Avatar was my most intensely emotional moviegoing experience of the year, which perhaps isn’t saying much when you consider that the ending of Revenge of the Sith made me cry. Some have called the movie unimaginative, which is not true but also misses the point, since James Cameron isn’t necessarily trying to create something new here. The story works because it’s a streamlined composite of other alien planet narratives; we’re already primed to respond to the ecstasies of a story like this. The visuals, too, work because they’re so familiar, but through the wonders of technology, more vivid, physical, full and present than ever before. Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow recycled popular images too, and while I’m not sure why I found the former’s visuals stifling and dull and the latter’s mesmerizing, or why some find Avatar chintzy, I know it comes down to a matter of taste, not aesthetic failure.
Almost as emotional: Of Time and the City
Jim Emerson calls Precious a John Waters-inspired comedy, which at least takes the movie’s peculiarity into account, but I’ve yet to find a review that accurately describes the narrative arc. It is neither a “feel-bad/feel-good story of degradation and redemption” nor a “voyeuristic lesson-movie that goes slumming and then presents itself as an inspirational triumph of the spirit” (Emerson’s expectations before he saw it). It could only be those things if by its end it gave us a protagonist completely knowable in her new happiness. But Precious, as she leaves the screen, is still unknowable, and doomed to further unhappiness, and just plain doomed. All we’ve done is see her through (some of) the worst of it. At least she has seen beyond her drawn shades into Ms. Rain’s Sapphic paradise. Did I mention I liked the movie?
Almost as cruel: Observe and Report, while not quite equal to its ambitions, is an anti-comedy about the way humans celebrate despicable people just because they can throw a punch or shoot a gun.
A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor : It’s great, and it’s as if I’ve been unconsciously channeling it for years: The Misfit’s shoulder blades in the title story; “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” which takes on, quite successfully, the losing proposition of trying to describe a character’s every physical sensation and health worry. I should begin rewriting my old stories with all this in mind, and then I will have the benefit of a touch of Flannery even if I fail in every other way.
Spin (which I spent no less than three months, off and on, reading) included some of those annoying things that SF writers do, like the way everyone refers to a human-descended Martian character as “that wrinkled little brown man” even though it undermines their plausibility as human beings. So then why did the ending have to be so satisfactory? I could kick this SF habit if I wasn’t always so pleased with the outcome and didn’t always feel I had come closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe.
Every time I go to the library and browse the new fiction shelves, I find yet another novel about music love in the modern era: characters bonding via cassette tapes, mourning the demise of a punk band, etc. Titles include The Singer, The Song Is You*, Rock Bottom, The Alternative Hero, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone. I’m curious to read all of these, though I have mixed feelings about their existence. They indicate a market, however meager, for this sort of literature, but also a literary trend that makes my own fiction less than unique. The best I can do to counteract irrelevance is to understand the way I feel about the music I like. Two more I forgot: Joe Pernice’s latest; Peter Bognanni’s forthcoming The House of Tomorrow. I think the latter will be wise about its subject. The cover is awesome, plus the protagonist joins a punk band called The Rash, which sounds like a band that would play at The Smell.
At this time of year, what I like even better than Christmas music are those songs that can almost convince you, if you’re listening to them in a dark enough room, that you have died and been buried in the cold, cold ground. The third track on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, Moby’s “My Weakness,” among others: I think these have no greater goal than to push you right up against your fear of death when you are at your most vulnerable, locked in headphones. DJ Shadow’s (Twin Peaks-sampling) Endtroducing** might work the same way if it didn’t also have the influence of funk and hip-hop. And Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” might too, if it didn’t also sound like a resurrection.
Someone (me?) ought to do a comparative analysis of Atlas Sound’s “Shelia” and Girls’ aforeblogged “Lust for Life.” In both, the singer seems to be wishing not for what he says he wants, but wishing that he wished for what he says he wants. It would simplify life, to want those things.
Speaking of, I’d like to hear an Atlas Sound cover of the “Just You & I” musical number from Twin Peaks. There is much that defies convention on that show, but this sequence—in which the teenagers James, Donna, and pseudo-Laura sit in a living room and, just because they want to, sing to the sound of twinkling 50s guitar—is an especially unmotivated, and perfect, moment. Taken out of context (where it pretty much already exists) it would be one of the greatest of all music videos, the poor lip-syncing a special bonus!
Deerhunter’s Microcastle is the highest-ranking album by a band whose members are roughly close to my own age on my still unpublished list of the best of the 00s. For this reason, and just because it sounds right, I’d say that album is the best so far produced by my generation (not the generation of 15 years ago that I used to think was mine). It features sounds that have been heard before, but the air of lethargy and illness that surrounds them is certainly a new attitude. There’s a song on the companion album called “VHS Dream,” and I think this is particular to late 80s babies: that even technologies I still use everyday I already find remote and somewhat romantic. Also see The xx, “VCR.”
But perhaps you are a serenely, uncomplicatedly, and permanently happy person and believe Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion to be the sign of the times and the sound of a generation (why do I have this attitude about AC fans even though I know it isn’t so?). If I fell in love with someone who loved them I would maybe find myself instantly agreeing, but I find there’s a troubling absence of pain in their music (probably not in the lives of the musicians, so where is it hiding? Even your standard hippie Zen anthem reveals a bit of sadness). So I’ll skip their “I wanna walk around with you” for the time being and stick with the Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You.”
The songs on Top 40 radio these days are among the most culture-encrusted music I’ve ever heard. The hitmakers of today will swipe seemingly any musical gesture, and what once made sense and resonated emotionally in the context of rock ‘n’ roll, soul, funk, psychedelia, disco, punk, post-punk, hip-hop, etc., can easily be made just one more layer of cacophony in a pop song. These songs are therefore complex but also banal: so long as the lyrical sentiment is simple and works as a cipher of real human feeling where no real world context actually exists, then even a bit of overprocessed shoegazery guitar might be considered appropriately marketable. I can’t even count the number of musical trends that had to happen before The Black Eyed Peas could create something as unlistenable as “Boom Boom Pow.” How someone can respond to that song—or even be made to want to dance by it—is beyond me; I was able to respond to it twenty iterations ago when it was called “The Twist” and wasn’t carrying tons of cultural trash making it the sonic equivalent of the junked Earth in Wall-E. That said—and for those who are keeping tabs on the mixed messages I’ve been sending about her—I find Lady Gaga’s songs infinitely more palatable than anything else on Ryan Seacrest’s morning show, as the best of them are simpler throwbacks to the mid-90s club stylings of LaBouche, Crystal Waters, etc. Gaga herself is sending significantly fewer mixed messages*** than her contemporaries, by which I mean she displays a straightforward diva mentality and her music is not sonically chaotic or indecipherable.
I had a brief and unspectacular conversation with (Decemberist) Colin Meloy when he played a hometown show at my place of work on Sunday. I also learned from his Twitter that the great Vic Chesnutt has died.
I’ve read eight books published in the last 12 months (a new record!). Here they are from best to worst (i.e. great to quite good): Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Lowboy, Homer & Langley, The Book of Night Women, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Stitches, Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Asterios Polyp.
Also, twelve great movies of 2009: Avatar, Of Time and the City, A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Tyson, Bruno, Silent Light, Taking Woodstock, Julia.
*The New York Times review remarks upon the rarity of the male muse in literature, and the myth that women, if they must be poets, must serve as their own inspiration. The book is said to cleverly upend this notion, and it seems doubly clever to me as the male muse is slightly less rare in popular music.
**The central melody of “Stem/Long Stem” recently reminds me of an instrumental light pop with sax track that I used to hear on AOR radio a lot and that signified to me the world of adults and hot Miami nights. Can anyone name it?
***Unless you pay too much attention to what she says.