"Art has not responsibility to be rational or socially exemplary."
"That this song, with its booming beat, the loudest on the record, that seemed to herald it as some global political statement, was in fact Kendrick’s most deeply personal. Almost implosive. That the moment wasn’t about we at all, it just sounded that way. It’s his most “I” moment, reflecting a reality that I couldn’t possibly connect to, only witness and try to understand. It’s as personal as Ice Cube’s “Dead Homiez.” He’s not speaking to the community or for the community. He’s speaking for himself or, rather, a version of himself."
Monday, February 29, 2016
Since I usually like to relate these things to the weather, consider this a February mixtape in three movements: warm in the winter; cold in the winter; cool in the spring. With interludes of seasonal displacement.
My name’s not Karl and today’s not my birthday, but… close enough. Anita Baker’s Rapture, the best first listen I’ve had in years, way too late and yet clearly meant to be, got me thinking about how the life I’ve lived has ended up roughly adjacent to the ones I didn’t. (Being a pretty boring person I of course relate this phenomenon to music consumption.) So there’s nothing I find too surprising in the world of Karl, but I am jealous of the speed of his response to songs I’m just now learning to hear. Was he listening to Rapture over a decade ago, back when I was straining for a mood with The Blue Nile’s Hats?
Here… A Randy Newman classic I was slow to notice. Why are his songs so often covered, when his singing is so perfect yet so meager as a map for a showier or more emotional vocal? Also, the ticking late-century energy of the music, afraid to expire like something out of the mid-90s, is this one’s defining feature.
There and everywhere… A bunch of 2015 songs looking for a new means of binding to memory: Low, Abra, Lower Dens, Wire, and A Sunny Day in Glasgow (does anyone even know they released an amazing double EP late last year?; one day I’ll tell young people I lived in the time of ASDIG and they’ll shudder with envy), all in a row, and Róisín Murphy and Deerhunter, separately.
Among… The first two great songs of 2016 that aren’t “Formation,” albeit ones that suggest a listener I should have cultivated in myself a while ago. The dreamy R&B listener. The instrumental rock listener (haha, this one has a Georgia Hubley vocal).
Later… “Photographs,” last known outpost of my personal investment in Rihanna’s music, but one I’m returning to now that her new stuff works a similar feeling.
Anyway, here’s your mixtape, Karl. Maybe the length and quality of your relationship with these songs are different than the length and quality of mine, but no one clicking the links below will care or know the difference.
79 minutes. (download/stream)
1. Boards of Canada – “White Cyclosa”
2. Anita Baker – “Mystery”
3. Curve – “Doppelgänger”
4. KING – “The Greatest”
5. Janet Jackson – “When We Oooo”
6. Róisín Murphy – “Hairless Toys (Gotta Hurt)”
7. The Beach Boys – “The Nearest Faraway Place”
8. Randy Newman – “Baltimore”
9. Low – “Congregation”
10. Abra – “Pride”
11. Lower Dens – “Electric Current”
12. Wire – “In Manchester”
13. A Sunny Day in Glasgow – “Jewelry Duty”
14. Koushik – “In A Green Space”
15. Tortoise ft. Georgia Hubley – “Yonder Blue”
16. Rihanna – “Photographs”
17. Deerhunter – “Duplex Planet”
18. Jennifer Castle – “Sparta”
19. Chris Stamey – “Something Came Over Me”
20. Boards of Canada – “Telepath”
Saturday, February 27, 2016
I won’t pretend to care what happens in categories that exclude Michael B. Jordan, Ryan Coogler and Todd Haynes, but here are seven Oscar categories that mean something to me this year.
Possibly the most impressive slate of nominees in a single Oscar category in my living memory. Gone (?) are the days when the Academy would automatically nominate one or two popular computer-animated kids’ movies of no consequence each year. The category continues to improve as it becomes more invested in honoring a variety of animation traditions. In hindsight, last year’s omission of The Lego Movie feels like a clear signal in favor of craft, against commercialism and cynicism. The only fully computer-animated nominee this year is the great but obligatory Pixar one, while hand-drawn and stop-motion films get their due and a movie made for an adult audience is finally in the running (long after Richard Linklater’s rotoscoping forays stood no chance against the likes of Shrek and Happy Feet).
I loved Inside Out but eight months later it’s easily my least favorite of the bunch. Shaun the Sheep Movie’s wordless gags are consistently hilarious, Boy and the World’s anger is so profound that it eventually must cut to documentary footage of the pillaging of the planet, and Anomalisa’s artistry is so tender and complete that no sex scene with live actors seems real, in comparison. Still, nothing resonated for me quite like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There, the Studio Ghibli feature whose retreat to the countryside implicates urban malaise (again) and whose subtextual richness invites queer readings. It stands no chance of winning, but only because Ghibli and Miyazaki are inexplicably treated as synonyms.
This is a toss-up between Amy and The Look of Silence, both of which take big formal risks and maintain a gaze that yields intense discomfort. The reason Amy seems a more compelling choice is probably due to cultural myopia: the topic of our worship and destruction of celebrities strikes us with an immediacy that our other crimes do not.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is probably the best possible documentary on its subject, given her elusiveness. All the best moments involve her performances, but the film knows exactly why and when to include each one. Cartel Land tells an important story, about Michoacán’s Autodefensas, but saddles it with redundant and unrevealing scenes from the other side of the border, in the hopes that interweaving two unrelated portraits of vigilantism constitutes a directorial point of view. It does not.
Not seen: Winter on Fire
Foreign Language Film
Evil lives in many of the Best Picture nominees too, but Hollywood’s great at spinning tough content into satisfying Oscar stories. So instead of genocide, systemic child abuse and the defrauding of the American working class, we’ll get headlines like Leo DiCaprio Wins Award; Journalistic Heroes Get Job Done; Comedic Director Makes Good. Son of Saul is a true reckoning with evil and there’s no way to twist or glamorize its meta-narrative, so its win will sit awkwardly in a telecast eager to play it off the stage.
Theeb and Mustang (my personal favorite) are nearly as apocalyptic in their own ways, but the former is also a boy’s adventure tale and the latter offers the city as salvation from rural conservatism. Son of Saul’s only relief is in the close tracking of its lead actor and in its somewhat oblique ending. Saul’s facial transformation during his final appearance is so shocking that it should have yielded a tagline as succinct as Garbo Speaks: Röhrig Smiles.
To be seen imminently: A War, Embrace of the Serpent
Animated Short Film
Don Hertzfeldt was first nominated in this category 15 years ago, but seeing the creator of It’s Such A Beautiful Day in the running still feels radical. His World of Tomorrow is palatable, even kid-friendly, but retains the Hertzfeldt touch and a grim vision of the future, deadpan in its fantastical plausibility. Movies like this don’t win respectable awards, do they?
I liked The Hateful Eight and especially its Lincoln letter punchline but never really felt up for the conversations the film failed to generate. The only one I had quickly turned to praise of Ennio Morricone’s ominous score.
This category hasn’t been so strong in years, but Charlotte Rampling’s clueless comments will be the only thing anyone remembers about it. I’ve started to think of Brooklyn, Carol and 45 Years as a trilogy, a portrait of a woman concealing her emotions, then erupting with an intensity that diminishes with age. All three performances are amazing but Cate Blanchett’s exercise in carefully modulated passion is on another level, one of those rare pieces of acting that makes me think all other aspects of film art are pale in comparison. I don’t buy the accusations of category fraud. Her Carol could have gone supporting, melting into unhappy domesticity or playing foil to the younger woman’s awakening, but ultimately her interior life is too powerful to be controlled and she claims the film’s title for herself.
If I have to explain why Sylvester Stallone meant so much to me in Creed, it’s gonna get personal.
images: Marnie & Anna // the future beyond the World of Tomorrow
Thursday, February 11, 2016
Here’s everything else I went to see in 2015. I’ve started to take a certain pride in my inability to respond to things promptly, but that needs to change. My 2016 list is already fifteen titles deep.
39. Dope — A high school comedy so funny and energetic it’s hard to imagine most aspects of its storytelling and characterization not being cliches in five years. Then again, I’m not sure how much this caught on with audiences.
40. Pather Panchali (1955) — Another near-anniversary (see: Bad Education). This was the first movie I ever watched on a computer, on my brand-new iBook G4, a few days before heading off to college in 2005. Almost ten years later, the beautiful restoration…
41. Trainwreck — Maybe the only movie I saw last year with an almost exclusively female audience. They loved it, and helped the jokes land.
42. Grey Gardens (1975) — Nothing escapes the Maysles’ attention. Here’s the knife flash at Altamont on a much smaller scale.
43. Amy — I allude to its superior documentary methods here.
44. About Elly (2009/2015) — Plays like any other country’s leisure-class-on-vacation cinema until an unplanned circumstance triggers an avalanche of cultural weight. For some, frivolity is a precarious situation.
45. Strike (1925) — Teaches its visual language while speaking it eloquently. With live accompaniment.
46. The Killer (1989) — In which the operatic scale of the tragic finale justifies all earlier violent excess. Aren’t we all just crawling blindly past the ones we love?
47. Wings of Desire (1987) — One of my favorite movies. It’s humbling to consider that it was filmed in the winter of my birth (I think).
48. Tangerine — The kind of story that awaits a post-director world, or a world in which performers are understood as authors. Sean Baker makes few intrusions, but each one is one too many.
49. The Last Picture Show (1971) — Great, as you know.
50. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — As neat a contraption as the glass box that eventually ensnares its villain. I believe in Tom Cruise, movie star.
51. Fat City (1972) — John Huston makes one of his best movies while remaining as reticent about the past as his characters, Stockton’s dispossessed. But get him drunk and he’ll tell you he directed The Maltese Falcon thirty years ago, while you swallow your astonishment.
52. The Look of Silence — A participant in 2013’s The Act of Killing asks director Joshua Oppenheimer why he isn’t making movies about American genocide instead. I wondered the same thing, at one point, but this followup clarifies: America doesn’t deserve a filmmaker as good as this. What would we do with these questions, honestly?
53. The End of the Tour — I tried to remain sensitive to the misgivings of folks who knew DFW and questioned this project’s intentions but, well, I loved it. The aptness of the musical cues didn’t help: R.E.M.’s “New Orleans Instrumental No. 2,” Eno’s “The Big Ship” and Tindersticks covering Pavement’s “Here” on the soundtrack, and The Magnetic Fields’ “When You Were My Baby” in the car. Are we to believe they really drove around listening to that song? That’s the whole story, right there.
54. Straight Outta Compton — I prefer the music, where illusions of objectivity are scarce and questions of creative control are more fun to think about.
55. Friday (1995) — I’ve loved Ice Cube as an actor for a long time but had never seen his defining (?) role. He’s the best thing here, his endless stare encompassing all the movie’s better qualities. And his screenplay (as seen in Straight Outta Compton!) has an inherently compelling structure, like Do The Right Thing but with heat and tension swapped for nothingness, then amplified almost to the point of boredom. Even so, a burst of violence awaits.
56. The Diary of a Teenage Girl — I somehow never believed the period-specific details but whatever, this verifiably fills a gaping hole in American cinema.
57. Mistress America — Hey, I’m going to New York for the first time next month. Noah Baumbach’s vision of the city, as seen in this, While We’re Young and Frances Ha, seems most plausible to me in 2016, but I doubt whether my visit will be long enough to confirm that.
58. The Road Warrior (1981) — What is this degraded version of Fury Road? Oh…
59. Tron (1982) — Wow. I’m not sure where in art history this belongs, except that it deserves prominent placement. After the screening someone mentioned silent cinema, while I considered its mastery of the human form (three men in repose next to a digital waterway, etc.) in terms of nude portraiture.
60. Phoenix — A great addition to the cinema of facial reconstruction. Dark Passage, Eyes Without A Face, Seconds, The Skin I Live In… what am I forgetting?
61. Nashville (1975) — Great, as you know.
62. Queen of Earth — On the one hand it’s another movie about a woman under the influence; on the other it’s a vehicle for an amazing Elizabeth Moss performance.
63. Jauja — Filmmaking so deliberate you’ll find yourself counting the number of shots.
64. Grandma — Even without Lily Tomlin there’s something here. I’d never seen a movie with a central gay romance that I didn’t know about ahead of time, for example.
65. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) — Great, as you know.
66. The Martian — Reviewed here.
67. The Wicker Man (1973) — One of my favorite kinds of movies: inexorable procession toward doom, all glimmering escape routes mercilessly denied.
68. Coming Home — After Phoenix, here’s another film whose most crucial scene involves the triggering of memory via piano recital. The reconciliation of long lost lovers depends on a melody. Doesn’t it always?
69. The Birds (1963) — Great, as you hopefully know.
70. The Walk — A story extraordinary enough to support a thousand tellings, so the standard critical response, that Man on Wire told it better, strikes me as a bit obtuse. I trembled through the entire final third, and not just due to sugar intake.
71. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — Continuing my campaign of temporal revenge with Trylon screenings of movies my sisters didn’t take me to see in the 90s. (Preceded by: Scream.)
72. Steve Jobs — Characters debate the merits of open system vs. closed system computers, while Aaron Sorkin seems to be having a similar debate regarding his script, only to end up flailing in both directions. As a closed system Steve Jobs is redundant and as an open system it leans too hard on crosscutting and montage, but the performances are good and the first third has a buzzy excitement.
73. 99 Homes — Ramin Bahrani remains a compelling filmmaker but a troubling pattern has developed. As in At Any Price, women are defined according to their complicity in the choices men make to provide for them.
74. Goodnight Mommy — Admirable in the way it flips sympathies halfway through, but then it just goes a bit too far, doesn’t it?
75. Bridge of Spies — I can usually forgive Spielberg his sentimental endings but this one undid everything I thought I understood about the Hanks character, as he regards the freedom of American fence-jumpers on the train ride home (what if he ventured outside of the white part of town, I wondered). An iconoclast revealed as a patriot, to paraphrase one review. Even worse, significance is achieved entirely through editing; Hanks might as well be smiling at a picture of warm apple pie. Later, the image of him sprawled on a mattress, immobile and artlessly framed, almost makes up for these indiscretions.
76. Crimson Peak — “Characters speak to you. They change, make choices.” Mia Wasikowska’s novelist speaks this line, and I wrote it down as if to try to absolve her and the rest of the cast of their murky motivations or to understand their complexities. It didn’t work. I remember Crimson Peak for its visual splendor, its green and red curls of smoke against deepest black.
77. Experimenter — Movies rarely know how to handle the lives of academics, but this one’s elliptical approach is just right. The questions of a lifetime are never really answered, dissatisfaction lingers.
78. Victoria — Sucks to see young criminals punished so mercilessly for their mistakes, like victims of a malevolent production code. Victoria condemns not them but a system of power that exploits their desperation. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking but the actors are even better. The calm they find during a wee hours scene on a piano bench seems limitless, their manic energy an hour later (in real time) no less so.
79. Cemetery of Splendor — Even more sensual than one would expect from the director of Tropical Malady. Tubes of warm-colored light and the massaging of limbs abound.
80. Room — Jack meets a real dog for the first time. I wept. That seemed sufficient proof of the film’s psychological acuity, but I should probably take a second look.
81. Carol — Mentioned here (in conjunction with Brooklyn and Heart of a Dog; now I might swap the latter for 45 Years, which properly concludes this trilogy of interiority and aging). That “I love you,” as fine a piece of acting and filmmaking as I’ve ever felt, colors all my memories of Carol, but looking back through my notes I remember the rest: Blanchett’s irresistibility vs. the power of her desires, at an even higher pitch than in Notes on a Scandal; a more fluid and nuanced understanding of the closet than I’ve seen in a period piece*; scenes of lovemaking that bookend the destruction of privacy; a miraculous shot that treats the skyline like a scroll, as the cars roll slowly by; that particularly queer shade of green; the Go West impulse, eternal; snow and dirty windshields; “ask me things”; “birds, trees, windows”; “we’re not ugly people.” Oof, what a movie. Someone said it should have been a comedy. It is, if the other option is tragedy.
*At a dialogue the next night, Todd Haynes talked about his earlier film of surfaces, Far From Heaven, and questioned a common reading that assumes the falsity and superficiality of 1950s American life: “Everything on the surface is true.” That holds in Carol more than you might expect.
82. Spectre — A plotline in which MI6 wants to shut down the double-0 program reads like a coy allusion to the way the Mission: Impossible series continues to outclass Bond in the action set-piece department. But Spectre has its moments.
83. Spotlight — Great performances from top billing down, but I’d single out Liev Schreiber (wait for the way he mutters “another adjective…”) and Michael Cyril Creighton. It bothers me not in the least that it’s visually inert. There’s a shot at a baseball game I’d never quite seen before, a flat plane of off-whites, pale blues and grays, diffuse evening light denying even the faces of the actors any meaningful shadows.
84. Safe (1995) — An earlier Todd Haynes film that ends with a woman named Carol saying “I love you.” Amazing.
85. Gimme Shelter (1970) — Still able to elicit awe and disbelief from a live audience. “Jesus,” someone said on the way out.
86. Ant-Man — Gags include Ant-Man trying to hang onto the grooves of a spinning record and The Cure’s Disintegration accidentally cued during a climactic fight inside a suitcase. This is the best Marvel movie by a huge margin.
87. Sicario — Unfairly stacks the “Juarez = Hell” deck only so that it can later unstack it, by showing American complicity in the violence, normal lives being led within earshot of the gunfire, etc. Not quite enough to pull me back, though.
88. Brooklyn — A less detailed depiction of 1952 New York than Carol, of course, but don’t let anyone tell you it lacks visual interest. A cemetery scene, with yellow dress, gray headstone and blue sky, could be from John Ford.
89. The Assassin — Only the soundtrack gives away what a strange hybrid this is. Martial arts sound effects make momentary pulp of what is otherwise dreamy, luxurious, silent.
90. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 — It resolves.
91. Back to the Future (1985) — Reagan-era movie advocates a bizarre form of trickle-down economics. Improve your dad’s spending power by making sure he was always going to be rich.
92. Back to the Future Part II (1989) — Actively repellent at times, but I love it.
93. The Quay Brothers in 35mm — A program featuring In Absentia (2000), The Comb (1990), Street of Crocodiles (1986) and Christopher Nolan’s new short documentary Quay. The first realizes the nightmarish aspect of a writer’s life, ha ha, the second gives the twitchings of sleep an elaborate interior reality, and the third comes as close to visualizing the vanished world of Bruno Schulz as I’d imagine possible, after the war.
94. Krampus — The opening credits have a visual sophistication that allowed me to come to this as a piece of actual filmmaking, and it never disappointed, exactly.
95. The Good Dinosaur — Light on story but with a few major innovations that make it a true Pixar movie: the photorealist landscapes, of course, but also the movements of non-humanoid animal bodies engaged in the activities of civilization. A shark attack from above is pretty neat, too.
96. Heart of a Dog — A filmmaker exploring her subjectivity shouldn’t be accused of unnecessary editorializing, but I found myself making that mistake at first. Fifteen minutes later I had warmed to the strange flow of Laurie Anderson’s thoughts and was in her spell, all the way to the last image of the end credits.
97. Star Wars (1977) — De-specialized!
98. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) — Ditto!
99. Creed — 2015’s best movie (declared here; partially explained here). On top of everything else, it might even contain the only authentic joke about the old/young technological divide ever attempted in the current century.
100. Strange Brew (1983) — A sort of prototype for all subsequent comedy sketches stretched to feature length, but pretty consistently funny.
101. Chi-Raq — Spike Lee did it no favors by going around saying that the central premise has real world applicability, but as drama it works and as cinema it’s quite astounding.
102. The Thin Man (1934) — As the central mystery grows tiresome, the camera scans the room, gets distracted by a fun married couple over by the bar. A franchise is born.
103. Star Wars: The Force Awakens — I prefer my Star Wars movies with less than five settings, so even as a quasi-remake of the 1977 original, this new one’s a little distended. But as testing ground for an appealing new cast it worked.
104. Spotlight — I worried a second viewing would deflate its power but if anything it played better, its moral aspect sharpened, with Stanley Tucci’s “it takes a village” line teasing out the complicity of every living adult.
105. The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) — Outside of The Gang’s All Here, I’ve not seen a more visually stimulating musical.
106. Carol — Upon wide release, my view of the screen was a bit skewed but my reaction wasn’t.
107. The Big Short — Once again the Academy mistakes Best Editing with Most Editing. Try watching this without a perpetual feeling of distraction, like something’s fluttering in your peripheral vision.
108. Mustang — Mentioned here. Also: the promise of the city; the importance of sympathetic teachers.
Bonus (home video)
Magic Mike XXL — Sometimes you’re in your workshop with your power tools, your song comes on and you just want to dance. From that moment, Magic Mike XXL is everything I would ask a movie to be: expertly composed and consistently self-justifying. It would’ve been great to see what Robert Altman could’ve done with this material, but as it is you could pretty easily convince someone this is his swan song.
Friday, January 1, 2016
Favorite albums, 2015
 Swervedriver, I Wasn’t Born To Lose You
“The gift that healed me felt like molten gold.” —Martin Phillipps
 Dawn Richard, Blackheart
The only album I listened to regularly all year long, though I never quite wrapped my head around it. I wrote something about “inorganic textures wielded and finessed as if they have physical existence,” inadvertently describing an auteurist electronic album and/or most pop music in 2015 (it’s both, neither). Lose the passive voice and make Richard the subject: it’s the steadiness of her hands—wielding and finessing sound, rubbing temples, dangling a mask just lifted or about to be worn—that sets Blackheart above.
 Girlpool, Before The World Was Big
What haven’t I praised yet? How about the production, which gives every sound a weight and a place, on a surface just opaque enough to catch the long shadows.
 Björk, Vulnicura
Long amorphous songs with time signatures that only Björk and her collaborators could possibly identify (though I had fun trying to tap them out) tell the story of the greatest rupture in the history of recorded music. Vulnicura offers a lot of potential obstacles and intimidating portents but, from its demand of emotional respect onward, contains Björk’s most immediate and luminous music since the 90s. Don’t trust anyone who asks you to leave it to the fanbase.
 Joanna Newsom, Divers
Time is taller than space is wide, and Newsom exploits space to make this the year’s tallest 52 minutes. Eschewing harp and idiosyncratic language as much as her compositions will allow, she turns to a broader range of sounds and idioms, not always of her own invention. “Leaving the City” has so many hallmarks of rap music that the ones it lacks are a mere technicality, and “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” is a barroom sing-along in more than just theory, I hope. Start there, or with the last 30 seconds of “You Will Not Take My Heart Alive,” where the constant surprise of the album’s instrumentation is expressed in miniature, sounds pairing off in sequence to state the theme.
 Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly
Not enough characters to be a novel, but I get it: in another universe, I’d have spent 2015 carrying around a tattered and marked-up book by the writer Lamar. I treated my digital copy more like a double LP, rarely played all the way through but each side given separate attention at some point in the year. A sent me reeling, D brought tears and grounded me, C let me in, invited me to look around and lay low, and B remained in the shadow of “u,” refusing to crack no matter how many times he screams into the hotel room mirror.
 Blur, The Magic Whip
“Every film about war ends up being pro-war,” Truffaut said. A pop album about overpopulation anxiety would seem similarly doomed to failure since it can’t help offering the thrill of human connection, can’t help being a product. Blur don’t try to mitigate either circumstance: The Magic Whip is astounding in its musical detail, glum in its self-implication. So a kind of helplessness pervades, but any sense that the music is overly lethargic disappears as soon as headphones reveal one of the year’s liveliest albums, and a high point in the band’s catalog.
 The Chills, Silver Bullets
You’ll notice a trend developing: artists who made some of their best music 20-30 years ago did so again in 2015. This one surprised me most. No Greenpeace calls in the booklet but Martin Phillipps still sings of ecology, geopolitics, love and human cruelty, while lavish arrangements feature guitar work as seductive and nuanced as ever, astonishing for a band that’s undergone countless shakeups in the three decades since “Pink Frost.” The Chills have made albums as good as this one, but none better.
 Tamaryn, Cranekiss
In which former shoegaze purist Tamaryn accesses The Timelords’ Manual not to generate #1s but to seek permission for an overtly borrowed aesthetic and a few pop-oriented moves. No permission needed. Even as she fills in all the boxes on her greatly expanded dream-pop/shoegaze checklist, she hits on just as many moments of breathtaking and organic melody. Weekend’s Shaun Durkan contributes, his stamp most evident on the hypnotic “Collection.” In a lot of ways, this is the Weekend album I’ve been waiting five years for.
 Earl Sweatshirt, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside
An agoraphobic wonderland of sound. Interiority as music’s final frontier, again. More albums should aspire to not passing the 30-minute mark.
These might’ve made the list if I’d had more consistent means of listening to them:
Angel Haze, Back to the Woods
Fetty Wap, Fetty Wap
Grimes, Art Angels
Susanne Sundfør, Ten Love Songs
These didn’t make the list but maybe should have:
a. Best Coast, California Nights
b. Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
c. Destroyer, Poison Season
d. Evans The Death, Expect Delays
e. Janet Jackson, Unbreakable
f. Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show
g. Low, Ones and Sixes
h. Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
i. Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
j. Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
a, i: Never better, on album #3.
b, d, f: More fully realized as concept albums than the ones in my top ten, probably.
c, g, j: My favorite things they’ve done in nearly a decade, or at least it’s been that long since I so immediately sensed what they were up to.
p.s. It was great having Built To Spill, Sleater-Kinney, Deerhunter and Julia Holter in my life again. I have nothing bad to say about their new albums except maybe, toward the end of that list, “nice.”
p.p.s. Summer albums don’t wither but sometimes they hibernate: SoX’s Surf, Fair & Blake’s Yes.
The best things I bought were two box sets containing every album by The Sound and a two-disc House Masters set chronicling the career of Frankie Knuckles.
On the way to the Heems show in July I saw the night’s best performance, a busker in front of the IDS Center singing Sinéad’s “Just Like U Said It Would B” as if she’d just written it, with the fury of a picture-ripper.
I spent a July day with Jack Rabid in Helena, while his 7-year old son made Byrds puns, transcribed the lyrics to “Octopus’ Garden” and panicked when his Small Faces search turned up no results, and a lunch hour with Marlon James in Midtown talking about Prince, mostly, and our imagined 33 1/3 book proposals (mine: Bob Mould’s Modulate; his: Anita Baker’s Rapture). I interviewed The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster and Local H’s Scott Lucas. Nice guys, both, though a certain dread gripped me when I went to transcribe the latter’s phone call.
All book chapters should begin thus:
“One of the songs off Goo was ‘Tunic (Song for Karen).’”
—Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band
I went to about 50 in 2015, on par with the year before. Some great ones, chronologically (Swervedriver was best):
Sleater-Kinney – First Ave (2/14)
The Twilight Sad – Entry (3/2)
Swervedriver – Turf Club (3/12)
Waxahatchee / Girlpool / Kitten Forever – Triple Rock (5/6)
Courtney Barnett / Babes in Toyland – Rock the Garden (6/20-21)
Ex Hex – Triple Rock (7/20)
Miguel – State (8/15)
X – Mill City (8/29)
Jenny Hval – Entry (9/1)
Destroyer / Jennifer Castle – Fine Line (9/26)
Ride – Mill City (9/29)
Kraftwerk – Northrop (10/7)
John Grant – Cedar (10/22)
Yo La Tengo – Pantages (11/7)
Deerhunter – First Ave (12/14)
Joanna Newsom – Fitzgerald (12/17)
Top five, top of my head: Björk’s Post, Pulp’s Different Class, Matthew Sweet’s 100% Fun, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous and Luna’s Penthouse.
Favorite old song of the year
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
// songs of 2015 //
1/ 20 Janet Jackson, “Night”
2/ 19 Miguel, “Waves”
3/ 18 The Radio Dept., “This Repeated Sodomy”
4/ 17 Fetty Wap, “Again”
5/ 16 Evans The Death, “Expect Delays”
6/ 15 Beach House, “10:37”
7/ 14 Tinashe, “Dreams Are Real”
8/ 13 Dawn Richard, “Swim Free”
9/ 12 Colleen Green, “Wild One”
10/ 11 Hop Along, “Powerful Man”
11/ 10 Waxahatchee, “La Loose”
12/ 9 Jenny Hval, “Sabbath”
13/ 8 Chromatics, “Just Like You”
14/ 7 Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta”
15/ 6 Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, “Sunday Candy”
16/ 5 Jazmine Sullivan, “Let It Burn”
17/ 4 Young Guv, “Kelly, I’m Not A Creep”
18/ 3 Girlpool, “Chinatown”
19/ 2 Susanne Sundfør, “Fade Away”
20/ 1 Björk, “History of Touches”
At just over 72 minutes, it’s the shortest Macromix in recent memory, and an unusually fun one to listen to, I think. Let me know your preferred format, and in the meantime, listen at Mixcloud and read more at Big Takeover.
If you’ve ever felt these mixes are a chore to get through, be assured that this one’s a breeze by comparison. Even the two songs that pass the five-minute mark do so only because they can’t bear to sacrifice a mood. Epic-tilting tracks have been banished to the album list. Look there for the likes of “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” “For A Day Like Tomorrow,” “Thought I Was A Spaceman,” “Underwater Wasteland” and “Last.”
I could say a lot about why it has to end with “Fade Away” and “History of Touches,” in that order, and not just because they’re my two favorite songs of the year. It’s not really a personal significance either, but in the silence that separates them, in the silence that disappoints “Fade Away” as triumphant finale and locates a drifting tendency that seems so impossible as the song thumps along, there’s a narrative I recognize instantly.
Younger me might be displeased to learn that Gaz Coombes’ “The Girl Who Fell To Earth” and Idlewild’s “Radium Girl” (their boy-band moment) just missed the cut.
Like everyone else, my favorite Earl Sweatshirt song was “Grief” and my favorite Vince Staples song was “Lift Me Up.”
Once again, my favorite song on a Deerhunter album ends up being the shortest one: “Duplex Planet.” Finding that out was quite a journey. I’ll tell you about it someday.
If I’d had room for a cover song on the list, it would’ve been Yo La Tengo’s “Friday I’m In Love,” of course.
Anyone who saw Courtney Barnett live this year knows that “Small Poppies” is her best song.
Of the hundred other songs I could mention, let me mention… Speedy Ortiz’s “Raising The Skate”!
Here’s where I’d normally tell you that “I Really Like You” and “Run Away With Me” were among my favorite pop junk of the year, but since Carly Rae Jepsen is a critics’ darling whose album flopped, no need for an asterisk.
Monday, July 20, 2015
1. Selma — I noticed the absolute beauty of one composition, girls on a staircase, the exact moment before the frame blows up. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more jolted by a movie. DuVernay’s just as visionary in her one-shot overhead view of the aftermath, with echoes of The Wizard of Oz—a terrifying but safe imaginary place for children to work out the nightmares of society, denied. Oprah Winfrey deserved a nomination too, as she did for The Butler. She does so much with her one big scene here.
2. Mr. Turner — My favorite Leigh by a significant margin. I prefer the way the characters register the horror of existence, not with uncontrollable sobs but with blank, uncomprehending stares.
3. Nightcrawler — Viewing this as a didactic commentary on the media would indeed make it seem a bit rote, i.e. everyone knows all about that already, but saying “it’s just a movie” helped me elevate this to greatness.
4. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) — It seems impossible to remember this movie as anything but a haunting dream, so it was funny to see it again and find that the filmmaking really is quite alert, grounded in physical detail and sensation.
5. Inherent Vice — From an e-mail I sent: “Yeah, Inherent Vice was great, I like how effectively it mirrored the confusion I feel when watching detective movies and wondering how the characters can so easily absorb plot developments and mazes of connections and immediately visualize their next move. That is to say, I couldn't make much sense of the story. But the way Doc uses his P.I. notepad in only the most pointless way (“something Spanish” comes to mind) allowed me to turn off from content a little bit and think of everything more in terms of language and sound. A Pavement-y effect, I guess. I wish more movies were musical in that way. Great soundtrack and score, too. Might have to see it again.” [I didn’t see it again, sadly. —ed.]
6. The Big Sleep (1946) — See Inherent Vice, above. This is the movie I meant.
7. Blow Out (1981) — The only money I ever made from writing was for a high school essay that took the physical media-cluttered mise en scene of Blow Out as its starting point. I still dig that aspect of the movie, but this time the ending turned me on most. John Travolta’s blunders on his way to saving Nancy Allen quickly become operatic in scope, and that might prove alienating to an audience accustomed to smart heroes undertaking swift rescue, but for me it’s the moment when dream edges into nightmare.
8. Still Alice — Sure to be remembered as the movie that won Julianne Moore an Oscar, but she’s actually very good in it. Key scene: In bed at night, she spills her fears but the husband just comforts her, not registering her terror, so she has to scream to make him listen.
9. Two Days, One Night — In Dardennes fashion, the title first reads as merely descriptive, but in the end doesn’t quite seem to match up. The movie spans three days, right? So instead I started to think of the title as referring to an aspect of storytelling that’s so crucial here, compression of time, and to think about how the film makes the highs appropriately high and the lows appropriately low, with such a limited window. For the highs, thank the soundtrack, which has a French version of “Needles and Pins” and Them’s (I think) version of “Gloria” during a few key driving scenes, the latter nearly manic in the way the mood shifts so abruptly. For the lows, thank Marion Cotillard, who was indispensable last year. The Immigrant had that miraculous moment when a magician appears to levitate, and where most movies would mock his unsophisticated turn-of-the-century audience, turn the camera on their wide eyes and gaping mouths, Cotillard won’t play along. She instead allows herself to be distracted by another figure in the room, and ignores the whole thing! And in Two Days, where most movies present depression and job anxiety as exotic, mysterious forces, she makes it all utterly ordinary.
10. Timbuktu — Everything I remember most about this movie—a soccer game without the ball; violent struggle at a mirror-like lake—plays like an exercise in pure cinema, in my memory. Consult a source better than me for broader significance.
11. Big Hero 6 — A nice diversion, with a small legacy: Zac and I say “furry baby” quite often.
12. To Have and Have Not (1944) — I remember when Humphrey Bogart was a constant feature of my life, and now I’m lucky to see him once or twice a year. He’s like family in that way.
13. What We Do in the Shadows — Funny!
14. All About My Mother (1999) — Prelude to…
15. Bad Education (2004) — I checked my records to find that I’d first seen this at a theater ten years and nine days previously, in Helena! In the interim it had become one of my favorite movies, and now I’ve seen it enough to declare it perfect, a labyrinth of plot and frame and revelation that’s beautiful and whole from every angle. The moment when a drop of blood trickles down Ignacio’s forehead and his face splits in half deserves applause or a standing ovation, anywhere and anytime this movie is playing.
16. Little Fugitive (1953) — For a place I’ve never been, New York City takes up a lot of territory in my mind, as an imaginary place, a collaborative work of art. Sometimes I barely believe it exists or ever existed, so movies like Little Fugitive, filmed at Coney Island in the 50s, are invaluable, make it nearly real.
17. Speed Racer (2008) — Plays even better now than it did seven years ago. I submit this as a classic due for rediscovery.
18. While We’re Young — Best use of montage since… the word referred to a technique and not just a narrative shortcut set to music? As a vehicle for a Dean Wareham cameo, this is a worthy follow-up to Frances Ha, trading a mid-to-late 20s worldview for a middle-aged one, and the romance of black and white for principled real color. I didn’t expect the movie to go down a rabbit hole of documentary and authenticity concerns, but it comes with the territory, and exposes the characters’ beliefs and worries in a way that less frantic plotting wouldn’t.
19. Citizen Kane (1941) — I remember when this movie was a puzzle to solve, and how I watched it enough times until I felt I understood what made it great. Now I can appreciate it as a terrific entertainment (eternally fresh and liberated, too; as evidence of a young artist messing around with the world he knows and making something great, it remains inspiring), but I get no joy from thinking about it.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron — The speed with which Black Widow and Hulk jump from confessing their love to grieving the fact they can’t have kids was pretty alarming. Mourning that which will never exist? I don’t get it.
21. Ex Machina — I’m not sure what’s going on with the recent slate of movies about A.I. women in captivity, except that men will never stop finding new ways of being fucked up. I got the impression the filmmakers thought it progressive to deliver Ava to a sense of her own agency. I’d rather have seen what she does with it.
22. Pitch Perfect 2 — Reviewed here. Editorial changes didn’t quite help clarify my second paragraph’s minefield of clauses. Try this instead:
“It’s a comedy after all, necessarily hermetic. [NEW PARAGRAPH] But mostly the Bellas sing, and their musical preferences give the film a rosy, regressive approach to soundtrack that’s ultimately to its benefit. There’s no need for the world of collegiate a cappella to contain the same level of posturing and trendsetting found at the Beverly Hills high school of Clueless.”
Not sure I believe that, but as long as the copy’s legible.
23. Mad Max: Fury Road — Crazy!
24. The Stranger (1946) — Not very good. Given what Orson Welles was capable of in the ‘40s, I have to assume he filmed this in two days in a state of constant distraction.
25. Tomorrowland — This looked like it was going to be huge; a few months later I bet it will take you a minute to remember it ever existed. However much it undercuts wonder with futility, it’s still a movie about wonder, thus doomed to failure in 2015. But during its one brief shining moment, opening weekend (even better that I saw it right after a high school graduation), it played well.
26. Mad Max: Fury Road — For the second time. Not my favorite of the year by any means, but the one where I most felt the need to figure out what I’d seen.
27. Spy — Melissa McCarthy gives a somewhat milder performance than usual, so it’s great when the movie gives her one chance to riff on her persona, suddenly full of a sense of her power and throwing out crude insults until she realizes she’s gone too far. I’m always happy to watch her blitz her way through a movie but Spy shifts the angle, desk worker gone rogue serving as a sort of parable of the work it takes for a comic actor to crush self-doubt and get to that place of anarchic energy. It’s also very funny, Beaches wristwatch in particular.
28. When Marnie Was There — Much as I love Miyazaki, I’d argue that an increase in projects from different directors has reinvigorated Studio Ghibli and that their recent five-picture run, starting with Arrietty, rivals Pixar’s run from Ratatouille to Toy Story 3. (Too bad they’ve put a halt to new work.) After a handful of wonderful films about girls, When Marnie Was There is the capper, the story of a shy adolescent engaged in a supernatural lesbian romance. A late revelation makes such a reading a bit perverse, but as in From Up on Poppy Hill the film portrays young love so tenderly that its forbidden aspect hardly registers. (Clooney and robot girl’s relationship in Tomorrowland, odd as it is, passes the test too.)
29. Results — After his formally ambitious fourth film Computer Chess, Results plays like an alternate universe follow-up to Andrew Bujalski’s first three low-budget pictures. From the universe we’re used to, that is: Indie director upgrades cameras and cast for sleek approximation of his early work. But his characters retain their spirit. Every time Results threatens to take a conventional turn, the characters back down from confrontation and behave like normal people. A lawsuit threat turns into an invitation to get high, etc.
30. Jurassic World — Entertaining enough, but… if you have to ease your guilt over making a soulless studio product by constantly having your characters engaged in meta-commentary about corporate sponsorship, why bother making it in the first place? Oh well, there was still quite a bit I liked here. It’s hilarious when the two boys walk into the ruins of the Jurassic Park set, a perfect visual metaphor for the way people now perceive the 1990s to be as ancient as Maya society or something. Technology has rendered the whole 20th century as pre-history.
31. Nine to Five (1980) — I too thought Dolly Parton was terrific, and looked back at Ebert’s review to find it’s nothing but rapturous praise of her. But I don’t think she’s great at the expense of the rest of the movie, which has charms in every direction. The scene of Parton, Tomlin and Fonda smoking pot and laughing hysterically is a gift to the universe.
32. Inside Out — Reviewed here, first sentence typo not mine. It originally just said, “Bjork predicted their vision.” My premise is a bit silly, I know. Of course it’s a children’s movie and I only undermine my question of universal applicability by bringing adults into the equation. Basically I just kept wondering why the movie had to be about a kid whose family can afford to move to San Francisco. Maybe I should’ve just said that.
33. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) — A three-hour movie without an extraneous shot or scene. I forgot how deeply cynical (realistic) it is, correctly identifying America’s business interests as a threat to the very people who would fight for it. “Where we stand today is… where we stand today, wherever that is.” It’s a sad world, where war is better than business as usual.
34. Blazing Saddles (1974) — Forty years later the jokes require no explanation. If anything it almost plays like a parody of the present day.
35. Love and Mercy — People treat biopic like a bad word, as if it has nothing to offer, as if its formulas and cliches formed in a vacuum and have nothing to do with the way people think about history and famous lives. Anyway, this one doesn’t dismantle biopic convention as much as I’d been led to expect, or at all, but the cast is splendid, the sound design is superb, and the case for giving genius free reign and all necessary resources is fully convincing, after seeing the opposite. Not to mention the film depicts the Pet Sounds sessions, the world historical event I would most like to have been present for.
36. Hard to Be a God — Hard to be human, again.
37. Purple Rain (1984) — The idea that an audience wouldn’t immediately recognize the genius of “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” is a plot contrivance so outlandish it nearly undermines the whole movie. But the filmmaking really clicks into place for the ballads, and even when it doesn’t, I take very seriously this portrait of the rock star as a troubled teen.
38. Car Wash (1976) — A hit-and-miss series of jokes and gags that doesn’t nearly imply any of its few dozen characters is destined for an arc, until that devastatingly sad coda has two characters completing each other’s.
Bonus (home video)
White Bird in a Blizzard announces itself as a spiritual sequel to Mysterious Skin—an opening voiceover telling of a disappearance; falling stuff (snow, not cereal) set to Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s score; a story set in two distinct periods, ‘80s and ‘90s; honest depiction of teenage sexuality; etc.—but Araki’s return to literary adaptation is a disappointment, especially in comparison to his masterpiece. This is the kind of movie where the protagonist’s black and gay friends deserve their own movies but instead say things like “I’m so proud of you” and “you’re my hero now,” a propos of nothing.