover all my bases, just in case I have fans in high places who want to give me work whose e-mail I don't have or something. I don't really know myself, honestly.

That said, I'm not completely myopic. I realize there are many, many film writers out there who are older, more experienced and better writers than me; I hit a roll sometimes, but I'm not consistent. The existence of enthusiastic "amateur writers" (i.e., as respected on the internet as anyone professional) proves that, really, I should go off somewhere, get a real job and come back in ten years. And I am looking (in a fairly half-assed way at the moment) for some kind of part-time work that doesn't involve writing, which is tricky because I don't have any real skills or experience; the closest I ever came to a real job was doing phone tech support for xBox 360 for two weeks once. (No, really.)

Anyway, I don't think anyone really gets a big kick out of this kind of online self-whoring, so I'll leave it at that (hopefully); my contact info is vadim dot rizov at gmail dot com if anyone wants to entertain me. There'll probably be more writing up in here (at least for a while) so I don't get out of the habit of writing daily, which is a good one. For the sake of value for money, here's a short list of stuff I learned about myself/online writing while blogging:

* Writing about blockbusters is fun. The name of the blog was "Indie Eye," but nomenclature's always arbitrary anyway. I'd been vaguely aware of this for a while — I never took more notes at anything than Terminator 3, I swear to God — but movies with too much money tend to inadvertently throw subtext at the wall, which is perfect for blogging. Smaller films tend to be more focused (they have to be) and demand criticism; blogging isn't criticism, unless you're sneaky about it.

* A personal voice creates the illusion of meaningful disclosure. I struggled with this for a long time, because we live in the age of oversharing and all that crap. I guess I could blame Emily Gould for this (again!), but for me a big moment was Chuck Klosterman's chapter in Fargo Rock City about how he drinks too much. I used to try to emulate this and work in all kinds of garbage because I thought it would make things more "personal" and interesting, but it's not something I'm really capable of for a lot of reasons. But it is possible to write in a colloquial, low-key way that sort of sounds like I'm telling you something meaningful about myself, even if I'm really not. It smoothes a lot over.

* If you need to make a list, use IMDB keywords. The internet pretty much runs on lists with YouTube embeds, and that makes sense: people at boring desk jobs pretty much have the easily-amused attention spans of chronic stoners anyway. I used to hate them, but I've kind of come around: if you give people the clips of stuff they already know and love (i.e., The Big Lebowski and Children of Men over and over and over until we're all dead), you can sneak more obscure fare into there. This is the best way of maybe leading otherwise reluctant people to movies they might love. Using the sketchy, uneven but undeniably amusing IMDB keywords search function is the best way to kick-start your memory.

* If someone asks you at a gathering what you do and you say "I'm a blogger," you'll immediately want to down your drink and get another as fast as possible. Trust me on this.

* "Eventually we must talk of everything if there is enough time and space and printer's ink." That's an Andrew Sarris quote Dan Sallitt has at the top of his blog, and I didn't really latch onto it until three or four months into blogging. 12 posts a week is a lot; there simply aren't 12 news items to talk about every five days, even if you stretch your definition of "news" to be as elastic as possible. What I learned is that everything is fun to write about, especially if, say, you're just over at your friend's house and Kindergarten Cop is on. Basically I learned that I can write about more than I thought possible, and that everything can be written about. And probably should.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Halftime lists

Here's some cursory halftime top 10s for music and film, with brief notes:

Film
(still have yet to catch a bunch of stuff: Winter's Bone and Dogtooth are the most egregious omissions)

From previous years, released this one (minimum standard: one week run in NYC)
The Father of My Children
The only title on here that isn't a straggler from last year's NYFF, which is kind of sad. It's pretty clear to me that Mia Hansen-Løve is soon going to be capable of pulling off just about anything she wants to; All Is Forgiven is slightly preferable (it's more tough-minded in ways that resonate with me), but certainly didn't prepare me for the first half of this, which performs the far-from-negligible feat of rewriting Irma Vep as a slowly unraveling and increasingly dysphoric downward spiral — and let's not even talk about the back half, which (among other things) features one of the more remarkable teen-post-morning-after scenes in recent memory. As in All Is Forgiven, this is a film of two opposed halves, but that film elided the central event (rehab); this places it dead center but renders it completely elusive.

That said, Olivier Assayas' jukebox is more fun than his fiance's.

Sweetgrass and Ghost Town I wrote about here

Wild Grass I'm just gonna copy and past my capsules from last year's viewings to save time. I need to take a break from this movie and come back to it eventually:

1st viewing an exuberant, disorienting experience, as odd as Punch-Drunk Love (odder, really, since it's not psychologically coherent, but the colors have the same pop) and, at heart, as morbidly playful as Synecdoche, New York without the overwhelming despair. It's manic-depressive even as it's energetic, making it clear very early on how truly deranged these characters are and hinting at far worse; is Andre Dussolier a rapist? What's his dark past? (As in Private Fears in Public Places, whether Dussolier lives with his wife or daughter is left alarmingly unclear for a while.) Resnais seems to have been watching Gondry as well — there's one virtuoso, impossible trick-shot collapsing time with the help of hand-held shakiness — and impossibly inventive. Exhilarating, and seemingly infinitely self-referential: one of the final tracking shots past rows of gardens seems to invoke Night And Fog, while three smoking/no smoking posters behind Mathieu Amalric's head at the police station summon up, well, Smoking/No Smoking. (Surely there's more I'm missing.) Pretty much inarguably a major film, far from a minor final dispatch. This is not a late auteur work that needs apologies made for it.

2nd viewing, basically I realized the whole thing's suffused in death and morbidity. I'll return to this.

Everyone Else: another NYFF capsule, as follows:

My one serious objection to this movie is that it's a bit Mars/Venus-y: guys want to go hiking, girls want to go on picnics; guys want to stay home and drink in the privacy of the living room, girls want to go to the club and dance dance dance. Those are legitimate bones to pick, but this film is both general and specific, while also maintaining depicting intensely awkward and miserable circumstances in a way that's just barely on the right side of dark comedy, a serious achievement. The film's main limitation is self-imposed — like mumblecore, it's fiercely introverted, shutting out the outside world, but that speaks to the intensity of the relationship as unwisely self-contained universe. Perfectly, subtly acted; a huge leap from The Forest For The Trees. [In retrospect, I'm not sure if I should've laughed as much as I did. I will note that a good friend who's roughly 70% taste compatible with me film-wise called a few months ago after this finally reached Omaha and said he thought it was the best movie since Synecdoche, which was the best movie since Zodiac. My admiration for this film is not on that level of magnitude.]

From this year, more or less ranked:
Greenberg — an absolute lay-up, given my taste and perfect sympathy for abrasively self-blocking dudes who are their own worst enemy. (Ahem. Sometimes, though I'm not nearly that bad these days.) Plus Baumbach's sensibility (at least dating back to The Squid And The Whale — have yet to investigate the first half of his career) is very much in line with mine — I dig all those articulately self-loathing train-wrecks — so I actually dragged myself to see this at like 10 on a Thursday night two days after getting back to town after SXSW, because I just couldn't wait. Some more capsule/bullet-point stuff:

a) Some kind of a breakthrough for Baumbach; if it's not as tightly realized as The Squid and the Whale, it also offers a surprising detour from the increasingly ratcheted-up nastiness Margot At The Wedding suggested Baumbach would keep upping to unsustainable levels. Squid/Margot deal with protagonists in the process of actively scarring and damaging those around them; in Greenberg, the damage is long gone and past, which makes Greenberg a peculiarly empathetic character. Yes, he does damage to Greta Gerwig — but she's in just enough of a twenty-something funk that she's too old to get seriously wounded, while too young to really take care of herself. She'll learn.

b) Baumbach in widescreen for (I believe) the first time, which frees him up; the handheld camera has been toned down and the shots are casually sunny and expansive. It's a true LA movie, and that includes the little touches: I especially liked Gerwig's friend at the bar. Her sneering disbelief when Greenberg says he doesn't drive — "You don't drive? Have you ever driven?" — suggests the bottomless arrogance of the worst kind of Angeleno, and I absolutely recognize it.

c) Given that we spend the first 15 minutes with Gerwig, it could just as easily be called Florence; if Roger's our true subject, that's because he wears himself down enough over the course of the film to emerge at a moment where he has at least a fighting shot of beginning to fix himself, while Florence remains unchanging, for better or worse. Sporadic feminist outrage has erupted over Greenberg's treatment of Florence, as if the film were endorsing masculine dickheadedness, which is very misguided indeed; these kinds of fatally unbalanced relationships are certainly not uncommon, and thinking the movie endorses it is just nuts.

d) For all the advance word of how incredibly unpleasant everyone on screen is, this is the most easily digestible film Baumbach's made since his hiatus; much of it is quotable without context ("Leonard Maltin would give me two-and-a-half stars"), the laughs are timed evenly and the whole thing seems less designed to make you squirm. I really like this movie, so much so I don't trust myself.

Cold Weather and Putty Hill I wrote about here, and Audrey The Trainwreck was addressed here; the latter's absolute neglect on the festival circuit (unless I missed something), not to mention lack of distribution, is an absolute fucking disgrace. This is a major breakthrough film.

And Everything Is Going Fine was addressed here and is apparently due for direct-to-DVD release by Magnolia next year, which is too bad. It's my favorite Soderbergh since, I dunno, Bubble. But I'm also a morbid DFW fan, which undoubtedly plays into it.

I didn't have a chance to write about Michael Madsen's Into Eternity for various reasons, which is a shame. Briefly: this is the most formally pleasurable documentary since probably Workingman's Death (not least because it's shot on 35mm!). I'm not the kind of guy who cares particularly about social issues, so a tract about nuclear waste disposal isn't necessarily an obvious thing for me to dig, but Madsen approaches his subject in a way that's orderly, playful and gorgeous; he cops some moves from Errol Morris (one shot is pretty much directly lifted from Standard Operating Procedure) but also has a voice of his own. (The finale — a crane into the darkness of the cave with Sibelius blaring — is a boldly expressionistic gambit that pays off in impact as much as in the pleasurable shock of its sheer gutsiness.) The parts of Madsen delivering speeches timed to a match burning out are so Lynch-y they have to be a joke, and it's a good one. I hope this gets distribution; it deserves it. If you're going to make people care about depressing things, this is the way to do it.

And c'mon, how blessed is he with that name? Jeez.

Music
A really great year so far, though I'm a little behind; the left channel of my trusty speakers has fallen silent, and I can't afford new ones for a bit (unexpected moving expenses have wiped me out a bit). I suspect that Wild Nothing album is right up my alley, but we won't know for a bit yet. (Other notable listening omissions I'll catch up to eventually: Drake, Janelle Monae, Ariel Pink, Rhymefest.) That said, let's do this:

Albums
1. The National, High Violet — addressed here earlier this year. Not much has changed since then; I'm at 43 listens and counting. "The Runaway" is a little bit of a drag (I prefer the more stripped-down live-in-the-radio-station version from last year), but there's really not a weak song in the bunch, and "Bloodbuzz Ohio" is clearly some seriously life-affirming, spine-chilling shit. More than anything else, The National understand the precise weight and texture of banal depression, the stuff of workaday slogging; they're also frighteningly talented musicians who understand how to make brass arrangements carry emotional weight. Every day I wake up and say a little prayer that Matt Berninger's drinking won't get too out of hand.

2. Spoon, Transference — addressed here. Spoon are part of my life in a big way; I'm an Austin kid and, as Britt Daniel once sang, "I have your blood inside my heart." I put this on ice for a few months, but I'm listening to it again right now and it really is as fully-fledged a statement as they've ever crafted. My friend Andrew Unterberger thinks Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is basically an overly-slick exhibition of staid craftsmanship, which is nuts — but I see what he's saying, and Transference pushes the boundaries in a way that makes that album's immaculate craftsmanship look sterile.

3. Teenage Fanclub, Shadows — just when you thought this list couldn't get any whiter or blander...look. I'm as surprised as the next guy at how much I like this. I don't really know much about the Fanclub, although that'll probably change soon; I listened to Bandwagonesque quite a bit in high school (it's pretty much mandatory entry-level listening for anyone interested in '90s Scotrock), but it was a little too #1 Record for me (I'm more of a Third/Sister Lovers guy), and nothing on there is nearly as good as "Alcoholiday." Then I missed everything until Man-Made came out a few years ago, and frankly that album's a drag: the clean, Tortoise-inspired production does them no favors.

I guess Shadows isn't a terribly "relevant" album; the fact that Fanclub are still with us should theoretically be no more interesting than, say, the fact that the Trash Can Sinatras are still doing work. But this is one heinously well-crafted album, with so many highlights I've basically been fixating on two or three songs at a time and picking them apart. "Baby Lee" was my first obsession — those downward thirds on the chorus are really something else — but the fugal last two minutes on "The Fall" are out of this world, and I appreciate how "Sweet Days Waiting" flat-out steals the verse from The Beach Boys' "Forever." Some of the lines are good — "modern life corrodes us all, you know that it's true" is a nice bit — and there's a lot to love here if you love pop craftsmanship. And if I tell you I spent a hefty chunk of last year listening to Jellyfish on repeat, I guess you'll understand where I'm coming from.

4. These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid I liked These New Puritans' first album just fine -- it had a nicely spazzy committment to being annoying -- but nothing about it suggested they were anything more than waspish provacteurs, using stupid tinny keyboards and nonsense lyrics to mock and destroy the sonic zeitgeist of amateurish dance music for indie kids. Beat Pyramid opens with two minutes of a woodwind suite (!), followed by "We Want War," which is one of the most staggering things I've heard in a while (and certainly one of the few songs that could be deemed "original"). "Beat Pyramid" wouldn't be a bad name for it, given that when the backwards-singing choir (or whatever the hell that is) kicks in at 3:50, the band isn't even getting started. It's like, what is this thing? There's some joker with a deep voice laughing; it should be cheesy, like a half-assed Joker calling card, but it's kind of chilling. The arrangement just gets more and more brass-atrophied as it goes along; it has the structural depth and fugal structure most motets would kill for, and the song's basically unprecedented. Most bands who cite classical composers as inspiration stick to Steve Reich, Erik Satie and the like; TNP cite Benjamin Britten, and I'm inclined to believe them. The rest of the album is perfectly fine, although it couldn't possibly live up to that. Most reviews have been on the "respect > love" side, which is understandable (if lazy in a universe where I have to deal with drooling Animal Collective fanboys), though it's more like it's impossible to get any work done while listening to it.

5. Broken Bells, Broken BellsHeard the unmastered leak first, then the real thing; rarely has what mastering can do been so clear, as this is almost certainly one of the best-sounding records of the year, and for a while I just listened to it on that level. Then the songs started popping out at me as well. I love the supremely casual amble of the intro: the first 25 seconds don't really do anything but lope from some synth blurts into another typically meticulous James Mercer composition, almost as if by accident. I think (oddly enough, all things considered) working with Danger Mouse has actually loosened Mercer up; he even attempts (and pulls off!) a falsetto on "The Ghost Inside."

The other thing to note is that this is a staggeringly grim album; Mercer was never exactly a cheerleader, but here he's going on about all kinds of tiny apocalypses. (Song titles: "Your Head Is On Fire," "Sailing To Nowhere," "The Mall & Misery.") And if you watch the video for "The High Road," it's clear the newly matured Mercer -- boyish the last time I saw them live, now gray, grizzled and looking like some kind of '70s B-movie bar extra -- has suffered god knows what in the process of breaking up The Shins; he looks grizzled and pissed-off. Regardless, this is a terrific, crafty record, and a welcome comeback from a guy who didn't initially seem like a lifer but now seems to be getting comfortable with it.

6. Beach House, Teen Dream — impressive as hell, though for some reason I don't love this the same way I did Devotion. I will say that the fact that they had much more to say than their first album indicated is very unexpected and pleasing.

7. Local Natives, Gorilla Manora mixed bag, insofar as Local Natives are practicing a very low-stakes, almost generic kind of indie rock (and the lyrics mostly suck). But I increasingly appreciate what they accomplish inside those limitations: "Camera Talk" is a hell of a song (even if it's basically just a stupid tribute to taking Facebook pictures), and the way they cover Talking Heads' "Warning Sign" (i.e., turning it into the three-part folk rock David Byrne deliberately was destroying) is smart and impressive. Room for growth here for sure.

8. Let's Wrestle, In The Court Of The Wrestling Let'sLike Cymbals Eat Guitars, the amiable gentlemen of Let's Wrestle appear firmly convinced that the best music ever was college radio about 1995, and I'm certainly not gonna argue with them; I love that shit. The lyrics are clever ("My friends are in prison and that's where I want to go because I hate everyone") and darkly but comically morose ("They said if you want to help just kill yourself, but I won't do that"), the guitars are crunchy, the chord changes work, and the songs are short. Rock on bros; Built To Spill this ain't, but it's more fun than anything those guys have done lately.

9. Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRMnot to take anything away from the lustrous Ms. Gainsbourg, but this is the best thing Beck's done in years (probably since The Information, which I dig, although his recent Record Club covers projects have definitely yielded some unexpected gems). Best bits: the dramatic strings of "Time of the Asassins" (could be slapped onto a '70s movie's opening credits with no questions asked), the playfully ominous rumble of "Le Chat Du Café Des Artistes" and the totally bouncy "Heaven Can Wait" duet.

10. Vampire Weekend, Contrathis should probably be higher up on the list, but I'm too lazy to redo the numbers. That VW could write excellent pop songs we already knew; that they'd up their game so quickly and throw in all kinds of extra fillips, arrangements and ambitions is a big surprise. This is ambitious music; the casual aura's deceptive.

Songs not factored above
Sleigh Bells, "Rill Rill" — I will get around eventually to properly considering all of Treats, which definitely seems like a year-end contender; this is the rare album that uses noise and distortion not to rock but as legitimate tools to construct sugary pop. (Rarely has an album so potentially abrasive seemed this much fun.) But first I'll have to get over the staggering greatness of "Rill Rill," a song that's the closest thing I've heard to The Soft Bulletin in the last 11 years. There's two pulsing beats, then the full-on assault of Funkadelic piano sample, bells and all kinds of other frills; like Dave Fridmann's work on that album (especially "Waitin' For A Superman"), the gap between the storm and the calm at the center creates a powerful sonic chasm. This is basically a song about a stupid Brooklyn girl running around on a typical weekend night — showing off her tattoos, cutting lines in the bathroom, celebrating facile girl power — but I could care less.

...we're at 3,000 + words. I'm gonna stop here for now.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Positive things I have written in the last year

There is something very depressing about being told you're relentlessly negative. Here is an incomplete list of stuff that's either effusive or damn-near-close-to I wrote in the last year to prove I'm not Dale Peck. This bothers me; this last stands here for future ref.

Fantastic Mr. Fox review

about Jim Finn

regarding Ulrich Seidl

Reviews of Rolling Thunder and The Outside Man

Harmony and Me review

enthusiastic NYFF endorsements of Sweetgrass,
Ghost Town and To Die Like A Man


effusive praise for the True/False film festival, and many of the films I saw there

praise for Putty Hill, Mars and Cold Weather (and, later, Audrey The Trainwreck and Beijing Taxi)

Plus posts below gushing over mumblecore, The National and Spoon and a book review that got an A- and innumerable blog posts

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A brief taxonomy of mumblecore.

This is mostly done because various tweeps have been slagging on THE VOICE OF MY GENERATION. There will be no citations or links; I'm just going to spout off.

About the word itself: Yes, it's an annoying label, coined as a late-night bar-grumble, adopted reflexively by a press that always functions better when something can be reduced to a neologism. And yes, it sucked for filmmakers who had to answer to it (or to people's perceptions of it). Nonetheless, it'd be silly to deny that so many filmmakers who work with/act for each other's films and circle the same demographic relentlessly don't have some commonalities. It's also equally stupid not to acknowledge that this was, at most, a five-year boom; all the instigators are now spiraling out into different directions.

Not Mumblecore
John Cassavetes: Cassavetes has precisely zero relationship to "mumblecore," but he kept getting invoked; the link, presumably, was one of a new breakthrough in "screen realism," which is a) a misunderstanding of the oft-theatrical/operatic nature of Cassavetes' performances b) stupid. The key link — one I saw Dan Sallitt make somewhere or other — has to do with changing definitions of what constitutes "realism" on-screen.

David Gordon Green: Cited by Matt Dentler as the godfather of the genre, seeing as people in George Washington and All The Real Girls do, in fact, mumble a lot — but Green's a lush 35mm stylist, so the comparison really doesn't go anywhere very fast. It is true that DGG is a graduate of NCSA, which also produced people like Aaron Katz, but that doesn't really mean much. If Green is mumblecore, then so is Judd Apatow.

Mumblecore
Andrew Bujalski
Personal history: I'm pretty sure Bujalski brought Funny Ha Ha to Austin in 2003, when he was taking it around the country personally; I saw it in the ad hoc screening room at the back of a coffee shop, which seems about right. Never before had I seen passive-aggressive non-communication depicted with such acuity. I was sold. Subsequently, I interviewed Bujalski after the release of all three of his movies.

Stylistic hallmarks: Bujalski's aesthetic is (up to this point) based solely upon the unusual fact that he actually uses film and grain, which he loves. As the instigator and so forth, Bujalski's films are the most opaque, even if they seem to have a clear surface. In Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, Bujalski sympathetically anatomizes failures of nerve and communication without excusing them. To say that they're about white post-collegiate grads drifting directionlessly through life is like saying Cassavetes movies are about raging alcoholics who yell a lot; it's a deliberately obtuse description. (To the extent that they're about the same group of people over and over, they're not self-congratulation; they're generationally specific variations on the same failures rather than celebration of same.) If Funny Ha Ha belies its title (it's a tough watch), both Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax are increasingly Stillman-esque comedies laying bare the unofficial rules of social interaction of a generation of kids trained to be polite and self-effacing as a response to an increasingly loud, boorish and self-congratulatory society. (And don't even start with the hipster crap. When he makes a movie about kids taking acid, hooking up in gay clubs and smoking out on rooftops under the heat of the Brooklyn sun, then we'll talk.)

Criticisms: Early booster Ray Carney has (reportedly) turned on Bujalski for failing to take the brave emotional chances and conflicts of Cassavetes, which I think is code for "this isn't realism if people aren't screaming/being emotionally brave." He should know better.

Joe Swanberg
Personal history: I've seen LOL, Hannah Takes The Stairs and Alexander The Last. One time at a SXSW party he asked me if I'd seen his wife. Considering I'd never met either of them, that struck me as odd. I'm friendly with C. Mason Wells, his collaborator on LOL.

Stylistic hallmarks: Almost certainly the most divisive filmmaker of the cluster, Swanberg's films are the antidote for people who find Bujalski unrealistically neutered and sexless (which he's not, but some people seem incapable of crediting the reality of anything they haven't personally experienced). There are a lot of sex scenes in his work, and I personally find them fairly unproductive; some of them (like the cutting back and forth between rehearsal sex and the real thing in Alexander) are pretty much on the level of freshman creative writing class thinking.

Swanberg has been accused — justifiably — of complete visual indifference, though with Alexander he seems to have discovered framing, lighting, etc. His work up to now has been characterized by an absolute focus on performances (lots of erratic zooming in and out for emphasis) rather than visuals, to an extent that's kind of visually unprecedented for movies that receive distribution, are seen by people that aren't the filmmaker's friends, etc.

Criticisms: Besides that the movies look terrible and have too many sex scenes? That they privilege narcissism — which is kind of true. My favorite of the three films I've seen is LOL, a supremely accurate depiction of a group of people I absolutely recognize and would run a mile in tight shoes to avoid. There's, nonetheless, something hard to dismiss about his work; the sheer fact that it irritates (rather than just bores) me suggests something.

Aaron Katz
Personal history: I've met Aaron a few times while he lived in Brooklyn. He's an exceptionally quiet dude and I have exchanged maybe 150 words with him in my lifetime. Also I drunkenly geeked out on him after seeing Cold Weather. Also I'm friends with the good folks of Benten Films, who put his first two films out on DVD. Consider my critical objectivity fatally compromised.

Stylistic hallmarks: The unapologetically rarified aesthete of the group, Katz's movies rarely look less than stunning. Stylistically and thematically, they're all completely different creatures. Dance Party USA is sort of like a Larry Clark movie without the hypocritical mixture of puritanism and lechery: it dares to consider the fallout of a rape without losing its nerve. It's also sensitive about setting up spaces where teen boys and girls can talk among themselves; I generally think it's terrific. Quiet City is also a dazzling movie — the near avant-garde interludes, dreamily abstracting the passing subway view into creamy colors, lines and dots — but everyone in it frankly pisses me off. If you want to talk about a movie that's reflexively coy, inarticulate and asexual, well...yeah. But that's just me.

Cold Weather is a whole other beast, and a very good argument for why no one should ever use the word "mumblecore" in 2010: it could (and hopefully will) be a crossover hit. It's the kind of mainstream-ish comedy that could've been slipped under the radar in the late '70s/early '80s as an inexpensive studio film (by Joan Micklin Silver, say), and it's absolutely "written" in every sense of the word.

Criticisms: I'm pretty sure everyone likes this guy. Pass.

The Duplass Brothers
Personal history: I saw The Puffy Chair in Austin with a friend who's about as good-ol-boy/frat/blond/football booster as they come, a man who spent much of his time at NYU drinking straight whiskey and generating all of his income through sports betting. He had, as a matter of fact, dug Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation while intensely disliking all of the people in it (see, it's possible! This isn't just about circle jerk clique-ishness and self-congratulation), but noted after Puffy Chair "That was like Funny Ha Ha for my people." This was absolutely correct. I also ended up seeing Baghead in Austin; I have yet to see Cyrus.

Stylistic hallmarks: The Duplass brothers have a strong interest in maintaining a traditional three-act structure (or five, depending on how you feel about it); their films have openings, middles and resolutions, along with beats. Like Noah Baumbach — who edits the hell out of his work to cover, quite successfully, its relative structural conventionality — their handheld cameras, fondness for spontaneous, out-of-nowhere jokes and superficially roughshod surface covers this off. They're the most overtly jockish, which is a good thing; the word "dude" is probably abused in Puffy Chair as many times as "fuck" is in The Big Lebowski. What they're doing is tricky — Baghead is so meta about its genre-tweaking game it devours itself in the last twenty minutes — but insanely ambitious.

Criticisms: General sloppiness and inchoateness. YMMV.

Kentucker Audley
Personal history: I interviewed Mr. Audley (nee Andrew Nenninger) for the release of Team Picture and met him at a few parties afterwards. He sent me his two latest films, and I really should sit down and watch them.

Stylistic hallmarks: Team Picture is supremely casual, a slacker comedy shot with an artlessness so deliberate it's almost, I dunno, Cukor-esque (better analogies welcome); if you think he's making a lazy movie about lazy people, you're not paying attention. I find it consistently hilarious. I don't really know what else to say, honestly; it's a pure comedy, unless you don't think it's funny. It is notable, I guess, that Team Picture is distinctively "southern" (i.e., based in Memphis) and proudly regional (it's kind of amazing how Bujalski has shot movies in three different cities while studiously avoiding showing any of the geography; he's more after a mental state of mind that can't be pinned down that easily).

Criticisms: Eh. Hold.

*********

I'm not about to start talking about post-mumblecore stuff (Medicine For Melancholy, You Wont Miss Me et al.), mostly because a) they're so thematically/stylistically differentiated it should be obvious (and if you don't believe me, try to get your hands on Frank V. Ross' Audrey The Trainwreck, which cops a lot of moves from Desplechin and Assayas, which is some kind of Amerindie first) b) I'm getting tired. Hopefully I've demonstrated some stuff about the differences between this allegedly monolithic group of of filmmakers.

Three things to refute while I'm making my way out the door:
a) Where are the minorities? Look, I know we live in a post-racial, post-Obama world (note: I am not remotely serious), but this seems like a problem about how we don't live in a post-racial world. For serious.

b) It's always about whiny 20somethings. Well: OK, you fund their shit then. Do you honestly believe that this group of filmmakers are so solipsistic, so infinitely self-regressive they just want to produce the cinematic equivalent of roman-a-clefs indefinitely? Reading interviews with all of them will review an enviable cinephilia much better informed than their big-budget confreres; it's not like they're unaware of the possibilities. But: you want to make a movie. You have almost no money. You have friends who can work with you. I mean Come. On.

c) Only the people the movies are about can relate to the movies. Sure, and only waifish Marxist gamines watch '60s Godard.

[update: d.) "I don't get the point of mumblecore," tweeted friend of the blog and all-round good guy THE FUTURIST! And yet I know for a fact that he's expressed his appreciation for Mutual Appreciation and Dance Party USA, while disliking other "mumblecore" films. Point being it's like saying "I dislike Godard and Rivette; what's the point of the French New Wave?" Not even all the filmmakers like each other; you're not obligated to either.]