i. Unmade Films
ii. Made Films
v. Other Media
vi. Gay Things
vii. Occidents Will Happen
Everyone has had the idea at some point of taking daily photographic self-portraits for a certain span of time, and then animating them in sequence in order to see the aging body and understand something about the mystery of change. Yes, that idea’s nothing new, we can agree, but I’ve figured out the perfect way to do it. Consider: If we were to make a short film from this idea, we might leave each self-portrait on the screen for one second, so that each image could be seen as separate while still allowing the flow of time to be perceived. Five years might be an ideal span of time to show. One could see subtle changes in fashion, and any body ages noticeably in five years, even in the prime of life. Showing a full life would be too morbid, and also impractical, but five years would allow the viewer to narrow his thoughts and think more microscopically about change. At the rate of one image per second, 360 days of images would take up six minutes of film, and five years would take about 30 minutes (30:26 to be exact, taking into account one leap year). 30 minutes strikes me as an ideal length for a subject of this nature, and I think the resulting film would be thought provoking in ways not anticipated by the abstract.
Another idea I’ve had for a short film takes as its inspiration the exquisite final moments of The Shop Around The Corner, that rare idiot plot movie where none of the characters are idiots, and the plot isn’t either. The premise involves Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan falling in love as pen pals even as they are bitter enemies as co-workers, and in the finale, when Stewart reveals his true identity, Sullavan asks for one last clarification: whether or not Stewart is in fact bowlegged. In a closeup, he raises his pants legs: he is not. I’d like to cut up this sequence into its component parts—her question, his tall socks and skinny legs, her reaction—and then film various men I know raising their pants legs (a more modest variation on Steve Reinke asking his male friends to take off their clothes for his camera), and various women reacting, and finally cut all this footage together into a seamless whole. With the right pacing and progression of images, I think this symphony of exposed legs and reaction shots could be very moving. The Myrna Loy Center’s fourth annual short film contest is coming up, but I don’t know anyone I’d be comfortable filming in this way.
I haven’t written about movies here in a long while. I’ll knock out a bunch of recent ones by simply mentioning their best moments.
35 Shots of Rum takes place in the dark hush of the night, where only adults live. Its greatest moments are fumbles at apartment doors after long days of work—the removal of shoes and coats, the greeting of an old cat. And then, even more infinitely late at night, four characters at a bar make passes at each other, dancing and kissing, in a scene that might be impossible if it wasn’t so silent and undramatic.
I thought the movies had looked at death from every conceivable angle by now, but then I saw Summer Hours. It takes as its premise a very specific question—what do the survivors do with all the stuff that accumulates in a dead person’s life?—and, while never flagging in its pursuit of an answer, somehow finds a way to build great drama around this question. All of the tension culminates in a shot of a vase on display in a museum, seen behind a pane of glass among other unrelated objects. You’ll never have felt so sad about a vase.
Tetro opens with one of those great moments in which the main character reads an old letter and the entire world of the movie breaks open upon his teary face, in ways the viewer can’t understand yet. The movie works best when it’s uncovering the meanings behind the shadows on his face. In its second half it inexplicably becomes Coppola’s homage to Pedro Almodovar (how else to explain a character named “Alone,” South America’s most important literary critic?). And while Tetro may seem to follow the discarded plot that a character might rattle off in a monologue in one of Almodovar’s great films, it still shows that Coppola has his mojo back, especially in his ability to find inspiration in a director younger than himself. But he doesn’t exist entirely at the whim of his influences, and there are enough similarities between this film and Rumble Fish to make me think that only since Apocalypse Now has Coppola shown the sort of filmmaker he truly is.
Francois Truffaut once said: “To anyone who would reject [Nicholas Ray], I make so bold as to say this: stop going to the cinema…for you will never know the meaning of inspiration, of a viewfinder, of poetic intuition, a frame, a shot, an idea, a good film, the cinema.” But I wonder if what elevates Nicholas Ray above B-movie status, even more than his talent, is his casting. Bigger Than Life might seem a bit “on the nose” (common film critic parlance) if not for the casting of James Mason, who even at his most “normal,” in the role of a 1950s family man, seems to be harboring some hidden eccentricity that might spoil everything. To see him stride through the film’s opening scenes, arms dangling at his sides and an air of schoolboy untetheredness about him, working double jobs like he’s saving up for a new radio, then arriving home and remembering he has a family, talking to his son like he would to any other person… When pharmaceuticals start to make him go loony, you can’t say you didn’t see it coming, and the film, instead of being a parable, becomes a character study with Mason at its center. You might say the same thing about Rebel Without A Cause, In A Lonely Place, They Live By Night, great films that become great character studies because of their great and unpredictable actors.
45365, a great documentary that strings together brief scenes from a modern-day small town in Ohio, has been compared by Roger Ebert to Winesburg, Ohio. I think that’s correct up to a point—the film makes certain assumptions about the sameness and permanence of American small town life, and then tweaks those assumptions by showing us something new: new ways people have found to be dissolute, new ways they’ve found to communicate loneliness. What’s most timeless about the movie is the way it seems to be seen from the “eye of the town,” especially one amazing shot that regards the high school football coach giving the big speech and then follows the players out to the field for the big game. It unfolds in such an archetypal way that it’s astonishing to think that it’s real.* But my favorite moment is in a way the most personal, a fleeting glimpse of the dark night and the carnival lights from a high seat on a whirling ride at the town fair. It is my very favorite POV shot ever, simply because I have never felt so completely “inside” a movie moment, or inside the mind of the anonymous person who saw such beauty.
Prodigal Sons is full of carefully revealed secrets. The most astonishing comes in the form of a local news report, in a moment so unlikely that only real life can sustain it. I don’t want to give it away, but it even astonished me and I already knew what it was. The revelation is the one that gives the movie its epic dimension, and in a way becomes the central dilemma in a sea of familial dilemmas.
These last two have got me thinking about the state of the documentary today (strong as ever). Says Ebert on 45365: “The film is privileged. No one is filmed with a hidden camera. […] The Rosses must have filmed so much they became both trusted and invisible. They know this town without even thinking about it.” The same is true of Prodigal Sons, on a more microscopic level, and it’s interesting the way this “privilege” erases any doubt you may have about the filmmakers’ decision to show what they show.
Though written in different centuries and with prose styles that could not be more dissimilar, Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Grace Stone Coates’ Black Cherries (great novels both) have begun to merge in my mind so that I can’t tell which is which. There are certain similarities of location and action, but what really joins these novels together is the way they allow the reader to experience the world they describe. Black Cherries is told by a child, who can’t name the terrible secrets in her family but the hints of which never fail to catch her attention, so strange and wonderful they seem. The narrator of Tinkers is more akin to God, and through some writerly feat I can’t even name, Harding is able to make you see everything anew, but not quite as a child, because with this seeing there is also understanding. Grace Stone Coates never wrote another novel. I wonder if Paul Harding will. I can’t imagine what he can say that hasn’t been said or at least implied in Tinkers. I wonder if there was anything else for Coates to say. I believe most great authors only have one great book in them. Some stop there, while others keep writing it over and over again, with diminishing returns or great success. Still others keep finding new things to say, but these are the ones who are probably not haunted by anything.
Warren Perkins’ Putrefaction Live might also be his great and only novel. The scope seems a bit limited at first, but then with five distinct chapters that each follow peripheral characters and which challenge and expand upon the central narrative, it begins to feel remarkably comprehensive and still tightly bounded. Then there is the final sentence, so simple and yet so sublimely visual that I wonder if I’m overstating the poetry in it, while also knowing that one doesn’t write such a line by accident.
I’ve been listening to astonishing amounts of music lately (I can usually believe everything’s okay with less, but my gosh, this oil spill). I’d love to say something about all of it (and I don’t know if this is the solution) but here are some choice bits.
I’ve written about how I like to try to discern narrative arcs on greatest hits collections. On Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ Ultimate Collection, “Third Finger, Left Hand” is a beautiful turning point. All the joy and spontaneity of their early singles has vanished, their energy has diminished, their message about marriage is a bit dispiriting. If a vivacious girl group today released such a song, all their fans would cry foul. But I think it’s a great song, because it’s nothing if not honest.
And as for one of the narrative arcs I am most passionate about, I bought a collection of The Everly Brothers’ 60s work, because the story in my head—based on their sterling 50s singles, the explosive potential of 1960’s insatiable “Cathy’s Clown,” and its promise that these boys of the 50s might become 60s trendsetters—was just too tantalizing to wait, and I’d never known with any certainty what became of them. That narratives so old should yet be discovered! Well, I’ll have more to say about these later songs, but so far, it’s just been fun searching out elements that might be easily transposed to music more firmly in my comfort zone, i.e. that one riff would sound great in a GBV song, etc. That’s one of my favorite things to do with old music (though I also like to take it on its own terms). That muffled Duke Ellington drumbeat is as ominous as early Sonic Youth!
You’d be right to ask if a lot of the songs on Rogue Wave’s Permalight are in very good taste, and while I concede, maybe not, I also couldn’t be more thrilled that they’ve made an album like this. They’re one of the bands most capable of surprising me. Maybe they’re more straightforward than the way I hear them, but I’ve long thought they make a type of rock music assembled from shattered kaleidoscopes and held together with rubber cement. And if you can see past Permalight’s sheen of glossy electro-poptimism, they’re up to very much the same thing. The title track may begin as radio-ready innocuous fluff, but if you limit yourself to hearing it in that context, you’ll miss how dense and weird the swell of voices and drum machines after the chorus is. It’s a loopy, bipartite sort of song, and demands to be heard with a sense of humor. It’s well known that Rogue Wave has been through a lot of emotional turmoil lately, but you don’t have to know that to appreciate this album. The emotions are all there in the music, the forced happiness mingled with a more spontaneous and creative sadness.
But anyway, it’s an album that’s not likely to garner much love. I can live with Rogue Wave’s level of critical acclaim, but I continue to be baffled by the way the songwriter Matt Pond is vilified, as if he must atone for all the lamest qualities of modern American malehood. I don’t know what he did to deserve such scorn, besides writing pleasant, sometimes transcendent songs about trees and leaves and sparrows. His songs were very important to me during my late teens, when they seemed like responses to my particular, perhaps universal, experience of young adulthood and longing. I think his talents are a bit diminished on The Dark Leaves, but he still generates in me nothing but good will, and a surge of energy during even his most gentle songs. He proves adept at imitating the vocal stylings of Win Butler and Tracyanne Campbell (a new development), but I still like him best when he uses his own voice, sounding like he has nothing to prove or apologize for. But some critics insist he must. Perhaps they have known someone like Matt Pond and couldn’t put up with this person’s resolve to be unspectacular. But I’ve never known anyone like him, so I like to listen to him.
I’ve decided to subscribe to the magazine Under the Radar, partly as a way to wean myself from Pitchfork, the breadth of whose coverage I appreciate, but whose reviews never fail to irk me (too thoroughly contextualized, or else trying to double as facile cultural commentary), and whose ability to instantly gratify every of my musical wants has left me feeling hollow even though I am as weak to its charms as anyone else. But mostly I am subscribing because it seems like a great mag, having previously published great pieces on Jarvis Cocker and Patrick Wolf and my favorite photo of Bradford Cox. They feature many album reviews which tend to cut to the chase, publish infrequently and are therefore somewhat free from the daily hype cycle (though not as free as The Big Takeover, which lovingly only publishes twice a year), and also make a tangible product, which can be paged through, kept, looked back at. O Print, I cherish you more than ever.
I spent six years of my life watching Lost and eight years watching 24 (but I’m young; they overlapped). I never missed an episode. Say what you will about the finales (I liked them both), but they had nothing to prove because they were already such rare phenomena: proper resolutions to intricately plotted long running serialized TV shows. I found them satisfying in that regard, and also in the usual way: I thought they worked. Lost essentially told viewers that the time they’d spent watching and enjoying the show was more important than any ending the writers could give them and still managed to resolve everything pretty clearly (though maybe only superficially, as I’ve never been good at thinking about Lost in philosophical terms). 24 proved the malleability of its typical season-ender, Jack Bauer running off injured and hunted into the sunset; this time around, because there’s no possibility of a resurrection (unless 24: The Movie is next), and because he was allowed an emotional farewell to Mary Lynn Rajskub (the rare colleague who didn’t fall victim to immorality or death), the tragedy of Jack hit a bit harder.
Newsweek’s Ramin Setoodeh wrote an article claiming that gay actors should not play straight because it’s distracting. I don’t quite understand why there’s been such an uproar over this particular article—he made the same argument last year when he said that gay characters on TV should be less flamboyant—but if you only have time to read one rebuttal, make it this one. I think Emerson could have stopped and ended with point #3, which is incriminating enough (indeed, is Setoodeh saying that he has never experienced loneliness?). But still, I much prefer his weird prescriptions against flamboyance (sort of fun in their oddness) over Newsweek’s now weekly Hurt Locker contrarianism.
The controversy over Elena Kagan’s sexuality has blown over by now, I think, but I just found out about it, so let me say a few words, specifically about Andrew Sullivan’s argument that her sexual orientation should be a matter of public record, the way any other marker of her identity is. Fair enough. The only premise in his argument that I take issue with is the opener, the notion that sexual orientation, or any other aspect of a person’s identity, is an “empirical question.” I wish I could believe that we are defined entirely by our actions, but there is also the matter of the complexity of the human brain, and I know that all the heterosexual dates in the world say nothing about a person’s sexuality. If Kagan is neither “straight” nor “gay,” how much is she supposed to reveal?
OCCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN
That’s the name of the new “Corrections” feature on this blog. After a recent blunder concerning a singer’s gender (one of the least embarrassing and most interesting mistakes I’ve made here), I decided it might be wise to occasionally look back and make amends for odd things I have written. This won’t be a space to correct factual errors (e.g. faulty gendering, though there is much more to say about the Beach House phenomenon), or a space to keep track of things I have underrated, unless I’ve done so via false assumptions or meanness. I simply want to look back at the person I once was (so recently), wonder if I’m that person still, and attempt to challenge some of his language and his points of view. Let’s get started:
… I then backtracked to 2001’s Touched, and eventually found it to be the slightly more soulful album, with an indie rock sound very much in vogue this decade, but so unaffected and seemingly universal that I felt only Elliott Smith had ever been better, within the confines of his genre, at making me forget my disproportional interest in music by white people.
I employ a very subtle irony in everything I write on this blog, so subtle that I often can’t detect it when I go back and read old posts. That might be what’s going on in the passage above, but I also know I was being somewhat sincere, trying to say something about my affection for Ken Stringfellow and Elliott Smith in a very roundabout and ineffective way. I suppose I wanted to suggest that neither man would ever be found on that list of stuff white people like, the way Sufjan Stevens might, and that Stringfellow’s take on soul music has never struck me as the least bit self-conscious, demonstrating a confidence that I once divined he had learned from Smith, who died just as Stringfellow’s solo career was flourishing. Anyway, I apologize for the race-conscious language of yesteryear. It seems very unnatural.
… expect more substantial posts soon, including my lengthy (and mostly impartial) Gaga review.
It’s not to be. There were a couple reasons I wanted to attempt a track-by-track review of The Fame Monster, the first being that such reviews seem to be in vogue at the moment. The approach would be inappropriate to the way I experience most albums, but I thought it perfectly suited to The Fame Monster: even if there were bad songs, maybe I would be able to say something interesting about them. The second reason was that I felt I had to make amends with my early, uninformed, and unfair hatred for Gaga, on the basis of her song “LoveGame.” (The story: Every time I didn’t have fun in a bar last year, it seemed like this song was there to mock me, so it became the object of my anger, even though “I Gotta Feeling” is certainly horrible enough to carry the weight of all my bile for the rest of eternity.) But then I realized that, regardless of the quality of her music, I have nothing to apologize for, and also, wouldn’t I be better off reading Grace Stone Coates or listening to Joanna Newsom than trying to glean wisdom from songs I don’t especially care to listen to?
Plenty has been written about Lady Gaga, much of it pretty interesting. You might want to search it out. You might even want to read Ms. Newsom’s comments about Gaga (but don’t read the lazy and perfunctory analysis at the end of the news article!). I have nothing much to add, but I did get a ways into my review, so here are some stray notes from it:
I hope you will all believe I have no agenda in doing this, and that my feelings about Lady Gaga are almost entirely neutral, possibly edging toward warm (this probably for personal and non-quantifiable reasons).
“Bad Romance” : I’ve heard this song at least thirty times since December, but I almost didn’t recognize it through headphones. For one thing, all the buzzing synths suggest a degraded sound quality and made me wonder if I wasn’t listening to a low bitrate mp3 (not so, the Amazon download is a healthy 256; perhaps the production is an attempt to encourage online piracy, as listeners would be unable to detect an inferior mp3?). For another thing, there are a number of little flourishes, not easy to hear through speakers, that I don’t quite like and that distract from the thumping momentum that is this song’s raison d’etre. That said, and as I’ve mentioned before, what’s most startling about Gaga is that her better songs contain recognizable musical qualities, which sets her apart from her peers and is perhaps why she has garnered love and hate in equal measure. I am possibly being facetious. The best thing happening here musically is the syncopated clicky thing during the verses, which pleases me almost as much as when I used to play with the drum machine in my college’s electronic music lab. I hope to say more concerning what these songs are “about,” but for now let me say that “Bad Romance,” while adequately sleazy, seems to be in search of a moment as unabashedly horny as the one in Prince’s “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” when he says, “I sincerely wanna f*** the taste right out of your mouth” (Too horny, had to edit that!). To be fair though, Prince tended to be a bit more restrained on his singles.
If “Dance In The Dark” is her “Vogue,” then “Alejandro” is her “La Isla Bonita” and “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)” is her “Dear Jessie.” There’s something charming about the lazy title of this last one, and the staleness of its 80s production, coming on the heels of the four big dance hits that open The Fame. It’s a sublimely pointless song, which I can’t quite say about even the most middling of 80s Madonna, considering what she means to me. But I wonder what percentage of Gaga’s fans is old enough to remember Madonna and will recognize the similarities. I suppose Gaga deserves her fame for recognizing a window of time in which she could be given credit for originating things she didn’t originate. Fame often works that way.
Her most lyrically confused songs: I think “Monster” is about rape, but Gaga seems to me mostly incapable of saying anything serious about sex; Maybe it’s just me, but I still can’t figure out who the narrator of “Paparazzi” is, which is a shame because it seems like Gaga has something somewhat interesting to say.
Her least lyrically confused songs: “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” and “The Fame.” Are these songs self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she somehow rich and famous before she was rich and famous? Either way, her confidence with this lyrical matter shows in the driving momentum of the grooves, which truly groove I must say.
“Telephone” ends almost the same way as The Replacements’ “Answering Machine.”
“So Happy I Could Die” is a mainstream lesbian song that I actually believe, for once, and as gay club anthems go, it is pretty superior.
“Teeth” is almost as committed to its minimal groove as Prince’s “Kiss,” so I admire it for that.
*Ironically, I say this as someone from a small town who's never been to a football game. Thank God for movies.