Sunday, April 24, 2011

What were the skies like when you were young?

UPDATED 5/22/11: Join me as I move beyond the theoretical! If you’d like to subscribe to my annual mixtape series, or request a cassette copy of this year’s mix with no further obligations or appeals to membership, send an email to gstueven@gmail.com with a succinct description of your childhood skies in the subject line. Since too many great songs merited inclusion this year, each cassette will come with a download link for newly added Side 3. If either Side A or Side B is not up to your standard, a simple Side 3 overdub, easily effected on any cassette player with recording capability, will make this a mix that can’t lose! Please note that each cassette will include personalized cover art—based on my limited knowledge of the recipient’s morals and interests—in place of the image seen below. Please also note that I make no guarantee of timely delivery. But take comfort in the knowledge that the beauty of these 33 songs is in no immediate danger of expiration. Lastly, follow me here, where I'll explicate the relevance of each song (maybe).

Here, on this day of amazing sky, it feels appropriate to unveil this year’s springtime mixtape, still only theoretical and therefore open to revision, but soon to take on a form as physical as the imminently softening outside world.


A

The Aislers Set – “Chicago New York” [2.23]
Veronica Falls – “Stephen” [2.26]
R.E.M. – “Every Day Is Yours To Win” [3.26]
The Geraldine Fibbers – “Swim Back To Me” [3.25]
Pale Saints – “Babymaker” [3.26]
Little Black Dress – “Robin” [4.09]
Minks – “Kusmi” [2.47]
Julianna Barwick – “Vow” [4.39]
Weekend – “Youth Haunts” [5.33]
Suede – “The Wild Ones” [4.51]
Patrick Wolf – “The City” [4.15]
.....total [41.20]

B

Jeremy Jay – “Shayla” [2.50]
The Chills – “Double Summer” [3.14]
Crystal Stilts – “Silver Sun” [3.03]
Lower Dens – “Tea Lights” [4.40]
Kurt Vile – “On Tour” [5.26]
Michael Jackson – “I Can’t Help It” [4.29]
Twin Shadow – “At My Heels” [3.37]
Stereolab – “Wow & Flutter” [3.08]
The Secret History – “My Life With The Living Dead” [3.51]
The Amps – “Bragging Party” [4.32]
The Orb – “Little Fluffy Clouds” [4.27]
.....total [43.17]

3

Tennis – “Long Boat Pass” [2.59]
Twin Sister – “Lady Daydream” [3.22]
Iris DeMent – “Hotter Than Mojave In My Heart” [2.33]
Patti Smith – “Kimberly” [4.29]
The Dictators – “Weekend” [4.02]
Lilys – “The Hermit Crab” [3.33]
Simple Minds – “Big Sleep” [5.03]
Robyn – “Call Your Girlfriend” [3.47]
Grace Jones – “Walking in the Rain” [4.30]
The Wipers – “Wait A Minute” [3.04]
Women – “Eyesore” [6.25]
.....total [43.47]


The featured songs from the 1990s are my response to the title question, originally posed to Rickie Lee Jones. I’ve included her answer, concerning little fluffy clouds and Arizona skies that go on forever, as well, in the hopes of a double summer—one in syrupy Minneapolis, and a later, drier, autumnal one under her childhood skies.

If I had to narrow my childhood dreamings of an expansive radness in the great elsewhere down to one person, then there was no one cooler than Kim Deal, so her own “Dedicated” "Bragging Party" dedicates this mix to her. Supposedly I get to see her tonight, which is insane.

Original tracklist is in the comments for this post.

Realm Of The Senseless

1

Three lines from an unmade movie, halfway imagined:

One day we’ll look back on this and wonder why they didn’t just teleport.

Pool is a metaphor for billiards.

I wouldn’t know how to make it meaningful.

2

Three lines from Meek’s Cutoff, halfway remembered:

Here we are again, working like n***ers.

You can’t imagine what we’ve done, the cities we’ve built.

This was all written long before we got here.


Which I think give an overall impression of the way this movie is able to state its themes literally and yet retain its mythic force. But there’s one question, the big one, that never escapes the lips of the characters: What are we doing here? You see it first on the minds of the women, whose real homes are far back in the East and who find nothing worth replacing them with in the West, but finally no one is immune to recognizing the absurdity of the westward compulsion or absolvable of the guilt of living out an unseen design. One character wonders if Stephen Meek is ignorant or plain evil, and probably the only sense in making a period Western anymore is to ask that question about the people of the past, to try to remember the wrong and inevitable ways in which we came to inhabit this country.

And the last shot: Something about Kelly Reichardt’s sense of time gave me the impression that not very much of it had passed, so I wasn’t able to predict the final fadeout. But when it came, it was a punch to the soul, unsettling any hope that we might be able to read the signs of our own destiny, our doing and undoing.

3

A second viewing of Vertigo taught me that a man following a woman in her car through the streets of San Francisco is the same as him tracing the random sputterings of her brain with his halfway seeing eyes. Hypnotic, the ways we try to follow each other.

4

A second viewing of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World reminded me that the movie is, more than anything else, an extended commentary on modern music, sometimes literally (genre headings in an oft-frequented Toronto record store: Gabba, Math Rock, Gloom Rock, Sadcore), sometimes implicitly (when Wallace swaps the gender of all of Scott’s pronouns as Scott tells about the most amazing girl in the world, he’s simultaneously doing the same thing to every love song ever written).

5

According to City Pages I live on the edge of the best neighborhood in the Twin Cities, but of course the best places are always wherever you’re not, and really the only thing that might keep me in Minneapolis would be if I could get a room in the Commodore, in the Loring neighborhood, also home to the Walker, Loring Park, 19 Bar, Rainbow Road (which must only exist because people like knowing it’s there, and not because anyone really needs what it’s selling), my early morning walk-throughs, and a singular enchantment beamed straight from my idle imaginings of out of the way spots in NYC.

6

All the devout colors and faces and figures at the MIA were a bit too much for my lightly troubled stomach today, but…

The colors in Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pedernal, ill-making perhaps if less softly arrived at, were an exception. There’s one stray curve in this painting of curves that is precisely the place I’d like to live inside when I get to New Mexico/Arizona.

I find it humbling that a painting called Before And After Being Young was completed in the year of my birth. Fittingly, it looks like a door to the place that exists beyond a womb or a coffin’s satin lining.

I uncovered the heretofore-unseen erotic/romantic element in Walt Kuhn, which is unmistakable in the rendering of his softly masculine circus performer, a lot less so in his sad clown, though now I can see that the gaze (on both sides) is the same.

I usually find more to love in the MIA’s early American art section than in its Modern Art section, but I groaned when I saw that Clementine Hunter’s beautiful The Wash has been removed from the latter to the former, as if it’s been downgraded to mere Americana, as if Hunter was only accidentally great. I hope that’s not part of the new designation.

7

One more thing about Just Kids: I hate the realization at the end of memoirs (especially ones in which a person succumbs to AIDS) that even a life lived within the past isn’t infinite, that it eventually brushes up against the present, or death. But that’s why I read memoirs, for this beautiful meaning that’s built into all of them, good or bad. Is this partly what’s implied when Gore Vidal (or Myra Breckenridge, rather) says, “More than ever am I convinced that the only useful form left to literature in the post-Gutenberg age is the memoir: the absolute truth, copied precisely from life, preferably at the moment it is happening…”? So written in a novel.

8

Two songs for Easter Sunday:


Everybody’s wondering what and where they all came from.
Everybody’s worrying ‘bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back.
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior if in sinful ways you lack.
Some say that they’re coming back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Some say they’re going to a place called Glory and I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact.
But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory and I don’t like the sound of that.
Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.
But I choose to let the mystery be.

Iris DeMent, "Let The Mystery Be"


I am the spring, the holy ground,
the endless seed of mystery,
the thorn, the veil, the face of grace,
the brazen image, the thief of sleep,
the ambassador of dreams, the prince of peace.
I am the sword, the wound, the stain.
Scorned transfigured child of Cain.
I rend, I end, I return.
Again I am the salt, the bitter laugh.
I am the gas in a womb of light, the evening star,
the ball of sight that leads that sheds the tears of Christ
dying and drying as I rise tonight.

Patti Smith, "Easter"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

For Gore Vidal

My review of the disappointment of missing the Owen Pallett performance (happening right now).

I listen to "Keep The Dog Quiet" through the clatter of the projector and muffled sound of movie dialogue and swelling score, through my light head and dripping nose and faintly feverish ears and long refusal of sleep, and imagine walking into a dark theater where all my best future acquaintances sit in expensive coats. They watch my shadow find my seat, and from somewhere in its silent center I look out and watch the strings gather in a fountain of light, with the Great One, O.P., standing on its rim, echoing his voice in every corner of the hall, more echoes and more surfaces than my bedroom walls and CD player have ever allowed. Or these tinny bits of plastic that have lately made all S's so sharp, but they will do, because they are only made for imagining, and the lobby needs an attendant like a man needs a man, and anyway memories are as elusive as anticipations and nothing ever gets resolved. It is snowing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Plantation Of Daisies

FIRST

[1] Julianna Barwick’s The Magic Place (whose beautiful cover image of trees is guiding me through these post-melt, pre-leaf days, the way the whispering foliage in Japanese folktale fantasia Kuroneko guided me through the last of the pre-melt days) is my favorite album of the year so far, just a (long) hair (from a female mane) ahead of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake (another album about a magic place, and an equally elusive one). But this ranking is not really objectively defined, probably just a symptom of my belief in wordlessness over words.

[2] Pop music: The seeming equation of gayness and hedonism (or casual inability to differentiate between the two) in Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” bothers me on a very deep level, but I’m still well enough able to separate the lyrics from the human imperative of an unspooling vocal melody that makes this one the sickeningly innocent and beautiful heir to “Just Dance.” I've referred to Ke$ha's "valley girl cackle," and it persists here, but this time the song privileges the cackle's human vitality. Meanwhile, “Till The World Ends” is the first Britney Spears song I have ever derived the least bit of enjoyment from, probably because it is a Robyn clone. And while I don’t know if I’ve heard “Hold It Against Me,” the other single from "avant garde" masterwork Femme Fatale, I must stop to celebrate its title, somehow clever but not vulgar.

However: For all pop music’s attempts to communicate something universal, there has still never been a truer song than “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Even if you're living a turbulent life, there must be truth in the irony.

[3] Two seemingly contradictory things I have written recently.

2/21/11: 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 clich├ęs, because capital-M Music is a grand occasion for such things.

12/21/10: I never got music for music’s sake.

The plan: To figure out how capital-M Music is different from music for music’s sake, or to issue a retraction. Maybe I will do so in my forthcoming review of Cut Copy at First Avenue, but while you wait for that, you should certainly read these.

[4] What is this Kraftwerkian ringtone I keep hearing everywhere? And, for that matter, the CAUTION CAR APPROACHING warning at the exit of the parking garage on La Salle between 10th and 11th is a circa ’93 Orbital looped sample in the making.

SECOND

[1] I worry that it might have seemed I was romanticizing hunger in my inadequate closing thoughts on Patti Smith’s too-wise-for-lazy-gloss Just Kids. I hope I didn’t mean “starving” in a physical sense, but if I did, let me add: Origins so fleeting and lived inches from despair have an infinite and noble quality in their telling that stability cannot. But, alas, this is one of those books where it would take more pages to say something meaningful about it than it takes to tell itself.

[2] I never got around to summing up Dennis Cooper’s Try, partly because I can do little more than try for insight... True love is necessarily remote, and can only exist in a safe space where a person retains the right to not be penetrated, to not be loved in return, to share his essence with someone who doesn’t revel in it. There’s also some powerful statement in that recurrent tick, tick, tick, which is the book’s way of continually counting down the moments to acts of irreversible violence and self-destruction, or, conversely and finally, fragile union. Gay sex, if it’s to be a real alternative to anything, should not be a matter of tops and bottoms, but of mutual exchange, and Try (which contains no actual gay sex, just everything it is not) ultimately imagines an ideal form of exchange, merely in essences, in impermeable alignments of bodies.

[3] Patton Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is valuable primarily for its opening chapter, in which young Patton sits in the ticket booth and listens to R.E.M. The chapter ends. Hilarity ensues. Much as I wish he’d worked it longer, the piece so efficiently creates an infinite realm of 1985 in its couple dozen pages that Oswalt earns his props to Cather.

[4] Jeffrey Brown’s Cats Are Weird, like most things animal-related, is not so much about cats as it is about people, their weirdness and wondrousness reflected in the behavior of the animals they keep. And I say this as a person who likes cats more than people.

[5] Tennessee Williams’ great short story collection One Arm could have been called Strangers, as it’s a meditation on his favorite theme, and even includes a line as key to his world (comfortingly mindless when dimmed by the glow of another’s eyes, unbearable when confronted in the absence of that glow) as the famous one he penned for Blanche DuBois. The one-armed death row inmate of the title story writes in a letter: “If I had known then, I mean when I was outside, that such true feelings could even be found in strangers, I mean of the kind that I picked up for a living, I guess I might have felt there was more to live for.” There’s an ironic edge to this statement, of course, but what unites One Arm’s panoply of characters, whether living in a figurative world or a real world, whether deluded or resigned or optimistic or realistic, but always lonely, is their deep need to be recognized, and to return the favor. The lovers at the end of “The Important Thing” look at each other with “sorrowful understanding, unable to help each other except through knowing, each completely separate and alone—but no longer strangers.”

THIRD

[1] But even that “knowing” can be hard work, and the characters in Mike Leigh’s Another Year—eternally looking at surfaces, unable to peer into that remote place where Mary and Ken are hopelessly trapped—have been much on my mind since seeing the great, great, great, great Poetry (so good it made me feel flushed with a fresh, young movie love, a little sad I’ll never be able to see it for the first time again). Poetry seems to assume Another Year’s notion about people’s insensibility to help, but then, in the astonishing unfolding of its final five sections (as meticulous but unexpected in their arrangement as the ending scenes of No Country For Old Men), permeates all surfaces: An interrupted game of badminton; a silent moment of writing at a desk; a farewell poetry class; a mother’s return to an empty home; and a recitation, in which an old woman speaks for a dead girl, using her final months of lucidity to offer up a hope that the pleasures of her former girlhood go on and on, that even in misery something good is transferable.

[2] But I don’t blame the characters in Another Year, or the audience that stares along with them. Still Walking helped me forgive them. Its characters are self-serving, mean, but with so many sadnesses needing correction that it would be equally mean to begrudge them their blindness.

[3] I don’t even care if Catfish is real or not, because it doesn’t even pass the test of fictional plausibility. People just don’t act this much in the movies, and never have.

[4] Mildred Pierce, by our greatest intertextualist Todd Haynes, seems proof (thus far) that imaginings based on old Hollywood dreams of crime novel iterations of real life can somehow approach a vivid reality of the past (imagined), more real than any of the intermediary imaginings. But you would not want to live there, not even in the movie past. And yet it’s all very rapturous, some so much so that I’d like to watch it on a loop forever: Kate Winslet introducing herself in the restaurant’s changing room—“Mildred Pierce”—and the door closing across a close-up of her face; shadowplay in the corner of a beach house guestroom while she changes into a swimming suit (residue of an older epoch’s modesty); Mildred in close-up shouting “Stop!” over her dying child’s hospital bed, one of the movie’s most momentous psychic schisms (thus far).

[5] Lord Love A Duck also arrived late enough (the mid 60s) to be based upon, and not native to, the rapture of Hollywood soft focus black-and-white, and builds a baffling teen parody around some exquisite shots of teens in cars on dark streets. Rango, unexpectedly weighty but also terrifically kinetic, literalizes the type of movie love that is perhaps only briefly felt in Lord Love A Duck. The vast white desert where Rango wanders before the busy denouement—that emptiness where Clint Eastwood can be found driving through in an Oscar-laden golf cart—is very literally a blank movie screen, ready to be filled with our collective memory of the plot of Chinatown, etc.

[6] I still can’t put Certified Copy into words, but I entertain myself with the notion that I felt its meaning, as I was able to correctly predict which would be the last shot, a while before the credits rolled (one of the greatest pleasures cinema has to offer). Maybe I was just responding to the rhythms of the editing, but this is not an obvious movie, and it has no blatant signals. Perhaps an analogy… Original : copy :: the ideal of love : the disappointments of marriage?

[7] The 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much proves that a great director’s lesser work can often be doubly valuable, as it will still reveal much about the director and his world, and can be seen without the burden of expectations. Some finds:

[a] There’s a popular notion that our personal information is much more vulnerable today than it used to be, so I’m interested lately in pre-Google movies in which innocent characters unwittingly tell bad guys more than they ought. [b] A great, desperate turn by Doris Day, who I think was the Michelle Williams of her era, in addition to being Doris Day. [c] Hitchcock capitalizing on the weirdness of London, where he didn’t spend enough time during his Hollywood years: a taxidermist’s workshop and the nightmare hilarity that transpires therein, a bland and foreboding chapel. [d] The movie is at times an even more disturbing depiction of a man’s relationship with a woman than Vertigo. James Stewart’s remaking of Kim Novak in Vertigo is child's play compared to the scene here in which, upon Day’s emotional reaction to the news of her son’s kidnapping, he restrains her and forces her to take some unidentified pills. [e] Much could be learned about 1950s moviemaking by a careful attention to the scenes that seem to be shot on location, and those in which the players act against a backdrop of canned footage. Or you might at least learn something about the shooting schedule of The Man Who Knew Too Much. [f] “It’s not a man, it’s a place!”

[8] I wonder if many people will recognize the cruelty of Nicolas’s response to Francis at the end of Heartbeats ("How could you think I'm gay?"), or follow Francis in sympathy to his delayed response in a later scene, a sort of wordless reptilian hiss. How we come to love that Francis (right?), his sad anger or angry sadness! the discomfort and romance on his face! his inability to have more than one friend! It’s amazing what a vivid character develops from the movie’s precious beginnings.

[9] Duncan Jones seems to have a knack, two features in, for turning a central existential dilemma into beautifully efficient SF plots, in which an isolated man trapped in a claustrophobic space clings to the delusion that he is in communication with the outside world. Given the similarity of the setups of Moon and Source Code, to measure the progress of Jones's thinking, we would have to look at the difference in the two films' resolutions, and the loophole Jones has found out of his dilemma.

[10] Mervyn LeRoy's The Bad Seed, a.k.a. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is one of those movies that’s so psychologically precise, most of its characters could be said to not really exist, except in the mind of one person. In a closing scene, they all gather in a hospital waiting room like conflicting impulses wandering the shores of an exhausted woman’s beleaguered mind. See also: Panic Room, Identity (in which the characters really are embodied mind phantoms!).

[11] “However, you do have Nikolai’s body, and that’s the part I want to kill.” This line from the boundlessly clever fifth season of Futurama (a sort of ticking off of every great premise that occurred to the writers during the show’s absence) reminded me of something I think about pretty often, which is that all bodies are alike in their aversion to pain, and it’s therefore so, so cruel to take advantage of the body’s vulnerable, nondisguisable, physical existence and do violence to it as a means to harm the soul it houses. Clearly the robot interlocutor from Futurama feels otherwise.

FOURTH

What I liked best at the Walker Art Center on March 31.

[1] The cracks in De Koonings are starting to get to me.

[2] I can see now (from nothing more than a second photograph at a second museum) that Cindy Sherman is major, isn’t she? Her photo in the Walker’s “Midnight Party” exhibit is as sharp and vivid as the aforementioned self-portrait-with-funny-nose: phallic fruits and vegetables and condoms strewn on a carpet, near a sitting woman, who must be practicing, or confused, or subversive.

[3] Jeffrey Vallance reminded me of a notion that is probably fundamental to all artists, but that I often lose track of, especially on closeted, claustrophobic days of laze-addled futility: an idea is only good if it’s executed, and without the execution it is equal to nothing. I firmly believe that the stories behind Vallance’s Blinky Bone and bloody blanket were acted out in all their insane detail, but even if not, the artifacts and the prose on display are still, in their combination, the vivifying of good ideas. I’ve started saving paper bracelets from concerts and labeling them, and while this is probably just insanity taking over, it might well yield interesting results when I line them all up on my wall.

[4] Jim Shaw’s drawings seem to mean something very specific, seem to accuse society of some inexcusable excess, but it’s unclear what. A man eating a microwave…


STUEVEN
S E C R E T S
(a la the old Conan bit)

I have not loved Edward Gorey as much since he became the patron saint of gift shops.

Closed doors have always made me a little nervous.

Oh, crap, I’m going to get old.

Would paying for everything with cash be the first step toward liberation, or the first step toward madness?

My love of cleaning and tidying started as a question: Human life is a fight against nature, so what’s the point of doing it halfway?

Cats walk, cats breathe, cats’ hearts beat, cats bathe in time to the music, so cats must know something about rhythm.

Is it sillier to hear a happy, flippant sentiment amidst misery, or vice versa, and what does this say about the nature of the world?

Why is it often necessary to see the world as slightly artificial (i.e. in an imaginary rectangular frame) in order to see it as beautiful?

It can be hard to continually make new connections with the music of youth, rather than grasp for what it was. But it’s not impossible. Tori Amos’s “Winter” meant things to me at the end of 2008 that it never meant when I was young.

I’m the age I used to know so little about, but whose past inhabitants transfixed me (thought I, while looking at a picture of Dolores O’Riordan).

Sometimes it feels like: To understand something is to have created it.

I’ve always wanted to be a warm presence; I think I would have to gain weight.

I’m not a very serious person, really. I haven’t thought about anything serious in years. I like everything, and never ask why.

If anything really bad happened, everything I write here would cease to be true. Even this.

I dreamed Brainard had been a Minneapolitan, but all his haunts were gone. I was striving for poetry, but didn’t have the words. Is it enough that the images were beautiful? Workshop streets, a glass penthouse, a train of light.

-----------------------------------
Today's post title taken from a line in De La Soul’s “Eye Know,” from 3 Feet High & Rising, an album I play during the first warm spell every spring, and which I was doubly justified in celebrating this year, it being named during said spell to the National Recording Registry.

Other titles I considered for this post:

The World Of Men & The World Of Man
Willimantic, Wyomissing

Note: There is a fine distinction between phrases that make for good blog post titles and phrases that make for good band names. Forthcoming in my next unveiling of new album art, 7-inches by:

Bookstore Windows
Ethnic Dress
Chimney on a Segway