Thursday, December 30, 2010

It’s II: Seemingly A Result Of Radness Overdose

The Head on the Door

Another year, a thousand more attempts by commentators to declare the album dead, and a thousand more opportunities for me to decline into irrelevance by not being able to abide the newfangled sounds these young people are making. But you’d have to be deader’n shit not to have noticed this was a great year for albums, and I responded as well as I was able. So I’ll go ahead and celebrate with typical comfort and complacency: a top ten!

[1] Owen Pallett, Heartland
[2] Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
[3] Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
[4] Laura Veirs, July Flame
[5] Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
[6] The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
[7] The Depreciation Guild, Spirit Youth
[8] Robyn, Body Talk
[9] Lower Dens, Twin-Hand Movement
[10] Jeremy Jay, Splash


I have the same needs as anyone else, but I guess they express themselves differently. Imagine a club where “E Is For Estranged” plays while the patrons stare silently into each other’s eyes. That would be a joy greater than talking or dancing!

Anyway, I think I’ve made the mistake of emphasizing (in my mind) this album’s technical accomplishment over its effectiveness as a great pop album, but still I don’t understand how even a genius like Owen Pallett has time for this undertaking.


Please don’t call it haunting: No album made me feel closer to real living breathing people this year. Even the dead ones (Dima, Jay Reatard) sound yet alive, not just a-ghosting. Call it instead: Sundays = Youth.


Slow down, people. Even geniuses need time to mature. This is the year even the Newsom skeptics came to love her, and she gave herself in such abundance. There was a time when she didn’t believe she could be a singer, and now, at 28, she’s giving words, in her phrasing, more meaning than they have in their entire etymology: “hotter’n Hell,” “duration,” “my love for you,” “lawlessness” (standouts).


A lot of people made the albums they were born to make this year, none more convincingly than Laura Veirs. That “born to make” designation is especially compelling in her case, ever since I came to the conclusion that July Flame might be a conception album. But even if the apocalypse doesn’t happen soon and Veirs’ newborn Tennessee doesn’t become our John Connor, this album can still be a reminder of how good and unfettered life was as recently as 2010.


I’ve got no beef with the Kanye album, but we all know (don’t we?) that it’s not nearly as exciting as Sir Lucious Left Foot (in its rapping) or ArchAndroid (in its weirdness, epicness, thorough tangling with music history), and that it’s doubly inadequate when you add those two together to get the best OutKast album since Stankonia. Or ever? But, nay, Monae’s brilliance and weirdness are entirely her own, and she has better taste than anyone right now … Whoa, I just went into a mini-reverie trying to think of something to say about her, but all I came up with is that she is the best person ever.


Two honey-voiced men—one is Kurt Feldman, whose sadly defunct Depreciation Guild has internalized as much of the best music of the 1990s as has his other band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart; the other is Johan Duncanson, who, being Swedish, has of course internalized all music—awash in warm digital and analog environments, respectively, as delicate as themselves. Though your definitions of honey and delicate might be different than mine.


Any single installment is excellent enough for placement, but since “Cry When You Get Older” is on Pt. 1 and “Hang With Me” is on Pt. 2, let’s just consider the whole 21-song, 82-minute aerobic mastercise for inclusion here. OMD’s Andy McCluskey, who knows better than anyone, says: “I don't think that Robyn is interested in making history. She is too busy loving, hurting, singing, and feeling. But she is making musical history. This is Ibsen and Munch set to a metronomic beat.” Yikes! But he’s right. It’s always a mistake to not take Robyn seriously.


A new addition to my listening, so I’ll elaborate… I wrote the other day that “I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard,” and in my recent listening bands continue to be edged out in favor of, in the words of last year, “faceless musicians serving the visions of individual artists, bringing to life the singer’s ideas about himself or herself.” So that I’m currently so high on a Band playing Essential Psychedelic Patterns of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, while Jana Hunter lisps and mumbles half-heard phrases through the compost heap, is proof of some kind of personal salvation. And let’s dispense with the rumor that Hunter sounds like PJ Harvey. It’s not only wrong, it’s irrelevant: This is as much an instrumental band as The Feelies, which is to say not entirely, but essentially.

So let’s let Lower Dens stand in for all the great freak-pop bands (my coinage!), lo-fi fops and weirdo manufactories of melodie I’ve been hearing in the fourth quarter: Women, Weekend, Tennis, Veronica Falls, Twin Sister, the refurbished Crystal Stilts. Lower Dens are from Baltimore, the home of John Waters, Frank Pembleton, and the Beach House/Wye Oak contingent, but that album cover looks a lot like Montana, so (to tear myself from deadening bedroom listening and remind myself that this music-loving business doesn’t pause for retrospective December but continues year-round) I took a stroll with the music through a wintry Montana dusk and, lo and behold, it really brought the landscape alive. The only thing that qualifies this album as freak-folk is the ripe possibility that it was recorded outside. (The totally indescribable) Twin Sister, on the other hand, seem to record in an overstuffed bedroom in which all the objects give off tiny frequencies. (Can you even call them a band?)

Anyway, I wonder if this is all happening too quickly. For example: I heard Deerhunter’s “Like New” sometime in 2007, and liked it well enough, thought it a nice foray into a mode of American music that was perhaps played out. It was another year before I heard Microcastle and realized all they were capable of, and then another year before they became absolutely essential to my life. Lower Dens are no Deerhunter, not yet, but I fear I’m exhausting them too soon. But no, there will always be more: More walks, more rooms to crank these waves in.


I guess I’m like that guy who discovered The Modern Lovers in ’76 and then never gave up on Jonathan Richman, telling all his friends about how great Richman’s ninth solo album is when they didn’t even care about his eighth. But Jeremy Jay will never be just coasting (I’m sure that’s true of Richman as well, but I wouldn’t know), and Splash, a real rock ‘n’ roll record, couldn’t be more unlike the austere fireside croonery of last year’s sublime Slow Dance. No one’s playing guitar more cleanly, and yet with greater attack, than Jeremy Jay right now.

Special Jury Prize

Beach House, Teen Dream

So awarded to an undeniably classic album that failed to make the cut for no reason other than my own fickle nature. You know I consider sobriety a virtue, but my prejudices don’t extend to music, and I don’t even know if this album counts as drugged out, since even a teetotaler could access these deep, deep feelings. Anyway, I feel safe letting this one go and entrusting it to the ages.

Audience Award

Twin Shadow, Forget

So awarded to a nearly perfect album that is, in the final estimation, perhaps a bit too labored over. Break-up albums have never meant much to me, but this is a great one, and the only one to ever make me feel what might be at stake in losing someone, how much there is that’s worth saving. But even though these songs might sound like attempts to get her back, I think they’re more likely a final purge of all the music that reminds him of her.

Lifetime Achievement Award

The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning

So awarded to an awesome collection of songs that belongs just as much to last year and next year as it does to this year. And I don’t just mean that in some spiritual sense. This shot of brilliance was self-released in 2009, re-released in 2010, and some of these songs will find new life on major label debut The Big Roar next month.

Problems for the future

[a] How old am I again? Before college (6-10 years ago) the majority of the new music I listened to was simply the latest releases by all my 80s and 90s faves (Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Stephen Malkmus, Ken Stringfellow, Guided By Voices, etc.), and I thought that stuff described my life perfectly. Today I make a real attempt to keep up with new bands, whose members are barely older and sometimes younger than me, and I feel that the premature maturity of my youth never happened. I feel I’m aging in reverse even as I’m aging forward.

[b] Why am I so uninterested in this century’s IDM and electronic music?

[c] Should I feel bad that most of the new music I listen to is American? There’s an amazing amount of creativity in this country, considering that its musicians have access to everything they could ever need to be inspired by and can’t really feel a great sense of discovery on a daily basis. If North Korea ever eases up on its bullshit, even slightly, that’s going to be a place of art like we’ve never seen before.

[d] You know my life is good when I’m able to do a blog post like this. The year I don’t is the year you can start worrying about me. And, with a sigh of relief, I’m off to listen to some old music again, but first a roll call:

Twenty-five more
(these are all really good)

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love
The Besnard Lakes, Are The Roaring Night
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Darker My Love, Alive As You Are
Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
Field Music, Measure
Girls, Broken Dreams Club
Glasser, Ring
John Grant, Queen Of Denmark
Harlem, Hippies
Let’s Wrestle, In The Court Of The Wrestling Let’s
Perfume Genius, Learning
Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer
Emma Pollock, The Law Of Large Numbers
Rogue Wave, Permalight
Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises
Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Teenage Fanclub, Shadows
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This
Twin Sister, Color Your Life
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Wild Nothing, Gemini
Zoo Animal, Zoo Animal

The rest
(I like all of these too)

Atlas Sound, Bedroom Databank
Best Coast, Crazy For You
Broken Bells, Broken Bells
The Chemical Brothers, Further
Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude
Kristin Hersh, Crooked
How To Dress Well, Love Remains
jj, no 3
jj, Kills
Liars, Sisterworld
The Magnetic Fields, Realism
Matt & Kim, Sidewalks
Matt Pond PA, The Dark Leaves
The New Pornographers, Together
Procedure Club, Doomed Forever
Quasi, American Gong
Shout Out Louds, Work
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Autumn, Again
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Nitetime Rainbows
The Thermals, Personal Life
Weezer, Hurley
Wolf Parade, Expo 86
Wye Oak, My Neighbor/My Creator

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Macromix 10

Same rules as last year. The unveiling happened here.

1/ 20 Atlas Sound, “Mona Lisa”
2/ 19 Big Boi, “Shutterbugg”
3/ 18 Panda Bear, “Slow Motion”
4/ 17 Perfume Genius, “Mr. Peterson”
5/ 16 Harlem, “Prairie My Heart”
6/ 15 Robyn, “Cry When You Get Older”
7/ 14 Shout Out Louds, “Walls”
8/ 13 The Radio Dept., “David”
9/ 12 Beach House, “Zebra”
10/ 11 Real Estate, “Out Of Tune”
11/ 10 Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
12/ 9 Owen Pallett, “Keep The Dog Quiet”
13/ 8 Surfer Blood, “Harmonix”
14/ 7 Deerhunter, “Helicopter”
15/ 6 Janelle Monáe, “Oh, Maker”
16/ 5 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, “Lost Saint”
17/ 4 Laura Veirs, “July Flame”
18/ 3 Teenage Fanclub, “Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything”
19/ 2 Joanna Newsom, “On A Good Day”
20/ 1 The Besnard Lakes, “Albatross”

Technicalities: This year’s top seven are among my very favorite songs of all time, as are The Besnard Lakes’ “Chicago Train” and Joanna Newsom’s “‘81,” both of which would’ve been in the top four if I was being totally honest. I also neglected to include The Joy Formidable’s “Austere” and Quadron’s “Slippin,” as it seemed both more accurate, and easier, to consider them among the belatedly heard crop of 2009’s finest songs.

My intension is always to make a good 80-minute-or-less mix CD more than it is to make an honest list, so I’ll sometimes sacrifice integrity (if that’s even a quality that the fickle art of list-making can be said to have) in favor of the former pursuit. I didn’t have to do that so much this year, and still I find that Macromix 10 unfolds with atypical drama and narrative flow, especially in the final fifth.

This is an amazing era of new music we’re living in. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise (does anyone?). Albums list sometime this week.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Man of the Year

Mondo Guerra

I’m listening to Rufus Wainwright again and oh, gee. This is a dangerous thing, since the music of my late 90s youth often sounds in retrospect much more sophisticated and mature than anything being made today. I think this has more to do with my age circa 1998—old enough that I was beginning to realize that music could not only sound “cool” but could also communicate important adult themes, but still too young to understand what these were, except maybe wordlessly—than with the quality of the music. I hear “adult themes” today, in the work of artists my own age or a bit older, but it’s the same boring stuff I deal with in my own life. The mystery just isn’t there, yet it persists in a song like “April Fools,” which I still hear as an expression of a much more profound maturity than I can ever know, one so advanced that it can even play at youthful folly without debasing itself. It’s so good I laughed when I heard it again. I’m sure it’s been said before, but Rufus was the Frank O’Hara of ’98, the difference being that O’Hara was a new name in the New York of the 1950s. It’s amazing when the sons of prominent people arrive so fresh on the scene. Remember his Gap commercial?

But this year has a Rufus Wainwright, and if it’s not Owen Pallett then it’s John Grant. I’m surprised and pleased that Mojo magazine has named his Queen of Denmark their album of the year, as it strikes me as one that might’ve been doomed to niche gay album status, a thoroughly ironic, despair-in-your-underwear, redemption and damnation via beautiful men fag blues sort of affair. So that it has such wide rock critic appeal is pretty hopeful. Its classicist bona fides are firmly in place (Grant fronted the orchestral rock band The Czars, and he has the fine nostalgists Midlake backing him here), but the lyrics are sometimes so silly that they almost make a mockery of the 70s piano balladry mode of the songs, e.g. "I feel just like Sigourney Weaver / When she had to kill those aliens / And one guy tried to get them back to the Earth / And she couldn’t believe her ears." The imprecise conversational nature of the words and the grandiosity of the music create a nice tension. And if the British critics can’t relate to Sigourney Weaver, then what I think they must cling to on this album are its admissions of weakness, as on the Nilsson-esque smash “Silver Platter Club”: "I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes / Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys." I tend to think of the British press as a dominant, masculine bunch, but they’re probably as lousy and self-doubting as John Grant, hiding inside their love of records like his, proud of him in his musical world where he can be the strong one.

(Maybe you could say the same thing about all the American critics who love Kanye West and his musical world, but West is still the popular kid to Grant’s last-picked. I pause here to wonder what a comparative analysis of the preferences of today’s British and American music writers might reveal. If we used Mojo’s and Pitchfork’s top ten albums of 2010 as our sample British and American data, respectively, we’d find that somehow, in the age of the internet, hardly anything makes it across the ocean anymore. So long, 1990s.)

Anyway, I like the up-front humanness of Queen of Denmark. I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard. No more hiding from and/or inside ourselves, let’s aim for the fullest expression of our aliveness! Maybe I’m just following the musical tendencies of Deerhunter (“Helicopter” is a song you can only sing if you’re fully awake), and I certainly haven’t yet put my own tendencies into meaningful practice, except in ranking my year-end favorites. But that’s where I am. And yet I know that lo-fi is always inherently philosophical, a surrender to the gods of impermanence, not just recourse for people who don’t want to try hard enough, and that the digital fuzz on How To Dress Well’s Love Remains is today’s equivalent of analog burble. I’m not sure if How To Dress Well has arrived at the beginning of a new lo-fi movement (to hell with chillwave) or at the end of a decade of R&B genre-melding, or vice versa, or what, but that question is too academic anyway and doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter, which is that Love Remains, all half-heard 38 minutes of it, is an accurate portrayal of many people’s experiences in love. I don’t find its leagues of digital fuzz nearly as haunting as the ghost trails and forlorn melodies they conceal (the same generally goes for pixelization, the video analogue; there’s just no poetry in it!), but I will admit that the album’s emotional world, even if born of musical philosophers, is convincing.

So I understand Love Remains just enough to realize that what it represents is a significant development in the history of recorded emotion. But I can’t figure out where we’re going with recently lauded tracks like Crystal Castles’ “Not In Love” and Girl Unit’s “Wut,” because I never got music for music’s sake. There’s nothing in these but sound and newness. It seems impossible for anyone to describe either one without relying on some of my least favorite critical shorthand, like “reptilian brain” and “pleasure centers.” I don’t know what these things are, or whether all reptilian brains have the same pleasure centers. That seems unlikely.


Some Came Running (a.k.a. Gosh Frank Sinatra Has A Flat Stomach) is Peyton Place with pure motives and an ending later stolen by Chinatown. There’s no muckraking, no dark secrets suddenly exposed, only the weaknesses of small town people, hidden for a while and then unhidden, rendered not as scandals but as personal problems. At the tragic denouement, I almost expected its inheritor’s climactic “It’s only Chinatown” to be replaced with a solemn, ironic or indifferent uttering of the film’s title, something like, “Some came running; none cared.” Not so, but then it goes one step further, more genius-y, to a cemetery scene that I still can’t get my head around. Why (why!) does the camera single out the characters in that order? Anyway, finally, it’s the rare movie where a woman realizes that she lets her man get away with being a jerk because he’s “interesting,” and, knowing there can be no phony ending where he reforms, she resolves to end it and doesn’t look back! (I don’t think.) Vincente Minnelli is the greatest director of all time.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a ticking down of the clock, an inexorable sorting of the good guys from the bad guys that would play out easily even without the participation of the main characters (well, there’s quite a bit of effort involved, but ultimate justice is a foregone conclusion). So we watch and wait, but it’s a good movie because that’s how Lisbeth Salander spends the final hours too. She’s never boring, especially not when you’re her partner in silence.

I couldn’t help but view Inside Job as anything but a story about mental illness.

I couldn’t help but view Temple Grandin as anything but a story about kindness!

I couldn’t help but view Exit Through the Gift Shop as anything but real, and if a hoax an entirely plausible one. The art world doesn’t need satire or fictional character studies of weirdos when it has itself. Our weirdo in this film has a lot of charming psychoses, and some beautiful ones, like his compulsion to film every moment of his life and save the forever-unwatched tapes in boxes. I do that too, with lists and notes, my own version of “life as it happened and as it will never be known again.” Why are we compelled to save anything?

And with that, let me unveil the movies I liked most this dismal-relative-to-most-but-maybe-not-so-bad-after-all year:

Non-fiction: [1] 45365, [2] Exit Through The Gift Shop, [3] Sweetgrass, [4] Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, [5] Restrepo

Non-non-fiction: [1] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, [2] Greenberg, [3] The Social Network, [4] The Ghost Writer, [5] Life During Wartime, [6] Fish Tank, [7] Winter’s Bone, [8] Mother, [9] Toy Story 3, [10] Shutter Island

Non-non: [4] I’m Still Here

But there are many left to see, including the Coen Bros.’ True Grit. I’ll try to take it on its own terms, but so far I’m filled with nothing but ire from all the reviews that describe the 1969 original as some kind of campy trifle and don’t appreciate it for the heartfelt ode to lesbians and outcasts that it is. I liked it enough to name a blog post after it, and in memory it’s become one of my very favorite movies, so I’ll direct you back there for the time being, and hopefully have more to say when all the facts are in.


When I start reading John Waters’ Role Models (soon), it’ll be the fourth book I’ve read from the publishing year 2010. I’ve collaged the covers of the other three I read (two of these by former teachers of mine) into a single master-book, which I will designate the “book of the year.”

The Age of Innocence is an extraordinary thing, but I find I can read no more than 10 pages per day, probably because it is so rich with motivation. Wharton can trace every action in the novel to the feeling and societal pressure that triggered it, and I’m taking pride in painstakingly following her logic. I’ve gotten finally to the really heavy self-abnegations, when it becomes clear that this is a love story after all, not (as I previously suspected) a story in which a character chooses a mode of existence by choosing a lover.

Where have you been all my life, Peter Bagge? Your Buddy Does Seattle is a veritable comic book anthology of the grunge scene that so captured my imagination many years ago. But maybe it’s best I’ve only just discovered the beflanneled apathetic Buddy Bradley (in a way not so different from Newland Archer, but stuck in a different time and different place), as my younger self could no way have recognized any relation between him and my beloved Nirvana. I was in it for the music back then (case in point: I loved the Singles soundtrack but never saw the movie). So it’s funny now to find myself in the sub-prime of life that Buddy Bradley so perfectly represents, while the music of his era seems so remote. What a reversal!


The trophy looks like this: @~~| (on its side)

Album of the Year (sneak-peek)

When audiences of the 19th century went to a new Beethoven symphony, did they feel despair equal to their sense of beauty, as they witnessed the evidence of so much talent contained within one man that they collectively lacked? _________ too is a work of such genius in all its parts (the singing, the playing, the orchestration, the lyrics) that you might despair, but eventually you have to throw up your hands and realize that we only receive such a gift every so often.

Video of the Year

Deerhunter, “Helicopter"

(The only other ones I remember having seen are Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” and, worst of all, My Darkest Days’ “Porn Star Dancing,” so there wasn’t much competition.)

Album Cover of the Year

Album Title of the Year


(Procedure Club)

To be doomed, that’s a horrible, heavy feeling, but doomed forever… there’s something quietly celebratory about the word “forever,” like taking that doom and making it your own.

Record Label of the Year

Slumberland, and its mp3 generosity.

Arrival of the Year

“Forget the second coming, I need you in the here and now.” (Surfer Blood, “Floating Vibes”)

Fatalist Lyrics that Should be Sung
with a Bit More Conviction of the Year

“Our lips won’t last forever and that’s exactly why I’d rather live in dreams and I’d rather die.” (Wild Nothing, “Live In Dreams”)

1992 of the Year

The Radio Dept. and their Foxbase Alpha moment, “Never Follow Suit.”

Paul Westerberg “I Hate Music” Hall of Fame

“Baby, let’s make music, it’ll make us feel better and worse at the same time.” (Zoo Animal, “Baybee”)

Still to come:
Next Sunday: Macromix 10
Next week: It’s II


I could see The Nutcracker every year for the rest of my life and still never quite figure out what it’s all about. Its wordless narrative is as bewitchingly obscure to me as the best of Jim Woodring, giving me plenty of time to think about such things as: [1] The Nutcracker is best seen from very far away, so that the people become as miniature and toylike as possible. Perhaps movies tend to favor medium shots and close-ups to avoid this effect. [2] Ballet makes more apparent than most art forms the collective mind of humanity. People to write the music, people to play the instruments, people to conduct the players, people to dance to the music, people to make the dancers’ costumes, people to make the sets, etc. And the people aren’t just doing these things out of obligation. In each role there is at least someone who is fulfilling a passion. And a passion fulfilled is only meaningful if every passion is fulfilled, and a full ballet results. [3] What obsessed Tchaikovsky? Simple-minded me likes to imagine he wanted only to write music that men with nice legs might dance to, but who knows what kind of rare and indescribable visions might have moved this man. [4] Sometimes I forget what it’s like to see.


I sometimes feel that our life’s work is only the result of an attempt to make do with whatever set of mental disorders we happen to have. I have some strain of OCD that is linked to my mania for music; it can only be calmed with music, but music also agitates it, with the need for more and more (carefully catalogued) music! So I write reviews. I wish I was compelled to write fiction, but I’m not (except when someone is expecting to read it). I’m only compelled to write reviews and the kinds of things you read here. Actually I don’t know if any of this is true, but I do know that the keywords in the preceding paragraph are relevant to my life.


Ariel Schrag says something amazing in Definition about an older girl she has a crush on, to the effect that since her idea of who this girl is exists only in her head, what it amounts to is being attracted to her own mind. This is an uncommonly wise thing for a person of any age to say, and I think it can be extended to other realms of the mind, in particular: I’ve sometimes felt nostalgic for my own mind. I think about this often in terms of music. The world defined by my listening has always been very small in scope (my bed, my mom’s car, my sister’s room), so most of my memories of songs aren’t really linked to events in my life, but simply to the way my brain processed each song the first time I came to love it. So my nostalgia for songs is self-referential and all within my head. I’d like to believe this is the purest form of music love, since it exists almost entirely without context. But what do I know? I keep to my bed.


Maybe the reason our brains are so scrambled is that all the information that beams down into our laptops from above in areas with wireless signals is really in the air (because really, where else could it be?) and our minds are busy clicking and scrolling and browsing this digital ether even when we’re just sitting eating banana bread.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Geoffrey Is The New Geoffrey

i. Some notes written after a trip to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on November 10, exactly three months after my move back to the city. [With commentary.]

I don’t know where my manic scribblings of every thought and sensation end and where my blog posts begin, but here’s some stuff.

I had a moment at the MIA when every piece of art suddenly seemed the same (in a good way), all of them become the same expression. [Which is what? Let us keep the void at bay… Let us celebrate the world when it is pretty and decorate it when it is ugly… We cannot help ourselves, we must do, do, do, and we love you… ???]

Too inspiring. Sometimes I’m bored at museums, but sometimes I’m overwhelmed and have to leave, to get away from beauty. [That last part is boringly similar to a monologue by Wes Bentley in American Beauty, and I should clarify now it wasn’t beauty I had to get away from, but the creative impulses of countless dead people, made equal by time!]

I liked:
-Clementine Hunter, again
-African masks, posts (these really make me want to do something!) – [Not to mention the figures, doors, etc.][And here I wanted to make some correlation between these things and the cover art for the new Kanye West album and its accompanying singles, but I’ll get into that later.*]

I’d call it [all the preceding observations] an epiphany, but I’m always eager to ascribe grand narratives to my life that I don’t have the patience to make real.

[Here’s where it gets really precious:]

This year is finally taking on some kind of shape. They always do in the end.

[Update: 11/12 – You have to go home again, to bookend an era when life was shapeless.]

Let me tell you about my neighborhood. (It takes at least 3 mos. to start to get a grip on these things, which is why I never quite understood my existence on Summit.)
-I’m wild about the stretch of 1st Ave bet. Lake and 24th. [Desolation row, Halloween-y.]
-N: Treehouse, NW: Cheapo, NE: Fetus, S: Roadrunner. Is this possible in the year 2010?! [I was referring here to the existence of four great record stores that can be walked to in under 30 minutes from my home. I remember when good record stores used to mean long journeys out of town.]

[Oh me.]

ii. Band names

I’ve always meant to keep a comprehensive list of my best ideas, but never have, so maybe I’ll make this a regular feature. Here are the first six:

Ambient Mauve
(From Frank O’Hara.)

Italic Fog
(From the amazing liner notes for
Deerhunter’s Cryptograms.
Who wrote those? Such great
poetry for an album that
deemphasizes lyrics.)

High Speed Dubbing
Tracing Paper
Plastic Sheets
(These four from my
childhood, the last only
symbolically. I once intended these
as titles for a short story cycle
chronicling my adolescence.)

iii. Music (all filler no killer edition)

Read what I wrote about new albums by Glasser, Belle & Sebastian and A Sunny Day In Glasgow, live performances by Teenage Fanclub, Deerhunter and Retribution Gospel Choir, and some other things I’ve liked in 2010.

It might also be worth noting (retrospectively) that Zoo Animal are perhaps the only galvanizing local band I’ve seen during my time in the Twin Cities, and (preliminarily) (full review soon) that Mavis Staples and her band put on the best live show I’ve seen all year.

I feel it would be a proper expression of my love for Atlas Sound to do a track-by-track review of the four-volume, 49-track Bedroom Databank. It’s a daunting task, but nothing compared to the feat of actually writing and recording the thing in a single autumn! I'll get to work.

*Well, not really. I’ll just say that I quite enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a pop album, and that’s the only way I really care to approach it, because (1) as far as great rap albums go it doesn’t seem to contain a whole lot of great rapping, and (2) I don’t find Kanye West’s foibles nearly as charming as those of other male artists who don’t understand women. So the best bits are the horns on “All of the Lights” and the screechy thing on “So Appalled” (a rouser and a downer, respectively), plus I really like the interlude to the former, as it sounds like a grasp in the dark for creative illumination, followed by the brilliant flash.

iv. Komix Roll-Kall (plus prose)

Awkward and Definition, the so-called high school chronicles of Ariel Schrag, written during the summers following her freshman and sophomore years, respectively, have got me wondering why I don’t often read the work of America’s youth. Answer: these are the rare books good enough to be published. They are an amazingly coherent vision of the world (as they can’t help but be, I suppose, being diaries), and one I understand: the world of cultural obsession (L7 and Juliette Lewis, primarily), gift-giving, smiling ugly people, sexual confusion, general confusion. Especially great is the way elements in the background “react” to the characters (e.g. Mom gives Ariel a bass guitar for her 16th birthday and is shown wearing a button with a musical note on it, all of her squandered dreams represented in that extra little splash of ink!), more and more as Schrag gains in confidence as an author, and one of many things that tells me she is a natural-born comics artist whose artfulness preceded her artistry.

The glorious color of Charles Burns’ X’ed Out ought to be advertised with the same pomposity as the early Technicolor triumphs. The style is partly borrowed from Herge, and at times the story seems like a response to the challenge of finding a convincing way to bring together the world of Tin Tin and the teenage psychodrama of Burns’ own Black Hole.

Joe Matt’s Fair Weather takes a character flaw (brattiness, greed, buttressed with fear) and magnifies it until every panel is subordinate to it, but the book isn’t full-tilt old-fashioned, because it maintains its skepticism of pat resolutions and lessons learned, in favor of delicious irony and the pleasures of slackerdom.

I’m also reading The Age of Innocence and wondering if May is being fairly portrayed, but I think I paid enough attention during my critical readings in Scorsese to know that she’s not, quite, and the author knows it.

v. I watch movies

Whit Stillman was sort of the Edith Wharton of the 1980s and 90s, and The Last Days of Disco is for now his final statement about the necessity of focusing on a power elite when attempting a sociological overview of a city and an era. You never get the feeling that Stillman is ignorant or naïve or narrow-minded, despite his subject matter, but then his elites are self-appointed, and neither rich nor powerful, so…

Hereafter takes place (unspectacularly) in the unspectacular spaces where most of us live: an adult cooking class where the middle-aged try to fill up their desperate evening hours, a book fair where Derek Jacobi (as himself!) gives a reading of Dickens. No place is off limits, and the movie’s inherent lack of drama is sort of touching.

I left Ousmane Sembene’s Guelwaar convinced only that it is a sin to waste food. The applause from the crowd at the Walker Art Center freaked me out, as if it was naively saying, Yes, your pursuit of self-sufficiency and denial of charity is noble, just look how well off we are! I know I was overreacting, but I had to get out of there, so I left before the Q&A session.

I don’t pretend that Danny Boyle shows the greatest tact in the way he presents all of the events in 127 Hours, but some critics, in their gross overreaction to his directing style, seem to be calling for a cold, deliberate staging of the action in a static frame. The premise is that we would then have a full sense of the man’s entrapment and the clicking down of the minutes, but I can think of no approach more foreign to the way the world is actually experienced by real people. Don’t you know how much our eyeballs move around in their sockets? How unmoored in time we truly are when we have access to memories and plans for the future? I sometimes get dizzy just sitting in this chair.

The Wrong Man, a.k.a. Guilty Of Being Poor, ponders the sanity of a world where our faces are synonymous with our identities. There’s a great dissolve from the wrong man to the guilty man late in the film, and shortly after they meet face to face: even while the wrong man shouts, “You ruined my wife’s life!” deep down he’s thinking, I’ve lived your life, your guilt is my own.

Speaking of poor people, the pathos of the Little Tramp, as played by a wealthy celebrity of the 20s and 30s, still astonishes me. Esp. the ending of City Lights, which is the “Don’t Worry Baby” of cinema (in a different key). I’d never noticed before that a big part of the ending’s greatness lies in the fact that, at first, an invisible shop window separates the two lovers, so that the flower girl’s words are as inaudible to the tramp as they are to us. This moment (total genius) transfers all of our emotional capacity to our eyes; when the truth is revealed to the girl’s seeing eyes, we are right there with her.

The best sequence in the otherwise baffling Kikujiro

reminded me of this…

I like this kind of frontal framing, usually best suited for four people.

vi. Final thoughts

If you’re embarrassed by what you’re buying, you can arrange the items on a grocery store conveyer belt to tell any story you like (the masters of this form have yet to emerge). Place that bar of soap on top of the 32 oz. bag of generic Frosted Flakes. (Very disorienting for the cashier.)

I wish I felt a great pressure to make beautiful things as gifts for the holidays. But I don’t, because I’m not known for that.

Monday, October 11, 2010


When I look back on my 20s, the two most important men in my life (and by men in my life, I mean artists whose work and lives I admire) will have been the two whose names I’ve jammed together in this post’s title. I’ll start this month’s entry with one and end with the other, and come to no kind of understanding about anything in between. I’ve realized that the way I think about things will probably never change. I’m trying to make the most of it. (Am.)


I’ve been much better about reading. Keeping my computer off. Happier? I find I can only read with my whole being or not at all, which I imagine could be alienating to others.

I had a major fling with Joe Brainard back in January, while reading his great life-chang— life-clarifying book I Remember, then a quick affair in March on the cozy pages of his collection New Work, and now we’re starting all over again on account of the memoir Joe, written by his lifelong friend Ron Padgett. Lately I spend most of my waking hours wondering things such as these: What was Joe Brainard doing on the equivalent day of his young life? Am I failing his example? Do the great number of our shared personality traits even mean that he is setting an example I ought to follow? Some of the answers lie within, though of course no book can be as good as having the real person next to you.

Meanwhile, I am filling in some gaping holes in my barely-well-readness (the book of interviews between Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock, which at this early stage is still working toward illumination, and the poems of Frank O’Hara, which even at a similarly preliminary stage are really wonderful, and which give me pause: I’ve never disliked poetry, only felt inadequate to the 90% of it that I find alienating, and unable to find the 10% that I don’t), reading some comics (Boy Trouble #5, an issue from a series of gay comics, including many stories that are expected and a few that are transcendent, especially a wordless 16-panel heartbreaker by series editor David Kelly, and Jim Woodring’s Weathercraft, the latest Frank story, this time centering on Manhog, and with a supposedly clarifying Q&A on the dust jacket that only serves to exacerbate the lurid mystery of the happenings in The Unifactor), and can finally report that William Kennedy’s Ironweed is a masterpiece of world literature. You knew that.


“I had to believe North Branch was better than the frozen plains of Quebec, but it was just as empty on that Sunday afternoon. Everything was closed and the streets were completely bereft of humans. I walked my bike over the cobblestones looking for HELP WANTED signs in the shopwindows. My nose had been running for the last hour, and my eyes were sore from crying. I tried hard to ignore my numbed feet and my hunger, and imagine a bright new life for myself instead.

“The diversion only lasted so long. Hope dissolves quickly in the cold. I passed the dark windows of The Record Collector and Small World Paints. Neither advertised the need for an unskilled teen. I passed a drugstore and a jeweler’s. Finally, I rounded a corner and immediately spied what I thought was a mirage. A neon pink OPEN sign in the window of a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria. The Canteen, it was called. I counted the odd two dollars and coins in my pocket. $3.63. I locked my bike to a drainpipe and brought my guitar in with me. The warm breath of the café’s interior almost made me cry all over again, but I held myself together and sat down on a stool at the counter.

“Within seconds, a plastic menu slapped down in front of me and an overfull glass of water came after it. I looked up to see a tall middle-aged woman nudging at a pair of glasses. She wore thick bifocals. Her face was tired but friendly.”

—from Peter Bognanni’s The House of Tomorrow

This is a remarkable passage to me, putting Bognanni in league with those comics artists (Seth, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware) who are able to paint a nostalgic portrait of America with only the details of the present day. Even the patterns of the prose are very comics-like, and I could imagine a graphic novel adaptation of The House of Tomorrow in which those details following the narrator’s vision of a mirage are each granted their own panel.

It never seems like Bognanni's priority as a novelist is great prose style (story is his emphasis), and yet he often achieves just that. There are other moments in his novel where even the tiniest units of language seem unusually vivid and powerful to me. In particular: “Through me” (p. 153) made me cosmically aware of the weird fact that there are elements in our bodies that aren’t really “us”; “Everything” (p. 175) was almost like a word I’d never seen before, or at least I’d never realized how much is implied in its compoundness.


But perhaps I’m in a mood. I’ve been finding instances of great language everywhere I look recently. I worked a job last week deciphering motorcycle questionnaires, and they abounded with deliciously ambiguous poetry (“Dimmer, yellower”) and surprising aphorisms (“Illumination is important”).

More recently, I’ve been counting pedestrians in the Skyway, and am constantly reminded of the grace of walking, which must be the most divinely purposeful act that the average human performs on a daily basis. The limbo of that brief suspension between places is all we want out of life, and, unless we’re lucky enough to work in a different place and return home to a different place everyday, we only get it in travel.

I’ve also learned that 6 a.m. in downtown Minneapolis is a very, very weird phenomenon. Before there’s even a glow in the east, it feels nothing like morning, instead like 15 minutes later than the latest at night you could ever possibly imagine. The people out on the streets look like they still belong to the night, and then moments later when the sun appears, either they disappear to be replaced by the morning people, or they metamorphose, but either way they are not the same. And it’s morning.


My recent fascination with evocative fragments of language is perhaps best expressed in the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who I’ve recently encountered in the new documentary The Radiant Child and his 1981 low budget starring vehicle Downtown 81. The former is a great glimpse at a brief window in time, the latter not a very good one, being one of those “scene” movies that makes everything look just so dismal and dispiriting, that fails to capture any of the poetry or music of a time and place that was certainly waiting there to be captured. It fails to even show any of the mysteriously extraneous background information (people and things that just “happened to be there”) that you find in street scene black-and-white (or color, really) photography.

Anyway, Basquiat’s graffiti and art makes me want to do something drastic, like put a large-lettered declaration across the wall of my room, perhaps each elaborately drawn letter given its own piece of pasteboard. Something like:


(something a friend said)

Winter’s Bone comes closer to Faulkner than any other movie I can think of, mostly because it doesn’t try (to come close), having such faith in the rhythms of its story and the audience’s ability to look with open eyes, and being so fearless in its confrontation of corpses.

The American, more than any other entry in the recent (unending) slate of movies about organized crime, secret agents, and superspies, indulges our fantasies about surveillance and men who know enough about the ways they’re being monitored to (sometimes) manage to go “off the grid.” Most of the movies that have been playing Uptown this fall I would dub “Google-era cinema” in this way.

Lebanon might be a great movie, but it is nearly an unwatchable one, certainly the most upsetting war movie I’ve ever seen. To film all the action through tank crosshairs, so that every human face is in imminent danger of being exploded to pieces, is to wreak psychological havoc on the audience, and reminds us that Hitchcock showed restraint (pun noted) in his narrative parameters: Rope, Lifeboat, Rear Window, none of these are so emotionally exhausting.

It’s often said that the idea of watching Andy Warhol’s films is more interesting than actually watching them. His “screen tests” (which, somewhat contrary to their name, are four minute silent films that stare squarely into the faces of Factory denizens) are short and manageable enough as to probably trump his longer works in terms of watchability. The recently compiled 13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests is a brief tour through an artful gaze, together with a soundtrack by Dean & Britta, who have managed to do something interesting with these films while avoiding the academic. Instead, these are mood pieces, interrogations of the mystery of the human essence. The soundtrack is a great success, I would say, sometimes so finely tuned as to seemingly be the thing “leading” the film, and thereby revealing faults in the images, not vice versa. But perhaps that’s only because these seem like music videos, an often corrupt art form whose defects tend to lie all on one side.

The 1930s films of French auteur (debatable, but just barely) Sacha Guitry are being rediscovered, and I’ve seen a couple. 1936’s The Story of a Cheat is truly admirable. When people say they don’t like voiceover narration in movies, I think they only mean that they don’t like when movies can’t commit to a narrative approach. Cheat commits entirely, and entirely gets away with it. The only dialogue comes during the film’s frame story, which is also a neat little ruse, providing the film with its punch line: Everything you’ve just seen is a pointless diversion. True, perhaps, but diverting only in the way the very best movies are. 1938’s Quadrille is similarly precise in its narrative devices, but it’s perhaps a bit too heavy-footed to really earn being labeled as that titular dance. What’s most interesting is the way it talks (and talks and talks) about the French as being romantically conservative, while at the same time alluding to sex much more than any American movie of the late 30s could have gotten away with.

How to Marry a Millionaire is what I might call a fashion movie, and therefore its success is dependent upon its ability to put beautiful, sometimes hideous, but always lavish things on the screen. If you’re not paying attention to the changes in wardrobe, then you’re totally missing the point. But this one’s also a sort of mild-mannered screwball comedy, and it succeeds on those terms too.

I Am Cuba makes me ask: Can a movie fail as propaganda but succeed as spectacle? It really does end up as hideous propaganda, but there are at least two hours worth of images (movement, lighting, lenses, and more) that boggle the eye, and the mind. Rare thrills, especially in 35mm.

“Don’t you think it common to smell of ourselves?”

This line is lovely even out of context, and it provides the key to Black Narcissus, the Powell/Pressburger masterpiece that, in its visual splendor, and perhaps in its thematic elements, is like The Wizard of Oz for adults, or, I should say, for adults exclusively. It is about a nun who goes to the Himalayas to escape her deep wants, but when she finds that she still smells only of herself, she must purge her ghosts, in the form of her double. I’ve been wondering if a similar approach to The Tales of Hoffmann (the Powell/Pressburger splendorama of four years later) is possible, but it’s hard to say, as I can’t understand operatic vocals, and I had neither DVD subtitles nor the printed libretto to aid me. And yet, Hoffmann works well enough as a silent film with musical score, and I would venture that if Hoffmann never purges his own ghosts, it is only to his benefit, as he is a poet.

The Social Network was great, but I don’t feel I need to add to the conversation, except to offer this clever alternate title I came up with: What We Talk About When We Talkabout.


Check out my reviews of new albums by Weezer and Sun Kil Moon and recent performances by Laura Veirs, Arcade Fire, Pavement, and Billy Bragg. But that’s not all…

Sweden update: Robyn and El Perro Del Mar had somehow never rated too high on my list of the best Swedish musicmakers of the current century, but, on the basis of the tip of the Robyn iceberg and the entire ‘berg del mar, I’m coming to see both as major songwriters. In the spirit of their fellow countrymen, they are much better at updating old musical trends in clever and delicate ways than their American and British peers.

I am late to the party, but the songs on Hunx & His Punx’s Gay Singles are remarkable mostly for the way that it’s unnecessary to rewrite the lyrics (replace the pronouns) in one’s head to have them aimed at a different recipient.

I haven’t yet found a review of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest that is the least bit adequate to the band’s allure and intelligence. The Pitchfork one, while ascribing motives to the album that I just don’t hear, at least not more so than I do anywhere, did however make me think momentarily about my earliest musical interests and my progress since then, so I’ll use this awkward segue as an opportunity to mention…

The Posies’ Every Kind of Light (their 2005 album, purchased used in anticipation of the new Blood/Candy), the rare album that strikes me as one I would have found totally rad as a 6-year old, and which I’m able to find equally rad, for the same reasons, as a 23-year old, while also keeping an ironic distance from that same 6-year old, whose mind I can think about, even tap into, but never reclaim as my own. If that makes sense.

Anyway, some things I would like to address in a future Halcyon Digest review:

1. The superlative album cover. I didn’t love it at first, questioning the odd framing of the transvestite midget, but the ample negative space becomes more beautiful every time I see it. Of course, the photograph is not the band’s own (a George Mitchell, rather, from 1983), but everything they touch turns to rad, as if their bodily oils are chemical baths of Intense Emotion and Innate Cool. It’s an appropriate photo, too, since it’s possible that Halcyon Digest has everything to do with limb length and cross-dressing and looking heavenward. (The lyric sheet is also a great achievement.)
2. What is implied by a Deerhunter jam. “Desire Lines” is this album’s “Nothing Ever Happened,” but there is something almost esoteric in their restraint, the denial of total jam.
3. The way that Deerhunter become balladeers of greater strength with every passing year. Soon my mom and I will be able to share them the way we share R.E.M.
4. The way that Lockett Pundt sounds like an Everly. Now that he has found the confidence to S-I-N-G, this can be known.
5. The way that they’re no longer privileging one of their influences above all others, the way they did The Breeders on Microcastle.
6. The way that they’re still the greatest band currently working in America.
7. The lyrics, which could be placed in the emotional category “despair without despair.” Fitting that the band’s anthem for the semi-tragic figure Jay Reatard is called “He Would Have Laughed,” Reatard being another songwriter whose scary, lonely lyrics never seemed like harbingers of a sad demise, and still don’t. The difference being that Deerhunter are also very romantic.

If I can figure out what all this adds up to (besides the obvious, a great album), I’ll write my review.

*Erstwhile film critic Glenn Kenny does these on his excellent blog Some Came Running, so I thought I’d give one a try (though mine is more of an aside, given that it’s embedded within a single, much too long post).
**One of my readers suggested I start a new blog about my temp work assignments, but I’ll just lump it in here with everything else.
***I feel such a child still, in this world only to find things I like, and then rip aspects of them for my own purposes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rhetoric 1: Like A Schizo Running Wild

I don’t see the point in maintaining this blog if I let whole months of my reading, viewing, and listening go uncommented upon, so in the interest of playing catch-up (I’ve been busy), here are short takes on a wide number of things:

...let whole months of my reading, viewing, and listening go uncommented...

Ironweed by William Kennedy : Wonder of wonders, these sentences. I hate when reviewers use the word “breathless,” but that’s how they leave me. Here’s one: “The gravid weight of the days they had lived was now seeking its equivalent level in firstborn death, creating a rectangular hollow on the surface of each grave.” This is enough to make me think I should only read books about poor people from here on out, though if you can cite me a comparable example from the new Jonathan Franzen, maybe I’d read it. For a novel that begins in a graveyard, its characters seem much more alive than most others, which I guess is the final proof that destitute people are closest to the real.

What’s also great is the way the characters are allowed their nostalgia. Too many historical novels leave this essential part of the human experience out, as if to set a novel in the past is to sufficiently enact nostalgia. But the men and women in Ironweed pine for an even more distant past than the one in which they’re located. They’re so haunted by ghosts that they could pop over to Joyce’s “The Dead” and fit right in.

Recidivist by Zak Sally : These six stories are all linked in an occult way (interestingly, this was once the given definition of “hypertext,” but I can’t remember where), so much so that one has to wonder if they add up to a sort of autobiography, and the recidivist in the title is Sally himself.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni : Pretty much all I ever want out of a book is a sense that the author is a thoughtful, caring person. I knew Peter Bognanni to be an owner of these qualities from my encounters with him, but if I failed to detect them in his writing during the number of his readings I attended, it was entirely my fault (I don’t do well with oral storytelling, tending to zone out, unable to turn words into stories when there are so many other people sitting and listening to look at). Alas, Peter B. loves his characters and wishes them well, and by extension this is a wonderful novel (as of p. 137).

...whole months of my reading, viewing, and listening go uncommented upon...

Despite my oral deficiency, I often enjoy monologues, and recently I’ve wondered if monologue might be the best way to relate the gay experience on film. The sitcom-cum-feature film Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, the great documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, and the debut episode of The Kids in the Hall all tell me this. The first, with the exception of a great the-couch-is-too-small-can-I-share-your-bed moment, is best when Sean Hayes speaks directly to the audience about unrequited loves, so honestly that his words might as well be the old diary pages of the film’s writer. The second is composed entirely of such moments, gay men and women of the 1970s speaking candidly about their lives, without the unnecessary gloss of fiction, and in hindsight it’s impossible to conceive of any other approach that might have had the same long-term impact. The third is funny beginning to end, but elevated to a higher level of satire by Scott Thompson, who, in the guise of a doting mother and a promiscuous creature of the night, takes these kinds of stories and twists their details into wickedly smart pieces of theater.

The Lost Weekend’s Don Birnam is a rarity among WWII-era movie protagonists. You can find a similarly bleak worldview in any film noir, but it’s almost always coupled with a tough existential hero. Birnam isn’t hard-boiled, or any kind of hero, just a failed writer turned alcoholic, living on the penny of his well-to-do brother, awash in feelings of his own worthlessness. Given how few of the movie’s details are period specific (there’s nary a mention of the war), Birnam is a character who lives today all over the country and who could appear in our current films. For those who consider the movie’s ending “soft,” I would counter: (1) it’s a noble enterprise that Birnam is about to embark on, and one that’s very relevant today, given the popularity and troubled veracity of memoirs, and yet (2) this is perhaps another delusion, the possibility of failure, and a return to the bottle, being so tangible.

Of Late Spring, so modest in its storytelling, it can only be said: marriage should always be so sad.

Dinner For Schmucks had its share of defenders, though few were willing to celebrate the directorial talents of Jay Roach. I will, by mentioning that this movie makes better use of close-ups than any other recent mainstream movie I can think of. The style of its comedy depends on our ability to see, in large magnification, each character’s every twitch of reaction and every slight abnormality of facial feature. This is nothing new, and could easily lead to strained unpleasantness, but here it leads (mostly) to laughter. Watch Zach Galifianakis turn purple with hysteria and then back to beige, and then tell me a better way to frame him. There’s even a romantic moment between Paul Rudd and Stephanie Szostak, done entirely in close-up and shot-reverse shot, but so nicely lit and well played that it establishes their mutual love as effectively as if they were shown in silhouette against the lights of Paris.

Beeswax was my introduction to the world of Andrew Bujalski, and it was as revelatory to me as John Cassavetes’ Shadows or Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. This is all the more surprising given how much less “movie-ish” it is than those other two, how recognizable its characters are. And yet this is a movie, of course—it has a point of view, and a meaning. It’s in the title, and in a single whispered word between sisters that tells you how much they share and how much they keep private.

One should never take anything for granted, but it would be nice to be able to take a movie like Restrepo for granted, when in fact it’s one of a kind: a documentary that shows you, in microcosm, almost everything you want to know about what’s happening in the war in Afghanistan. Between its total access footage and first-hand accounts by soldiers, it still doesn’t locate the why, but then I guess the why is never in the details of the war itself, but in some shadowy back room half a world away.

Didn’t we demonstrate such thoughtfulness as a civilization when Todd Solondz’s Happiness reaped all the praise it deserved in 1998? Like any filmmaker, Solondz is hardly infallible, but still I feel we’re backtracking a little bit every time one of his films gets lower marks. Life During Wartime is generally well liked, though it’s been argued that Solondz’s sympathy for his characters has turned to disdain, and that the film doesn’t hold out any measure of hope. Wrong! First, I’ve long thought his characters are the people we would be if we lived out our feelings at every moment—asking desperately for love and acceptance, weeping at every gesture of kindness, cracking under the constant specter of our own failings—and that’s never been more true than in Life During Wartime. This is not to say that these characters don’t lie or pretend (this is one of the movie’s central concerns), only that the ways they interface with the world are a bit less sophisticated than our own. Second, this movie’s hopefulness is writ large, in the face of Dylan Riley Snyder, the 12-year old boy who becomes its unlikely hero. He’s given misinformation, he makes mistakes, he questions unceasingly, and yet by the movie’s end, he sorts it all out, becomes a man at his Bar Mitzvah, and decides he doesn’t care about the lies he’s been sold—he knows what he wants.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother wonders how it would be if sons never really left the womb, if they reached adulthood and still their bodies were owned by their mothers. Of course, mother and son, to satisfy society, must live separate lives in separate bodies, and can only communicate their pain to each other in words, but aren’t they really the same person?

Sometimes I couldn’t care less about what a movie is trying to tell me, and I’m instead held rapt by observations of things happening on the screen and outside the screen, these observations leading to associations leading to memories, etc. Such was my experience of the opening of The King of Marvin Gardens, whose general import I anyway caught enough of to know it would be spellbinding seen only for itself. But my mind was elsewhere: (1) I’ve always thought Jack Nicholson in the 70s looks a lot like my father did in the 80s, but the similarity is uncanny here, and since I look so much like my father, I wonder if that fleshy face looming above me on the screen (sometimes so submerged in shadow that you can only imagine Nicholson’s face exists somewhere in that pool of black) is my eventual fate. Also, could this resemblance be the reason my father liked this movie so much (supposedly)? (2) This small screening room is wonderful, I could spend the rest of my life here, and although the print I’m watching is very old and has turned almost completely red with age, it’s enough that it’s real 35mm and being shown in a room like this. And so on. These thoughts end up being not entirely beside the point of the film, which Roger Ebert captured in his original review: “Only after it’s over do some of its scenes and moments fall into place; for much of the way we’ve been disoriented and the story has been suspended somewhere in midair.” Point taken. I thought maybe I’d missed something during my mind wandering, but then there’s a beautiful circularity in the movie’s closing scenes, when you realize finally who the Nicholson character is, that he hasn’t been sleepwalking through the film but has delivered a great, atypical performance.

I was similarly less interested in the whole of The Girl Who Played With Fire than I was in its parts, though in this case when I noticed things I liked, I was thinking about the movie and not about myself watching it. Of particular interest is a lesbian sex scene that is entirely more tender and passionate and plausible than it has any right to be, given that its direct antecedent is a sexual fantasy from the mind of Stieg Larsson. Movies always have this advantage over novels, i.e. there’s a greater chance that someone on set will have the life experience necessary to make a scene real, however poorly conceived it is on paper.

I believe the critical mind is most effectively molded by looking for connections between things that on their surface might seem to have nothing in common. I like to plan double features and reading lists accordingly. What My Winnipeg (2007) and Athens, GA – Inside/Out (1987) have in common is in their titles, but that’s also a place to locate a key difference: the possessive pronoun suggests that one is closer to autobiography and one is closer to cultural document. In brief: the former is Guy Maddin’s masterful tribute to his sleepy, snowy hometown, and the latter is a documentary about the Athens music scene of the mid 80s. Despite their different perspectives and different climates, both try to reach an understanding about why we live in towns, why we sometimes want to leave them, why we end up staying or needing to return. Of particular note: an Athenian man named Ort decides he’s getting out of town because he feels too restricted by the network of relationships that require him to stop and say “Hello” too many times on a daily basis. Maybe that’s one reason why the fictionalized Guy Maddin in My Winnipeg attempts to navigate the night trains out of town, but the complicated byways are too overwhelming and he never gets out. He invokes a sort of “wonder girl of Winnipeg” who might be able to set the city back the way it was, undo all the awful changes Maddin has seen in his time, but when he remembers she doesn’t exist, he has to stay. We have to stay because of the delusion that we can keep change from happening, and even when we fail, we can at least bear witness. This plays out over Maddin’s haunting refrain: “lying on couches… lying on couches… little chunk of house.”

Meanwhile, I Am Love and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World are superficially not the same, but they could be more different, as both are intoxicating bundles of music and images. This is not one of those cases where the awesomeness of music brings out brilliant colors and textures in a movie that aren’t actually there; these films depict entirely convincing movie worlds, held together by brilliant cinematic techniques (could I be more vague?), which find perfect expression and counterpoint in lush, orchestral and adrenalized, rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks, respectively. The latter film features a Japanese electronic duo, perhaps inspired by Daft Punk and the enormity of their live shows, and even though you never really hear their music, the way it’s visualized tells you exactly what they sound like.

...of my reading, viewing, and listening go uncommented upon, so in...

You might not be surprised to learn I’ve been listening to some new music. You can read my thoughts on recent releases by Deerhunter and Panda Bear, Perfume Genius, and Procedure Club, and the live prowess of Barlow and Wye Oak, and should also know that…

Wolf Parade’s Expo 86 is a churningly fine rock ‘n’ roll album that, if it contained more surprises, could almost be as good as TSOL’s Beneath The Shadows, and, if it had a greater sense of humor, could almost be as good as Possum Dixon’s Star Maps.

Toro Y Moi’s Causers Of This grows and grows, from the moment you realize it’s really just looking for the right listening environment to bring out its latent richness of color and texture. A Greyhound at dusk in a green and humid region of America works as well as anywhere.

The Depreciation Guild’s Spirit Youth is the best new album I’ve heard since I spoke to you last. It’s an album that was bound to appeal to a (insert name of early 90s band here; I think Chapterhouse are their closest ancestors) fan like me. Multiply that by the circa 2005 8-bit melodies, and you have a band that is not doubly dated, but all kinds of new.

Wild Nothing’s
Gemini fades into existence like “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others,” and from there onward is almost the pop album we’ve been waiting for. But commenter “Jeffkelson” on suggests one reason why it’s perhaps not quite perfect: “Live they were under-rehearsed. Too much too soon I reckon. Bands need to play to 20 people in Dubuque before headlining a sold out Saturday night show at the Bowery Ballroom. But in this day and age the first part can be skipped due to blog hype.” The same logic could be applied to the vocals, I think, which are not in the realm of Morrissey or Kate Bush (whose “Cloudbusting” Wild Nothing have covered). They’re not trying to be, of course, but maybe trying is what’s lacking, when the singer sounds too content to just mumblingly fill in the spaces in these winning arrangements.

Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs sounds like it was produced for vinyl even on CD, and if I’m breaking up its sides correctly, then Side 4 is its greatest moment. It’s worthwhile to think of the album as a double LP, as that’s the form the band is working in this time around, allowing them to make another “large” album, this time as a function of its length rather than its volume. Their ecstatic nature is tempered as a result, which is what made the Terry Gilliam-directed webcast of their appearance at Madison Square Garden on August 5 such a fitting companion. It was a great rock ‘n’ roll show—I was no less giddy to watch it on an eternally buffering computer while selling movie tickets than if I was actually there—and therefore a noble use of the internet.

Sun Kil Moon’s Admiral Fell Promises just might return us to the prime Kozelekian realm of “Katy Song.” Find out soon in my full review!

On the Swedish front, two songs you may have heard this summer are Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” and Jens Lekman’s “The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love.” The former is a great club anthem (Sasha Frere-Jones hoped it would topple “Alejandro” and “California Gurls” to become the song of summer, while my more realistic friend Ola knows it will only ever be popular among gays and Europeans, which would explain why the savvy DJs at Jetset played it between spurts of Lady Gaga), and the latter is perfect for a hangover breakfast the next morning (theoretically). Lekman has a way of making the most awkward, topical, jargon-laden lyrics sound utterly charming and graceful, and the bit here about his trip to Washington D.C. for the election is nearly as nice as his poetic use of the term “out of office auto-reply” in “A Postcard to Nina.”

This has been blog post #69.