Monday, February 21, 2011

Yes!!!! Cry cry cry*

*Okay, I lied. This was already ready to go.

*Title taken from the best text message I ever got.

*I’m pretty tired, having not long ago
excavated my roommate’s car from
leagues of snow. I’ll proofread this
tomorrow. Sorry if nothing makes sense.

-Haven’t we survived this winter already? Is there more to survive?

-It would seem there are just as many good justifications for not reading as there are for reading (like: this book will last, but never again will I be able to people-watch this particular group of people on the bus, or ponder their precise and exquisite Altmanesque arrangement throughout the bus’s widescreen length), but this is in itself NOT a justification to NOT read.

-I never feel more alive than when I am walking slowly toward a large building from a great distance, with nothing to obstruct my rapt view of its deliberate and shining immensity. (I walked to the steps of the state capitol for the first time last weekend.)

-I’d never thought of a church as a primarily functional building before, but those small steeples you find in small neighborhoods seem perfectly designed to accommodate the modest tumescence of a gently ascending spirit.

-There is a place on Hennepin Avenue, south of Lake Street, called the Health Recovery Center. Its orange and blue fluorescent sign, seen from the windows of the 6, suggests you’re living in the darkest, infinitely latest small-town night, the way it fades in the middle of its second word into perfect black: HEALTH RECOV

-Imagining UPTOWN as an acronym, the best I could come up with was: Ugly political tricks obliterate waxy nostalgia.

Twin Cities people:

-Terry Blue was one of those fellows who’s least supposed to die, because he had so happily fastened himself to an element of life at the expense of all others. What point is there in new movies being made if he won’t be around to see them?

-The lead violin in the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra serenaded us with Bach partitas, etc., but I know they were mostly for Zac, because his joy was for me. She told us some things too, about life’s hardships, but I think they were told in private.

-Is it weird that I save his text messages in a Word document? He’s not a writer, so how else should I make a record of the ways he uses language?

-“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s true. Every time I go to the downtown St. Paul public library, I get tractor beamed toward their Rolling Stone archives, the best place to go if I want to immediately recall the sum total of my youth, found equally within the issues’ actual contents and those Columbia House catalogs stapled somewhere in the middle of each issue, comprehensive lists of every band I was aware of in the 90s, like webcode from the darkest recesses of my brain, deep, deep structure. (Upon request, I found the “Backstreet Boys with their pants down” issue in no time at all—year-end issue ’99, of course! You would have been so impressed…) The way music proliferates and wedges itself into my head is different now, but some things you never forget. I could go back so easily, shake the shackles of connectivity, replunder mystery. There’s a channel we get on our converter box that plays nothing but music videos. I can’t understand why, but I caught an old White Zombie video the other night and remembered how it was when such messages were the only message.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids speaks to my present phase, but I imagine any reader will latch on most strongly to its origin story, their first apartment together and those longest nights. As in the Joe Brainard memoir, the starving days are the best days.

Dennis Cooper’s Try is just fine for reading in public, really, but maybe I’m a lesser being, because I continually worry people will misjudge my motivations. Wrongly so, as this is a sweet book full of the saddest love. Cooper does a whole slew of things that no one else in fiction does—weirdest, most brilliant, the way he tells us things that no one in the world of the story knows or will remember: “…to nobody’s knowledge—not even Calhoun’s, since he never remembers his dreams…”

After his reading at the Southdale Library in Edina, Paul Harding said he reads for moments of recognition: things that are true, and that he’s always known, but that he’s never seen put into words before. He made some statements that would qualify as such for me, in particular that his years as a drummer in a rock band attuned him to the rhythms of prose, and that the writing of a story reaches critical mass when the process of writing it becomes synonymous with its content (re: Harding’s Tinkers, his physical rearrangement of its fragments into a coherent whole).

The MIA’s new exhibit of photographic portraits of photographers is full of curiosities: a Cindy Sherman self-portrait that initially seems to be “ruined” by her grotesque fake nose, until you realize that this is the thing that emphasizes, by contrast, the amazing formality of the pose and the crystal detail … such real hands!; Alec Soth’s expired Minnesota driver’s license; pieces from the insane and idly-constructed notebooks of rich boy Peter Beard, weird amalgamations (not unlike the unreadable and yet endlessly interpretable monstrosities I could create if I took the time to collect all my life’s directionless scribbles and notes) of snatched fleeting thoughts, drawings, diary, collage and somehow unifying page decoration and desecration, the kind of thing all artists would strive to create if they had Peter Beard’s time and weren’t so stupidly (sorry!) rigorous in their pursuit of purity of form, mode, field, etc.; and the eyes of Robert Mapplethorpe in the year before his death, staring at you as you enter from expanses of gold-leaf paper, with an entire room reflected in his right pupil, vague but a place I’d like to get to, if not for the stress of disease visible in the skin and eyebrows that surround it.

1. Patrick Wolf, “The City”: I never expected a reward for following Wolf into the dark depths of The Bachelor (where many people neglected to go), nor did I expect that the emotional flipside he promised even before that album’s release (did he find love during The Bachelor’s recording, or did it go without saying that a charming boy who despaired so hard inevitably would, with Tilda as his guide?) could be as triumphant and life-saving as this song. And those are qualities I even, of course, expect from him.

2. Cut Copy, Zonoscope: “Blink and You’ll Miss A Revolution,” they warn, and of course they’re referring to their own music. I can’t think of another band right now that so strongly believes in music as the beginning and end of everything. I realize now I can let them get away with the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” refrain of “Where I’m Going,” among other clichés, because capital-M Music is a grand occasion for such things.

3. Weekend, Sports: To the extent that I have any kind of mental anguish left over from my teen years, I’m always looking for a piece of crazy rock ‘n’ roll that best reflects it. This is a band of varied youthful fever, and surprisingly so, as I’d thought they only do haze and bluster in combination, and not also in alternately spooky and raving isolation.

4. The New Expansive is a phrase I’d like to coin to describe those artists who mine disco for its luxe velvet backseat lining and deep contentedness (Ariel Pink’s “Round and Round,” Twin Sister’s “All Around & Away We Go”) and/or whose riffage is almost more lazily grandiose than the best of Pavement (Avi Buffalo, Girls). Everyone seems so relaxed nowadays.

5. Chillwave is a dumb name because: it’s supposed to describe artists who are in fact actively engaged with the physical world. The same argument could be leveled against “shoegaze,” but we’ve gotten used to that word, and something about its twin fricatives separated by a bouncy velar stop sounds right.

Queer As Folk has the barest plotting I have ever encountered in my life, maybe, but I forgive it, because that bareness seems like a symptom of the show’s sweet worldview. It’s a “character-driven” show, as they say, and even if the characters’ obstacles continually dissolve into pure meaningful resolution, they (the characters) somehow remain unusually vivid. It’s almost like the superhero comics that our (or my) sympathetic entry point Michael loves so much.

My Oscar favorites in the top eight categories (with only Rabbit Hole and Biutiful left unseen, and not because I’m unwilling, and definitely not because I don’t admire John Cameron Mitchell or Javier Bardem):

Picture: The Social Network
Director: David Fincher
Actress: Michelle Williams
Actor: Jesse Eisenberg
Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver
Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush
Original Screenplay: The Kids Are All Right
Adapted Screenplay: The Social Network

And since I didn’t record my thoughts on these fine features and other nominees as I was seeing them fiendishly a couple weeks back, here is, briefly, what I liked in some of them:

The King’s Speech: All the pretty wallpaper, and its prominent display in those beautifully off-balance compositions.

Animal Kingdom: A crime movie of perfect scope and ambition. Whoever called it sprawling was lying. But then it starts to display symptoms of a “blue” movie, where the hues turn cold, the soundtrack turns ambient and bleary, and everything slows down—supposedly cinematic shorthand for generalized sadness and tragedy, but which has the opposite effect, stopping drama dead in its tracks.

Blue Valentine: The precision of its close-ups, so rare. Ryan Gosling and daughter suck up cereal from the kitchen tabletop, and it’s not just some quick snatch of vérité, but a family’s universe in totality.

Another Year: These characters too, like the ones in that spooky moment from Make Way For Tomorrow, briefly peer toward the camera, eyes slightly averted, afraid of being caught in their lives. It’s even spookier in Mike Leigh’s iteration, coming after an earlier scene where Mary and company critique Ken from across the yard with the same vocabulary we might use, the first moment we realize how sadly on display these people are.

Dogtooth: Science fiction indeed, because so scarily plausible. We have the power to make anything we want of the people created in our image! Best is how the eldest, having been programmed to repeat back everything that goes into her brain, goes around reciting dialogue from Jaws and Rocky, and then, in a Great Moment, quotes a line not just because its succession of words is stored in her neural pathways, but because she perceives its relevance to her situation. (There is hope for us too! We can transcend the ways our minds have been trained to process information—develop new contexts and higher truths!) Later, in the Great Final Shot, she becomes a ticking bomb in the trunk of a car (Touch of Evil homage?), and it’s sad to think that her movie lesson has been scarcely enough training for the big world.

Enter the Void (not an Oscar nominee, thank God) lost me sometime around the moment the character through whose flitting, dying mind we witness the action draws a connection between his lover’s breasts and his mother’s (hmm, very salient, and the closest thing to an “idea” in the movie), and then I spent its remaining few hours in ever-increasing agony. This is the least gay movie ever, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, but in this case amounts to a total lack of imagination. The only origin story this film can fathom is the ecstatic union of a man and a woman begetting a painful birth into a dim world. If that’s not supposed to be a universal condition, then the story’s particulars need to be less bland. (Sorry so mean, but I have to somehow justify those hours I’ll never have back.)

I’d been thinking that the plural voiceover narration of GoodFellas was a reference to An American in Paris, but I forgot that All About Eve has it, too. What a great technique! Pure screenwriter.

Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed

I want and maybe even desperately need to scrounge together a new real post soon (but God, when will there be time?), but while you (all? two? no one?) wait for that, here’s a post of recycled material, just for the sake of keeping this techno-diary going, and for another sake…

1. That is to say, the sake of posterity. Back in the summers of 2006 and 2007, I wrote movie reviews for a free weekly paper in Helena, Montana called Queen City News, after bringing to their attention the fact that their syndicated Christian Science Monitor reviews didn’t really represent a local perspective. QCN, basically the one-woman operation of notable Helenan Cathy Siegner, ceased publishing last December (a sad event, as it was the only alternative to evil conglomerate Independent Record), and I’m a bit worried that its website will disappear along with it and that the number of results a Google search of my name yields will be accordingly depleted. So from time to time I’m going to republish my old movie reviews here, sans editorial retrospection. Mortified as I am by most things I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, my movie reviews seem alright and sufficiently publishable in hindsight, probably because my only intention in writing them was to get as close to the writing style of my then-even-more-so-than-now idol Roger Ebert. I really spared no effort in that pursuit, and it shows.

A Prairie Home Companion
July 20, 2006

She sees the president speakin’
On a flat screen TV
In the window of the old appliance store
She turns to see her brother again
But he’s already walkin’ past
The flags of freedom flyin’

So goes a verse from Neil Young’s new protest album Living with War. With a nod to modern technology, Young inserts a 21st century lexicon into the tried-and-true tradition of the folk song, and the result is no different than when Woody Guthrie sang about ten dollar shoes to fit his feet. Well, A Prairie Home Companion is kind of like that, an exquisite union of old and new under a grand banner of American tradition.

For those who have missed out on this peculiar and much-loved piece of American tradition, A Prairie Home Companion is Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s long running radio show of the same name. But as those two iconic names can guarantee, it is more than just a filmed version of a radio show. It is a seamless blending of fact and fiction and comforting Americana, a patient and loving film.

The show is based out of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, that singular state where stubborn people cling to the cold earth, living for those rare moments of humor and song. Keillor, lovingly called GK by his cast and crew, provides those moments for many with his show. Altman does the same for a potentially larger audience with his film, and it is a layered piece of work in which in one is never sure where reality ends and where the film begins, or where the film ends and the radio show begins, for that matter.

The film finds GK and his cast in the midst of the last show of their 30-year run. It seems they’ve just been bought out by a humorless businessman with lots of money. The cast of characters includes Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a bumbling detective who recalls an even earlier and just as beloved time in American radio. Other actors, Meryl Streep and John C. Reilly in particular, prove themselves impressive singers and performers, on top of their already established screen presences. Lindsay Lohan shines as Lola Johnson, the daughter of Streep’s Yolanda, who could possess all the talents of her mother, but opts instead for a busy and cynical life. Once again, we are witness to a certain down-home tradition ending and a new era beginning.

The film is chock full of Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue and cluttered sets. Now in his 80s, the director takes his time, letting his camera linger on a scene as we soak in the abundant humanity and slowly let our eye drift to where the real point of interest lies. Another Altmanesque element is the character of the Dangerous Woman, a sort of ghost/angel/femme fatale presence, played by Virginia Madsen. Like the bird man in Brewster McCloud or the third woman in 3 Women, she is the mysterious entity who unites the film’s diverse elements and gives it another level of reality. She is one of our entry points, if only because we share her genuine and somewhat removed fascination with a little subculture putting on its show.

There’s a joke in the movie that goes like this: Two penguins are sitting on an ice floe, and one says to the other, “It looks like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” The other says, “How do you know I’m not?” That’s the joke. A character responds not with laughter but by asking, “Why is that funny?” and GK doesn’t quite know. That’s a good analogy for the film in general. It is warm and lovely and charming, and it’s not my place to go about explaining why. I can only say that if you’re the sort of person who responds to such things, you’ll love it.

Ocean's Thirteen
June 10, 2007

[This one went unpublished for some reason—probably a good one, as, judging from the original Word document's properties, I spent only an hour and 58 minutes on this flimsy-ish prose.]

Ocean’s Thirteen is yet another threequel in a summer dominated by threes, but this one is actually wise to its sequel status. The financial success of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise has always been modest enough to leave open the possibility that he’s not merely in it for the money, and here’s another entry that is good enough on its own terms to justify its existence. One character says, “You can’t do the same gag twice. You have to do a new gag.” The movie is not only full of new gags, but it also has a fresh approach to a familiar genre.

By this point, George Clooney can phone in the charm and still give a good performance, and in Ocean’s Thirteen, he’s back with his gang of likable criminals for another heist. This time he’s up against Las Vegas hotel owner Willy Bank, played by Al Pacino with equal amounts genuine threat and self-parody. It’s a fun performance, but his very name suggests that he’s more symbol than character, so he can never be taken too seriously.

Some critics have called this film the death of the heist movie, but it’s not really a heist movie at all. It uses the possibilities of the genre for its cinematic sleight of hand. Nor is it much interested in its characters except as pawns in its well-oiled machine. The whole thing plays like an extended opening sequence, seemingly indifferent to its audience, building texture upon texture. At the outset, there’s an inexplicable malaise of shoptalk and cinematic tricks.

It takes a while to warm up to what the movie’s after, to notice that conversations span scenes, or to soak in the beautiful interior spaces of the hotel, which flash by too fast for us to admire their grandiosity and absurdity. The film may rely a bit too much on bright colors, funky music, aerial shots, following shots, dollies in and out, but it’s not a case of style over substance: its style is its substance.

The movie understands that the traditional heist picture doesn’t really fit in today’s world. Take a movie like the 1955 French caper Rififi, which certainly stands as the best heist movie I’ve seen. Its centerpiece is an entirely wordless 20 minutes in which four men break into a bank in the dark of night and take off with the loot. The scene is thrilling in its enormous patience, the men so diligent in their occupation that we applaud and root for them.

Ocean’s Thirteen, on the other hand, probably lacks any scene longer than a minute, but this is not its deficiency. Ocean’s men are up against the digital age, and a casino that’s constantly monitored by an artificial intelligence. Their heist is not one large action, but an infinite number of small actions. It’s also encouraging to see a summer actioner where the characters get what they want not with guns and violence but with confidence and intelligence. Ocean’s men are wisely pegged as “analog players in a digital world.”

That’s not to say that the film has a conscience. The heist is an entirely selfish act, without even a Robin Hood morality to its credit. One particularly funny scene shows Ocean and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) tearing up at an episode of Oprah, even as they plan their next move. Their social consciousness is extremely fleeting, and the movie is never more than pure escapism.

Sure, it’s as fun as ever to watch attractive famous people having fun, which is primarily what these movies are about. But more than the first two, this is art cinema masquerading as a summer blockbuster, using a familiar formula as a backdrop for its bag of tricks. In the words of one character, “It plays.”

2. I found dozens of old unused album covers—made between April and June 2005 (you can imagine how much I cared about the end of high school) with the great obsolete Microsoft program Picture It!—on my family’s dusty hard drive back in January. Here’s a sampling of my past work, as curated by my present self.

3. I can never figure out what makes me the person I am today as opposed to the person I was then (like, is that era of my life really over? is that situation less me than this one?), so I consider this post relevant.