Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unlikely, or appropriate?

Is it unlikely that the object of Mike White’s affection (obsession) in Chuck & Buck would become the director of a blockbuster about the vagaries of teen (and interspecies) love called New Moon? Or merely appropriate? That is a question for Chris Weitz.*

Is it unlikely that a man whose two best regarded albums open with songs narrated by the captain of a slave ship and a group of sons of slaveholders, respectively, would write the songs for the first Disney movie to feature an African American princess? Or merely appropriate? That is a question for Randy Newman.


When I was 14 my rampant consumption of the classics made me convinced I would be a film critic. I suppose it’s still possible—if not a viable profession, I believe film criticism will never cease to be an absolutely crucial practice—but I’m often unimpressed with my own intellectual capacity on this blog. I don’t feel any real incentive to elaborate my thoughts or take myself to task for half-formed arguments. But the blog does keep my viewing moving forward, so here are some more nuggets of lazy observation:

Let’s henceforth banish the word “whimsy” from all serious critical discussion, but before we do that, let me say that Fantastic Mr. Fox has a fair amount more of it than Where the Wild Things Are, plus a bit of the pensiveness that is the latter film’s strong suit. A dead rat is given a very haunting eulogy, and Mr. Fox often explains his bad behavior by reminding, “I’m an animal.” Which would be just as true if he was human. But what matters most is that the movie is astonishingly joyful and creative, never in the same way twice, and in ways that Where the Wild Things Are, because it is about children and not just likely to be loved by them, can’t be.

Bright Star is a great evocation of the words of a poet, never a mere recitation. That’s an important point for a film that shows the life of John Keats, who tells his lover that there is nothing to “work out” in poetry, that the important thing is to luxuriate in the words. Bright Star is a movie you can swim through. And I’ll have to disagree with our local film critic, who believes Ben Whishaw to be too good-looking for the lead (a sensitive soul and handsome—too much insult for the common man!). He is attractive, but he doesn’t play the part that way—he is a small, sickly man, often dwarfed, even infantilized, by his lover. It’s a depiction of bodily wastage matched by Tobey Maguire’s war veteran in Brothers, whose best image shows gaunt and pale Tobey reflected in a mirror, into which he is not looking. You’d expect him to look and not recognize himself, but the moment rises above.

Speaking of…

Mirrors: I initially thought the sequence in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour in which Edward Norton speaks racial epithets into the camera was too angry and too confrontational for a film whose big city tensions are all bubbling under. But consider: He speaks them into a mirror. The sequence updates a similar and famous one from Do The Right Thing, in which the characters shout at you. In 25th Hour, the mirror mediates, and you are only implicated to the extent that you identify with Norton. It’s a subtle film, and those critics who say it’s a strong film unsubtly overlaid with evocations of 9/11 must be seeing things I’m not seeing. The only blatant reference I recall is a discussion of the contaminated Ground Zero air surrounding one character’s apartment complex. But that moment is more generally about, like everything else in the film, the impossibility of living in New York. When you can’t even breathe the air…

Last, if you thought the practice of showing the same action from two different angles and thereby disrupting narrative continuity vanished sometime after A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Life of an American Fireman (1903), when filmmakers decided continuity was all-important, look no further than turn-of-the-new-century depictions of urban despair like 25th Hour (I’ve noticed it in Homicide too), where it is used not for spectacle but for… what exactly?

Speaking of…

Our local film critic: When will he stop giving away the endings? His review of A Serious Man includes a thorough description of the final shots, and he has also recently written reviews describing the entire story arcs of Moon and The Informant! For shame!

Speaking of…

A Serious Man: I read a well-considered review of the movie on a blog I follow, and left a comment detailing some of my thoughts. Now I’ve seen the movie again, and I realize my own comments were not exactly well considered. I argued that the film employs a basic MacGuffin structure (I referred to the son’s radio as a cosmic MacGuffin) and signals its ending by reintroducing the father/son crosscutting of the opening sequence and “answering” the question of Larry’s medical tests and Danny’s confiscated MacGuffin. This is an arbitrary yet necessary way to structure a film about the search for meaning, whose only proper ending is the death of the species. Then I went on to describe the ending, in which father and son are confronted with the double spectre of death and destruction, and in which we find the son better prepared to meet the horror, but I ran into trouble by mistakenly thinking that Danny’s radio actually belongs to nemesis Fagel.

My analysis also hinged upon the awesomeness of the song “Somebody to Love,” and while I think scores and soundtracks usually ruin movies, the Airplane’s presence in the movie results in the best overuse of an overplayed song since “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express.


I can’t really get away with watching the softcore porn vid for Girls’ “Lust for Life” at work, so I’ve only heard the song in fits and starts, but it strikes me as a forceful example of a musician singing through his romantic and social problems and packaging it into the sort of single that should come around once a month, into eternity, but probably doesn’t. I used to think this is what music was all about: bottle up your lust and longing and messed-upness and put it in a song. I don’t know if there’s been a drop-off in recent years in music as misfit therapy (for maker and listener), but if not it at least isn’t often presented in such an unfussy and happily uncool way as “Lust.” It seems only appropriate that poor internet connections around here have introduced another personal element of longing to the song, by keeping me from hearing it in its entirety and truly connecting. It’s like back in the days of radio, when you might hear part of a song that could comfort you in the long term, but you don’t catch the name and never hear it again. Wireless to wireless, heartache to heartache. I’m thankful for discs of pain that I have been able to hear, front to back and again and again, Patrick Wolf’s The Bachelor being a recent example.

Correction: What did I mean when I said The Twilight Sad are wearing their influences more proudly on their latest album? I mentioned Joy Division, but who did I really think the Sad sound like? The Chameleons? No. Joy Division? Not really. This is a thoroughly unique band, at least in the way that such a committed band can seem to exist in the absence of any context other than whatever emotion they’re channeling. I’d compare them to Slint, but only because they’re a similarly intuitive rock band. The shades and textures in the music are spontaneous eruptions and don’t fit into a neat grid. They’re storytellers, I suppose.

Youth Group’s The Night Is Ours is the least of their albums, but they remain firmly committed to creating strong melodies. Many albums go by and leave in their wake not a single memorable or convincing melody; this isn’t one of them. Add to that the fact that singer Toby Martin’s voice has grown into a siren reminiscent of James’s Tim Booth, and this is an album well worth hearing.

Joe Pernice’s latest album It Feels So Good When I Stop is dubbed a “novel soundtrack,” so does that make the corresponding book a “soundtrack novel”? The album is a collection of covers, pleasant if not revelatory, but its chief comfort is my suspicion that Pernice writes fiction for the same reasons I do. The album suggests a novel that pieces pop songs into a coherent narrative, a novel that had to begin life as a soundtrack before it could become a soundtrack again.

For Against are the greatest band to ever come out of Nebraska, and that’s no dubious distinction. It goes a little way toward explaining why they sound so unlike their American contemporaries, and the band’s latest, Never Been, sustains its mood of wintry dawn in a way that’s only possible when you spend twenty-odd years recording in your hometown (and a desolate one at that). The band was still great before guitarist Harry Dingman III rejoined after a 20 year absence, but everything about these last two, including 2008’s Shade Side Sunny Side (4 a.m. to Never Been’s 6 a.m.), suggests a renewal of purpose and a clear artistic vision—from the spare white album packaging to the impressionistic use of guitar and keyboard. The latter is what unites the two albums, despite the first’s post-punkish intensity and the new one’s more somber, painterly, classical approach.**

The band called Shout Out Louds, who once sounded a lot like The Cure, have a new anthem called “Walls” from the forthcoming Work. It’s my favorite song of 2010, and I’m telling you this now before it ends up on TV ads for which it seems destined. Any attempt to appropriate the song for the purpose of selling the triumphs of American industry to young people will certainly be a misreading, however, as the hook (“Whatever they say we’re the ones building walls”) is a sentiment not nearly as triumphant as the exuberance of the playing suggests. Also, the band is Swedish.

*I've been trying to come up with a Twilight equivalent for Chuck & Buck's most quotable, poetic, and unprintable line, but I should probably stop trying.
**Remember my post about the Minneapolis label Words on Music, how they only seem to release new For Against albums and Lucy Show reissues? I went back to their website after a six month absence and found they have two new releases...this latest For Against album and another Lucy Show reissue!

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