The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes : Richard Ford famously axed most of the adverbs from the manuscript of Independence Day to cut down the word count. The Real Cool Killers is exploding with adverbs. The literature of real estate agents doesn’t exactly demand adverbs, but they are crucial in a crime novel as violent as this one, in which something is always happening, and happening in a particularly vivid way. In the bravura opening scene, set in a Harlem nightclub, a knife slashes a man’s tie and the knot blossoms “like a bloody wound over his white collar.” The arm holding that knife is then axed off “as though it had been guillotined” and the owner of the arm scrabbles about the floor “searching for his severed arm,” then loses consciousness and falls on his face. This heavy and active prose (though I left out all the adverbs!) might have become tiresome, but then the book starts to shift toward long passages of dialogue, another of Himes’s great strengths. You might call The Real Cool Killers anthropological in the way it hears its characters so sharply, but I’m not sure. What do their voices add up to, when none of them seem to have a very clear idea of the world they inhabit? A barman and a detective argue over how a black man would respond if he found a white man in bed with his girl (the barman thinks he could be bought off, and that white men don’t count as cheating anyway; the detective thinks it might lead to murder), but the argument is never resolved. That conversation starts to hint at the deep, deep racial prejudices that somehow don’t quite register in the book’s opening chapters but which feature more and more explicitly as the tangle of murder unravels. That same detective lays it all out with a great speech: “If you white people insist on coming up to Harlem where you force colored people to live in vice-and-crime ridden slums, it’s my job to see that you are safe.”
Scorsese by Roger Ebert : The pieces in Scorsese by Ebert started life as stand-alone reviews and interviews, so the fact that they add up to a book well worth reading cover-to-cover, and an interesting narrative experience that could almost be called biography, is quite something. Ebert may harp too much on certain elements in Scorsese’s films (the Madonna-whore complex, the evocation of a Little Italy childhood spent watching the gangsters come and go across the street), but it’s this sort of redundancy that gives the book weight, that provides a long and varied life with its necessary ghosts and obsessions. Ebert has always been smart enough to not suppress his old writings even after his ideas have changed, so when this book is at its best, it’s not just about Scorsese but about a filmmaker and his most visible critic journeying through life side-by-side.
A Newsweek article wonders what the difference is between an episode of Jerry Springer and some recent movies like The Kids Are All Right and Please Give, and then, as if some great critical thought has gone into the intervening paragraphs, concludes that they are different because of the way they treat their subject matter. Really? Roger Ebert’s rule, that movies aren’t about what they’re about but how they’re about, could have saved this article from ever being written, but at least it arrives at a reasonable conclusion, however belabored. Sadly, though, the final line intervenes: “But let’s not pretend that the subject matter, whether set to Joni Mitchell or onstage in front of an angry mob shouting, ‘She’s! A! Dude!’ is not, at heart, the same.” No one’s pretending, because we’re all too busy using critical systems that understand the nature of context.
I understand the solace of finding the perfect pair of jeans, but I wish the ending of Please Give was a bit more ambivalent, given how perfectly the rest of the film reflects its characters’ complicated feelings about shopping. Last year The Hurt Locker contained that moment when Jeremy Renner stares at an endless expanse of cereal boxes at the grocery store with a blank look on his face, but that shot was meant to be particular to the mindset of a soldier returned home from the war. Please Give contains a similar moment, one that springs from the characters’ daily lives, when Catherine Keener spies her young daughter looking at makeup at the other end of the aisle, starting off on life’s fraught journey of buying things. Keener sometimes has a look in her eye, asking, is this what I’m supposed to do with my life, buy things? Will her daughter end up wondering that too? She doesn’t yet, not at the moment of the perfect jeans, which I just can’t accept as the end of the story.
Why does young Andy love his toys so much? All children love toys, but Andy is obsessed, to the point of mania. Instead of a family portrait on the bulletin board in his bedroom, he has a portrait with all his toys. With Toy Story 3, I’ve finally realized that these nagging questions have been the key to these movies all along. The movies are finally about, in a fairly explicit way, the absence that has always been at their center. Up gave us a single parent family last year, but Toy Story 3, and its predecessors, presents one with such little fanfare that I’ve only just now begun to understand the trilogy’s essential tragedy. First there is Andy, whose parting words to the audience (and to presumably fatherless Bonnie) before going to college are about his beloved toy and father figure Woody: “He’ll never let you down.” Then there is his mother, who has lost her only son and who will remain alone at home with only a decrepit dog and an oblivious pre-teen daughter to keep her company. In even its most veiled metaphors and subtle implications, Toy Story 3 contains more of the stuff of real life than the sum total of this awful, awful summer of movies. Consider the Claw, which is divine intervention and random coincidence all bundled up into one persuasive philosophy. After the Claw rescues the toys from the fires of hell, they conclude that maybe Andy’s attic wouldn’t be so bad after all. Of course!
Note: The family opted to not see the movie in 3D. After some pleasant 3D experiences last year—the first two refurbished Toy Story films (my first novel experience of the phenomenon), A Christmas Carol (a dark, dark London that benefits from being seen as dark as possible), and Avatar (projected at an appropriate light level, probably per JC’s orders)—Alice in Wonderland broke the spell for everyone, tolerable only when I raised my glasses to see that things were actually happening, vividly, on the screen. I imagine most moviegoers have experienced a similar trajectory by now. No more 3D for me, at least until Hugo Cabret or Avatar 2.
Here are two reviews of Inception, one of which accepts the movie on its own terms and finds it to be pretty good, and the other of which expects the movie to conform to real human experiences of dreaming and finds it to be pretty bad. My own feelings exist somewhere at the intersection of these two reviews. I was able to accept Inception’s weirdly precise un-dream logic (and even thrilled a bit at its loony formulas for elapsed time in different dream levels, etc.) without liking it very much. Yes, Inception has nothing to do with dreams as they are experienced by any person now living, but that hardly matters, since the elaborate and clever rules that govern the world of the film have only sloppy directing and editing to enforce them. Here’s one example of a three-shot sequence that I hope I am recalling correctly:  Leo looks through the window of a closed door and sees Prof. Michael Caine sitting at his desk in an otherwise empty classroom;  closer shot of Caine, being startled by off-screen voice of Leo;  Leo sits in the room facing Caine. This scene does not ostensibly take place in a dream (though perhaps it inadvertently ascribes meaning to the film’s final shot), so I suppose the implication is that Leo has the ability to walk through closed doors in his waking life.
As poorly edited movies and the internet continue to evaporate our brains, I’ve been finding more and more articles about the benefits of slow cinema and slow reading. These aren’t really the same topic (one is under the control of the artist and the other under the control of the audience), but commentators tend to define “slowness” as some sort of aesthetic choice (readers too make aesthetic choices, after all) when I would consider it a simple human imperative. People (or at least I) don’t comprehend information at the alarming rate that hypertext and quickly plotted and edited movies require. Consider Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, an ideal movie because its actions and meanings unfold at the same pace. Action without meaning is chaos. I don’t know if I believe that, but it sounds like a good manifesto.
Metropolis is another movie that proceeds at just the right pace for my slow brain to comprehend it. The new footage in the 2010 restoration can easily be deduced according to the quality of the image, and aside from a number of lengthened scenes, which heighten the film’s emotional impact, the only really “new” discovery here is a sequence in which a minor character takes a cab to a Metropolis nightclub. Funny that no one has seen this sequence since the film’s first premiere, considering that this is one of the moments that I find echoes most strongly in the films of the past 80 years. The way the lights flash through the window in the back of a shadowy cab, the suggestion of a vast and glittering city that an endangered character can only experience in passing, we’ve seen in all this film’s direct descendents (Blade Runner, Dark City), in the entirety of film noir, in Pulp Fiction too.
But since we’re talking about a silent film, this new cab sequence in Metropolis doesn’t function as a bridge between larger scenes, but as one among a series of tableaux, each given equal weight. Indeed, I propose a new “tableau” theory as a way to unite silent cinema and the art of the hip hop album. In the last post, I wrote about Janelle Monae’s hip-hop-by-design record The ArchAndroid as if I had uncovered some sort of linear narrative in its songs that made its Metropolis-themed concept worthwhile. Rather, the album works as a series of linked set-pieces, which anticipate and illuminate each other and add up to an experience that could be deemed “cinematic” (an adjective most commonly found in hip hop reviews?). Metropolis can be viewed that way too, although it also has a narrative that can be followed.
Ben Allen has produced the new Deerhunter album, out September 28. This worried me a bit from the first, for the simple reason that Deerhunter knows best how to produce Deerhunter, and now that I’ve heard “Where I’m Going” from the next Cut Copy album, out in January and also produced by Allen, I’m considerably worried. Ben Allen is best known as the man behind Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, a much-celebrated head trip album that is all a-muddle to me, or at least, minus some brilliant patches, never hits the way it’s supposed to. I would liken Allen’s influence to the teleportation devices in Larry Niven’s SF classic Ringworld. Instead of leveling human culture, he seems to be leveling modern music, so that everything sounds culturally, geographically and emotionally unspecific and pitched at the same level of ecstatic chanting/dancing. I don’t know what separates the new Cut Copy song from any recent Animal Collective song, or what it’s supposed to make me feel besides a desire to feel joy. Will all of humanity soon unite over their shared love of this sort of music while I’m left out in the cold? I’m not being misanthropic; instead I feel that Ben Allen’s work does a disservice to people with complex emotions. And Deerhunter has never lacked for complex emotions, either in their content or the way they wrangle content into dynamic sounds.
Speaking of that indefinable line between production and content, it’s been on my mind while pondering what makes the greatness of Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty separate from the greatness of OutKast’s Aquemini. It is simply this: I’m so wowed by the sounds on Left Foot that I’m unable to hang on every word, the way I do when Big Boi raps about his West Savannah upbringing or the charms of Suzie Screw. I can hardly believe I’m even talking about the same Big Boi. Whether or not Sir Lucious is a “mainstream” record, it probably seems so current because it is so purely aural, even when the songs are about something. Does anyone think the album would actually be better with the awesome “Royal Flush” on it? Not only do the George W. lyrics date the song, but that dating would call undue attention to the lyrics on an album that generally doesn’t.
El Perro Del Mar’s Love Is Not Pop, so beautiful and hushed, is belatedly one of 2009’s best, and scaled exactly right: 7 songs in 33 minutes, each song long but not epic, like brief moments of repose sustained for a few minutes and then blown open into tiny symphonic reveries. I never expected that Lou Reed’s solo catalog would be one of the great influences on 21st century pop music, but I’ve been hearing him everywhere, in most things minor-key and modest, in the work of musicians who sound like survivors of drugs, even if they’re just survivors of melancholy. Love Is Not Pop contains one Lou Reed cover and six would-be Lou Reed covers, though I shouldn’t underestimate the influence of Kate Bush (which you’ll also find all over Chico Dusty), Sam Phillips, and those gentle early 80s records by King Crimson.
Meanwhile, I’ve liked every Pernice Brothers album (up through Live A Little) better than its predecessor, and while the new Goodbye, Killer could be nobody’s idea of their best album, it earns bonus points for this same sense of modesty and smallness. Could it be that musicians are cutting back their excesses in these “tough economic times”? I don’t think it’s that; instead, we’re losing our suspicion of understatement, thank God.
Mom and I made our annual trip to the ballpark last week, and more than I felt the inevitable loss of the Helena Brewers, I felt my continued conviction that baseball is the only team sport worthy of my attention. This has nothing to do with the history of the game or its all-American status, and more to do with the beauty of its rules—so precise and uncluttered, so absolutely mathematical, so free from the tyranny of the clock. Then there are those silences between the plays when its players are revealed not as athletes but as men in an impossible situation, waiting. Football has those moments of waiting, too, but they conceal the threat of imminent violence, which makes the game unpleasant and possibly immoral. If baseball contains violence, it is only psychological.