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.

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