Sunday, July 21, 2013

Paying It Back

I think I heard pretty much every type of sound while drifting along Central yesterday. Free summer festivals really complicate assumptions of what America’s popular music is. It’s still jazz, still blues, still soul (classic soul), still rock ‘n’ roll, still bluegrass. It’s hip hop, it’s salsa, it’s everything I don’t know the name for. In short, it’s everything, i.e. it’s the street reclaimed as a place for casual movement; it’s the moment of sudden quiet morph where one cell of musical space ends and another has already begun.


"…until I have time to write some paragraphs on important topics (life after Ebert1, approaches to music, awe of musicians and even halfway decent karaoke singers2, ideas for stories, the inherent evil of realizing them, the recurrent objects of town photography3, more4)”


I’d thought watching movies would be different now, but I’m surprised to find (though the surprise only registers at this moment of reflection) that Roger Ebert, the man whose love for any movie was already dissolved in my own later love for that movie, hasn’t in any conscious way been inhabiting part of my mind during recent viewings, even when the movie is about old age or death (A Simple Life, Night Across The Street; the latter barely made sense, but that was part of its effect, the sense of life accumulating in old age the same way it does in dreams; one character says something about “staying young with ideas,” meaning that being old could involve an erasure of ideas, or the logic of their organization, even if their imprint is still there. Either way, the best movie to ever include a scene that takes place inside the barrel of a gun.) I saw 56 Up a few weeks before Ebert died, so I was spared that devastation, though I’m sure it won’t be any bit softened in seven more years.

So Ebert isn’t around in the trite form of an intelligent/beneficent angel on my shoulder, but, for the lucky ones, the transference already happened and it’s no longer possible (it never was) to watch a movie with only my own mind, even if I think it’s only mine and I’m not aware of anything haunting it. But I also want to consciously remember Ebert, always, because there are the unlucky ones, for whom the internet amplifies every bad thought of every ungenerous writer and quickly destroys a legacy of good thought Ebert and others built slowly, year after year. Now that he’s gone: one day, one movie at a time, in the language exemplary day-wearer Ebert would understand. I should write more, obviously, but here’s a meager drip:

There’s been a refreshing non-obsession with masculinity at the movies this year, often where you’d least expect it. Mud was great in so many ways and especially in the way the kid’s interest in Mud has less to do with the man’s mystique as an outsider and much more to do with Mud’s reunion with his girlfriend and a deep need to believe in true and lasting love. // Chris Pine was on the cover of Out and spoke intelligently inside about men and movies, and then put this all to the test in that excellent moment in the new Star Trek where he watches his mentor/father figure die and his face goes all thick and flushed and dangerous with blood pressure. A man’s image, but it’s the kind of unselfconscious emotional moment of love between men, sans reflexive recomposure, eye-drying, mild embarrassment, that I thought had disappeared from theaters. // Let’s stop there, short of The Place Beyond The Pines.

Not Fade Away is a movie about lessons in disappointment and time, and thus a real musician’s movie, I thought (not least because of its daring juxtapositions, like where else would you ever find some weird version of “Roadrunner” paired with American Bandstand footage?). It’s also a movie about fathers and sons (for that version of the movie, read this obit), though not as single-mindedly as At Any Price—quite good, though I don’t know how many more times I can watch wives provide safe harbor for the secrets of their husbands and sons, especially when they’re complicit in silence, not active storytellers like Skyler White. And that movie wasn’t even as fruitful a message about expectation as the surprisingly really good Admission, a mainstream comedy where characters respond to contrived (but mettle-testing) situations with something like realness, or a mainstream comedy simulation thereof, so that their highs and lows feel like highs and lows, not the minutes of the plot.

As with movies about fathers and sons, so with movies about men and women: I’ve always had to accept on some level that depictions of male/female romance on film are telling the truth, having little personal experience with which to test them. And most movies are about men and their fathers or men and their women, or both, which is maybe why I’m not or should be a film critic. But I rarely feel alienated at the movies, really, and with Before Midnight I was totally convinced by its intimate assessment of the ways men and women argue about themselves, and then floored, like the characters, by the movie’s trump card, the old widowed woman talking about love as a sexless thing, as a situation of two people holding each other. I’d love to read the book that Jesse is brainstorming in the movie (about perception, not time!); these Linklater movies are the best substitute.

What I do find alienating at the movies is young characters suffering from bored intellectual privilege, or whatever it is that makes them so joyless in the face of amazing new adventures and experiences, makes them need to get high while visiting places I’d feel so blessed to ever see. No one in Something in the Air smiles until the final scene (a great one, though like all the great scenes in the movie, it involves great music), with the protagonist walking around the set of a trashy sci-fi movie. Yes, stay here, young man, in this realm of intellectual defeat, if it finally excites you. If the movie had been about the dissonance of his previous activity-yet-malaise, relative to his times, that would’ve been one thing, but instead it’s about the spirit of those times, minus the spirit. But I’ll allow I might be wrong, alienated as I was.

And so: Frances Ha, my favorite movie of the year so far. The spirit of the times, minus the times. What makes this one of the great character studies is evident in the final scene where Frances’ dance piece is performed, at which point you know her so well that you can easily say, yes, Frances created that.

Upstream Color comes together, it really does, along with the survivors of modern science it depicts, but while it was happening I found it almost totally unbearable. Exception: the first big sound montage, with three characters testing the world, answering each other as a sort of accidental symphony. But even that editing feat pales next to the less motivated sound design of War Witch, which at certain moments is just astonishing: the creak of a gate, all night, and then it’s day: a swing.

Holy Motors: The most purely entertaining head movie, even or especially pre-interpretation, since 2001.

Spring Breakers: The least mysterious movie since The Passion of the Christ.

From Up On Poppy Hill, the latest movie from Studio Ghibli and the second great one in a row not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, looks like a simple nostalgia piece at first, but then brings so much into its vision of ’63: the restoration and/or destruction of the past; youth, protest, and the spirit of inquiry; a girl (again as a protagonist!) drawn toward that boys’ world but crushed by the duties of home; straightforward treatment of the threat of incest; excellent melodrama; mothers and fathers, adopted and biological. Poppy Hill amplifies a past that’s stranded in the future in the same way Arrietty very literally amplified nature stranded in the industrial world.

Pacific Rim contained more that excited me in every single moment than I could possibly comprehend through subsequent hours of overwhelmingly exciting moments. Beyond that, due praise to the movie’s sense of proportion, physical (think how much better The Hobbit would’ve been if Del Toro had taken the franchise from Peter Jackson, who could never even figure out how Gandalf’s size compares to Frodo’s), psychological (locked into memories of yourself as a screaming child), and collateral (all action movies wantonly destroy cities, but only in this one did I get a sick feeling in my stomach every time a kaiju moved onto land). And then, beyond that, it’s the first movie in a long time to contribute an essential new term to the lexicon of humanist science fiction. “Drift” is as nonsensical as “the force,” in practice, but it does also name a relationship between humans so undefined and so powerful that a father can share it with a son, a brother with a brother, a stranger with a stranger, etc. The fact that, in the movie’s final shot, the heroes don’t kiss, but merely put their foreheads together, makes this an action movie for our times, if the times were really as hopeful, as buoyant with equality, as this movie left me feeling.

The old lesbian villain has a long history in Hollywood and there’s not really anything offensive about the way Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical release attaches itself to that history. But, satisfying as it is to have the movie’s web of conspiracies finally blamed on someone, Side Effects is best before it stops being totally Kafkaesque.


I finally saw Carrie beginning to end, and first among its great mysteries is one I’ve never heard asked, but which gnawed at me through the whole length of William Katt’s amazing performance: Is Tommy Ross having a good time at the prom? The opposite and (not quite) equal conspiracies that converge there are something I never knew about this story, and one big reason for its unbearable psychological intensity.

How short can movie scenes be before they’re just a parody of significance? Code Unknown steps really close to that line, at times, but the larger puzzle saves it.


The influence of Roger Ebert can only be paid, um, forward. When it comes to music, I feel there’s a lot that needs to be paid back, too. That is: My family paid a lot of money across many years for my (in a matter of speaking) musical education, and I keep wondering what I ought to do about that. The answer again, I think, is just to continue, even if that were to mean ditching all that old music for new, over and over again, while yearning for some kind of synthesis and fulfillment of so much listening.


I’m able to lump musicians and karaoke singers together because, from my point of view, their active engagement with song looks similar, so different from my own silent engagement. At the last karaoke night I attended, certain songs brought everyone in the bar togethera, or, at the very least, inspired their performersb, while I kept going to the quiet place in my mind where good music always sends me. I can’t help it. Consider The Four Tops’ “Ask The Lonely,” one of my favorite vocals of all time. Happy as I am to feel it, what’s beyond me is that someone can feel it and express it at the same time. No one sang that at karaoke night (I would’ve worshipped them, no matter how bad), but there were these:

a. “American Pie” (Zac called it “bipolar” and I was like, “yeah, in the spirit of the times”; an eternal lightning rod, that song); “Stand By Me” (the real quiet-making song; no one makes me quieter than Ben E. King, singer of the three most beautiful songs ever recorded; I realize that I learned about the shape and color of the night from these old songs, not from any direct experience; the instrumental break sounded lifted from the original, though I’m not afraid to admit that cheap karaoke instrumentals often move me as intensely as the originals, anyway); “I Think We’re Alone Now”; “Proud Mary”

b. “China Girl” (some people are David Bowie, or have the energy to try to channel their inner David Bowie, and these people are better than most)


Another blog post, another round of Bradford Cox interviews to attend to (months ago, already!). Of course I found the ones that accompanied Monomania nothing but endearing, hilarious, provocative, and they inspire only envy, even as they exhibit qualities I would never want to allow in myself. I wish I was an artist and could hate certain forms of expression (and/or Morrissey) as a means of committing to the forms I find useful for my own work. But I find that, in the capacity of a reviewer, I can’t hate or hardly dislike anything this year, and, worse yet, it’s hard to create priorities. My music preferences have become confusing, even to myself. There are a few standouts this year (RAM, mbv, Men, bye!, etc.) and then there’s a whole slew of albums that I can’t say I like better or worse than, say, the new one by Kacey Musgraves, who reminds me of a number of singer/songwriters I love but whose songs are much more mainstream country than I’d usually listen to.

I probably need to create some work, to figure out what’s important (if Musgraves ended up a priority, I’d be pleased). I wouldn’t say critics shouldn’t be artists, but I can see how not creating has a way of equalizing other people’s work, for better or worse.


Popular music is as popular as ever, and yet I keep reading things about how Random Access Memories and The 20/20 Experience contain pleasures that will certainly elude the masses. No review of RAM has failed to imagine some listener receiving the million-dollar album via shoddy mp3s and computer speakers (who cares?), as if the quality of a person’s engagement with a product is related to the quality of that product’s delivery.* The only conclusion I’ve been able to derive from this line of thinking is that there are some writers who need to believe their widely shared tastes are somehow exceptional. I thought artists as phenomenally popular as Daft Punk and Timberlake are supposed to democratize the audience, erasing the distinction of how and why each listener first heard them (I started listening to one of them in the late 90s, the other this year, but whichever is which, I still ended up here, now). Bring on the idiosyncratic reactions to the music, of course, but to keep conjuring these phantom, randomly appreciative hordes is just lazy. Think of Thriller, the album these two keep getting compared to: It’s maybe possible to make the context of your relationship with Thriller interesting, but the context of others’ relationships doesn’t need to be made a matter of question. Short of interviews with fans, just assume their love of the music is ancient, powerful and whole.

*Artists do care about this, often needlessly so (compiled here). What's different about the Savages manifesto is that they care about your engagement, not your soundsystem.


Familiarity with accident and light

“Seeking to identify their signature styles, Dyer looks at the ways in which such canonical figures as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston, among others, have photographed the same things (barber shops, benches, hands, roads, and signs, for example). In doing so, he constructs a narrative in which these photographers—many of whom never met—constantly encounter one another.”

From the jacket of Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. That’s the best idea for a book I ever heard, and there ought to be a name for what drives these encounters: “recurrency,” I thought, fancying myself a student of Toni Morrison. The primary objects in the pictures I’ve been taking have been the ubiquitous things of town life, streetlights in particular, but somehow I never noted their psychic/aesthetic/etc/etc power, and hardly their ubiquity, until they began to multiply in images. The natural world, even of the town and the city, has a beauty far beyond its function and the intention of the people who built it.



a. Dreams

1. I’ve written a book called The Prophet (I would never; I can’t think of a book I would write less), of which a notable religious studies professor is a major champion.
2. I’m watching Radiohead in the studio, and they’re using GarageBand! Really it’s just Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brien, and O’Brien is editing the little blocks of data that correspond to a simple bass or drum rhythm while Yorke improvises a vocal, and I’m thinking, jeez, if Radiohead can create great sounds this way, I might as well be a music producer.
3. I’m a much more spontaneous poet asleep than awake. Someone is talking about red eraser smears on a standardized test, likening them to “blood on a tortilla.”

b. Glenn Kenny has a way of always posting the exact thing I need to read.

1. On prog and Rob Sheffield
“The implied demand that a more acceptable music is one that assists teens and post-teens in facing that adult world seems, frankly, unrealistic. But really, the fallacy of the generalization stems from a not-uncommon rock crit problem, that is, mistaking one's practice with that of a sociologist's.”

2. On orgasms
“…see Girls on the one hand, and the Hangover movies on the other (what they share in common is the view that pretty much all sexual relations are somehow predicated on hostility)”
—Again, I trust that Girls is telling the truth, but I've wondered about the weird difficulty of its relationships, too.

3. On Maxwell’s
A fine remembrance, made a little more real for me after finding out about the closure of the 400 Bar, which I always imagined was the Maxwell's of Minneapolis.

4. On jazz
“Secondly, jazz (that is, the form of Afro-American popular music that flourished between 1925 and 1945) means nothing to the young. This should strengthen us in our devotion to it. True, we must give up any notion we may have been cherishing that beneath our hoary exteriors lurk hearts of May: we may dig jazz, but the kids want something else.” —quoted from Philip Larkin

c. Summer U.S.A.

1. Friday night in June: On all ages night at Roller Skate City, we’re turning circles and listening to Future and Kelly Rowland’s “Neva End,” along with all the other rap songs that young teenagers want to hear.
2. Saturday evening in July: At the tables outside Blake’s Lotaburger, I’m alone, waiting for my onion rings and listening to Hunx & His Punx’s “Mud in Your Eyes,” Shannon singing in her best germfree adolescent voice, but, just like her, no one cares.


People born in the 1990s have begun making valuable contributions to society. This is the natural fulfillment of the promise of any era (there’s nothing in the shape of the numerals that form 1990 that should make its decade immune), but if these kids are fucking up your concept of time, too, more power to them.

No comments: