A One and A Two

The Culture Regimen

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Everytime I Try to (Stay) Fly, I Fall


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SPRING BREAKERS

Appearing out of the Natty Light miasma, there is the whispered, incessant call: “Spring break forevahhh.” A relatively becalmed and blandly satirical vision of American collegiate hedonism, and our obsession with hot bods and gats, Spring Breakers is not as genuinely shocking as it may hope to be, despite the pop smear and stunt casting: is it that we’re used to the aesthetic or are Korine’s methods simply old fashioned? This trash humping provocateur kisses off both questions on a sea of sick vibrations (Britney, Skrillex) and in a busted Malick-on-syrup mélange. Spring Breakers follows 4 community college tarts, sooo unconcerned with a Civil Rights Movement lecture but obsessed with their own liberation from… what? They toke up, fellate water guns, stand very seriously in rain storms, jump-jump around in said rain storms the next moment.

This seems partly Korine’s point, to deemphasize analysis in favor of mood and tone, but as an experience, this acid lollipop is so unconcerned with character, situation, development, it begs to be read: why are these girls friends? Do these girls even play video games? Why does Alien take an interest in them? Is it all about the bling? Do the girls ever experience or consider totally gross human emotions like guilt, empathy, or luv? Korine would probably consider it a fool’s errand to “read” Spring Breakers as a cautionary tale. What are you, a prud? Do a (gun) shot. As experiential as Spring Breakers strives to be, its whirligig montage style and funhouse reflections of pop culture are not particularly evocative of or referential to anything except nostalgia for the old-timey fun of MTV’s Spring Break packaging. Moreover, if it aches to be taken seriously as a bright, fun, AND radical realignment of our senses (and I think it does), then what’s up with the rather chaste handling of its titillatingly cast actresses: Vanessa Hudgens (omg her?!), Rachel Korine (wtf his wife?!), Selena Gomez (lol no way?!), and Ashley Benson (meh). For all the skin these Forever 21 mannequins show, there is rarely the threat of actual human contact, let alone sex, not even from jock-strapped bros.

James Franco (#tired), as the “could only be imagined by a white dude” boondocks rapper Alien, is the most inspired if the most problematic stunt casting. We are completely aware of Franco­—the NYU intellectual, a Star in Hollywood, and awkward director of fringe festival favorites—slumming in the role of a poor white hustler, replete with a shiny gold grill devised to establish Franco’s credibility more than Alien’s. Still, his presence is more viscerally human than any of the central women. Maybe because Korine lets only the men do the real talking, including himself.

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Take Me To The World: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim (Part One)

The musical theater for me remained fraught territory. In my younger years, I performed in precisely one musical—senior year of high school, the Gershwin showcase CRAZY FOR YOU, in the ensemble, with one sung solo line, “Use it like a tonic!” —and my only thorough exposure to “showtunes” prior to this came from an unhealthy obsession with the VHS recording of my siblings’ second grade class’s musical recital of Broadway standards, at least the standards fit for second graders to sing. Indian style, I’d plop on the carpet and watch and re-watch beautifully shouty renditions of “Tomorrow”, “Consider Yourself”, “76 Trambones”, “All I Want Is a Room Somewhere”, etc.; the naughtiest number I recall was “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair”, and even that rendition focused more on vigorous shampooing than anything else. This revue of songs had no context and was designed for photo-ready parents and bored elementary students alike. Still, my hungry six year-old ears longed to belt OKLAHOMA tunes, if only because it sounded so much fun.

For the many years between that love affair and now, I harbored both a yearning to sing those songs and a hearty dose of fear; by opening my mouth to belt the word, “Maria,” the word “faggot” would tumble out of everyone else’s. To enjoy the theater and especially musical theater was to be gay, even though, right now, I cannot for the life of me recall or fathom why this distinction is so completely stuck in our collective heads. I did CRAZY FOR YOU only when, you could say, I literally couldn’t take it anymore. I subsequently let myself explore my interest in the theater only in plays, which, to my confused middle school mind, seemed like the “straightest” option. So from OUR MISS BROOKS in the seventh grade to splendid (and illegal) production of CLUE in college, I auditioned and acted in a few things, never fully committed, always resigned that this was something not to pursue to seriously, lest I be labeled a homosexual for life. (And I think I’m neurotic now…) Rest assured that in eventually saying, “Fuck it,” to the closet, and to the rearrangement my life that ensued, I allowed myself to sprinkle “The Impossible Dream” into my shower set list. Once and a while, at least, and when I was alone.

Along with myself, perhaps I was fighting against the still dominant popular opinion that the American musical tradition is an inferior art form—crass, absurd, and naïve—an opinion voiced not only by those who despise it, but also sometimes by those who love it. (“Life is a cabaret!”) There was the question I asked, often unconsciously: why do we view a love of musical theater forms and styles as (at best) anachronistic and (at worst) delusional in this day and age? In lieu of this and my embarrassment over my sexuality, or at least what people would infer about my sexuality through my interest in musical, it was very easy not to truly deal with musicals, the poetry and the magic they could contain; to love a song here and there, I could manage, but I was always to keep an arm’s length.

Then I met Stephen Sondheim.

Or so the cliché goes. Still. Sondheim! I’m told there is a bit of the Kool-Aid factor to submitting fully to the work of Sondheim. (“Send in the Clowns” does not count.) To the uninitiated, the criticisms of his work, very broadly laid out: lyrics hemorrhaging wit; piercing intellect strangling whatever heart might exist in song-scene; cynicism; fatalistic avoidance of hummable melodies; obsessive reliance on point/counterpoint to obscure and underline every emotional beat; crotchety bastardism. But ah, underneath…

More than any other artist I’ve encountered in a great long while, Sondheim has focused on nothing less than achieving the perfect expression of his characters and their inner states through words and music, and their connection to the world around them. A meticulous formalist, obsessed in charting every song’s precise emotional journey, he was achieved a body of work ringing with beauty and rage, the turmoil and grace of living. He’s the type of artist you can write endless about and still never find the words, whereas, you can definitely say, Sondheim always has the right words.

The purpose of these next entries is to highlight some of my favorite songs in his canon. I still feel I’ve only skimmed the surface. My other painful admission: I’ve only seen one Sondheim show, when my high school did INTO THE WOODS, in a solid production (at least in my mind’s eye); and when the Public did INTO THE WOODS for Shakespeare in the Park this summer, about which I’ll refuse to comment.

In any case, these are the songs I’ve been living in for the past year, part one below, with at least one more part to come in the next few weeks.

IN BUDDY’S EYES (from “Follies”)

Sweetness and optimism sitting like rocks in your belly. Sally wants a few things: to convince Ben she’s happy, to convince herself she’s okay (happy is too far out of reach from the opening line), to make Ben jealous (a fantasy), to sum up her withered life but not bore the man she really loves to death. Musically, I particularly love the bridge, with the melodic emphasis on words that, for all of Sally’s fluttering, drive home her reluctance and acceptance: “And yes… / No… / Yes… / But…” As sung by Barbara Cook, the variations between the relative bombast of the first chorus and the smoothing balm of the last two speak volumes about the emotional life of this song. (It has to be mentioned there is a brief scene between young Sally and young Ben in place of this interlude, but even without the interlude, the song speaks for itself.) Of the last note, I’m reminded of a line from Angels in America: “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.” Where Sondheim asks Sally’s voice and, conversely, the instruments to go cannot be reconciled, its distinct timbre cannot be reached, and no union of the heart and body can be achieved.

NOW, LATER, SOON (from “A Little Night Music”)

In this sustained comic salvo, Sondheim lathers the libidinal confessions of Fredrik, Henrik, and Anne in lush, coiling music. The masterstroke lies in Sondheim observing their frisky longings through a bemused melodic lens: the alternating ascending and descending phrases in “Now,” the lawyer Fredrik mirrored in the music’s procedural approach to both his aborted seduction and his sexual frustration; the overwrought outpouring of “Later”, hysterical vocal runs amidst plodding verses, angst at its most genuine and self-flagellating with dear ol’ Henrik; the astonishing tempest of key changes in “Soon”, delineating both Anne’s sincere fear of consummation and her sporting, knowing attitude toward the chase (“You have to admit I’m endearing…”); and the climax, the melding of a trio with same curious woe: plagued by an intangible, primal anxiety that lies just beyond, “now,” “later,” and, “soon.” If anything does begin, then what if it doesn’t end?

I WISH I COULD FORGET YOU (from “Passion”)

The structural conceit of PASSION—letters through song, driving virtually all of the action—creates unusually potent emotional friction. Here, the words “composed” by one character, candid in message and reflective in tone, create shifting perspectives and a rich interplay between text and subtext when sung by either the writer, the subject of the letter, the recipient, or some combination of the three. A declaration of love can sound bright coming from the writer but stained when read by the recipient, and visa versa. Tweak the sentiment, and the reverberations are endless. This choice, in context, makes PASSION both the densest and most direct of Sondheim’s scores, and “I Wish I Could Forget You,” among the most resonant songs in his canon. The pivotal scene: from her bed, Fosca dictates a letter to Giorgio, addressed to her and signed by him, sung by Fosca. Watch and have fun sifting through it.

Next up: “Another Hundred People”, “Moments in the Woods”, “Take Me to the World”, and maybe one or two more.

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Best Of Lists: Films 2000-2011

Note: ranked by IMDb dates.

Updated: 11/20/12

2000:

  1. Yi yi (Edward Yang)
  2. La commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins)
  3. Platform (Jia Zhang-ke)
  4. Werkmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr)
  5. George Washington (David Gordon Green)
  6. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai)
  7. Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin)
  8. Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)
  9. Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer)
  10. Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis)

2001:


  1. A.I. - Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
  2. Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman)
  3. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat)
  4. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
  5. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff)
  6. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson)
  7. Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
  8. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang)
  9. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson)
  10. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira)

2002:

  1. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
  2. The Son (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  3. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes)
  4. Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
  5. Talk to Her (Pedro Almódovar)
  6. Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke)
  7. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
  8. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
  9. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
  10. Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov)

2003:


  1. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
  2. Angels in America (TV) (Mike Nichols)
  3. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi)
  4. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
  5. The Company (Robert Altman)
  6. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
  7. Dogville (Lars von Trier)
  8. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
  9. Big Fish (Tim Burton)
  10. The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev)

2004:


  1. The World (Jia Zhang-ke)
  2. Bad Education (Pedro Almódovar)
  3. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
  4. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  5. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh)
  6. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater)
  7. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembene)
  8. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
  9. Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo)
  10. DiG! (Ondi Timoner)

2005:


  1. L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  2. The New World (Terence Malick)
  3. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
  4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
  5. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  6. Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Parks & Steve Box)
  7. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee)
  8. Munich (Steven Spielberg)
  9. Duma (Carol Ballard)
  10. The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)

2006:


  1. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
  2. Miami Vice (Michael Mann)
  3. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo)
  4. Offside (Jafar Panahi)
  5. Reprise (Joachim Trier)
  6. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  7. INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch)
  8. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke)
  9. The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma)
  10. The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)

2007:


  1. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  2. In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín)
  3. Ratatouille (Brad Bird)
  4. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
  5. The Witnesses (André Téchiné)
  6. Zodiac (David Fincher)
  7. Superbad (Greg Mottola)
  8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
  9. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)
  10. Aleksandra (Aleksandr Sokurov)

2008:


  1. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
  2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
  3. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood)
  4. Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed)
  5. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
  6. Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo)
  7. Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Hayao Miyazaki)
  8. RocknRolla (Guy Ritchie)
  9. Two Lovers (James Grey)
  10. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)

2009:


  1. La danse - Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (Frederick Wiseman)
  2. Bright Star (Jane Campion)
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
  4. Everyone Else (Mare Ade)
  5. City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan)
  6. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
  7. Lebanon (Samuel Maoz)
  8. Rabbit à la Berlin (Bartosz Konopka)
  9. Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio)
  10. The Girl on the Train (André Téchiné)

Decade List, 2000-2009:


  1. Yi yi (Edward Yang)
  2. A.I. - Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)
  3. The Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordana)
  4. La commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins)
  5. L’Enfant (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  6. The New World (Terence Malick)
  7. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
  8. Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
  9. Domestic Violence (Frederick Wiseman)
  10. The World (Jia Zhang-ke)

2010:


  1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  2. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
  3. The Social Network (David Fincher)
  4. Another Year (Mike Leigh)
  5. Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)
  6. Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)
  7. Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)
  8. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  9. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
  10. Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)

2011:


  1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
  2. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)
  3. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  4. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
  5. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
  6. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)
  7. Starbuck (Ken Scott)
  8. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
  9. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr)
  10. A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

2012:

  1. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
  2. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
  3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
  4. Bernie (Richard Linklater)
  5. La demora (The Delay) (Rodrigo Pla)
  6. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)
  7. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
  8. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers)
  9. In the Fog (Sergei Loznitsa)
  10. Caesar Must Die (Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)
Decade List, 2010-2019:
  1. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  2. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)
  3. Weekend (Andrew Haigh)
  4. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
  5. The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski)
  6. Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
  7. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
  8. The Social Network (David Fincher)
  9. This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)
  10. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev)

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I Seem… To Remember… A Blog… Yes, A Blog!

Out of the funk, into the abyss: ahh yes, I had a blog once. How cute. Anyway, this exercise in—I don’t know, boredom? Procrastination from meaningful writing? Probably the latter, what with all the self-referential breaks in sentences—this exercise in writing was posted on a message board, at which point I realized I had films and albums I’d been gearing up to write about listed on a spreadsheet, and still no words to join them. Well the buck stops here. Back in the saddle. Getting the ball rolling. Roll, ball, roll!

The hypothetical (i.e. daydream) scenerio: I had this funny idea that one day I might be asked to program a film series that defined my LIFE’S WORK AND PASSIONS. (Caps are necessary.) And with this great honor would come days upon days of list-making and more list-making, digging into my soul to reveal the inner me as projected on celluloid, stopping only to rewatch and rewind. I would feel honored. I would feel humbled. I would mini-strokes: Gloria Grahame or Ida Lupino? Where can I find a place for my dear Mouchette? I would also, quite obviously, do an awesome job.

So, the task: program week-long series, screened consecutively, one for each day. These seven films should not necessarily be my seven favorite films of all time. Why would I be so boring as to do that? I cheated twice (at my own daydream scenerio!) with double features, but I feel more than justified as two of the selections run under 45 minutes.

Here’s my breakdown. In another week, I might have gone with On Dangerous Ground, Weekend (Haigh’s, but probably Godard’s too), How Green Was My Valley, The Big Heat, Chronicle of a Summer, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, and The Roaring Twenties. Or La commune (Paris 1871), Imitation of Life, The Bridges of Madison County

Anyway:

DAY ONE:



A Brighter Summer Day - Edward Yang, 1991, 237 minutes
For its sprawl and beauty. For enveloping me in a narrative world unlike few others. For being total cinema. This would be my opening film and probably the most “must see”, if only because it’s so hard to come by.

DAY TWO:

His Girl Friday - Howard Hawks, 1940, 92 minutes
Also with: Sherlock, Jr. - Buster Keaton, 1924, 44 minutes
For their unshakeable rhythms and joyous tinkering with images (Keaton) and words (Hawks). For setting the standard for filmed comedy as we know it. For Grant. For this.

DAY THREE:

The Grifters - Stephen Frears, 1990, 119 minutes
For refreshing genre without too much winking. (Some winking is good.) For the way it sets nimble fringe acting off against big star turns. For Bening. For its lacerating treatment of violence, versus the glorification found in most other American films. 

DAY FOUR:

Elena et les hommes - Jean Renoir, 1956, 95 minutes
Also with: Zéro de conduite - Jean Vigo, 1933, 41 minutes
For two French pinnacles. For the anarchic tones and prankster attitudes, flairing (Vigo) and bubbling (Renoir). For their formal wit and ingenuity. For their fun.

DAY FIVE:

Daisy Kenyon - Otto Preminger, 1947, 99 minutes
For its visual and structural sophistication. For being one of the most nuanced portrait of romance and relationships (as separate and entangled ideas) on screen. For straddling new and old Hollywood modes of expression, almost without knowing it. For Joan, never better.

DAY SIX:

The Fury - Brian De Palma, 1977, 118 minutes
For being a De Palma flick, and the most invigorating of the bunch. For its tonal imbalance as a formal strategy. For working up to insanely great set pieces and making them stick. For reworking the action film template with fierce intelligence and determination. For pathos in the face of insanity. For explosions.

DAY SEVEN:

Siberiade - Andrei Konchalovsky, 1979, 275 minutes
For that particular late 70s/early 80s Russian élan that still seems like an extraordinary display of baroque and gritty textures some 30 years later. For its epic qualities folding into a sustained and heartbreaking treatment of history unfolding. For its haunting opening scenes finding their emotional reverberations in its closing moments (and visa versa). This film is rarely seen anymore, and it represents a film movement in 70s and 80s Russian cinema that has been so little talked about (as evidenced by the shoddy screen capture, the only decent one I could find online), and yet displays enough formal genius to deserve a film series all its own. It’s my closing selection, for sure.

Next on the docket: some actual criticism of stuff I liked (and stuff I didn’t).

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July 2011: Reasons, Renoir Style

One month went down and then I failed. After a very strong start, my last week of April went splat.  I mean, it was a complete wash. There are a few reasons why this happened, all of them perfectly “acceptable” –– a crazier work week than I had expected, to be specific –– but there are more than a few unacceptable reasons, the first and most looming reason of which is poor planning. I was very good at the beginning of the month to separate my time and to ration out my dosages, and knew well in advance that the last week would be hectic. I had a variety of resources at my disposal, and Lord knows I could have booked stuff well in advance to prep myself for an end-of-the-month crunch, but alas things did not pan out that way.

More depressing than even my failure to map out a strict schedule (the whole point of this blog!) was my depressing lack of funds. I knew very early on in the conception of this blog that one of the key hurdles in my Regimen would be money: how to see and attend all that I wanted to and could afford without the luxury of a trust fund, a wealthy dead husband, or, though it pains me so much to type this, any savings to my name. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to living through a particularly lean period right now with very little disposable income, but I would also be lying to myself if I didn’t say I knew this all along. New York is tough. If I wanted to make this happen, I probably would have. So what does it say that I didn’t make it happen?

What it says is that I was probably too queasy about the looming forced hiatus I mulling over for May and June (surprise!) and in dwelling too much on the coming months, I neglected my very present situation. May and June meant working away from NYC and weddings up the yang (a best man in BOTH, to boot), and looking back now I realize April was a probably terrible time for me to embark on such a quixotic self-improvement program.

For now, I’m scraping the dirt off my knees. In the next few weeks, I’ll be tinkering with my Regimen plan, but will still be posting periodically. Perhaps the most important thing I learned in starting this: it’s okay to write less if I want to. Sometimes great or even lousy works do not need another voice in the din. On the other hand, falling hard for Elena et les hommes (pictured above) and the pocket-sized grandeur of Beyoncé’s “1+1” in the last two weeks only made me realize I’d like to be another drop in the bucket.

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Days 16-21: Angles

Singing praises and potshots, from all sorts of angles…

Capturing the Friedmans, my third or fourth viewing, this time with some of my Ibish Comedy friends, some of whom had only a passing knowledge of the film. It always gets me, this time for the discussions it sparked, and with its stealth handling of testimonials and narrative arcs. If we’re talking angles, director Andrew Jarecki maps out an entire terrain of muddled and conflicted evidence, emotional signposts planted and plucked, paths explored but never cleared. A gut-busting investigation into documentary filmmaking and the collapse of a family.

Panda Bear’s Tomboy. Tunnel-visioned in execution where Jarecki’s film is roundabout, Tomboy finds Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) shepherding a single mood or cliché into a song and barreling, untethered, toward the achievement of said mood or affirmation of said cliché. The whole of Tomboy focuses the ship-in-a-bottle spaciousness of Person Pitch into fuzzy but direct lines: "Drone" drones, "Afterburn" lights a fire under your ass, “You Can Count on Me” claps its hands for every word sung, as if the music needs to be as dependable the cliché.

In their interpretations of beloved genres, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing revel in their idiosyncratic flourishes, for better and/or worse. Reichardt drives her ambient Western past the point of genre touchstones like sweeping landscape and stock characterization into a formless space where her actors, when they talk (which is very little), declaim (Dano, Kazan), overcompensate (Greenwood) or barely register (Williams). It’s fascinating but everything’s been ransacked.

Kubrick’s late noir might as well be the death knell of the entire genre. We never once find our footing amongst his gang of clever, low-rent thugs, and there’s none of the sympathetic heroics of John Huston or Fritz Lang-like puppeteering. Instead, he obsessively charts the same horse race con, a cool frenzy of precise tracking shots and blackly funny asides, and ends the whole thing with a piercing sigh of so-what apathy.

If we’re talking blue-eyed soul, or at least our current perception of it, I find my center not with Dusty Springfield and Dusty in Memphis, but the work of Laura Nyro and in particularly Gonna Take a Miracle, made in collaboration with LaBelle and released in 1971, marking what would be the cap on a tremendous five-year run of recordings. I’d always loved a handful of these songs, but never digested them in a single album setting. And in 1971, at this turning point in Philly and Motown soul, she was already going back to the basics, and not merely paying homage: this is a sterling set of interruptions with a refreshing lack of affect, ranging from the charm and spunk of "I Met Him on Sunday" and "Jimmy Mack", to the untouchable rendition of the title track, to (in the 2002 remaster) poignantly blunt live takes on "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "O-o-h Child".

I finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro last week, and have been letting it sink in since. Since, for some only slightly explicable reason, my friends thought this was a “vampire novel”, I will resign myself to revealing no spoilers from this suggestive, gripping heartbreaker of a book, and instead offer but a few brief words on its form. The most impressive and emotional resonant feat in Ishiguro’s novel is his choice of narration, telling the lives of three sheltered “student” reared at Hailsham, a boarding school, unique in purpose, off in the English countryside, through the recollections of Kathy H., a well-meaning young women, constantly doubling back on her own stories, revealing knowledge of Ishiguro’s alternate universe, late-20th century England as only someone bred in a highly controlled system could, always at a perspective afar from our own understanding of the world yet never less than thoroughly human in feeling. This relatively short novel spans three whole lives, and that’s why it knocks you in the gut.

Where merely an idea of Englishness is toyed with in Never Let Me Go (and certainly in The Fallen Idol), with political and social ramifications in tow, than PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake and Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank take swings at Englishness with axes and hammers. It’s been a long procession, but wave a final farewell to the Harvey who breathed fire down your neck (or put on her best Stevie Nicks scarf) and crack your spine with two-chord crunches. Sporting an upper-register, quivering whisper, she barely inhabits the gorgeous strains of songwriting on display in Let England Shake, a ghost ambling through the debris and rubble. Her England is a place fraught with anxiety and resignation, and you’ll be reminded of it quite often here. Songs like “The Last Living Rose” and "All and Everyone" stand out, but most of the rest just bleed dry.

The Arnold film treats Mia as if she were half as interesting as any Dardenne character, if only because she’s a bratty, troubled, uncoordinated 15-year old living in rather dire circumstances (that are none the less made “attractive” with scenes like her blonde tart of a mother shimmying around the kitchen to "Show Me Love"). I’m not blaming the movie on the character, but the character on the movie: Kate Jarvis exudes frustrated adolescence, a young girl desperate to grow up at light speed, but the movie hands her lousy (and tired) horse and dance-is-life metaphors. Arnold does deliver on one astonishing erotic/dramatic image: Fassbender’s low-fit jeans.

If you are Charles Burnett, know that I should be seeing more of your films and know I’m thankful to MoMA for curating a near-complete retrospective of your work. And know that Nightjohn is an incredibly raw and deeply felt film, Disney gloss and all. Anyone at curious about Burnett’s film should read Jonathan Rosenbaum great review: “Nightjohn’s statement that words are freedom isn’t simply a slogan intended to make slavery taste sweeter; the significance of reading and writing in this movie is never abstract–repeatedly these are the means for finding where you are and what you can do to change the world and yourself.”

Finally, we land on Zonoscope, a glistening, post-millennium survey of white people dance music from Cut Copy. Okay, that sounds rather harsh, and though I consider myself of Cut Copy, including this album, it’s hard not to roll your eyes at just how hard these guys ape the Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Air, et. al. and how begrudged and self-serious they sound when singing a silly love songs. That said, this doesn’t particularly detract from the supple execution and the beauty of a song like “Need You Now”, which would have already been labeled a classic in 1988.

Long time coming, but the week’s best offering:

Film: My Life to Live and Capturing the Friedmans
Album: Laura Nyro and LaBelle, Gonna Take a Miracle

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Days 12-15: Nana Nana.

I watched Vivre sa vie. Or, My Life to Live.

Nana:

This.

Is indeed.

Life itself!

It also looks incredible on Blu-ray.

This weekend: brief thoughts on new PJ Harvey, Cut Copy, Panda Bear. More cinema. Plus, notes on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Oh, boyz.

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Days 8-11, Part 2: Lights On

Sing it, Katy. And the parade chugs on, even after the Sunday crowds are gone:

Reflecting on my recent binge of all things Chaka, it occurred to me I’ve never consumed the godmother of funk in any long-player format. So I dug into her 1984 classic I Feel For You, expecting a really good if dated 80’s R&B album and came out the other end gobsmacked. I tend to fume over winky/ironic charges about pop music like, “That’s so 80’s,” if only because “80’s” could only narrowly define something like this, a luxurious, spry and forward-thinking set of songs, a heady mix of late-era disco, bubblegum pop and early hip-hop. Take, for example, “My Love is Alive”, a Gary Wright cover (!) peppered with enough ear-worming effects and rhythmic seizures to make Xenomania look coy by comparison:

Everyone will remember the title track—a perpetual motion pop machine with one of the sweetest opening lines—and of course “Through the Fire”, but if you own this, pop on the headphones and lap up every single one of Chaka’s incandescent caterwauls. Keeping this one in heavy rotation.

"I feel for you": questions of love and identification plagued the rest of my movie schedule last week, starting with The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed and adapted by Graham Greene from his short story. The two would collaborate the very next year on The Third Man, another darkly comic and visually ostentatious cautionary tale. Through the eyes of a young, spoiled ambassador’s son, Reed toys with movie perspective only so far as to make the boy (Bernard Lee) and his butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) victims of that distinctly British brand of suffering: repressed desire, ultimate sacrifices for the home, for England, all that stuff. The boy’s view of Baines, externalized through Reed’s perched perspectives, often as he eavesdrops through the balusters of the embassy’s grand staircase, alternates between fatherly reverence and fear. That quesy tone works throughout, especially under the weight of Richardson’s fine turn, but the ending softens the blow and the central women here (even as extensions of the young boy’s feelings) lack edge, and, apparently under Baines’ romantic spell, are ultimately unconvincing.

Emotional distance was, funny enough, a bigger problem for me all through Last Train Home, moreso than any physical distance the Zhang family traveled each year with the other 100 million Chinese migrant works, journeying to celebrate the New Year with their far-off families. By zeroing in on this family and turning their personal plights into a microcosmic struggle, director Lixin Fan also tends to water down our identification with the Qin and her parents. The scope of the project being what it is, it’s hard to really fault Fan and her choices, but given the vibrant and raw developments in the film’s second half (especially after the climatic fight), I wish I began to feel the unique dimensions of this particular family—their hopes and worries—rub off on us much sooner. Still, the moments of intimacy and public chaos are often pretty great, sometimes stunning, so I’d definitely recommend it.

Went to see Hanna with my bros (yeah, that’s right, I have bros), and I found the whole boyhood fantasy of a “fairy tale heroine who kills people and shit” tired about the time a (non-Michael Gondry-directed) music video for the Chemical Brothers—I mean, the escape from the sterile underground bunker scene flashed on the screen. Then some sexually peverted German hitman and his skinhead thugs get involved and… let me stop there for a moment. In the scene where we’re introduced to the sexually perverted German hitman, he’s watching watching a transsexual (I believe the line is, “She has male and female parts”) perform a burlesque show things while a fucking little person sits on the side of the stage, and our surrogate in the scene (Cate Blanchett as a rogue CIA villianness with a terrible haircut) makes har-har quip about this (“And you love her just the way she is”) and then slids him some money to go after Hanna. And the whole scene exists as if to suggest… what? That organizing a transsexual burlesque show offers evidence of his malignancy? All so the audience can say, “He’s a blonde Aryan hitman AND he likes transsexuals? Now that’s creepy!” It would appear these are not mutually exclusive tastes in the world of Hanna because DUH, it’s a fairy tale and egregious caricatures zapped of motivations work in this world because, hey, we can make up the rules as we go along, because it’s ALL broad strokes in fairy tales! I’m being a tad outrageous to prove my point, but this punchy little actioner glazed over everything: humor, tension, release, relationships between characters, the works.

I wrapped up my weekend with a curveball choice: an hour-long BBC documentary from Louis Theroux, America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis. Yeah, that’s right, I read fourfour everyday, so what of it? Anyway, Theroux plays catch-up with the Westboro Bapist Church. I won’t add much to a discussion of the “church”, except for this: does anyone else find it very funny that this repugnant cult finds physical pleasure in pop music, enough to mold their repugnant doctrines into repugnant lyrics based on these same pop melodies (also because they are shrewd, tacky, attention whores, etc.), yet deny the pleasure and pain that comes with family, friendship and love? Watching Shirley Phelps-Roper and then her adolescent kin bop around to the throbs of “Telephone”, and then act like exiling a family member for life had no emotional affect on them whatsoever, made me realize they should probably listen to less Gaga and more Chaka. Zing!

So, wrap-up, finally!

Movie of the week: The Life of Oharu
Album of the week: I Feel for You (Chaka Khan)

Time to recharge the battery.

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Days 8-11, Part 1: Before the Fuse Blew

My first week down, and yes, it did kick my butt. Partly because my job kicked into third gear last week, but also because money is particularly tight at the moment. Even with an extended opening week (10 days), I was admittedly overwhelmed, but like the dutiful martyr I am, I soldiered on and finished on schedule. Confetti.

The parade of (mostly) hits:

On Thursday night: Jeremy Noller at Drom. A visiting friend recommended I go, because jazz is CULTURE. (I will probably never tire of this lame joke, so just tell me when it starts to really spoil.) So I went. I don’t “do” jazz often, not because of any aversions to the genre, but because I lack most of, if not all the vocabulary and critical faculties to sink into the momentum, feel the tinges of emotion, revel in the nuances, or discuss it with any clarity or perspective. That said, Drom is a cute little spot for a jazz virgin: so cute, in fact, the sounds of Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” wafted through the dimly lit bar as we walked in. Percussionist Noller and his band’s set was succinct and instructive (if a bit harmless), running the gamut from standards (storming through "Speak No Evil", a song I had to look up, with rollicking aplomb) to West African rhythm freakouts (featuring guest drummer Mangue Sylla, fun to watch as the night’s biggest showboat) to what I understood to be a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”. Through it all, Noller smiled behind his drum kit, sweat dripping off his nose. Nothing here to blow the mind, but a very good night all the same. Plus, the martinis were tasty.

My music samplings this week threw me in other far-flung directions, starting with Fleet Foxes new disc, Helplessness Blues. I grew to love their debut, a gorgeous, lucid reworking of back porch folk melodies laced around thorny tales of strife. And while I’m willing to place emphasis on “grew” here, I must admit Helplessness Blues, after an admittedly casual first spin, is less immediately gripping and certainly more tempered in range than its predecessor. In an album conceived during Robin Pecknold’s solo opening gigs for Joanna Newsom, and inspired in spirit by Astral Weeks, it’s odd to find the song ramble on with little punctuation. I found myself longing for respites like "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and "Meadowlarks", or the lift of "Blue Ridge Mountains", amid the clamor of wall-to-wall harmonies. Not an unpleasant listen by any mean—I liked it enough—but I might have to shelf this one for the time being.

Similarly immersive in execution, Katy B’s On a Mission still managed to surprise me at every turn. It’d be well worth my time to devote most of the space here to the galvanic production, a mix of UK drum-and-bass and 90’s house hooks like "Perfect Stranger", "Broken Record", and the titular track (one of my favorite singles from last year), but that’s already been done to death. (And pretty well too.) Instead, I’ll talk Katy B: she is one of those rare pop singers who sounds effortless and richly toned at every register. She exudes sensuality and modesty. On the opening track “Power on Me” (no link!), when she belts, “Does it make you feel good / Knowing that you could / Have power on me,” you get the firm sense that, despite the invitation, she’s the one controlling the switch.

…and, I shit you not, as I typed the word “switch”, a fuse blew in my apartment. Circuit trouble in our entire apartment. Ugh face. I’ll call you back!

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Day 7: Things I Learned Today

No new dietary comments today. Instead, some items of note:

KILLER OF SHEEP

1. Alt Screen. I occupy but a small square centimeter space in the film world galaxy, but it’s almost like this site was drafted for me and me alone. “Hmm, that Bill character just started his Cultural Regimen. Why don’t we save him three hours next month and make him a weekly guide to film screenings and events for all the major alt-venues? Since he put in the three hours updating his iCal already this month and stuff.” Anyway, founder Paul Brunick wrote a lively piece on Internet criticism for Film Comment last year (not available online anymore), so I will most certainly be bookmarking this. Also, I totes forgot it was Charles Burnett month at MoMA. Grrr. So, thanks!

P.S. Let me know if you want, like, a contributor, Paul!

2. 2011 Additions to National Recording Registry. You know, I’ve never listened Trout Mask Replica. Adding it to the list. (Though I’m certainly intrigued, I won’t be able to attend this event, even if I’m sure 90% of the talks would make no sense to me.) I do, however, love the crap out of Aja. “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets / Make love to these women languid and bittersweet.” No one writes awesomely satirical filth like that anymore. Not even, say, Dan Bejar. Who’s not even that dirty. Or that funny for that matter.

3. I’m going to see jazz tonight. Though I fancy myself a moderately smart fellow, I know nothing about jazz, least of all how to “write” about it. My critical faculties thrown out of sync! You’ve been warned.